The Philosophy of Giovanni Gentile

Updated: Aug 11

THE minds of English students of contemporary philosophy have been for some time turning with at least curiosity towards Italy. At first what have proved to be minor luminaries caught their wandering eyes. But gradually their gaze has tended to fix itself upon Benedetto Croce, in whose works there has been revealed to them a carefully constructed system of philosophic thought, based upon deep and solid erudition, designed and carried out upon an encyclopedic scale. For some time, this system has drawn all eyes, towering impressively above the jerry-built syntheses of outworn positivism. With varied emotions we have come to realize that the great Idealistic movement, which took its rise with Kant in Germany, has not spent its force; that in Croce it possesses a champion not ashamed of its cause, but convinced that with it there came into the world a principle living and indeed immortal as the mind of man. Proclaiming not only Hegel but before him Kant as his spiritual ancestors, and acknowledging his unrepayable debt to their inspiration, he boldly throws aside as antiquated much that has descended from them; and, disengaging the essence from the accidental and contingent details, reconstructs almost from the foundations a system, in which he is confident that the mind of the XXth century with its vastly increased store of scientific and historical experience can still find its home. Nor is he content merely to have erected this impressive palace of many mansions, and to have thrown open its doors to all men of goodwill. With tireless energy he advocates the central principle of its construction, defining and redefining his philosophic position, developing and modifying its form so as to meet the needs which further meditation discloses to him, turning now this now that side of his thought in response to external criticism or attack. The central principle stands clear to view, unmistakable, self-confident, militant; in the heady currents of the fight the standard of Idealism holds steadfast, and for all the dexterous strategy and tactics of the commander in the warfare the main cause is never compromised. Round him Croce has gathered a band of trained and loyal lieutenants, who feel themselves so far at one with him as to join with him in effective co-operation. But we should be mistaken if we regarded all these as mere disciples or ready jurare in verba magistri. Some of them at least are themselves also masters, or in the way to become so, and exercising, what he would not only not grudge but welcome, a large independence of judgment, are indeed not so much any longer disciples as colleagues and fellow-workers. Indeed, I may have already exaggerated his predominance among them, and wrongly suggested a planetary subordination of them to him as the light-giving sun of the system which they together form. In less figurative language, he and they are fellow-heirs of an inheritance which has descended to them from a common ancestry. The line of spiritual descent of which they are the present representatives runs back, as I have said, to Hegel, and behind him to Kant. It passed to them through such fellow-countrymen of theirs as Spaventa, De Sanctis, Jaja, etc. But no more than in the case of our own so-called Neo-Hegelians or Neo-Kantians have we to do with the mere transplantation of a philosophical idea or system of ideas to a foreign soil. Native influences such as that of Vico have gone to the reshaping of it, and the undying spirit has undergone a genuine rebirth, molding for itself a new body as the vehicle and instrument of its life. The new idealistic system, or shall we say systems? which encounter our eyes in modern Italy are adjusted and adapted to their special environment, and are, though European or worldwide in their significance, redolent of their date and place of origin, have a national (yet not a provincial or parochial) physiognomy. They claim and with justice to be at once, as philosophy should be, in essence and spirit universal, and as philosophy also should be, in form adjusted to their special time and place. And for them I at least would allow the claim to be both for all time and for all minds and yet also in the truest sense of the word " modern," addressed to the demands and problems which arise from modern life and experience deserving therefore of a respectful hearing from us.

There is one outstanding characteristic of the whole movement on which I would here lay special stress. The ground upon which the whole structure of their philosophizing rests is of course, as it must be, experience. In that there is not, and cannot be, anything distinctive. But what sort of experience? It is not, as it is elsewhere, specially religious nor specially political nor specially ethical, and perhaps above all it is not especially scientific; to them the need for philosophical reconstruction does not appear as specially created by the success (or the failure) of scientific activity. What begets the desire for philosophy is the experience of History. In Croce this is particularly plain, for it was just his inner dissatisfaction with the actual practice, so to speak, of the historian that forced upon him the necessity of the search for a philosophy. Yet it is in a large measure true of all of them. The part success, part failure, of history in achieving a theory of itself drives them outward and inward in the quest for self-understanding. This it is which dictates the form of the problem which reflexion finds most urgent. Hence the problem is at once general or universal and particular or even individual. The task which philosophy accepts as now set to itself is that of understanding History and imprints its own history. And by History we must mean not merely (or at all) the History which unrolls itself before us, but the History which we enact, and again not merely (or at all) the History which we enact (historia historizata), but that which we more potently create in thought or judgment, in ceaseless commentation upon the bare and vanishing facts, a commentary which encroaches from the margin upon the text until the gloss extrudes and displaces the evanescent original. In fact, there is no such original: the text itself is the product of mind's self-interpretative activity and fills the whole roll on which is recorded the content of such experience as alone we can have or at least have access to. All else follows the paths of dreams and is lost as soon as it is acquired. Naught remains or holds in being for the tiniest moment save what the mind distils out of what is done or suffered under the sun out of what we have in the widest sense of the word " experienced." And lastly prerogative reality and worth attaches to what the mind by reflexion further distils out of this precious essence, and in the record of the results of man's philosophizing is the quintessence of all our experience. Out of the history of philosophy arises the need for further philosophizing, and so the life of the mind continues without end as it was without beginning. This is the universal position of mind, which creates at once its object and itself. In this view of its nature and its function lies also the supreme modernity of the philosophy of which we are speaking. For at the present time, surely what we most desire and demand is that the mind should frame and hold some theory of its activity as the interpreter of its own history, and primarily of the manner and justification of its procedure in passing judgments of fact or value upon its past achievements. Might we not define for ourselves the present-day problem of philosophy as the determination, organization, systematization of "the critical presuppositions of history?"

However, that may be the group of thinkers among whom Gentile occupies a leading place so understand the problem. Like Croce he takes it as in form determined by the essentially historical character of all experience and approaches it with a mind prepared for its self-imposed task by an acquaintance deep and wide with the past of the human mind, with that past which still lives in him and in us. And he has spared no pains to lay deep and broad the foundations of his philosophy, sharing Croce's contempt for the shallow and second-hand learning of contemporary positivism. However high their Idealism may soar it springs from and returns to what Bacon calls " the right earth " of historical experience.

So much by way of general introduction to an appreciation of the general character of this movement, always appealing to experience (rightly interpreted) and yet rising, as we shall see, to such heights of idealistic speculation, joining as it were the empyrean to the lowliest and most familiar levels of earth. It is with this endeavor to link together universal and individual philosophy and life that we shall here concern ourselves. I beg leave therefore to omit any attempt even to sketch the external facts of Gentile's life, upon which I am indeed very ill-informed. Indeed, I know little more than what I gather from his works, as (probably) that he is by birth and early education a Sicilian, that he studied also at Pisa (at the Scuola Normale Superiora) and that he has been Professor of Philosophy successively at Palermo, Pisa, and Rome, where he now is. Between his student days and his appointment to a Professorial Chair at Palermo, he was, so at least I should divine, a secondary schoolmaster, and, so I should also surmise, singularly successful and happy in his scholastic work. He commenced authorship about 1898 and has since then poured forth a nearly continuous annual stream of books, pamphlets and articles. To the journal La Critica he has contributed nearly as much as Croce himself. From time to time he has formulated the results of his systematic thinking, at first briefly and then more at length. The fullest of these statements is in the two volumes entitled, Sommario di Pedagogia (1913 and 1914), and in the course of lectures entitled, Teoria generate dello Spirito come Atto puro (1916). I have prepared for myself a rough bibliography of his writings, and have attempted, through such as I have been able to see, to trace the development of his mind. The rapidity and variety of his production has not made my task easy, and I am conscious that I have not always succeeded.

During the period of his development up to the first statement of his systematic position his mind was travelling along several distinct lines which gradually converged. In the first place, he was, as I have said, deepening and enriching his experience as a teacher, and meditating upon the practical and theoretic problems suggested by that experience. He took a large and active part in the public controversies which raged in Italy round the topic of education, especially of secondary education and the training of teachers for it, laboring always to raise the discussion to the philosophic plane, and contending for the necessarily philosophical character of the science of education. He protested against the purblind practicalism which ignores the necessity of clear-headedness about principles and dreams of carrying on without a conception of the nature and development of Mind, and also against the laicism which ignores the essentially religious character of all education. In the second place, he was enlarging his view of the history of philosophy. Besides writing a General History of Philosophy, which I have not seen, he contributed to La Critica (1903-1913) an elaborate critical review of the chief Italian writers on philosophy from 1850 to the beginning of the present century. Concurrently with this he edited with valuable introductions and notes a large number of the unpublished lectures and rarer treatises of some of his predecessors. In both ways he broadened and strengthened the foundations on which later to erect the fabric of his independent thought. The result of Gentile's preoccupation with the tasks and problems of the teacher's life has been in the main the conception of the life of mind as essentially a process of education, of self-education, that is, of self-formation or self-creation. Its life is the life in or of a school, wherein through the conflict and co-operation of minds, in appearance divided but in reality one, ceaseless progress is secured. In such activity lies all the worth, the joy, the sacredness of life, and it is of this that he seeks the philosophy, which is no extraneous addition to the activity which it interprets, but the continuance of that activity itself at a higher level of understanding and power. The universe is itself an immense school, the place as Keats has said, of " Soul-making," where Minds (for he would not accept Keats' distinction of Souls from Intelligences) are molded into integrity and perfection. The figure lends itself to easy caricature and will appeal diversely to those whose school experiences are diverse, and to tell the truth, it is in the Pedagogia ridden almost to death. But it is used by Gentile with a large measure of enlightening and attractive power, and I commend it to the notice of those who, like so many of us, approach philosophy from the avenue of a professional interest as teachers.

Yet after all the figure and the experience which suggested it determine rather the form than the substance of Gentile's thought and constitute rather its outward physiognomy, much as Croce's thought is in expression determined by his long pre-occupation with the work of erudite history.

Ignoring minor but important influences, I must return to the results of his concern with the History of Philosophy. This interest connects with the former through his identification of Philosophy with the Theory of Education, from which it differs as it were in scale only. The History of Philosophy is just the record of Mind's self-creation. In the study of it we become acquainted with, appropriate, and digest into the substance of our own minds, what Mind has in the past achieved and accumulated. Reviewing the more recently deposited strata and the process of their deposition, Gentile is conducted outwards from Italy and backwards from the present, and of the total process reaches a view wide at once in space and time, until the prospect has no bounds in either. The Pedagogics enlarges into a Metaphysics a general theory of Spirit or Mind in its actual life and existence. In this expansion the trees are not lost in the wood, but the details of the vision are preserved to sight while they fall into the order and perspective of a systematic philosophy. The resultant impression may be put in a highly abstract way, which fails to do justice to the concreteness which it really possesses. In the first place, the History of Philosophy is intrinsically identical with History in general, of which, as I have said, it is the quintessence or living spirit. In the second place, the History of Philosophy is intrinsically identical with Philosophy itself. These identities depend upon, or issue from, the still more fundamental identity of Mind or Spirit with itself, of its being with its history, for it is what it makes itself, is the process of its own self-creation.

This is the cardinal principle of Gentile's philosophy, that Mind is, as he puts it, atto puro, absolute self-actualization that and nothing more, less, or other. This is the open secret of its nature and its life, from which all the rest follows. To this as center all roads of thought converge and out of it all diverge again to reach every quarter of experience. In this Thought, which is not thought merely but knowledge, self-knowledge, all facts of experience are dissolved, to be reborn as themselves thought or knowledge. This all-dissolving but also all-creating or re-creating Thought is thought a priori and absolute, is the act or reality of thought at its highest. As it predetermines and prescribes the immanent method of its own development, it begets and maintains an endless philosophy, which may be called by various names, the Idealism of Actuality or Absolute Spiritualism. Nothing is real, such is its fundamental position, save Spirit, and Spirit is naught but the process, without beginning and without end, of its own absolute self-creation.

Now we have heard this often enough, and it may be said to be the end (which is rather the beginning) towards which was inevitably tending the current of thought that bore Hegel, and those who are not ashamed to avow that they have learned from him, onwards, or perhaps to put the claim more boldly towards which has been set the whole movement of modern philosophy. And yet it is hard doctrine, and we take it " with such a heavy mind." We cannot resolve to embrace it, to stake everything upon it, to commit ourselves finally to its control. We are fain to palter and compromise with the absoluteness of its claim upon us, and even those who first decried or discerned it lost faith in it and wandered back to more familiar and homely ground. But Gentile will admit no compromise or condition: this is to him the articulus stantis aut cadentis philosophice. What he offers or presses upon us is a principle of exegesis for the whole of our experience, and he offers it as the last and best result of Mind's reflexion upon the meaning of its whole past history, the process by which it has come to be what it is, by which it is what it is, and by continuance of which alone can it maintain itself in being ; by which also there is whatever else there is, or seems to be, as its environment. In this principle Mind has come to itself and affirms itself as the knower of its own being, which is its own work and life. To itrien n'est donntf, tout se fait; nothing is but thinking makes it so in the act of its own self-formation.

It may serve to make this end and beginning of reflexion clearer, if it be thrown up against the better-known system of Croce as its background. This way of presenting it must, however, not be understood as implying a judgment on my part that its emergence has put Croce's view into the background or has in any way superseded it. To suggest such a relation would be to do injustice to Croce, more especially as his development is by no means at an end and it may be that he will prove able to appropriate and overreach all that Gentile urges. Yet, taking Croce's view as it is set before us in his systematic presentment of it, what strikes the student of it is the prominence which is given in it to the articulation of the mind into the distinct grades of Theory and Practice, each with its two sub-grades. Doubtless behind this lies or lurks the unity of the mind which preserves its identity in and through these distinctions. But the unity seems to be separated from the articulation or genuine multiplicity and is rather a problem than a solution. The articulation is not deduced but given or assumed. What we start with is one, but it possesses also as its nature what may be called a static structure; it does not give itself this structure or necessarily endow itself with it. And indeed, it remains obscure how or why it distinctifies and diversifies its primordial unity, and so its essence and its existence fall inexplicably apart. The gap which sunders the one from the other is concealed. In justice to Croce, it must be added, that in his actual philosophizing the breach is healed, and that he practices better than he preaches. His grasp upon the primordial unity prevents the distinctions which he draws from stiffening into a dead rigidity, and the concrete manifestations of the life of the Mind, into whatever detail his interest follows them, never finally fall apart, or lose their vital connexion with one another and the whole. The unity is no roi faineant. Yet it is not demonstratively or irredemably the single and sufficient source of all its complex but orderly multiplicity. '

To Gentile it is so. In him perhaps the unity is even too much insisted upon, and upon it is thrown the responsibility of reducing out of itself all the multiplicity that there is. The dialectical process which is its life is completely or absolutely immanent, and, as I have said, is always and everywhere without beginning and without end. The one spirit or mind posits and cancels or supersedes all oppositions and distinctions, and is the author of all forms, degrees, grades, stages of being: it makes and unmakes everything whatsoever including itself, like Time begetting and devouring its own offspring. But it would be misleading to dwell too long upon the contrast between the two thinkers, lest there seem to be suggested more difference than there is.

It is more important to raise the question whether the principle which is so posited can do what is expected of it. Can it show itself capable of generating out of itself and by its own unaided power, such a system as the Universe is? Or rather must it do so? Does the starting point prescribe a dialectic which by an inner necessity develops into the whole wealth of concrete detail which is the filling of experience?

At first sight the principle seems empty and barren enough. But let us attempt to realize what precisely it is. What it is is Mind in its proper being and existence, that is, Self-consciousness, not as a state or result but as a self-engendering activity. This is to us a paradox, for it is all too common to start with the misconception of it as an attitude towards some- thing else which determines and is determined by it, being presupposed by Mind as theorizing and presupposing Mind as its fashioner or refashioner, not as its creator. Mind starts, so we say to ourselves, with an object over against it as subject, and its history is the tale of how it comes to know that object and modify it, molding it to its purposes. Gentile bids us, however, go behind this, and reminds us that being what it is or is to be, viz., self-conscious, it can and must posit itself as object and concurrently itself as subject, while still it remains one with itself. The subject, the object, the synthesis of both, are moments in its being and life, moments in and to it eternally distinguishable and distinct, yet also phases or stages in its historical existence. Hence it may be spoken of as separating these from one another and allowing them the fullest scope to become what they are. Into each in turn it throws itself wholly, so that each constitutes an absolute form of its experience; in each, however widely they are drawn asunder and however they put out of sight the bonds that unite them, it remains indefectibly what it is, consciousness, self-consciousness, in the making. As consciousness of the subject, it is Art; as consciousness of the object it is Religion; as consciousness of the synthesis of both it is Philosophy. Art as the endeavor to develop to the full the moment of consciousness of the subject as such, to be itself the whole being and existence of the mind, defeats itself, issues in empty and impotent subjectivity, and is driven by its intestine self- contradiction to pass into Religion: Religion taking up the task of self -integration finds its work endless if it denies itself the aid of Art, yet with that aid still fails unless it merges together with Art in Philosophy, in whose hands is the knowledge, the principle and method, and the result of the integration of both. "So that Philosophy is the final form in which the others are taken up and reconciled, and represents the Truth, the plenary actuality and the Spirit," which is the one and only Reality.

Thus, we reach, or rather restore and confirm, the principle that Philosophy, the supreme form of self-consciousness, is the consummate form of experience, and because experience is all that is or is real, Philosophy is also the whole and sole Reality. Naught is or comes to be save what Mind has created or is creating philosophically, that is, in the process of making itself the knower of itself.

To some this doctrine may appear as the mere extravagance of a subjective Idealism, conceiving all Reality after the pattern of its own inward nature and activity, which it, as it were, projects outwards upon all other (so-called objective) being. Like the earlier draft of the system it is open even to caricature and may be represented as a philosophy which bids us regard the Universe under' the figure of a University in which all the faculties are branches of philosophy with only a relative independence of their parent and sovereign-Philosophy itself. But, after all, how shall Mind conceive its world save after the pattern of itself, and how best save after the pattern of its own highest and happiest activity? Certainly, we are bidden to read all our experience in the light of that experience which is most truly experience, because it is superlatively self-clear. And where else shall we find this guiding and illuminating or interpretative experience except in that where mind enjoys the maximum of insight into its own glassy essence and self-transparent life? Towards this clue to the enigma of existence from this quarter and that, the currents of modern speculation have long been converging let us take heart of grace and assume this as the clue, bending our energies to its use in the constructive work of our philosophizing. Here we stand on firm ground; here we have reached a foundation, from which we can view all that is or can be, here and nowhere else.

We seek for Truth (or the Truth) and looking ever outwards we seek it in vain. Veritas habitat in interiore hominis; seeking it there, we find it, and finding it, go forth with renewed confidence to seek and find it elsewhere, projected outwards from the inner source of illumination. Yet all we find in the apparently outward returns and enriches the inward content from which it flows, and so the inward truth advances in clearness and power without hindrance or stay. The nuclear or germinal experience is surrounded by a penumbra which shades inimitably into the utter darkness where there is nothing, but it irradiates its surroundings with beams which light it up and returning to their origin feed and quicken the central flame. Thus, what seems opaque to its light has yet its office in the whole economy, breaking the white light into infinite variegations of colour, which, reflected to the center, stir it to a heightened activity of emission till the whole world is bathed in its effulgence. Such is the activity in which all that is, lives, and moves and has its being.

But, again, it may be asked how, even if this principle stand self-assured, shall we apply it? The answer, I repeat, is that, once accepted, it applies itself, prescribing by its nature the mode and method of its application, and we have but to submit ourselves to its direction and control. For the development of its consequences, I can but refer you to Gentile's own exposition in his essay called " The Method of Immanence " (in the volume entitled La riforma della dialettica hegeliana), where he distinguishes it over against " The Method of Transcendence," tracing the history of the latter from its origin in Plato, noting the dawn of the former in Christian thought, and its struggles to supplant its rival or competitor in modern philosophy (its false dawn in Spinoza, the apprehension of its principle by Kant, the efforts of Hegel to disengage it from its involution with trammeling elements of the other). To-day and for us, he contends, it is disengaged and has achieved complete freedom. We are free of it, but we must use our freedom in order to possess it. In this new- won freedom, of which the method is the self-imposed law, we find not a new organon of knowledge, but a beginning and a desire for further knowledge. What it offers us is not a result, but a program of continued work.

All this is to some of us not, I hope, to all so strange and even paradoxical that a last Endeavour may be here permitted to bring home its significance. We are all at one in the quest for some clue to the riddle of existence: we all seek the principle of a metaphysics, a principle which of itself will expand into the detail of a systematic account of ourselves and our world, bringing both at once and together into knowledge. And so far also we may be said to be agreed that the clue is to be found in experience or nowhere. Experience alone has a full title to be called real, everything else having a claim only in so far as it is an element or factor or moment in experience, or is a feature or presupposition of it, etc., etc. And the experience which has this title must be (a) present or actual, the past and the future only holding whatever measure of reality they possess in dependence upon the present; and (b) total or universal, each part or parcel of it being similarly dependent upon its complete or self-contained reality. Experiences owe whatever reality (and worth) they have to their participation on the one and single Experience. Abating somewhat of the rigor of this doctrine (and abate it we must in order to appropriate it) we may say that Reality (which is Experience) is compact of experiences, which, however distinguished or severed, remain each an experience and repeat, each in its manner and degree, the structure of Experience. Each experience is experience, because and in so far as in its microcosm it mirrors the whole macrocosm of Experience and is higher or lower in the measure in which it effectively does so. Now let us ask ourselves what we mean by saying of this or that parcel of Reality that it is " an experience "; what it is that makes it an experience. It is not merely that in it something stands face to face with something else (which it apprehends or appreciates or appraises), or again that some- thing molds something else to its heart's desire or is mixed with it in alternate action and reaction, no nor that somehow they are twisted together like strands in a rope. Is it not rather our meaning that in such a fragment of the Universe there is somewhat that is self-begetting and self-begotten, a portion of that life which creates at once itself and its environment, no mere elan vital which adjusts itself to surroundings which dictate its form, but a free self-determining activity, the author at once of its world and itself ? And where can we find a higher or better sample, so to speak, of what experience so regarded means, than in those supreme moments of spiritual life when Mind generates the problems in the solution of which it celebrates the high triumphs of its power and its worth? In such experiences for in such we are privileged to partake do we not find the archetype of all experiences, the open secret of their being and existence, their standard of their value? In them at last we know; know ourselves and our world not as forever sundered and apart, but as rooted and grounded in an Experience which is ours but not ours alone.

Still it will perhaps be replied, such Experience is not and cannot be ours ; each of us is confined to his own experience, which is still an experience and not the Experience, at best and irremediably a part, and so mutilated, disordered, and distorted, no true mirror of the absolute Experience, or at least such that it is unserviceable to us as the clue for' which we seek. To this final doubt I would rejoin that for myself I am persuaded that it is not so, and that by this doubt my assurance is in no way shaken. But I will only say, and that not in despondency or despair, that I know no better or more solid foundation upon which Thought can rear its structures, and that upon it rest most securely the pillars of the spiritual home which we build for ourselves. When in unguarded moments this final doubt assails us, let us remember that, while we at times say and must say "you and I," "you not I, I not you," we can also in unison say "we," each speaking for one and all like that celestial eagle which Dante saw in Paradise :

"For speak I saw and likewise heard, the beak and utter with its voice, both I and My, when in conception it was We and Our."

So, speaking and so conceiving, we shall recover our assurance that we are not so severed from one another arid the whole as our words imply, and that our experiences for all their multiplicity and differences are, though experiences, truly also Experience, the genuine and necessary forms which the one whole and single Experience creates in order to exist and be.

With these words I refer you to the works of the great leader of thought which have suggested them.

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