The Positive as Self-Created


Gentile, Giovanni. “Chapter VII.” In The Theory of Mind as Pure Act, 96–114. London: Macmillan and Co. St Martin's Street, 1922.


The distinction between abstract and concrete thought is fundamental. The transfer of a problem from abstract to concrete thought is, we may say, the master-key of our whole doctrine. Many and various doctrines, which have thrown philosophy into a tangle of inextricable difficulties and have blocked the path of escape from empiricism, have in our view arisen entirely from looking at the abstract in unconsciousness of the concrete in which it is engrafted and by which it is conceivable. For empiricism itself is an abstract view of reality, and all its difficulties arise from the restriction of its standpoint. It can only be overcome when we succeed in rising to the speculative standpoint.


Of doctrines which spring from the soil of abstract thought we can find perhaps no more notable and significant example than that of the table of judgments, from which Kant in the Critique of Pure Reason deduces the categories. He distinguishes—to take one example of his method—three species of modality in the judgment, according to whether the judgment is assertorical, problematical, or apodeictical; or according to whether the relation of the predicate to the subject is thought to be actual or possible or necessary. And in classifying the judgments which are thus set in array for our thought and regarded as the content of our mind, inherent in it but detachable from it, a content communicable to others because conceivable in itself, he is right in holding that there are all these three, and no more than these three, species of modality. But when judgments are regarded in this way and found to be so diverse, the one true judgment on which, as Kant himself taught, all the others depend and from which they are inseparable, the I think, is falsified. For example, the true judgment in its concreteness is not “Caesar conquered Gaul,” but “I think that Caesar conquered Gaul.” It is only the second of these judgments which is truly a judgment we can make, and in the first or abbreviated form of it the principal proposition is not absent but apparently understood and not expressed, and it is only in the full form that we find the modality of the function of judgment, and the true relation which holds between the terms which this function brings together in an a priori synthesis. The former of the two judgements, if taken as a distinct judgment, is clearly no more than an object of thought, abstracted from the subjective act which posits it within the organic whole of its own synthesis. It has no modality in itself since in itself it is not conceivable. And inasmuch as it is only by being presupposed as conceivable by itself that it can be posited beside other judgments different from it, so it is assertorical while the others may be problematical or apodeictic. But when, however actualized, it is not presupposed, but really thought, as alone it can be thought, as a content of the I think, then its differences from the other judgments (in so far as they are judgments) disappear. For all judgments are alike acts of the thinking I, the form of whose acts is constant. The I think is not assertorical, because it cannot be apodeictical nor even problematical. Or, if you call it assertorical then it is necessarily so; you must say it is apodeictically assertorical. For it is impossible to think what we cannot think we think, just as it is impossible to think that by thinking we can make it true or false that Caesar conquered Gaul.


And it is not a mere question of words. Indeed it did not escape Kant himself that in all the twelve classes of judgments, which he distinguished under the heads of quality, quantity, relation, and modality, we always bring judgments back to the common original form of the I think. We have to understand, then, that every judgment (be it assertorical, problematical, or apodeictic) is contained within a fundamental judgment which itself is outside any such classification. The serious consequence to be drawn from this criticism of the Kantian theory is that it is not judgments but dead abstractions which are classified. Judgments are spiritual acts, but judgments and all spiritual acts become natural facts when they are thought of abstractly outside their concrete actuality. In reality in Kant’s assertorical judgment the real relation, which is not a necessary but a merely contingent one, is not a part of the judgment but of the natural fact, apprehended empirically, and considered in its abstract objectivity, independently of the mind which represents it. So that the distinction Kant makes is one the ground of which is in the empiricism which sees the object of thought and does not see the thought which makes it object.


This example is, as I have said, the more significant from the fact that Kant is the author of transcendental idealism. The chief characteristic of transcendental idealism is the forceful manner in which it rises above empiricism, recalling experience from the object to the subject which actualizes it. Kant himself in this as in many other cases goes about laboriously expounding artificial and untenable doctrines, because he fails to grasp firmly his own sound principle, which may be called the principle of the indwelling of the abstract in the concrete thought.

It is, then, in concrete thought that we must look for the positivity which escapes abstract thought, be it of the universal or of the individual. It is by the abstract universal that thought thinks, but the abstract universal is not thought. The abstract individual is only one of the terms of the thought which we want to intuit, to feel, to grasp as it were in a moment, to take by surprise. Neither universal nor individual is concrete thought, for taken in its natural meaning the universal is not individualized as it must be to be real; nor is the individual universalized as even it must be to be ideal, that is, to be truly real. When Descartes wished to assure himself of the truth of knowledge, he said: Cogito ergo sum; that is, he ceased to look at the cogitatum which is abstract thought and looked at the cogitare itself, the act of the ego, the centre from which all the rays of our world issue and to which they all return. And then he no longer found in thought the being which is only a simple idea, a universal to be realized, a being like that of God in the ontological argument, at least as the critics of that argument, from the eleventh-century monk Gaunilo to Kant, represented it. He found the positive being of the individual. He found in thought the individuality which can only be guaranteed by intuition, as Kant and all the nominalists, ancient, modern, and contemporary, are agreed. It is indeed only by an intuition that Descartes sees being, but by an intuition which is not immediate, such as the nominalists need, and as Kant also needs, with his theory of the datum, the term or matter of empirical intuition. The intuition is the result of a process: Cogito. I am not except as I think, and I am in so far as I think; and I am therefore only in so far as and to the extent that I think.


Here, then, is the true positivity which Plato sought, and without which it appeared to Aristotle there could be no sure basis of the ideas: the positivity which is a realization of the reality of which the idea is the principle, and which integrates the idea itself by what is intrinsic in it. For if the idea is the idea or ground of the things, the thing must be produced by the idea. The thought which is true thought must generate the being of what it is the thought, and this precisely is the meaning of the Cartesian Cogito. I—this reality which is “I,” the surest reality I can possess, and which if I let it go all possibility of assuring myself of any reality whatever is gone, this one and only firm point to which I can bind the world which I think—this “I am” is in so far as I think. I realize it in thinking, with a thought which is myself thinking. The “I,” as we shall see more clearly later, only is in so far as it is self consciousness. The “I” is not a consciousness which presupposes the self as its object, but a consciousness which posits a self. And every one knows that personality, definite personality, can only be thought of as self-constituted by its own inherent forces, and these are summed up in thought.


In the intellectualist theory the ideas, as Plato conceived them, confront thought, and there is no way of passing from the ideas to what is positive in the individual. The individual is the discovery which thought makes when it suddenly realizes that it has withdrawn from its original standpoint, and instead of having before it the ideas which it has constructed and projected before itself, has itself confronting its own self. The individual is the realization of the process in which the ideas arise and live the moment we turn from the abstract to the concrete. In the concrete we must seek the positive basis of every reality. This, as we know, Descartes did not do. He suddenly fell back into the intellectualist position, and later philosophy has been no more successful.


The positive nature of the being which is affirmed of the “I” in the Cogito ergo sum consists in this. In the “I” the particularity and the universality coincide and are identified by giving place to the true individual. Aristotle defined the individual as the unity of form and of matter, of the ideal element which is universal and of the immediate positive element which is particular. They are identified (and this is the point) not because they are terms which are originally diverse and therefore either of them conceivable without the other, but because they can only be thought as difference in identity. In fact, I, who am in so far as I think, cannot transcend the punctual act of the thinking without transcending myself; no greater oneness than this can be thought. But if my oneness depends on my thinking, my thinking must itself be the highest universality there can be. For the thinking by which I think myself is precisely the same thinking by which I think everything. What is more, it is the thinking by which I think myself truly, that is, when I feel that I am thinking what is true absolutely and therefore that I am thinking universally. The act of thinking, then, through which I am, posits me as individual universally, as, in general, it posits all thinking or, indeed, all truth, universally.


From this standpoint, whilst we are able to answer the ancient and vexed question which divided the realists and the nominalists, and at the same time to solve the problem or the principle of individualization, we are also able to see both realists and nominalists have had more reason in their respective contentions than they ever suspected. For not only is the universal real, as the realists affirmed, but there is no other reality; and not only is the individual real, as the nominalists affirmed, but outside the individual there is not anything, not even a name, an abstract or arbitrary scheme, or the like. The universal, not presupposed by thought, but really posited by it, is all that can be thought real. When, then, we make distinctions, as indeed we must, all distinctions fall within it. If anything could issue from thought it could not be thought. And universality therefore invests every principle or entity however diverse which we would oppose to thought, it being impossible in regard to concrete thought ever by any means to oppose it to thought. On the other hand, the individual (even the individual is posited not presupposed by thought) is equally everything whatever which can be thought of as real, or which is simply thinkable. Because thought in its general meaning, implying here as always that it is concrete, is all-inclusive. The cogito is positive, certain, individual. The world of Platonic ideas, the system of concepts in Spinoza’s ethics, the world of possibles in the intellectualist system of Wolf—what are all these, when we turn them from abstract thought to the concrete, but definite historical philosophies, the thought of individual philosophers, realized by them, and realizing themselves in us when we seek to realize them, in our individual minds? They deal with the cogitare which realizes itself in a definite being who is absolutely unique; who is, not one among many, but one as a whole, infinite.


The extreme nominalism, which leaves no place even for names outside the concreteness of the individual, and the no less extreme realism, which will admit nothing outside the universal, each finds its own truth in the truth of the other. Thus is ended the opposition in which in the past they were arrayed against one another. Beyond the universal which is thought there is not the individual. In being the individual the universal is itself the true individual, the fact being that outside the individual the universal is not even a name, since the individual itself, in its genuine individuality, must at least be named and clothed with a predicate, and indeed with the universality of thought.


Names, rules, laws, false universals, all the black sheep of the nominalists, are, in fact, chimaeras of abstract thought, not existences. They are real in the same kind of way as when losing patience with our fellow-men in an outburst of wrath and resentment we call them beasts, the beasts are real. In such case it is obvious that were the men we so judge really such as we judge them, we who pass judgment upon them would also be the beasts to which we liken them. It is obvious also that such angry denial to men of humanity and reason does not even abstractly mean that we deny them a share of our reason. The injustice of such denial leaps to view the moment we reflect that there are many degrees and many different forms of reason and that our own is real and imperious in so far as we realize it. A common name!—but every time a name sounds on our lips it is a new name, for it responds to an act which by its very definition, mental act, has no past. Fused in the unity of the mental act to which it belongs, it has nothing in common with all the other uttered sounds materially identical with it, used at other times to denote other objects of our experience. The rule does not include within it a multiplicity of instances, as the genus includes an indefinite series of individuals, because the rule abstracted from the instances is a rule which by definition is always inapplicable. The true rule is that which applies to instances singly turn by turn, by making them all one with it. Hence modern aesthetic knows that every work of art has its own poetry, and every word its own grammar. It is the same laws, and with all universals, whether empirical or speculative, they are never detached from the fact, from the individual. Moreover, universal and individual adhere and coalesce so long as we think of neither the one nor the other in the abstract, but in what they singly and together signify to the mind every time they are effectively thought. For then they are nothing but the logical transparency, the thinkability of facts and individuals, which otherwise would vanish beyond the outer limits of the logical horizon. They come within this logical horizon not as abstract objects of thought, but rather as moments of the life of thought, and individuals in the meaning we have indicated.


The individual we have found is positive. It is the only positive it is given us to conceive. But it is positive not, it is now clear, because, as used to be supposed, it has been run to earth along a path from which there is no escape. It is not a positive posited for the subject by some other; it is posited by the subject and is the very subject which posits it. For that subject has need to go out of itself in order to entrench itself in the positive, and the positive has not become for it fact, so long as it remains unconscious of its true being which it has projected before itself, and closed in an abstract reality. But, having acquired the consciousness of the inwardness of being in the very act by which it is sought, the mind sees it can no longer want a positivity surer and clearer than that which it already possesses in itself when it thinks and realizes itself. Common sense believes that when a man wakes up, he puts to flight his dream images, purely subjective, a world which is not the world, by means of sensations of material objects, the rope of salvation without which he would be unable to escape shipwreck in the ocean of the inconsistent reality of his own fantasy. The exact contrary is true. When, in fact, on awaking from sleep we look at and touch the surrounding material objects in order to recover and possess again a clear and distinct consciousness of the real, it is not in the objects themselves and in external nature that we find the touchstone of reality, but in ourselves. And the difficulty of admitting as real that external nature which is not immediately enshrined within our subjective life as it formed itself in our dream, makes us touch our body and other bodies, that is, add new sensations and develop our ideas of that external nature which at first is as it were disturbed and pushed aside and only with difficulty succeeds in affirming its reality. And if reality conquers the dream, it is because in experience, whence the dreamer draws the woof of the dream life, reality is posited through experience and not through the dream, save only in so far as it is only the reality of ourselves who have dreamed. And if we are cut off from this centre of reference of our experience as a whole, from the I, in regard to which experience is organized and systematized, we shall juxtapose reality to the things seen in fantasy and to all the life lived in the dream, without any possibility of discrimination and valuation. This comes to saying that the true and unique positive is the act of the subject which is posited as such. In positing itself, it posits in itself, as its own proper element, every reality which is positive through its relation of immanence in the act in which the I is posited in an ever richer and more complex way. Withdraw, then, your subjectivity from the world you contemplate and the world becomes a reve without positivity. Make your presence felt in the world of your dreams (as happens when one dreams and there is no clash between the general context of experience and what we are dreaming) and the very dream becomes solid reality, positive to an extent which disturbs our personality, makes us passionate, makes us vibrate with joy or tremble with fear.


To sum up: the individual and its correlative universal, as we are now able to understand them, are clearly neither two objects nor two static positions of thought. The category of being does not properly belong to them, since, strictly speaking, there is no individual and no universal. Nor can we even say, purely and simply, that the individual, the need of which Aristotle saw, is not nature, but thought. Because although nature is, it is only in so far as it is a term of the thought which presupposes it; and for the same reason Plato affirmed the being of the universal. But our universal is the universalizing, the making universal, or rather, since the universal is the thought itself which makes it, the self-making of the universal. In exactly the same way the individual is act rather than the principle or the term of an act; it consists in the individual making itself or being individualized. And the conclusion is that we can speak of universal and individual, in so far as we have in mind the subject, the I which thinks and in thinking is universalized by individualizing and individualized by universalizing.

Here the deeper meaning of the positive becomes apparent. It is not posited as the result of a process already completed and perfect, and this result does not stand confronting thought as a mystery. It is a mystery, for it is posited and we ask in vain: Who posits it? The positive is posited in so far as it actually posits itself, re-entering into that being which is in so far as it is thought. The positive rather than something posited is really the self-positing of being. Such a standpoint is secure just because it is the absolute transparence of thought as self-identical in its own act. And thought is made clear in its act because there is no surer proof of fact than being perceived; and the sureness does not depend on its being fact but on its being perceived, or rather on its being resolved into a real act of the thought which actuates and thinks itself.


When we oppose nature to mind we appear to be limiting mind. Nature is individual, and as such it particularizes and thereby determines and realizes the universal which is mind. But the specific character of nature by which we discriminate it is not in the concept of the individual. For we have shown that the individual as nature, the individual individualized, is unintelligible. The only conceivable individual is mind itself, that which individualizes.


It is true that we have not satisfied all the requirements on account of which in the history of philosophy the concept of the individual as nature arose. The individual stands for positivity as against the ideality of thought, but it also stands for multiplicity as against the unity of thought. And the positivity itself is integrated and fulfilled in the multiplicity, because the ideality arises as the intelligibility of the manifold. To overcome pure ideality, therefore, it is not only necessary to grasp the real but the real which is manifold. Indeed, for Plato as for Aristotle, and also for the pre-Socratic philosophers, the positive is nature as becoming, in which all is transformed, and whereby the forms of being and the objects of experience, or the individuals, are many.


The Eleatics alone were unifiers, as Aristotle remarks in a vigorous sentence. But the objective monism of Parmendies led to the agnostic scepticism of Gorgias, and this, carrying to its logical conclusion the doctrine of Parmenides concerning the identity of thinking with being, denied the possibility of the opposition of the one to the other which is an indispensable moment in the concept of knowing, and therefore denied the possibility of knowing. To know is to distinguish, and therefore knowing implies that there are more terms than one and that we are not confined to only one. Socrates discovered the concept as the unity in which the variety of opinions concurs. The Platonic idea is the type of the manifold sensible things, and by its unity it makes their multiplicity thinkable. And what is the whole of ancient philosophy, from Thales and the first searchers for the original principle of things onwards, but one continual effort to reach unity by starting from the indefinite plurality of the existence presented in experience? This sums up the history of thought, which has always aspired to unity in order to render intelligible, without destroying, the multiplicity of individual and positive things. And this sums up logic. For if to the unity of the universal we should oppose a unique individual, the individual itself in its unity would be universal, a whole, and therefore it would in itself repeat the ideal position of the universal, and not yield the positive. Just as, were we able to think horse (ιπποτης) as thought of horses, then had nature produced no more than one single horse, this one horse could not be distinguished from the ideal horse, and could not therefore serve our thought as its fulcrum for the thinking of the universal. It would not be the positive of that idea. The universal is a mediation of the particulars and must therefore develop through the more positive.


We, on the other hand, have found a positivity which implies the identity of the individual with the universal. I think, and in thinking I realize, an individual which is universal, which is therefore all a universal ought to be, absolutely. Other than it, outside it, there cannot be anything. But can I say, then, that I have realized something? The being which I affirm seems in its unity to reproduce the desperate position of Parmenides, for to pass from it to anything else is impossible. Is it something positive? Do I really think the “I” if I can think no other than the “I”? In making the individual conceivable, and in freeing it from the difficulties in which it was thrown by its opposition to the universal, have we not destroyed the very essence of individuality?


Against Parmenides there stands Democritus. And Aristotle’s doctrine of the individual is a homage rendered to Democritus. The Democritan theory stamps the Aristoteian conception as the Eleatic theory stamps the idealistic conception of Plato. Aristotle does homage to the experience on which Plato, the great Athenian idealist, had turned his back, although continually forced to return to it. The idea is, indeed, the intelligibility of the world; but it must be the intelligibility of a world which is a multiplicity of individuals.


We also are rendering homage to the profound truth of the Democritan atomism, which is the need of difference, when we expound the concept of mind as process. The unity of mind excludes only abstract multiplicity, since the unity of mind is in itself a multiplicity, a concrete multiplicity unfolded in the unity of the spiritual process. Here, however, the need of multiplicity assumes a new aspect and this needs to be explained. It concerns the multiplicity which is imposed on mind from within, in so far as it is consciousness of things and persons. And, indeed, there is no other multiplicity than this, a multiplicity which we see arising to confront us from within our own inmost being. But to the atomist (and every one is an atomist to the extent that he feels the need of the individual as something by which he must integrate and realize thought) it appears that the multiplicity, in so far as it is positive, lies beyond this subjective multiplicity. It is not enough to conceive a world diversified and rich in particulars, because this world exists: it may be a dream. And according to the atomist it would be a dream were we unable to explain our ideas by transcending the subject and attributing the origin of ideas to the real multiplicity of things. It would be no use to point out, as we have pointed out, that real things and dream things do not possess in themselves the marks by which they are discriminated, they need a subject to discriminate them, without which even waking life itself would be one whole dream from which we should never awaken. It would be no use, because the atomist will always reply that the real things which the subject opposes to the dream things are not real because we have ideas of them, for ideas presuppose real things which generate ideas in us. It is rather, he will say, that we can have ideas because the things which are represented by ideas are real in themselves with a reality which is at bottom that which we attribute to them, a reality in itself, which is the true reality, the only positive reality, nature. In nature there are individuals which are real individuals, the atoms, in themselves unknowable. There we find the true positivity on which thought must lean if we are not to gasp for breath in the void, whirled among vain shadows of one’s self. And there we find not the multiplicity which is only our thought (the multiplicity we cannot think without unifying), but multiplicity in itself, the familiar ground of all the individual differences and oppositions and thereby of the complex life of the reality.


So that by means of the concept of the individual, multiplicity returns to camp with the claim to pitch its tent beyond the multiplicity we have acknowledged as immanent in the process of mind, and postulating accordingly a nature in itself, the basis of the whole life of mind and a condition of an exact concept of the individual as the integrating positivity of thought.


We have got, then, to scrutinize this concept of the multiplicity. It is a multiplicity which, it is evident at once, must be obscure, for it transcends the mind. It must be chaotic, for we have withdrawn it from any unity which could hold it together as a spiritual act. Like Leopardi’s Infinite, in which even thinking itself is drowned, it is fearsome. Yet we must scrutinize it, for, in spite of its transcendence—let us recall Berkeley’s warning—it seizes a place among our concepts, and even atomism is a philosophy. We cannot maintain a concept if it be inconsistent with other concepts which must co-exist with it in our mind.


A pure multiplicity is not only unknowable, it is not thinkable. The many are always a totality. If each of the many were not one among the others, it would be one, not as a part, but as the whole. It would be an absolute unity, the unity which atomism denies. It is not such a unity. Given the multiplicity a, b, c, d, . . ., a must not be b, nor c, nor d, so likewise with b and c and d; but that one thing should not be the other is impossible, absolutely, unless we deny all relation between them, since relation implies some identity. Multiplicity, then, necessarily carries with it the absolute non-relativity of the many which go to make it. So that a not only must not be b but must not even be relative to b. And this is absurd, because the very words “not be” affirm a reciprocal exclusion, and that is a relation.


Again, multiplicity posited as pure cannot be absolute without being composed of absolutely simple elements, otherwise every composite would be an exception to the multiplicity by organizing and unifying it. But the simple (ατομον, ατομος ουσία) becomes in its turn a flagrant violation of the law of multiplicity, because the simple is one. The atomist, starting from the unity of experience, denies it, splits it up, divides it; this is the logic of his thought. Wherever he finds unity he must divide. He cannot stop at the atom but must divide the atom even to infinity, and then there is multiplicity no longer, for multiplicity must have its elements.


Again, even granting the atomist his multiplicity, how can he form an image of it, and what use will the image be? The atoms like the ideas are excogitated as a principle of reality. In the reality there is the unity, but there is also the multiplicity (and hence the uselessness of the ideas, as Aristotle clearly showed). In the reality there is the multiplicity, but there is also the unity, the relation, the shock of the atoms and the aggregation of matter. But if we grant the absolutely unrelated simples then the shock is impossible, because the shock is relation however extrinsic the relation be. And if we grant the shock there is an end alike of the non-relativity, of the simplicity and of the multiplicity.


The difficulty is not new. It has been more or less clearly, more or less vigorously, urged continually against atomism, and mutatis mutandis against every form of pluralism. But this has not prevented philosophers, however adverse they may be to pluralism, from representing the world as in space and time, and from thinking of every positive individual as determined hic et nunc, as existing, in so far as it exists, in space and in time. We must now consider space and time.

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