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Definition: Croce, Benedetto from Philip's Encyclopedia

Italian idealist philosopher and politician. He wrote the idealistic Philosophy of the Spirit (1902-17) and was a senator (1910-20) and minister of education (1920-21). When Mussolini came to power, Croce retired from politics in protest against fascism. He re-entered politics following the fall of Mussolini in 1943 and, as leader of the Liberal Party, played a prominent role in resurrecting Italy's democratic institutions.

Summary Article: Croce, Benedetto (1866–1952) from Blackwell Companions to Philosophy: A Companion to Aesthetics

Italian idealist philosopher, historian, and critic; a dominant figure in his country's intellectual life in the first part of the twentieth century. Born in the Abruzzo region of Italy, Croce developed in his youth a taste for old books and the life of a self-styled scholar in literature and history. Gradually, a passion for the free thinking that philosophy allowed drew him into writing in a philosophical vein. In 1883 he suffered a tragedy that reoriented his domestic life. He was on holiday with his family when an earthquake struck; his parents and sister were killed and he himself was buried for several hours before being rescued. He went to live in Rome with his uncle and when he finally emerged from the depression brought on by the tragedy and the subsequent displacement, he embarked on his philosophical career.

Croce's thinking drew from a variety of sources. Early on, under the influence of Antonio Labriola, he was led to explore the work of J. F. Herbart and Marx. A more direct influence on his aesthetics, however, was Francesco de Sanctis, whose work he had begun reading as a schoolboy. His continuing attention to de Sanctis led, after the turn of the century, to study of Hegel and Vico and to the refining of his own brand of idealist aesthetics. In tracing the history of Croce's central notion of intuition, it is of interest to note his assertion that he learned from de Sanctis “in a very crude shape this central idea: that art is not a work of reflection and logic, nor yet a product of skill, but pure and spontaneous imaginative form” (1928: 78–9).

Croce's first work in aesthetics, an outline of his initial thoughts, appeared in 1900 as Thesis of Aesthetics. This was followed in 1902 by the publication of his central work on the subject, Aesthetic: As Science of Expression and General Linguistic. It is in the Aesthetic that he first fully describes his account of art as intuition. Intuition, as he understood it, is not a mystical acquisition of transcendent truths, but the immediate knowing, and thereby transforming, of impressions. Since intuitive knowing is active, Croce maintains, it can also be understood as expression. Thus, intuition is expression insofar as expression is the act of transforming impressions by active imagination (fantasia) into individual unified images or organic wholes: “Intuition is the undifferentiated unity of the perception of the real and of the simple image of the possible” (1964: 4). The result was that, for Croce, intuition-expression in itself is neither divisible into parts nor subsumable under intellectual genera or categories.

In identifying art as intuition-expression, Croce seemed to champion art for art's sake. The presence or absence of intuition marked off that which was art from nonart. Although he insisted that aesthetic activity is not restricted to artists in the professional sense, he believed it possible to identify them by their “greater aptitude” and “more frequent inclination fully to express certain complex states of the soul” (1964: 13). However, he was also adamant in dismissing two extreme readings of art's autonomy. First, the aesthetic is not the only fundamental realm of the human spirit; rather, it has its place alongside logic, the practical (economics and ethics), and history. Second, despite its autonomy, art as intuitionexpression cannot occur without the richness of human spirit in all its manifestations. Thus, aesthetics, although it is foundational, is not the monarch of all sciences, and artistic expression does not occur unfunded by other human activities.

On this foundation in the Aesthetic Croce built his fuller account of art as intuition. Scholars, however, disagree how to read the development of his ideas. Some argue that his views changed so drastically that it is best to understand his work as a series of distinct and inconsistent moments. However, he himself held that the development of his ideas was evolutionary, that his later thinking was an extension, not a refutation, of his earlier thinking. This was consistent with his adoption of a kind of historicism that acknowledged the growth of ideas. The evolutionary interpretation seems not only the most fruitful but, at least in the first instance, the one that, given Croce's own endorsement of it, provides the likeliest avenue to understanding him.

Not only the nature of this development, but its method, is significant. In 1903, shortly after publication of the Aesthetic, Croce and Giovanni Gentile began publication of their journal La Critica. Croce's task was that of criticizing recent Italian literature. Thus, his philosophical development came to be deeply influenced by his work as a practical critic. Indeed, his life's work as a whole exhibits a dialectic of the practical and the theoretical. In his aesthetics, this dialectic resulted in the breaking down of his initial description of art as intuition into three stages: (1) the attribution of a lyrical character to intuition; (2) the defense of cosmic totality in art; and (3) the distinction between poetry and literature.

The first development, begun in 1908 and summed up in Guide to Aesthetics in 1913, is perhaps the least problematic. The question that Croce faced was the efficacy of intuition: if intuition is not formed by intellectual concepts, how does it occur? His answer, which he attributed to ideas developed in his role as critic, was that intuition is “lyrical.” That is, it is the expression of emotion or feeling. By this, however, he intended neither a “letting-off of steam” nor a simply imitative theory of expression. Rather, the intuition-expression is idealized or transformed emotion. As Orsini puts it: “The lyrical function of art is to express the personality of the artist – not, be it carefully noted, his ‘practical personality’ as evidenced in his biography, but what Croce calls here the ‘soul’ of the man” (1961: 48). The lyrical conception of intuition, in pointing to idealized emotion and personality, sets the stage for the second development of Croce's notion of art.

In a 1918 essay entitled “The Character of Totality in Artistic Expression,” Croce argued that intuition involves a kind of universality or cosmic totality (totalità). To many critics this move appeared problematic, in view of his earlier assertions that logical concepts are universal and expressive intuitions are individual. However, Croce wanted to argue for a special kind of universality in art. In assessing the work of Ariosto, Shakespeare, Corneille, and others, he found himself searching for that which distinguishes their work from confessional, subjective articulations of emotion. What he suggested was that the best works of these artists express, in their individuality, something common to all humanity; they express or reflect a cosmic totality. This does not, as Croce saw it, imply an act of intellectualizing or philosophizing in art. An intuition-expression in itself is still not a general type governing a set of tokens. Rather, the universality or totality of art occurs together with art's individuality in an undifferentiated form, as is not the case in conceptual renderings of universality.

An interesting upshot of Croce's defense of cosmic totality occurred when he began to search for its phenomenological attributes. From the mid 1920s, he began to argue that moral conscience is a condition of intuition-expression. If taken to mean that art depends on morality, this clearly and flatly contradicts one of his fundamental theses: the separation of the realms of the spirit. Moreover, critics saw in this suggestion the possibility of the very kind of moralism that Croce had always sought to reject. It is possible, however, that he had something more expansive in mind: “It is impossible,” he said, “to be a poet or an artist without being in the first place a man nourished by thought and by experience of moral ideals and conflicts” (1949: 133). He may have been searching not for a narrow moralism but for the kind of experience, even if imaginative experience, that can engender cosmic totality.

In the final turn in his aesthetics, Croce published in 1936 his Poetry and Literature: An Introduction to Its Criticism and History. Here he distinguishes poetry from literature. On the surface such a distinction may appear to contradict his earlier insistence against under standing art through types or genres. However, his project was to return to his distinction between art and nonart. The problem was to locate those items that appear to be poetry, inasmuch as they appropriate artistic expressions, but are not themselves intuition-expressions. He had in mind particular items such as entertainment and prose that are practical or intellectual in nature. To these items he gave the name “literature” to distinguish them from poetry or art. Thus, instead of establishing fixed genres within art, Croce was simply refining a distinction he had made in the Aesthetic.

His notion of art as intuition-expression in its various stages of development produced several interesting corollaries. First, it excised external production or the making of artifacts from art proper. For Croce, “externalization” of intuition-expression was a practical affair, not an aesthetic one. This was, and is, anathema for aestheticians for whom the physical making is integral to art. Yet Croce's position is not as strange as it might seem at first glance.

On the one hand, even in his earliest work he recognized that externalization can be used to assist expression. On the other, he never discarded from intuition qualities such as tempo, rhythm, line, and color. The mistake, as he saw it, was an ontological one of assuming that these qualities are merely external, physical items or events. For him they are the intuition-expression in their unique unity; and they occur in the intuition prior to any physical recording of them.

This in turn led to Croce's assertion that the role that physical artifacts have to play is that of vehicle for communicating art. Thus, as Dewey independently suggested, critics and observers must use artifacts to re-create the intuition of the artist. As did Dewey, Croce faced opposition here from those who argued that such strict re-creation is impossible. However, it is doubtful that he had in mind anything like a technical isomorphism; rather, the genius of the producer and the taste of the critic achieve the same intuition of cosmic totality. It is in this way “that our little souls can echo great souls, and grow great with them in the universality of the spirit” (1964: 121).

The adoption of this method of criticism also meant that he rejected the efficacy of criticisms that rest entirely on intellectual categorizations of technique or content. For Croce, such categories, by virtue of their practical or intellectual natures, were incidental to art. Nevertheless, he did come to maintain that critics can use intellectual categories in their practice of criticizing, but only after a re-creation of intuition-expression has occurred.

Much of Croce's work remains underexplored in contemporary Anglo-American aesthetics, perhaps because much of it remains untranslated. Nevertheless, through the work of R. G. Collingwood his aesthetics has been indirectly influential beyond Continental Europe. Moreover, Croce's discussions of the similarities between his ideas and those of John Dewey deserve further investigation. While Dewey attempted to disavow any debt to Croce, the similarities that exist are too compelling to be dismissed. If the flux of Croce's aesthetics makes it difficult to unify, the experiential soundness of its insights insures it future importance.

See also collingwood; dewey; expression theory; ontology of artworks.

Primary sources
  • [1902; rev. edn. 1922]1964. Aesthetic: As Science of Expression and General Linguistic. Ainslie, D. (trans.). New York: Noonday Press.
  • [1913] 1965. Guide to Aesthetics. Romanell, P. (trans.). Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.
  • [1918] 1928. Benedetto Croce: An Autobiography. Collingwood, R. G. (trans.). Oxford: Clarendon.
  • [1936] 1981. Benedetto Croce's Poetry and Literature: An Introduction to Its Criticism and History. Gullace, G. (trans.). Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.
  • 1949. My Philosophy and Other Essays on the Moral and Political Problems of Our Time. Carrit, E. F. (trans.). London: Allen & Unwin.
Secondary sources
  • Brown, Merle E. 1966. Neo-Idealistic Aesthetics: Croce-Gentile-Collingwood. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.
  • D'Amico, Jack et al . 1999. The Legacy of Benedetto Croce. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
  • Moss, M. E. 1987. Benedetto Croce Reconsidered: Truth and Error in Theories of Art, Literature, and History. Hanover: University Press of New England.
  • Orsini, Gian N. G. 1961. Benedetto Croce: Philosopher of Art and Literary Critic. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.
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