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Summary Article: Gentile, Giovanni
from The Encyclopedia of Literary and Cultural Theory

Giovanni Gentile (1875-1944) was an influential Italian philosopher, educator, and politician chiefly remembered for his educational reforms and adherence to fascism. Born in Castelvetrano (Trapani), Sicily, Gentile studied philosophy at the University of Pisa (1893-7) and went on to teach at licei (secondary schools) in Campobasso and Naples before earning a docent position in the philosophy department at the University of Naples in 1903. From 1907 to 1932, he held successive faculty positions at the universities of Palermo, Pisa, and Rome. Gentile took a leave of absence from Rome to serve as Minister of Public Instruction under Mussolini from 1922 to 1924. The fascist regime named him director of the University of Pisa in 1932 and president of the Academy of Italy in 1943, a term cut short by his assassination in 1944. Gentile's life traversed a tumultuous period of Italian history. He grew up in the wake of the Risorgimento movement (roughly 1815-70), which saw the unification of the Italian state, and experienced first-hand the attendant social unrest and struggle for cohesion in the newly formed nation. As Italy moved into the twentieth century, progressive improvements yielded a climate of optimism and romantic nationalism. At this time, Gentile was studying Italian and German idealism at the prestigious University of Pisa under Donato Jaja, a former student of Bertrando Spaventa, cofounder of the Neapolitan school of Hegelianism. His graduate thesis on Antonio Rosmini and Vincenzo Gioberti, idealist activists in the Risorgimento through whom he channels Kant and Hegel, shows that Gentile saw himself as the philosophical heir to Hegel with the mission of realizing the cultural and civic unification of Italy.

In 1903, Gentile and Benedetto Croce founded La Critica, a scholarly cultural review intended to unify national culture and strengthen idealism against the competing schools of positivism and naturalism. Gentile edited the influential review and contributed numerous writings, including essays on religion and philosophy, critical studies of Italian poets, and a series on Italian philosophy later published as the three-volume Le origini della filosofia contemporanea in Italia (1917). After a decade of collaboration, the two philosophers parted ways, due in part to Croce's opposition to fascism. Gentile developed a philosophical system known as attualismo or actualism, which emerged from 1912 to 1917 in works that included The Theory of Mind as Pure Act (1922[1916]) and Sistema di logica come teoria del conoscere (1917-22). Actualism is a neo-idealist, neo-Hegelian system that reduces reality to the act of thinking and that substitutes Hegel's historical, objective Becoming with an infinite Becoming that self-generates in the immediately present moment by a dialectical synthesis of the pensiero pensante (thinking thought) and the pensiero pensato (thought produced). Advancing itself as the most coherent form of idealism, actualism acquired a considerable following, especially among Gentile's students, who published their findings in Giornale critico della filosofia italiana, the review Gentile founded in 1920.

A distinguished teacher, Gentile advocated a humanities-based curriculum for licei and first rose to national prominence in 1907 defending religious instruction in elementary schools as fundamental to the Italian way of thinking (its forma mentis). In what is perhaps his best-known work, Sommario di pedagogia come scienza filosofica (1913-14), Gentile defines ideal education as a mental/spiritual bond between teacher and student toward the goal of self-formation. For Gentile, the highest form of self-consciousness is philosophy. His educational views influenced the Irish poet W. B. Yeats and caught the attention of Benito Mussolini who, in the early 1920s, sought alliances in the intellectual community. In 1922, as Minister of Public Instruction, Gentile enacted the Riforma Gentile, a sweeping organic reform of the educational system, which was both condemned as elitist and praised for raising academic standards in a country with one of the highest illiteracy rates in Europe. Although Gentile resigned as minister, he remained active in the Fascist Party, which he joined in 1923, and his reforms, including mandatory religious instruction and segregation of high schools into specialized curriculum, still form the base of the Italian educational system.

The most influential of Gentile's early writings was Fondamenti della filosofia del diritto (1916), which argues that the individual's self-realization is inextricably tied to that of the state. He advocated Italy's engagement in World War I as a means of unifying the population, and later, as a fascist, he insisted that freedom could only be enjoyed by serving the state. His organization of the 1925 Manifesto of Fascist Intellectuals earned him the everlasting ire of Croce and his anti-fascist associates. He went on to direct regime-sponsored cultural initiatives such as the Enciclopedia Italiana, which brought together many important intellectuals and artists in the service of fascism. After 1923, Gentile wrote mostly propaganda with some exceptions, including a series of critical essays on Dante and Giacomo Leopardi, which, along with his work on actualism, informed his often-overlooked dialectical theory of art as self-translation expounded in The Philosophy of Art (1972 [ 1931 ]). In the same year, just after being installed as director of the University of Pisa, he oversaw the university professors’ oath to the regime. Fascism's suppression of personal freedoms came to a dramatic climax in the years 1943-5, when Italy erupted into civil war. Shortly after becoming president of the Italian Academy and completing Genesis and the Structure of Society, the conclusion of his social-political theory, Gentile was killed by a communist resistance group outside Florence on April 15, 1944, at the age of 68.

SEE ALSO: Croce, Benedetto; Dialectics; Italian Neo-Idealist Aesthetics

  • Gentile, G. (1913-14). Sommario di pedagogia come scienza filosofica [Summary of Pedagogy as Scientific Philosophy], 2 vols. Bari: Laterza.
  • Gentile, G. (1917). Le origini della filosofia contemporanea in italia [The Origins of Contemporary Philosophy in Italy], 3 vols. Messina: Principato.
  • Gentile, G. (1917-22). Sistema di logica come teoria del conoscere [System of Logic as a Theory of Knowledge], 2 vols. Bari: Laterza.
  • Gentile, G. (1922). The Theory of Mind as Pure Act (trans. Carr, H. ). Macmillan London. (Original work published 1916.).
  • Gentile, G. (1955). Fondamenti della filosofia del diritto [The Fundamentals of the Philosophy of Law]. Florence: Le Lettere. (Original work published 1916.).
  • Gentile, G. (1960). Genesis and Structure of Society (trans. Harris, H. ). University of Illinois Press Urbana. (Original work published 1946.).
  • Gentile, G. (1972). The Philosophy of Art (trans. Gullace, G. ). Cornell University Press Ithaca. (Original work published 1931.).
  • Harris, H. (1960). The Social Philosophy of Giovanni Gentile. University of Illinois Press Urbana.
  • Holmes, R. (1937). The Idealism of Giovanni Gentile. Macmillan New York.
  • Turi, G. (1995). Giovanni Gentile: Una biografia. ITET Florence.
    © 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd

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