Bobbio, Norberto (1909–2004)

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BOBBIO, NORBERTO (1909–2004)


Italian philosopher and historian.

The Italian legal philosopher and cultural historian Norberto Bobbio was born in Turin on 18 November 1909 and died on 9 January 2004. The city of Turin, a leading center of culture and politics, played an important part in his development. At Massimo D'Azeglio High School he met the Italian politician Vittorio Foa (b. 1910), the writer and militant antifascist Leone Ginzburg (1909–1944), and the writer Cesare Pavese (1908–1950). Ginzburg was for Bobbio a first exemplar of the "militant intellectual," drawing him toward contemporary Italian culture, particularly that inspired by Bendetto Croce (1866–1952). In 1931 Bobbio took a degree in jurisprudence with Gioele Solari (1872–1952), and in 1933 another in philosophy under the guidance of Annibale Pastore (1868–1956). Thanks to his association with numerous intellectuals, he participated in the founding of the Einaudi publishing house. The intellectual movement of the day centered on the journal La Cultura (Culture); in this atmosphere he published his first scientific works on the philosophy of law and German phenomenology, Aspetti odierni della filosofia giuridica in Germania (1934; Present-day aspects of legal philosophy in Germany), L'indirizzo fenomenologico nella filosofia sociale e giuridica, (1934; The phenomenological trend in social and legal philosophy), and Scienza e tecnica del diritto (1934; Science and practice of law).

The activities of the group of intellectuals connected with Einaudi gradually moved from a predominantly cultural sphere to clandestine political undertakings. When in 1935 there came the arrest of the "Giustizia e Libertà" (Justice and liberty) group, and of the circle associated with La Cultura at Einaudi, Bobbio was also briefly arrested as a sympathizer. After his release he began to teach, first philosophy of law at the University of Camerino (1935–1938), then at Siena (1938–1940), where he joined the liberal-socialist group founded in 1937 by Guido Calogero and Aldo Capitini (1899–1968), two philosophers at the Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa. In 1940 he went to Padua, where he taught until 1948.

Returning thence to Turin, he taught philosophy of law in the Faculty of Jurisprudence from 1948 to 1972, and taught political philosophy in the Faculty of Political Science from 1972 to 1979. In 1960 he became a national member of the Turin Academy of Sciences and in 1966 a national member of the Accademia dei Lincei. Beginning in 1965 he was a corresponding associate of the British Academy. He never assumed political responsibilities until he was named senator for life in 1984 by the president of the republic, Sandro Pertini (1896–1990). Beginning in 1935 he was affiliated with the Rivista di filosofia (Review of philosophy), of which he became director. He was co-director of the Rivista internazionale di filosofia del diritto (International review of philosophy of law), and director of the international journal Comprendere (Understanding), an organ of the Societé européene de culture. He was one of the founders of the journal Reset in 1993.

With his support for liberal socialism during the years at Padua, his conception of a rapport between politics and culture became apparent. Bobbio undertook an attentive analysis of existential philosophy, particularly of the role it attributes to the philosopher in the face of society and politics, a theme that would be especially dear to him. In the fall of 1942 at Padua Bobbio participated in the foundation of the Partito d'Azione (Action party), the political wing of the Resistance in which "Giustizia e Libertà" and the liberal-socialist movement came together. His meetings at Padua with Antonio Giuriolo and Luigi Cosattini resulted in a critical appraisal of the proposals of Calogero and Capitini regarding the theme of a rapport between socialism and liberalism, and their synthesis in a greater whole. The "ethical" aspiration of socialism with respect to justice, and that of liberalism with regard to liberty, were not considered antithetical. What Bobbio in fact meant by liberalism was a theory according to which the rights of liberty were the necessary (albeit not sufficient) condition for any potential democracy, even in a socialistic form. In this formulation there appear the three poles of Bobbio's cultural outlook: classical liberalism; the tradition of socialist thought, recast by the perspective of Gobetti; and a connection with European philosophical culture.

The decision to abstain from an active political life did not prevent Bobbio from being present and participating: he was, rather, a point of reference in intellectual and political debate for more than forty years. In 1966 he supported the process of unification between socialists and social democrats.

His preferred interlocutor, however, was the PCI (Italian Communist Party), which he sought to discourage from its unquestioning allegiance to the Soviet Union, which he regarded as a totalitarian regime. He supported Eurocommunism in the PCI and, in a debate with Palmiro Togliatti (1893–1964) in the 1950s foresaw its adoption twenty years before the fact. When in 1974 the PCI announced its complete conversion to the principles of Eurocommunism the way was paved for the favorable reception of Bobbio's ideas on democracy and dictatorship, liberalism and Marxism. Seizing this opportunity, Bobbio wrote two key studies in Mondoperaio, the theoretical journal of the PSI (Italian Socialist Party), in 1975: the first on the lack of a real Marxist doctrine of the state, and the second on the absence of any alternative to representative democracy as a political framework for a free society. Regarding the history of Marxism and the history of critiques of Marxism, Bobbio stressed that the desire to reconstruct the theoretical agenda that led Marx to his famous political conclusions had been superseded by a tendency to co-opt theoretical principles into simple instruments of political strategy.


Bobbio was an extremely prolific author, publishing in the fields of law, philosophy, and history. Within the confines of the general theory of law, he applied himself to the criticism of the Enlightenment concept of natural law and to the construction of juridical science as a coherent system: L'analogia nella logica del diritto (1938; Analogy in the logic of law), Scienza del diritto e analisi del linguaggio (1950; Science of law and analysis of language), Studi di teoria generale del diritto (1955; Studies on the general theory of law), Teoria della norma giuridica (1958; Theory of the juridical norm), Teoria dell'ordinamento giuridico (1960; Theory of juridical organization), Giusnaturalismo e positivismo giuridico (1965; Natural law and juridical positivism), Dalla struttura alla funzione: Nuovi studi di teoria del diritto (1977; From structure to function: new studies on the theory of law).

In works dedicated to philosophical problems Bobbio insisted on the necessity of elaborating a satisfactory liberal democratic framework for the exercise of power, and on the independence of intellectuals and culture from political parties: Politica e cultura (1955; Politics and culture), Saggi sulla scienza politica in Italia (1969; Studies on political science in Italy), Quale socialismo? (1976; What socialism), and Il futuro della democrazia (1984; The future of democracy).

His ample historical works are devoted to the critical exposition of the contributions of past thinkers, and of several usually overlooked exponents of the positivistic-empirical tradition in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Italian culture, such as Carlo Cattaneo: La filosofia del decadentismo (1944; The philosophy of decadence), Diritto e stato nel pensiero di Kant (1957; Law and state in the thought of Kant), Locke e il diritto naturale (1963; Locke and Natural Law), Italia civile (1964; Civil Italy), Da Hobbes a Marx (1965; From Hobbes to Marx), Una filosofia militante: Studi su Carlo Cattaneo (1971; A militant philosophy: studies on Carlo Cattaneo), Pareto e il sistema sociale (1973; Pareto and the social system), Gramsci e la concezione della società civile (1976; Gramsci and the concept of the civil society). Along with Nicola Matteucci (b. 1926), he oversaw the Dizionario di politica (1976; Political dictionary; a second edition with Gianfranco Pasquino was published in 1983 and republished in 2004).

See alsoEurocommunism; Italy; Togliatti, Palmiro.


Bobbio, Norberto. Old Age and Other Essays. Translated and edited by Allan Cameron. Cambridge, U.K., 2001. Translation of De senectute e altri scritti autobiografici.

——. A Political Life. Edited by Alberto Pupuzzi. Translated by Alan Cameron. Cambridge, U.K., 2002.

Greco, Tommaso. Norberto Bobbio. Un itinerario intellettuale tra filosofia e politica. Rome, 2000.

Lanfranchi, Enrico. Un filosofo militante. Politica e cultura nel pensiero di Norberto Bobbio. Torino, Italy, 1989.

Maria Teresa Giusti