Abbagnano, Nicola (1901–1990)

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Nicola Abbagnano, born in Salerno, was the chief exponent of Italian existentialism, which he defined as a militant and rational "philosophy of the possible." Originally a pupil of Antonio Aliotta at the University of Naples, Abbagnano began teaching at the University of Turin in 1936, where he also for years had been coediting the influential Rivista di filosofia. Practically since his first book, Le sorgenti irrazionali del pensiero (Naples, 1923), Abbagnano had been advocating a change of philosophical horizon suitable to the problematic nature of human life. This advocacy is reflected in a notable series of historical studies, culminating in the monumental three-volume work Storia della filosofia (Turin, 19461950; 2nd ed., 1963).

Reacting against the prevailing neo-Hegelianism of Benedetto Croce and Giovanni Gentile in Italy, Abbagnano was influenced, in turn, by Edmund Husserl's phenomenology and, later, by Søren Kierkegaard, Martin Heidegger, and Karl Jaspers; but he revealed in his first attempt at existentialism, La struttura dell'esistenza (Turin, 1939), that he was no mere expositor or disciple of German existentialism. In that work he took a stand against Heidegger and Jaspers; and in subsequent writings his polemic was sharpened and extended to French existentialism, including Jean-Paul Sartre on the one hand and Gabriel Marcel, Louis Lavelle, René Le Senne on the other. He groups Sartre with Kierkegaard under German existentialism, and the others under "theological or ontological existentialism."

According to Abbagnano, all forms of existentialism in vogue since Kierkegaard have been self-defeating, since they lead, on examination, to the negation of what is basic to their whole interpretation of human existence: "the primacy of possibility." He discerns two principal directions within the contemporary existentialist movement. One (the left wing) is associated with the early Heidegger, Jaspers, and Sartre; the other (the right wing), with Marcel, Lavelle, and Le Senne. The first group of existentialists negates existence as possibility by reducing human possibilities to impossibilities, with everything projected by finite man inevitably foredoomed to fail; the second group negates existence by "surreptitiously" transforming human possibilities into potentialities, necessarily destined to succeed in the end.

Even though for Abbagnano the left and the right wings of the existentialist movement are founded, technically, on opposite principles"the impossibility of the possible" and "the necessity of the possible," respectivelythey at least share a common negative ground because each of them, in one way or another, ultimately makes possibility itself impossible. The only valid alternative to "negative existentialism," which for polemical reasons Abbagnano calls "positive existentialism," takes as its guiding principle "the possibility of the possible" or, in Kantian terminology, "transcendental possibility." In this view, an authentic possibility in human life is one that, once it has been chosen or realized, remains open to further choice or realization; that is, continues to be possible. In short, Abbagnano's alternative constitutes an open possibilism.

This alternative calls for a clarification and coherent use of the fundamental category of all existentialism: the modal category of possibility. It is perhaps here that Abbagnano made his greatest contribution to the entire existentialist movement, especially since in contemporary logic, as he himself observes, the concept of modality has not been given sufficient "analytic elaboration."

Ever since Aristotle, Abbagnano maintains, there has been confusion concerning the modal categories, particularly with respect to the meaning of the term possible. The possible in the empirical sense of what may be has been distinguished from the possible in the purely logical sense of the noncontradictory. But, unfortunately, it has been confused with the "potential" in Aristotle's sense and with the "contingent" in Avicenna's. Since potentiality signifies "pre -determination" of the actual, the potential excludes the possible, ex hypothesi. Aristotle did concede that not all potentialities are actualized, but this concession on his part was only introduced "surreptitiously." For, if the potential means what is destined to occur anyway, there is no room for possibility as such. As for Avicenna's concept of the contingent, there is no doubt about its necessitarian character. For he makes the contingent into a species of the necessarythe contingent being, by his own definition, whatever is necessary through another. Hence, it follows that the modal status of the potential and the contingent is not that of possibility, of what may be; but that of necessity, of what must be. Abbagnano concludes that those who think in such terms, including existentialists, are necessitarians in disguise.

Historically, Abbagnano sees his own version of existentialism as an attempt to relate Immanuel Kant and Kierkegaard in a complementary way. In Kant's Table of Categories three pairs of categories are listed under modality: possibility-impossibility, existence-nonexistence, and necessity-contingency. Abbagnano virtually reduces Kant's three pairs of modality categories to one primary pair: the necessary and the nonnecessary. The reason he gives for doing so is that necessity and contingency are not really opposites. Neither are possibility and impossibility. For impossibility is the negative of necessity, not the negative of possibility; what can't be at all being the opposite of what must be of necessity.

As an existential possibilist, Abbagnano defines existence as possibility, and nonexistence as "non-possibility," not as impossibility. While the nonnecessary excludes the necessary and the impossible, it includes the possible and the nonpossible. This means that man can neither be sure of realizing his conflicting possibilities, nor be sure of the impossibility of their realization. It also means that every concrete possibility open to man has two aspects, a promising (positive) prospect and an inauspicious (negative) aspect. To illustrate, the possibility of knowledge implies the possibility of error. Errors are not "impossible," since we do in fact make them, but they are "non-possible" in the sense that they are unverifiable when put to test. Thus, a double-aspect theory of possibility lies at the heart of Abbagnano's "positive existentialism."

Another distinctive feature of Italian existentialism in general and of Abbagnano's philosophy in particular is the deliberate focus on a problem that was originally foreign to German existentialism; to wit, the problem of value.

Starting with the assumption that the problem of value is the problem of what man ought to be, Abbagnano argues in effect that, since the ought-to-be is the possible in the normative sense, it is therefore the moral equivalent of the may-be, which is the possible in the empirical sense. As a consequence, the logic of possibility coincides with the ethics of possibility, and these two phases of the same problem come together in Abbagnano's possibilistic interpretation of human conduct. This interpretation stresses the "normativity" of human existence, which involves the problem of freedom in all its dimensions. Thus, Abbagnano's existentialism logically unites the complementary categories of possibility and freedom, as is clear from his important volume Possibilità e libertà (Turin, 1956).

In the mid-twentieth century, Abbagnano came to characterize the "New Enlightenment," of contemporary philosophy and openly declared his affinities with the neopositivistic and neonaturalistic movements in the Anglo American world. As a result, he developed the empirical and naturalistic strains in his existentialism, emphasizing the methodological connections between possibility as a generic criterion of existence and verifiability as a specific criterion in scientific inquiry. This "transfiguration" of existentialism into scientific methodology is clearly evident in the article on existentialism in Dizionario di filosofia (Turin, 1961). However, Abbagnano thought that the romantic "myth of security" in Auguste Comte's positivism, typical of the nineteenth-century mentality, still survives in the scientific utopianism of the Vienna Circle; and although he sympathizes with the later Ludwig Wittgenstein's thesis that the meaning of words depends on their use, he contends that the leader of the analytic movement failed to give a philosophical analysis of the notion of "use" itself. Abbagnano's sympathies with North American naturalism are reflected in his writings on John Dewey and in his review of P. Romanell's volume Toward a Critical Naturalism (Rivista di filosofia 50 [1959]: 108109).

See also Aristotle; Avicenna; Comte, Auguste; Croce, Benedetto; Dewey, John; Existentialism; Gentile, Giovanni; Heidegger, Martin; Jaspers, Karl; Kant, Immanuel; Kierkegaard, Søren Aabye; Lavelle, Louis; Le Senne, René; Logical Positivism; Marcel, Gabriel; Naturalism; Possibility; Sartre, Jean-Paul; Scientific Method; Value and Valuation; Wittgenstein, Ludwig Josef Johann.


additional works by abbagnano


Il nuovo idealismo inglese e americano. Naples, 1927.

La filosofia di E. Meyerson e la logica dell'identità. Naples: Perrella, 1929.

Guglielmo di Ockham. Lanciano: Carabba, 1931.

La nozione del tempo secondo Aristotele. Lanciano, 1933.

Bernardino Telesio. Milan: Fratelli Bocca, 1941.


Introduzione all'esistenzialismo. Milan, 1942.

Filosofia, religione, scienza. Turin: Taylor, 1947.

Esistenzialismo positivo. Turin: Taylor, 1948.

"Contemporary Science and Freedom." Review of Metaphysics 5 (3) (1952): 361378.

Problemi di sociologia. Turin: Taylor, 1959.

"Existentialism in Italy." Cesare Barbieri Courier 3 (2) (1961): 1218.

Critical Existentialism Translated with an introduction by Nino Langiulli. New York: Doubleday, 1969.

Fra il tutto e il nulla. Milan: Rizzoli, 1973.

La saggezza della vita. Milan: Rusconi, 1985.

Scritti esistenzialisti. Turin: UTET, 1988.

Scritti neoillumnistici (19481965). Turin: UTET, 2001.

The Human ProjectThe Year 2000. Translated by Bruno Martini e Nino Langiulli. Vol. 119 of the "Value Inquiry Book Series." Amsterdam/New York: Rodopi, 2002.

works on abbagnano

Bruno Maiorca. Bibliografia degli scritti di Nicola Abbagnano 19221992. Bari: Laterza, 1993.

Giannini, G. L'esistenzialismo positivo di N. Abbagnano. Brescia, 1956.

Langiulli, Nino. Possibility, Necessity and Existence: Abbagnano and His Predecessors. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992.

Santucci, Antonio. Esistenzialismo e filosofia italiana. Bologna: Mulino, 1959.

Simona, Maria Angela. La notion de liberté dans l'existentialisme positif de Nicola Abbagnano. Fribourg, Switzerland: Editions Universitaires, 1962.

Patrick Romanell (1967)

Bibliography updated by Thomas Nenon (2005)