Croce, Benedetto (1866–1952)

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Benedetto Croce was the best-known Italian philosopher of the twentieth century. His universally and justly celebrated book on aesthetics, Estetica come scienza dell'espressione e linguistica generale (1902), which became the first volume of his systematic "philosophy of the spirit," was a foundation stone in the great revival of historical idealism in Italy between 1900 and 1920. In a long and diligent life devoted almost entirely to scholarly studies, Croce gained an international reputation in the fields of aesthetics, literary criticism, cultural history, and historical methodology; and he exercised in these areas an influence so pervasive that it cannot yet be definitively estimated.

Life and Works

Born at Pescasseroli, in the Abruzzi, of a family of wealthy landowners, Croce never needed to earn a living. He displayed an early bent for literary and historical research but never seriously entered on an academic career, preferring to be master of his own course of study. From 1883when his parents were killed, and he himself buried and injured, in an earthquakeuntil 1886 he lived with his uncle Silvio Spaventa (brother of the philosopher Bertrando) in Rome, and for a time he attended the university there. At the university he came under the influence of Antonio Labriola, who led him to the study of Johann Friedrich Herbart and, later, of Karl Marx. These studies left a lasting mark on his philosophy. After 1886 he lived permanently in Naples.

In 1893 Croce published his first philosophical essay, "La storia ridotto sotto il concetto generale dell'arte" (History brought under the general concept of art), a title that foreshadowed the main concerns of his mature thought. In 1898, while working on a book on Marx (Materialismo storico ed economia marxista ), he entered into correspondence with his younger contemporary, Giovanni Gentile, who was similarly occupied. Thus began a friendly collaboration that lasted twenty-five years. In 1900 came the first sketch of Croce's Aesthetic. In 1903 he founded the journal La critica, and in 1904 he became an editorial adviser to the publishers Laterza of Bari. For the rest of his life he exercised an ever-increasing influence on the literary and academic world through these two channels.

Even as the volumes of Croce's philosophy of spirit were being published, his association with Gentile was leading him to a reexamination of G. W. F. Hegel. He published his results in 1907 (Ciò che è vivo e ciò che è morto nella filosofia di Hegel ) and made appropriate revisions in his Estetica and in his Logica come scienza del concetto puro (1905). Filosofia della pratica, economia ed etica appeared at Bari in 1909. In 1911 he published La filosofia di Giambattista Vico Giambattista Vico was the other major influence on his thoughtand in the succeeding years he wrote the essays that appeared at Bari in 1917 as the culminating volume of his system, Teoria e storia della storiografia.

In 1910 Croce was made a life member of the Italian senate, but he was not then actively involved in politics. He was a neutralist prior to Italy's entry into World War I in 1915; and in the postwar crisis, he became minister of public instruction in Giovanni Giolitti's last cabinet (19201921). With Gentile's help, Croce drafted a reform of the school system, rejected at the time but later incorporated in the fascist Riforma Gentile of 19231924. Naturally, therefore, he regarded the first fascist administration with some benevolence. His breach with fascism (and with Gentile) came with the establishment of an overt dictatorship in January 1925. He drafted a celebrated "Protest" against Gentile's "Manifesto of Fascist Intellectuals" and thus became identified as the chief antifascist intellectual, a role he worthily maintained through more than fifteen years of almost complete political isolation and retirement. He emerged briefly in 1929 to speak in the senate against the concordat with the Vatican. After the fall of fascism he became a leader of the revived Liberal Party and served once more as a cabinet minister for a short period in 1944.

During his years of isolation, Croce wrote voluminously and his thought developed significantly. His aesthetics reached its final form only in La poesia (1936). His opposition to fascism is often apparent in his literary criticism, but it expressed itself more naturally in his historical writing and in theoretical reflection on politics and history, where it led to vital developments in his thought.

Croce celebrated his eightieth birthday by founding and endowing the Institute for Historical Studies, which is still located in his former home. In spite of a serious stroke in 1950, he went on working right up to his death.


When Croce's philosophical interests were first aroused in 1893, he was a historical and literary scholar who accepted most of the assumptions of the French positivism then dominant in the circles in which he moved. But controversy led him to ask himself whether history was an art or a science, and he made a decisive choice in favor of the idealist view of the great Hegelian philosopher of art and literary historian Francesco De Sanctis (18171883). Initially, his idealist aesthetics was set in a context of a realistic metaphysics, of which there were still some signs in the Aesthetic of 1902; but the attempt to expound his view systematically, combined with his discovery of Vico and rediscovery of Hegel, led to the development of his full-fledged idealism. Thus, his aesthetic theory was the original foundation of his philosophy of spirit, although it might fairly be argued that the theory of moral judgment became more fundamental in the final form of his system. Croce himself distinguished four phases in his reflections on aesthetics. Some critics have held one or more of the later phases to be inconsistent with his system as a whole, but they will here be viewed as part of a continuous and essentially consistent evolution.

aesthetic intuition

It is characteristic of idealist aesthetics to regard aesthetic experience as a kind of cognition. Following Vico and De Sanctis, Croce regarded it as the primitive form of cognitive experience. Intuition is a nonconceptual form of knowledge; it is the awareness of a particular image either of outward sense (a person or a thing) or of inner sense (an emotion or a mood). Intuitions possess a kind of ideal being and validity that is independent of and ontologically prior to any question of existence or nonexistence. Croce's use of the term intuition derived directly from Immanuel Kant's use of Anschauung, and he originally thought of the external world as a Kantian manifold of sensation, which we organize into distinct perceptions through the intuitive faculty of imagination. Thus, history was initially "subsumed under the general concept of Art," as the subform of art that is concerned with the ordering of intuitions of actual existence. He soon abandoned this position, but if Kant's theory of space and time as the "forms of intuition" through which the sensible manifold is organized is recalled, it can be seen how Croce's view applies to the plastic arts, which he often seemed to ignore. His own background and interests were predominantly literary, and his theory frequently seems specifically devised to meet the needs of literary critics who have to deal with poems, which are uniquely individual entities created in the conceptual (or logically universal) medium of language. Croce himself fostered this illusion by insisting that aesthetics was "the general science of language." This is a very Pickwickian contention on his part, since the conceptual function of words and symbols in factual communicationwhich must surely be regarded as fundamental in a general theory of language is specifically excluded from his "science of expression"; and all forms of nonconceptual communicationeven nonverbal onesare included in it.

lyrical intuition

If it had not been for his overriding concern with poetry, Croce might never have advanced to the second phase of his aesthetics, the theory that all intuition is "lyrical" in character. The problem he faced was essentially one of defining what it is that is nonconceptually communicated in poetry by way of language. His answer was that poetry communicates emotions and moods, it expresses for cognitive contemplation different aspects of the practical personality of man. Here the "circle of the spirit," the doctrine that man's theoretical activity has his practical reality as its one and only object, comes into view. By means of this doctrine, Croce was able to dispense with the last residues of naive realism present in his basically Kantian epistemology. Some doctrine of this sort was certainly needed if the view that art is nonconceptual cognition was to be maintained. As Croce said in 1908, in his lecture announcing the doctrine, "An image that does not express a state of mind has no theoretical value." But the need might well have appeared less pressing, and the solution less natural and obvious, if he had not always thought primarily about poetry.

It is easyespecially if one reads only the Breviary of Aesthetics (1912), as many English-speaking students doto misinterpret Croce's theory that all art is lyrical as a type of romanticism, which he was, in fact, absolutely opposed to. His doctrine was that art is the expression of emotion, not just for its own sake but as a special kind of cognitive awareness. He was seeking a middle way between the intellectualist errors of classical theorists, with their artificial canons, rules, and genres (all of which he categorically rejected), and the emotional excesses of the romantics, with their glorification of immediate feeling. His critique of classical intellectualism is easily grasped; but it is a mistake to think, as some critics have, that his "lyricism" is radically inconsistent with his own systematic rationalism. Unlike Gentile, Croce always refused to identify intuitions as "feelings" or to formulate his theory in terms of "feeling" at all, because he held that "feeling" was an ambiguous concept which when clarified referred to the practical impulse that is the content of intuition.

cosmic intuitions

How can the expression of emotion produce cognitive awareness? This was the problem that Croce faced in the third phase of his thoughthis theory that all intuition has a "cosmic" aspect. Again, some doctrine of the sort was required by his basic thesis that intuition is cognitive of particulars without reference to their existential status. Simply as images they provide experience of the universal human spirit. This self-validating character, this reference to universal humanity (not as an abstract nature or essence but as the activity of the spirit revealing itself in personal experience and in history as a whole) is what Croce called the cosmic aspect of genuine intuition. Some intuitions, however, are more directly cosmic than others and are hard to characterize in terms of specific emotions; this was the classical counterweight against lyrical romanticism in Croce's thought. It was apparently suggested to him by an essay of Wilhelm von Humboldt on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and he applied it in critical studies of such masterpieces as Faust and the Divine Comedy. Oddly enough, however, it was neither Dante Alighieri nor Goethe, but Ariosto, who served as Croce's paradigm of the cosmic poet. Croce earnestly desired to avoid confusion between the proper lyrical unity of a poem and the logical coherence of a philosophical system. His own critical practice even provides some justification for the view that the whole cosmic phase of his theory was an aberration. The truth is rather that it was an inescapably necessary complement of his general view and that his critical practice suffered from an antiphilosophical bias.

literature and art

The final phase of Croce's aesthetic theory is the theory of literature in La poesia, which forms the negative corollary of his theory of intuition. Much that is ordinarily classified as art was, in Croce's view, not properly art at all because in it the purity of intuitive cognition is subordinated to various practical ends, such as entertainment or intellectual and moral instruction. For instance, he declared the De Rerum Natura to be a work of literature, not of art; and although this is an extreme case of his critical bias, it is easy to see what led him to it, since the passionate conviction and practical aim of Lucretius are evident in every line of the poem.

Logic of History and the Sciences

As aesthetics is the science of pure intuition, so logic is the science of pure concept; and as pure intuition is the form in which we imaginatively express some particular aspect of the human spirit, so pure conception is the form in which we rationally evaluate these particular manifestations and relate them to one another and to the spirit as a systematic unity. Thus on the one hand, conceptual cognition presupposes intuition because it requires intuitions as its material; and on the other hand, aesthetics, the science of intuitive cognition, is only a subdivision of logic because beauty is a form of the pure concept. Concepts presuppose intuitions but are not derivable from them; and any evaluation or correlation of intuitionseven the categorizing of them as intuitionspresupposes concepts. This is the "dialectic of the distincts," which Croce insisted was more ultimate and fundamental than the Hegelian dialectic of opposites. His model here was Kant, rather than the often-cited Vico. For Vico, as for Hegel, poetic cognition was already an immature form of reason, or, in other words, reason develops out of it; whereas for Croce, as for Kant, the two functions were quite distinct and interdependent, although not equally primitive. Croce's aesthetics was a new transcendental analytic, and his logic was a new deduction of the categories.


For Croce, however, the words reason and knowledge meant something very different from what they meant to Kant. Croce's work was a "critique of historical reason," and the knowledge that he regarded as genuine was historical knowledge. It is only to historical judgments that the predicates "true" and "false" are properly applicable. According to Croce, the scientific knowledge of Kant's Critique was a myth, and belief in this myth was one type of logical error. (Croce offered an exhaustive analysis of the types of logical error as a sort of negative proof of his own deduction.) Science and scientific investigation are forms of practical activity, not of cognition. They cannot be genuinely cognitive because they are founded on pseudo concepts, not on the genuine forms of the pure concept.

Thus, for example, if a child reports that "the cat is on the mat," this is a statement of historical fact and its truth or falsity can be established. But if a scientist says, "The cat is a mammal with such and such properties," the words cat and mammal, together with all the property-terms, are abstract universals, artificial summaries of actual aesthetic and historical experience. These abstractions are enormously useful in practical experienceindeed, they are vital to the intelligent planning of our livesbut they could only be the basis of genuine knowledge if we were endowed with the kind of rational intuition into the "real essences" of things that is described in Plato's myths.

The forms of the pure concept are the distinct forms of the spirit itself, since only a proof that some form of the spirit is "distinct" in Croce's sense could establish the a priori validity of a proposed category or standard of judgment. There are four such forms and, hence, four ways in which our experience can be cognitively categorized and evaluated. Any proper element of experience can be considered from two theoretical and two practical points of view; it can be evaluated intuitively, rationally, economically, or morally.


In his theory of error, Croce followed René Descartes and Antonio Rosmini. He regarded all genuine error as caused by the intrusion of practical motives into theoretical contexts. He was primarily concerned with philosophical errors, such as the belief that science is knowledge or the belief in myth (a historical narrative possessing absolute significance), which he took to be the origin of religion. About mistakes in historical interpretation, his view appears to have been that (if the historian advances his hypotheses in a properly tentative spirit) they are not really errors but stages in the development of truth.

philosophy and history

Under the influence of Gentile, Croce accepted the Hegelian identification of philosophy with the history of philosophy and reduced even the a priori judgments of his own logic (for example, that there are four forms of the spirit) to the status of historical judgments. He did this because he held that no one could "close the gates of truth" against further progress. Yet he never accepted Gentile's view that this formal concession to the future meant that all deductions of "the forms of the spirit" were mistaken; he remained convinced that his logic possessed an eternal validity. In his view, the unity of philosophy and history was a unity of distincts.

Economics and Law

The most fundamental of all distinctions in Croce's philosophy is the distinction between theory and practice. Goaded by the actual idealists who sought to unify theory and practice in the "pure act," Croce tried to justify this distinction by arguments that were largely wasted, because his opponents did not really deny the distinction any more than he denied the unity. The only point at issue was the more general question of whether the unity arose from a dialectic of opposed moments or of distinct forms.

economic utility and vitality

It has already been shown how the circle of the spirit first appeared when Croce recognized practical impulse as the presupposed content of intuition. It would seem to follow that the practical manifestation of the spirit is somehow more primitive than the spirit's theoretical functions; but the implication is, at best, only a partial truth, for Croce claimed also that the primitive form of practical activityeconomic volitionpresupposes both forms of theoretical activity. He had learned from his long study of Marx and of the English classical economists that the calculation of economic utility is a rational process and that economic action involves historical judgment. The practical impulse that intuition presupposes, considered in itself, is not yet the conscious action of the spirit; it is only the blind urge of organic life out of which the spirit emerges. But the origin of volition in vitality is what accounts for the independence that Croce always ascribed to economic utility as a distinct spiritual form. Critics objected from the beginning that there was a paradox involved in treating utility as an autonomous form of value. There is no such thing as simple usefulness; there is only usefulness for some purpose. It is really life or vitality that is the primitive category of action. In later writings Croce recognized this, but he continued to hold that economic action is the first form of action in the true sense.

In spite of Croce's insistence that the "utility" of the economists is a fundamental philosophical category, his logic does not allow the admission of economics itself as a genuine philosophical science. The work of economists, like that of all other scientists, belongs to the category of utility itself, not to that of truth. "Economic man" is a paradigm case of a pseudo concept.

law and utility

It is more surprising, perhaps, to find the concept of law subsumed under that of utility in Croce's system. The Kantian model, which we have appealed to several times, might lead us to expect moral law as the universal form of practical consciousness. Law in fact functions as a transitional notion in Croce's system because it may be obeyed either from motives of duty or from motives of expediency. Croce held, however, that in the making and execution of law we should be guided strictly by considerations of social utility, since no one can make a genuinely moral judgment about what is right for a whole class of cases defined abstractly. Laws are of necessity framed in terms of the pseudo concepts of economics and social science; even the moral habits and rules we adopt as our own guides are similarly abstract. They belong among the instruments of life, not among its purposes. Because so much of the work of government is also instrumental, Croce tried at first to formulate a purely economic theory of political action in general. This view he subsequently abandoned.

Ethics and Politics

Moral action and moral judgment are the distinct universal forms of practical consciousness corresponding to economic action and economic rationality. The dialectic of the distinction is closely analogous to that of the two theoretical forms. There can be economic acts that are not moral (for example, historical explanation of an im moral act is bound to be at the economic level); but there cannot be moral acts that have no vital utility (asceticism or abstract moralism is a moral error). On the other hand, practical activity cannot concretely achieve rationality at the economic level without superseding that level. There can be no theory of economic life except from an independent ethical point of view. This is shown by the inconsistency of utilitarian ethics, which attempts to justify individual self-sacrifice by smuggling in moral principles that have not themselves been accounted for. Confined strictly to the economic level, rational people would live in the Hobbesian state of nature, and all the consequences of Hobbesian philosophy would follow.

Moral, as distinct from economic, consciousness is the awareness of some definite act as a duty overriding private inclinations. Moral judgment declares the act to be a duty because it embodies some universal spiritual value (which may fall under the category of beauty, truth, or social utility or be a distinctively moral good). Whatever category the value belongs to, if the act is a moral duty, there is always a sense of "harmony with the Universe." The moral point of view is the final all-embracing awareness of the spirit as a whole, in its wholeness; hence this is the point of view from which true history can be written.


Because he held that all true judgment is historical, Croce could do little except offer historical illustrations of his view. Reflection on the nature of history itself and on the reason for rejecting scientific concepts as pseudo concepts, however, throws further light on goodness as a distinct category of the spirit. Science fails to be genuine knowledge because the spirit in all its forms always exhibits spontaneity and individual uniqueness. At the moral level, this spontaneity becomes conscious freedom and self-possession. History is "the story of liberty," and freedom is another name for the good as a distinct form of value.

ethico-political history

Gentile buttressed an ethical theory similar to Croce's with the Hegelian conception of the national state as an ethical organism and as the bearer of the spirit in history. Croce admitted that if one interpreted the concept "state" broadly enough, this was a legitimate way of viewing it. But he was initially more inclined to think of politics as an economic art or technique of directing selfish passions into orderly channels (as if there were no conflicting moral ideals in political life). The advent of fascism taught him that both of these extreme views were mistaken. Politics does involve moral consciousness, but the absorption of all morality into the "ethical state" is a "governmental concept of morality" unacceptable in a society of free men. The true bearer of the spirit is the individual moral agent, and the state contains the dialectic of practical life as a whole (economics and ethics). The ethical universal is only fully revealed in the history of the state so conceived. Political life, as the unity in which all spiritual activities (even poetry) have a place, is raised to the ethical level in the consciousness of the historian who writes ethico-political history. This is the complete expression of the spirit in which philosophy and history are unified. Croce's work as a historian, particularly in La storia del regno di Napoli (History of the Kingdom of Naples; 1925), illustrated how this concept applies to periods of decadence as well as periods of progress.

The "circularity of the spirit" might seem to require that this form of historical consciousness become the content of poetic intuition. But Croce never made this point, and he does not seem to have held this view. The circle of the spirit, as he describes it, closes by returning from vitality to poetry. Ethico-political history transcends the circle altogether because it is the perfected consciousness of the spirit in its circularity.

See also Aesthetics, History of; Aesthetics, Problems of; Dante Alighieri; De Sanctis, Francesco; Descartes, René; Error; Gentile, Giovanni; Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Herbart, Johann Friedrich; Humboldt, Wilhelm von; Idealism; Intuition; Kant, Immanuel; Marx, Karl; Rosmini-Serbati, Antonio; Spaventa, Bertrando; Vico, Giambattista.


works by croce

Croce's Opere complete as of 1965 consists of 67 volumes.

La storia ridotto sotto il concetto generale dell'arte. Naples, 1893.

Materialismo storico ed economta marxista. Palermo, 1900. Translated by C. M. Meredith as Historical Materialism and the Economics of Karl Marx. New York: Macmillan, 1914.

Estetica come scienza dell'espressione e linguistica generale. Bari: Laterza, 1902. Translated by Douglas Ainslie as Aesthetic. New York, 1909; 2nd complete ed., 1922.

Logica come scienza del concetto puro. Naples, 1905. Translated by Douglas Ainslie as Logic. New York, 1917.

Ciò che è vivo e ciò che è morto nella filosofia di Hegel. Bari, 1907. Translated by Douglas Ainslie as What Is Living and What Is Dead in the Philosophy of Hegel. London: Macmillan, 1915.

Filosofia della pratica, economia ed etica. Bari: Laterza, 1909. Translated by Douglas Ainslie as Philosophy of the Practical. New York, 1913.

La filosofia di Giambattista Vico. Bari: Laterza, 1911. Translated by R. G. Collingwood as The Philosophy of Giambattista Vico. New York: Macmillan, 1913.

Breviario di estetica. Bari: Laterza, 1913. Translated by Douglas Ainslie as The Essence of Aesthetic. London: Heinemann, 1921. First published in The Book of the Opening of the Rice Institute. Houston, TX, 1912.

Teoria e storia della storiografia. Bari: Laterza, 1917. Translated by Douglas Ainslie as HistoryIts Theory and Practice. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1921.

Contributo alla critica di me stesso. Naples, 1918. Translated by R. G. Collingwood as Autobiography. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1927.

Frammenti di etica. Bari: Laterza, 1918. Translated by Arthur Livingston as The Conduct of Life. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1924.

Goethe. Bari: Laterza, 1919. Translated by E. Anderson. London: Methuen, 1923.

Ariosto, Shakespeare, Corneille. Bari: Laterza, 1920. Translated by Douglas Ainslie. New York, 1920.

La poesia di Dante. Bari: Laterza, 1921. Translated by Douglas Ainslie as The Poetry of Dante. New York: Holt, 1922.

Elementi di politica. Bari: Laterza, 1922. Translated by Salvatore Castiglione as Politics and Morals. London: Allen and Unwin, 1946.

La storia del regno di Napoli. Bari: Laterza, 1925.

Aesthetica in nuce. Bari, 1928. Translated by R. G. Collingwood as "Aesthetics," in Encyclopaedia Britannica, 14th ed. New York and London, 1929. Vol. VII.

Storia d'Italia dal 1871 al 1915. Bari: Laterza, 1928. Translated by Cecilia M. Ady as History of Italy 18711915. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1929.

Storia d'Europa nel secolo XIX. Bari: Laterza, 1932. Translated by Henry Furst as History of Europe in the Nineteenth Century. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1933.

La poesia. Bari: Laterza, 1936.

La storia come pensiero e come azione. Bari: Laterza, 1938. Translated by Sylvia Sprigge as History as the Story of Liberty. London: Allen and Unwin, 1941.

My Philosophy. London: Allen and Unwin, 1949. Essays selected by R. Klibansky and translated by E. F. Carritt.

works on croce

Borsari, Silvano. L'opera di Benedetto Croce. Naples: Istituto Italiano per gli Studi Storici, 1964.

Caponigri, A. R. History and Liberty. London: Routledge and Paul, 1955. A study of the historical works.

Nicolini, Fausto. Benedetto Croce. Turin, 1962. A definitive biography.

Orsini, G. N. G. Benedetto Croce, Philosopher of Art and Literary Critic. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1961. A masterly survey of Croce's aesthetic writings.

Piccoli, R. Benedetto Croce. London: J. Cape, 1922. Still the best general introduction to Croce, but it covers only the period from 1893 to 1920.

H. S. Harris (1967)