Gentile, Giovanni (1875–1944)

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Giovanni Gentile was one of the major figures in the resurgence of Hegelian idealism in Italy at the beginning of the twentieth century. His "actual idealism," or "actualism," represents the subjective extreme of the idealist tradition in that the present activity of reflective awareness (l'atto del pensiero, pensiero pensante ) is regarded as the absolute foundation on which all else depends. The act of thinking is the "pure act" that creates the world of human experience.

Life and Works

Gentile was born on May 30, 1875, at Castelvetrano in Sicily. He began his university education as a student of Italian literature under Alessandro d'Ancona at Pisa in 1893, but was quickly drawn into the study of philosophy by Donato Jaja, a pupil of the Neapolitan Hegelian, Bertrando Spaventa. Of the two main threads that run through all of Gentile's work, onehis concern with the theory and practice of educationis rooted directly in his own temperament and his strongly felt vocation as a teacher; but the otherhis almost chauvinistic interest in the Italian philosophical tradition and its relation to the general European traditionreflects the lifelong influence of Spaventa on his mind. His degree thesis, Rosmini e Gioberti (Pisa, 1898), in which he emphasized points of contact and agreement between the native Catholic thinkers and the German Idealists, was meant to illustrate Spaventa's thesis regarding "the circulation of European philosophy."

His second book was a critical examination of Karl Marx (La filosofia di Marx, Pisa, 1899) from an orthodox Hegelian standpoint. While writing it, Gentile became acquainted with Benedetto Croce, who was similarly occupied at the time. Thus began a friendly alliance that lasted more than twenty years. Gentile was the younger by nine years, but it seems clear that in these early formative years it was he who influenced the development of Croce's philosophy rather than vice versa, as most of their contemporaries assumed. Gentile was always more of a Hegelian than Croce ever became, and was more exclusively interested in the traditional problems of philosophy.

In 1900 Gentile wrote his important essay "The Concept of Education" ("Il concetto scientifico della pedagogia") and began his long campaign for the reform of the Italian school system. He became Privatdocent at Naples in 1903 and professor of the history of philosophy at Palermo in 1906. But the "reform of the Hegelian dialectic" and the "method of immanence" that led to actual idealism (in a paper of 1912) were worked out amid controversies with Modernists and polemics for religious instruction in elementary schools; and Gentile's philosophy was first fully expounded in the two-volume work Sommario di pedagogia come scienza filosofica (Summary of Educational Theory; 2 vols., Bari, 19131914).

In 1914 Gentile succeeded to Jaja's chair at Pisa, where he wrote the one book through which he is internationally known, Teoria generale della spirito come atto puro (The General Theory of the Spirit as Pure Act; Pisa, 1916). In 1917 he moved to the University of Rome; and the first volume of his Sistema di logica come teoria del conoscere (System of Logic as Theory of Knowing; Pisa, 1917), the most systematic statement of his view, appeared. The second volume followed at Bari in 1923.

In 1922 Gentile became minister of education in Benito Mussolini's first Cabinet, and in this capacity he reformed and reorganized the whole Italian school system. After his resignation in 1924 he became the first president of the National Fascist Institute of Culture; he remained for the rest of his life the most prominent publicist of the regime and the self-styled "philosopher of fascism." Gentile continued until his death to lecture at Rome, but in the fascist period his only important philosophical work was the Filosofia dell'arte (Milan, 1931). He was directing editor of the Enciclopedia italiana from its inception in 1925 to its completion in 1937. After the fall of Mussolini in 1943, Gentile went into retirement and wrote a short but important book on the genesis and structure of society that was published only after his death (Genesi e struttura della società, Florence, 1946). Subsequently persuaded to return to public life as a supporter of the Fascist Social Republic set up by the Germans, Gentile was assassinated by Italian communist partisans at Florence on April 15, 1944.

Conception of Philosophy

Gentile justifies his "theory of the spirit as pure act" in two ways. First, he strives to show that it is the logical outcome of the whole movement of Western philosophical thought since René Descartes; and, second, that the "method of pure immanence," when we arrive at it, provides an adequate and coherent way of explicating our actual experience. It is impossible to give more than the briefest indication of the line of his historical argument, although it bulks very large in most of his systematic works.

In any case, the significance of his theory emerges more clearly through an examination of his analysis of actual experience. The claim that actual idealism is the logical outcome of the main tradition of modern philosophy is interesting chiefly because it throws light on Gentile's conception of the essential problem of philosophy and the conditions for its solution. Philosophy for him, as for Johann Gottlieb Fichte, was Wissenschaftslehre, the science of knowledge, the science that, without presupposing anything itself, provides an a priori ground for the presuppositions actually made in other sciences. Descartes's method of universal doubt can quite naturally be viewed as the first approach to this problem, and George Berkeley's doctrine that esse est percipi is a vital step toward its solution. However, the genesis of actual idealism begins with Immanuel Kant; and although Gentile arrived at his view through the progressive elaboration of a "reform of the Hegelian dialectic" that had been initiated by Spaventa, he remains fundamentally a Kantian in his determination to confine philosophical speculation to the task of exhibiting the logical structure of actual experience. He is at one with Kant and Fichte in his resolute rejection of any "dogmatic metaphysics" that posits or presupposes a reality transcending actual consciousness.

Theory of Self-Constitution

There is a temptation to say at once that it is a mistake to conceive of the task of philosophy in this way, as the exhibition of the logical structure of actual experience, and that the ideal of a "philosophy without presuppositions" is a chimera. The most primitive postulate of ordinary common sense is that a physical world exists prior to and independent of our consciousness of it. However, Gentile's theory is not meant to be taken as a denial of this assumption, but as a thesis about logical priority. The temporal preexistence of the object of awareness is itself something that we take ourselves to be aware of, and in this sense the commonsense assumption is a product of our attempt to organize our experience in thought. Actual idealism must properly be judged as a theory about this process of rational organization or "concrete logic."

The most primitive level of the process for which we have ordinary words is sensation. We normally distinguish the objective cause of a sensation from the subjective feeling (pleasant or unpleasant) that it arouses in us. According to Gentile, this is a mistake. The sensation as a whole is our act of self-awareness, and the pleasure or pain is an aspect of this whole, not a reaction of the self to an object. He agrees emphatically that there cannot be any actual consciousness without the distinction of the subject of the awareness from the object of which it is aware. But he holds that since what has to be understood is the integral unity of the self, it is a mistake to look for the cause of experience within the content of experience. At the ideal limit, pure sensation can be thought of as an encounter with something absolutely other than the self; but it can also be thought of as a spontaneous activity of self-affirmation. Gentile does in fact employ "sensation" in both ways. Spontaneous self-affirmation is in his view the ideal aim of the artist, and loss of self in the contemplation of an absolute object is the typical concern of religious experience. But actual experience is always a synthesis, so that pure art and pure religion are nowhere to be found; and the actual understanding of any type of artistic or religious experience will involve restoring the suppressed aspects of the synthesis, that is to say, discovering the philosophy behind it.

Actual sensation is a process of self-constitution (autoctisi ) in which the subject preserves its own past and relates it to present sensation. Language is abstractly the instrument and concretely the form through which this is done. It is neither the clothing nor the vehicle, but the embodiment of our thought. But we are able to think of it abstractly, as an inheritance shared by all who are able to use it, because the thought embodied in it has universal import. Thus the self that comes to consciousness when we express our thoughts in language is a spiritual universe, a system of meanings in which all other thinking beings can share. This is the absolute subject of experience, the transcendental Ego whose being (like the God of Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas) is "pure act." The abstract form that Kant called the "transcendental unity of apperception" is given concrete existence, or brought to life, so to speak, in Gentile's conception of the "pure act" of "self-founding." My reflective awareness is on the one hand exactly what is essential to my existence as an independent personality; but on the other hand, so far as I achieve reflective awareness, I enter the world of thought in which nothing belongs, or can belong, to me personally. When I claim to think something, I must be able to communicate my thought; I must be able to show others the path by which I arrived at it so that, insofar as they can follow in my footsteps, they can share it. Reflective awareness is already communication, for my own thought is a dialogue within myself. The obvious fact that humans are social animals and that the peculiarly human institution of language is a collaborative production has its absolute or philosophical ground in the fact that the founding of the self is the founding of a transcendental society.

When we understand the fundamental concept of self-constitution in this way, Gentile's thesis about the unity of thought and action, which was the chief bone of contention between him and Croce, falls naturally into place and is easily understood. There appears to be a contrast between thought and action because in cognitive thinking we presuppose the reality we are concerned about, whereas our action is directed toward the creation of some object. However, all thinking and acting is in reality part of the same activity of self-conquest in which nothing is absolutely presupposed theoretically, and some things must be accepted (or presupposed) practically, if there is to be a line between the self and the not-self, the conquering subject and the nature or world that is to be conquered: "the spiritual act is never a self-creation that must be contemplated and watched over afterward; it is always simultaneously a self-creation that is self-awareness and vice versa" (Opere I, 84). The establishment of truth is the self-establishment of the transcendental Ego; and the establishment of the Ego is the establishment of an ideal community that Gentile, like G. W. F. Hegel, calls "the State."

The State is on the one side that complex of social institutions, cultural traditions, and ethical values that appears to the individual as the actual fabric of his own moral personality; on the other side it is all the ideals that have still to be striven for and achieved in the actual world in which he lives. Gentile often insists on this latter Mazzinian side of his doctrine, but in practice he tended to subordinate it to his conservative Hegelian faith in the rationality of the actual social structure. In his fascist apologias it often seems as if whatever is done in the name of the existing State must be patiently, even joyfully, accepted and endured as a condition for any further advancean attitude that is more reminiscent of Thomas Hobbes than of Giuseppe Mazzini. There can be no question that this attitude is false to the spirit of his doctrine.

Gentile's Logic and the Forms of Value

The unity of theory and practice means that in Gentile's work "logic"the concrete logic of the self-conceptbecomes inseparable if not indistinguishable from ethics, and philosophy itself is seen as the critical self-awareness of actual political life. His major theoretical problem was to show how the nonpolitical values of human experience could be integrated into his view. This problem came to Gentile in the form that Hegel gave it when he made art and religion the moments of the final triad of the Absolute Idea, subordinate only to philosophy itself. Gentile solved it by regarding art and religion as the moments of his own Absolute, the act of thought. Thus art and religion, instead of being ultimate, become primitive; they are the essential moments of all experience. They have their joint origin, as has been shown, in the opposite aspects of the sensation or "self-feeling" in which consciousness originates. As distinct modes of experience they are attempts to achieve the impossible by aesthetically recapturing or mystically losing oneself in that ideal point of origin.

Thus the seeming independence of aesthetic and religious values arises from the one-sided consciousness of the artist or worshiper. In reality the self-willed artist is dedicated to the production of an object of universal value and significance; art is not just the release of feeling, but the disciplined expression of it. And the proclaiming of the glory of God or the doing of his will is the work of a human voice or the task of a human hand. The "private" world of the artist and the "other" world of the believer get their meaning and fulfill their function in the actual society of the transcendental Ego. When we view the artist's work, we must strive to comprehend the ideal to which he has devoted his skill; and when we seek to interpret a religious doctrine, we must express its meaning for humanity and in terms of our own actual lives. It thus becomes the task of the critic to interpret the work of art or the religious doctrine philosophically. Gentile wrote a number of books and essaysmainly but not exclusively about literary artistsin which he endeavored to do just this; and on the religious side he maintained that his "humanistic conception of the world" was a philosophical expression of the Christian revelation.

In the concrete logic of the act of thought, the moment of spontaneous self-expression is prior to the consciousness of the object, which necessarily appears as a limit upon the self. Hence, in the progressive development of consciousness, which is the subject of Gentile's philosophy of education, an aesthetic phase of free, spontaneous play is succeeded by a religious phase that it is the main task of the elementary school to establish and govern. On this basis a properly philosophical conception of the world, a sense of the autonomous moral responsibility of the self-conscious citizen, should then be built up in secondary education.

abstract logic

It should by now be clear that actual idealism can be interpreted as primarily a theory about the logical structure of our experience of values. But this theory does contain within it a theory about the ordinary logic of factual propositions. Formal logic, whether mathematical or conceptual, is the logic of presupposition, the logic of "nature," the abstract logic of any object that any actual concrete consciousness may assume as its content. Gentile thought of this logo astratto as being essentially static and unchanging. Benedict de Spinoza's system was for him the perfect philosophical expression and reductio ad absurdum of it; and his own conception of natural science was strictly Kantian. "Nature" was for him an a priori concept with a fixed logical structure, not an idea that evolves in the dialectic of actual research. But this is only a reflection of his own personal background and interests. The "idea of nature" has a history, and a full development of the theory of mind as pure act would seem to require that the history of science be incorporated as an essential aspect or complement of the history of theoretical philosophy.

Gentile's own use of the category of the logo astratto in the sphere of practical philosophy was quite fluid and dialectical. In ethics, for example, it appears as the nature that we must conquer and subdue, but it appears also as the abstract law to which we must submit. When we remember that the transcendental Ego itself, the logo concreto, is both the organic unity of all prior achievement and the ideal of a perfect harmony still to be achieved, this becomes quite easy to understand. The concrete self-concept has its abstract content under each aspectthere is sinful nature and there is the law in virtue of which we are aware of it as sinful; the act of self-constitution is the resolution of the conflict that produced the two opposed abstractions.

negative values

Finally, Gentile holds that error, pain, and sin are in some sense "unreal." This doctrine follows logically from the fact that they belong to the category of the logo astratto. They are things that we are conscious of, and they have already been overcome or surpassed in the very consciousness of them. It is quite easy to exhibit, as a mere matter of logic, how "truth" is the concrete category of which "error" is only the abstract content. For to be actually aware that some proposition is or may be an error is to hold that a proposition about that proposition is truenamely, the proposition that it is or may be an error.

In the case of sin, something more than a logical relationship of propositions is involved. If I say, "I am a sinner," I am setting myself up as a supposedly just judge of my own conduct; but I do not thereby cease to be a sinner. Rather, the question is posed of how a single self is to be constituted out of this divided consciousness. This is the key to the only defensible interpretation of Gentile's doctrine, which then asserts that when I truly say, "I am a sinner," I must be on the road to redemption and that the test of whether I do actually think I am a sinner is my consciousness of repentance.

Gentile's view that "pleasure" is the concrete and "pain" or "grief" the abstract category is more difficult to interpret. If I am conscious of being in pain, I have certainly "overcome" the pain; that is, isolated it and objectified it as a fact. But to argue that because of this it is not really I who am in pain is sheer sophistry. It is certainly true that the consciousness of pain is a complex activity (including, for example, the active seeking of a remedy or a distraction), while the pain in itself is an abstract element. But pain is "unreal" only in the sense in which art and religion are unreal. That is to say, there cannot be a pure pain-consciousness, for this is just the point at which consciousness disappears.

Gentile's Influence

Actual Idealism was the dominant philosophy in Italian state schools and universities throughout the last twenty years of Gentile's life. In this period his students, like Hegel's, split into two main parties. There was first the "right," led by Armando Carlini, who emphasized the Christian origin and Augustinian character of much of Gentile's thought, and identified the transcendental Ego with the God of Catholic theology. After Gentile's death this group joined with the religious existentialists to form the contemporary movement known as Christian Spiritualism.

On the other side, a group of younger disciples, led by Ugo Spirito, formed the Gentilian "left," which from the first devoted itself to social problems and provided much of the economic and political theory of the fascist corporate state. Since World War II this group has been aligned with the political left and has shown some affinities with orthodox Marxism. But in the current work of both groups it is the mystical spirit of Gentile's philosophy rather than the logical structure that has survived. Outside of Italy, Gentile's influence can be seen most notably in the work of R. G. Collingwood.

See also Absolute, The; Berkeley, George; Collingwood, Robin George; Croce, Benedetto; Descartes, René; Fichte, Johann Gottlieb; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Hegelianism; Hobbes, Thomas; Idealism; Kant, Immanuel; Marx, Karl; Marxist Philosophy; Philosophy of Education, Ethical and Political Issues in; Philosophy of Education, History of; Spaventa, Bertrando; Spinoza, Benedict (Baruch) de; Spirito, Ugo; Thinking; Thomas Aquinas, St.


The Gentile Foundation was established in Rome in 1947, with the Giornale critico della filosofia italiana (founded by Gentile in 1920) as its official organ. The foundation is issuing the definitive edition of Gentile's Complete Works in 55 volumes. Three of his books have been translated into English: The Theory of Mind as Pure Act (London: Macmillan, 1922); The Reform of Education, lectures to the schoolteachers of Trieste (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1922); and Genesis and Structure of Society (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1960). This last includes a complete bibliography and critical survey of everything by or about Gentile in English.

For critical studies of Gentile, see the following: H. S. Harris, The Social Philosophy of Giovanni Gentile (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1960) surveys the whole range of Gentile's practical philosophy, including his "philosophy of fascism," which has been largely ignored above. R. W. Holmes, The Idealism of Giovanni Gentile (New York: Macmillan, 1937) is a detailed and critical study of the System of Logic and a work of fundamental importance. P. Romanell, The Philosophy of Giovanni Gentile (New York: S.F. Vanni, 1938) provides a general survey.

H. S. Harris (1967)