Rensi, Giuseppe (1870–1941)

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Giuseppe Rensi was an Italian skeptical philosopher and professor of philosophy at the universities of Messina and Genoa. Rensi first upheld a religiously or theistically oriented idealistic philosophy, defending it in a number of essays and fostering it through his translations of the works of Josiah Royce. He contrasted his theistic "constructive idealism" with the "immanentistic idealism" of Benedetto Croce and Giovanni Gentile; he regarded the latter as a temporary position that, if developed coherently, would have led to constructive idealism. According to Rensi, an idealism that does not arrive at God subtracts reality both from the external world, which then becomes a set of ideas, and from the human spirit, which is then resolved into a set of ideas without a subject.

After World War I, regarded by Rensi as proof of the fundamental irrationality of the world, he began to defend a radical skepticism based on the multiplicity, irreducibility, and irreconcilability of opinions, the reasons used to justify them, and some aesthetic tastes and moral ideas. Rensi held that the traditional objection to skepticismthat it contradicts itself by asserting that there is no truth while dogmatically asserting its own truthwas a purely verbal objection, because the skeptic holds his position against any doctrine taken in itself by showing the contradictions and shortcomings of that doctrine. Therefore the skeptic does not assert that there is no truth but instead that a particular doctrine that claims to possess truth does not and cannot possess truth. Skepticism, in other words, shows the disagreement of reason with itself both within the views of one man and between the views of different individuals. War, the conflict of rights and of political powers, and the contradictory character of philosophies are, according to Rensi, proofs of the intrinsic contradiction in reason. Skepticism does not exclude faith but stems from the preservation of faith. The skeptic is skeptical not because he does not believe but because others believe differently than he; that is, they believe that which he considers absurd.

Rensi had been a socialist in his youth but later came to defend authority. He wished to give to power (and even violence) the function of helping man escape from the chaos of opinions and contrasting interests and of forming a people into an economic, political, and spiritual unity. Authority need not base itself on reason, because it creates for itself the reason of all that it wishes. Although these ideas seem close to those of fascism, Rensi quickly declared himself opposed to fascism and remained so until his death.

According to Rensi, skepticism implies atheism in the field of religion. The refinement of religion that leads to regarding God as inaccessible to the senses and to human powers makes God a nonbeing, the pure and simple negation of every reality accessible to man. From this point of view, both negative theology and mysticism demonstrate atheism. Atheism is still a religion because it is an answereven if a negative oneto the problem of supreme reality. Unlike other religions, atheism is absolutely disinterested because it contains no egoistic motive and because it places man before the mystery of the All without his being able to expect from the All any help for his own needs.

After 1922, when the absolute idealism of Croce and Gentile assumed the status of an official or semiofficial philosophy in Italy, Rensi accentuated his polemic against it and affirmed the theses most opposed to those of idealism: materialism and pessimism. The Kantian system, considered to be idealistic by the idealists, seemed to Rensi to justify materialism because the Kantian forms of intuition and of thought that condition phenomena, and therefore the totality of nature, are not created by the self but constitute "consciousness in general," which is the intelligibility of the things themselves. According to Rensi, the Kantian doctrine is, therefore, that nature gives reality and knowability to natural things, that things generate of themselves, and of themselves are spatial, temporal, perceptible, and representable; in one word, they are material.

Rensi held that materialism implies pessimism because a material nature deprived of any finality offers man no guarantee and necessarily includes evil, error, and conflicts. For a man who lives in such a nature, morality, when not based on an egoistic calculus or subjected to an imposed code, is a disinterested recognition of evil and a protest against it. It is therefore pure folly. Nevertheless, all of Rensi's works contain a mystical and religious strain, a sense of mystery and of a force that, the triumph of evil in nature and in history notwithstanding, reveals itself in the interiority of man. Rensi condensed this feeling into the phrase "Atoms and the voidand the divine in me."

See also Atheism; Croce, Benedetto; Gentile, Giovanni; Idealism; Italian Philosophy; Materialism; Pessimism and Optimism; Royce, Josiah; Skepticism.


works by rensi

Il genio etico e altri saggi. Bari, 1912.

La trascendenza. Turin, 1914.

Lineamenti di filosofia scettica. Bologna, 1919.

La filosofia dell'autorità. Palermo, 1920.

La scepsi estetica. Bologna: N. Zanichelli, 1920.

Introduzione alla scepsi etica. Florence, 1921.

Apologia dell'ateismo. Rome, 1925.

Realismo. Rome, 1925.

Il materialismo critico. Rome, 1927.

La morale come pazzia. Modena: Guanda, 1942.

works on rensi

Morra, G. Scetticismo e misticismo nel pensiero di Giuseppe Rensi. Palermo, 1958.

Nonis, P. La scepsi etica, di Giuseppe Rensi. Rome: Studium, 1957.

Nicola Abbagnano (1967)

Translated by Nicholas Spadaccini