Rosmini-Serbati, Antonio (1797–1855)

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The Italian philosopher, educator, and statesman Antonio Rosmini-Serbati was born in Rovereto, then part of the Austrian Tyrol. The families of both his parents held patents of nobility under the Holy Roman Empire. A private education begun at an early age and directed to the priesthood established a firm foundation for his later work. Finding Austrian rule oppressive, Rosmini moved to the freer region of Piedmont. He started his career by founding the Institute of Charity, devoted to education and missions. He began to publish prolifically in philosophy, literature, and pedagogy. In politics he became an active exponent of the principles of Neo-Guelphism and reached the peak of his public career as counselor to Pius IX during the period from 1848 to 1853; at the end of this period, more conservative forces came to power. Retiring to private life, Rosmini continued his writing and assumed the direction of his institute. The present article restricts itself to Rosmini's philosophical work.

Although developed in a large number of works, Rosmini's philosophical thought presents a high degree of unity. This unity has two sources: the historical and apologetic intentions that sustain it and the internal development of certain germinal ideas. Rosmini's overt intention was to create a Christian-Catholic apologetics that would meet the demands of modern philosophical thought while remaining faithful to the core of traditional Christian philosophy. Since Augustinian and Thomistic realism predominated in Christian philosophy, Rosmini endeavored to anchor his thought in that tradition, exhibiting an affinity to the Augustinian strain. At the same time, he sought to meet the demands of rationalism and empiricism, and especially of the Kantian attempt at a resolution of the tension between the two. The effort to meet these conditions imparted to Rosmini's thought a high degree of complexity and sophistication.

The point of departure of the Rosminian system is his Nuovo saggio sull'origine delle idee (1830), a work of elaborate synthesis. The controlling principle of the synthesis is basically Augustinian, but the work develops around three centers: the idea of being, intellectual perception, and the origin of ideas.

The Idea of Being

Following Immanuel Kant, Rosmini accepted a dual order of a posteriori and a priori in the process of knowledge and identified the ground of science with a priori principles of knowledge. Whereas Kant distinguished diverse orders or forms of a priori synthesis, Rosmini reduced that plurality to a single form, the idea of being. Only the idea of being can be thought without reference to any other idea, and only that idea is thought, at least implicitly, in the thinking of any other idea. The idea of being is not the product of the subject, whether empirical or transcendental; it is a datum offered immediately by God to the intelligent subject; it is, moreover, ontologically and functionally constitutive of that subjectivity. The idea of being is both a category and a transcendental operation. It is a category, for the subject knows through the process of the existential judgment, in which being as given in the idea of being is predicated of things. This judgment establishes the subsistence of the object as present and known in the judgment.

As a category, the idea of being is the irreducible "other" to any specific content of thought or knowledge. It must also either be a product of the empirical subject or be truly objective. In the first case, the idea of being would be subjective and would render all knowledge subjective; in the second, its objectivity would seem to require the postulation of a "transcendental" subject. Rosmini accepted neither horn of this ostensible dilemma. He held that the human subject is empirical but also capable of a transcendental operation by which it can secure universal and necessary knowledge. It performs this operation through the idea of being; more accurately, this operation is one with the idea of being. As a transcendental operation, the idea of being constitutes the knowing subject ontologically and existentially; it secures the realm of universal and necessary knowledge. Finally, it is transcendent, for it is not the product of the subject, whether empirical or transcendental, but a datum that must be referred to the action of God. It is this last point that relates Rosmini's view to that of Augustine.

Intellectual Perception

Although no knowledge is possible except through the idea of being, that idea does not suffice for the effective knowledge of the actual world of determinate forms of subsistence. This world can be known only if sensation has entrance into the realm of the idea of being and vice versa. Sensation is the vehicle of the multiple forms of determinate subsistence of the real world, but it does not present them as being; for them to be presented as being, sensation must be infused by the idea of being. This infusion is achieved concretely in an operation that Rosmini called intellectual perception.

Intellectual perception is rooted in man's fundamental constitution, for he is both sentient and intelligent. Every concrete act of knowing is structured by sensation and intelligence, related in a radical unity. There is neither pure sensation nor pure intellection, or intellectual vision. Intellectual perception, in which these pure elements occur in vital union, places man in authentic contact with the concrete real world. This operation is perception because by it the subject sensibly lays hold of reality, which actually stands before it, as subsistent. It is intellectual because the sensible perception evokes in the indeterminate being, which is already present to the subject in the idea of being, determinations by which the ideas of particular things arise. Intellectual perception is not, manifestly, the synthesis of two antecedently existing elements; it is the complex term of a complex, concrete operation, rooted in the fact that man is a complex principle and subject, both intelligent and sensitive.

Origin of Ideas

On the basis of the foregoing points, Rosmini addressed the problem of the origin of ideas. Ideas, except the idea of being, arise through the process of abstraction. Empiricists and sensationists confuse intellectual perception with sensation when they speak of the formation of ideas out of the elements of sensation through abstraction and reflection. The act of reflection is not performed on the simple sense datum but upon objects already known and present through intellectual perception. By noting certain characteristics and averting attention from others, abstraction forms ideas of various degree up to the most general. The idea of being is alone excluded from this account; for it is the presupposition, not the result, of intellectual perception.

Subjective Realism

Rosmini proceeded in Psicologia (1850) to consider the subject, which is the locus of the process of knowledge. Here again his doctrine reflects his concern to meet both empirical and idealist claims by passing beyond them. He refused to resolve the subject into the transcendental process, as he claimed idealists did, or into the process of sensation, as he said empiricists did. Instead, he offered a "subjective realism" or, better, a "realism of the subject." Its basis is the theory of the "fundamental sentiment," the immediate analogue for which is intellectual perception. The soul, while retaining its classical status as the active principle of vital operations and psychic phenomena, takes on a new dimension; it is the substance-sentiment, the intuitive sense of immanent being that generates subsistence. The reality of the subject is constituted by this immediate, nonobjective, and synthetic sense of self, which draws into a subsistent unity all aspectssensitive, intelligent, and volitionalof the subject's complex life. This fundamental sentiment is the first and the continuous experience that man has of himself. It always involves, moreover, a relationship to a corporeal term, the body. This specific aspect of the fundamental sentiment, the corporeal sentiment, is characteristic of human nature. By it Rosmini justified the classical doctrine of man's composition out of body and soul. All other sensations are accidental to this fundamental sentiment; it is primitive and incommunicable and constitutes the subject in its unity and complexity.

Rosmini was also able to offer a fresh form of the classical doctrine of the immortality of the soul. Immortality has its basis in the fundamental sentiment of the idea of being; through the corporeal sentiment, the body shares immortality.

The Person

Important both in itself and for its function in his social and political thought is Rosmini's central doctrine of the person. A subject has two aspects, nature and person. A subject's nature is the complex and sum of the activities of which the subject is agent. The perfection of the subject in the order of nature is the perfection, in number and in quality, of these activities. "Person" designates the directive unity of these activities and hence is associated in a special way with the will. The will is fundamental because it directs and organizes the activities of a person's nature, and in so doing it exhibits the basic deontic character of the person, its orientation toward a norm, toward the ought. The person emerges as the unique and incommunicable unity of the activities of the nature through a unique and unrepeatable activity of the will. It is not merely an operational or structural unity but a deontic one, basically oriented toward the world of values and norms and hence constitutively moral. The central effort of life is the realization of the developed or explicit person, which is achieved through the exercise of moral decision within the context of nature and its diverse activities. This effort is the basis of Rosmini's distinction between vita direta and the vita riflessa, which is central to his moral philosophy. The central effort of the moral life is the practice of the vita riflessa, the examined life in a creative sense.

The elaboration of the notion of the person gives structure to Rosmini's moral philosophy; his philosophy of right, law, and state; and his theory of education.


Personalism enabled Rosmini to overcome the formalism of Kantian ethics. The idea of being is the criterion of the good as well as of truth. In the intimate unity of the person, the speculative act of intellectual perception immediately translates itself into a practical judgment that becomes the legislative principle of action. The truth of being that intellectual perception presents inevitably involves the assenting activity of the will. The will seeks the being of all things in the idea of being, revealed in the deontic order as the good. Rosmini, on Kant's model, tried to distill this insight into a rule: Recognize in action or practice what you have recognized speculatively. The essence of the moral life resides in this act of recognition, reflected prismatically in all the concrete situations in which the agent discovers himself. The obligatoriness of the rule springs from the fact that a hiatus between the speculative and the practical orders, between universal recognition and individual action, is intolerable. The psychological expression of this intolerance is remorse, the characteristic state of a person who deviates from this imperative. The true form of Rosmini's moral philosophy is embodied in another imperative: Be faithful to being; specifically, to the being that is revealed in the idea of being and which is the ground of all.

Fidelity to being was immediately translated by Rosmini into a rule of justice. The idea of being contains all the grades of being. The realm of being thus constitutes at the same time a hierarchy of values. Fidelity to being demands that the rule of justice, "Give to each its due," be interpreted in terms of this hierarchy. How is this hierarchy of values to be apprehended? Rosmini's reply is that it is to be apprehended through spontaneous recourse to the intellectual light, the constitutive presence in the subject of the idea of being.

Political Philosophy

The concepts of person and justice provide the bases of Rosmini's political philosophy. Abstractly, right is the property of being, for being demands to be recognized and in doing so establishes the moral and the juridical orders. Concretely, right has its locus in the person, because of the person's ontological status as subject. In the person, right becomes a capacity to act eudaemonically, a capacity that is protected by the moral law; the same law imposes on others the obligation to recognize this capacity. Rosmini sought to bring right under the moral law in order to oppose those who would make it rest on force; he made it an endowment of the person to oppose those who would assign its origin to any other source, such as organized society in any of its forms. He distinguished innate natural rights, derived connatural rights, and acquired rights. Property, by means of which the person acquires physicomoral dominion over objects, is the chief acquired right.

While property defines the relation of the person to objects, the social bond relates him to other persons. The basis of the bond of sociality among a plurality of persons is their participation in a common intelligent principle, ideal being. Rosmini placed the forms of social life on a continuum between the terms of the most rudimentary and inclusivemembership in the human raceand the most intimate and exclusivethe conjugal relationship. Civil society falls midway on this continuum. Civil society has only a functional and not a substantive character: It does not originate rights but simply regulates the mode of their enjoyment and exercise. This provides Rosmini with his definition of the state and of government: The state is a regulatory principle of the modality of human rights. A just state achieves a balance between the common good (the good of the members distributively considered) and the public good (that of the social body considered as an organism). Abstractly, the common good is to be preferred to the public good, so as to preclude justification of acts of the state by recourse to the doctrine of "reason of state"; concretely, this preferential status is less determinate.

Being and God

In two extensive works, the Teosofia (posthumously published, 18591874) and the Teodicea (1845), Rosmini drew the widest possible conclusions from his personalistic premises. The theme of the Teosofia is the unity of being as prior to any of its modes (the absolute metaformality of being). Being, in this sense, is the basis of all the actual and determinate forms of being and contains within itself all of the principles of that determination in abstracto or virtualiter. It is not, however, the creative principle by which those forms are reduced to actuality. The need for a creative principle opens the way for the argument of the Teodicea, that God necessarily exists. God is the creative principle by which the virtuality of the order of primal being is realized in the actual and concrete modes of existence.

Educational Theory

The culmination of Rosmini's thought is considered by many to be his pedagogical theory. The guiding principle of this theory is a summary of his entire philosophy: respect for the human person as the vehicle of divine light and ideal being. Rosmini stressed the unity of educational process and also methodology. The person is the principle of integrity; education is the process of the realization of the person in this sense. The principle of this integration is religion, which gives unity of purpose, unity of doctrine, and unity of powers to the educational process. The supreme law of method, the principle of gradation, ensures the conformity of the process of education to that of life. The process of growth and integration according to this law is from the universal to the particular. The object of the entire process is the free and realized person who fulfills himself in free association with other persons in all social forms and whose freedom rests ultimately upon his foundation in ideal being.

See also Augustine, St.; Augustinianism; Being; Empiricism; Ideas; Kant, Immanuel; Personalism; Philosophy of Education, History of; Rationalism; Realism; Thomism.


works by rosmini

Opere. Edited by Enrico Castelli, 28 vols. Rome, 1934. One hundred volumes planned.

Saggio sull'unità dell educazione. Milan, 1826.

Nuovo saggio sull'origine delle idee. Rome, 1830.

Teodicea. Milan, 1845. Translated as Theodicy. 3 vols. New York, 1912.

Psicologia. 2 vols. Novara, 1850. Translated as Psychology, 3 vols. 18841888.

Del principio supremo della methodica e di alcune sue applicazione in servizio della umana educazione. Turin, 1857.

Teosofia. 5 vols. Turin, 18591874.

works on rosmini


Antologia rosminiana, Vol. 1 (1955).

Caviglione, Carlo. Bibliografia delle opere di Antonio Rosmini. Turin: Paravia, 1925.

Palhories, Fortunat. La philosophie de Rosmini. Paris, 1908.


Bertoletti, C. G. Vita di Antonio Rosmini. Turin, 1957.

Leetham, Claude. Rosmini. London and New York: Longmans, Green, 1957.

Pagani, G. B. Vita di Antonio Rosmini, 2 vols. Turin, 1897. Revised by G. Rossi and G. Bozzetti. Rovereto, 1957. Translated as The Life of Antonio Rosmini-Serbati. London: Routledge & Sons, 1907.

Philosophical Studies

Bruno, G. F. "Rosmini's Contributions to Ethical Philosophy." In Archives of Philosophy. New York: Columbia University Press, 1916.

Bulferetti, L. Antonio Rosmini nella Restaurazione. Florence: F. Le Monnier, 1942.

Capone Braga, Gaetano. Saggio su Rosmini: Il mondo delle idee, 2nd ed. Florence, 1924.

Caviglione, Carlo. Il Rosmini vero. Voghera, Italy, 1912.

Chiavacci, C. Il valore morale nel Rosmini. Florence, 1921.

Franchi, A. Saggio sul sistema ontologico di Antonio Rosmini. Milan, 1953.

Galli, Gallo. Kant e Rosmini. Città di Castello: S. Lapi, 1914.

Gentile, Giovanni. Rosmini e Gioberti, 2nd ed. Florence: Sansoni, 1955.

Gonella, G. La filosofia del diritto secondo Rosmini. Rome: Studium, 1934.

Honan, U. Agostino, Tommaso e Rosmini. Milan: Sodalitas, 1955.

Morando, Dante. La pedagogia di Antonio Rosmini. Brescia: La scuola, 1948.

Morando, Giuseppe. Esame critico delle XL proposizione rosminiani condannate. Milan: Cogliati, 1905.

Nicola, G. B. Saggi di scienza politico di Antonio Rosmini. Turin, 1933.

Pignoloni, E. Il reale nei problemi della Teosofia di Antonio Rosmini. Milan: Sodalitas, 1955.

Prini, Pietro. Introduzione alla metafisica di Antonio Rosmini. Milan: Sodalitas, 1953.

Riva, C. Il problema dell'anima intelletiva secondo Antonio Rosmini. Domodossola: Sodalitas, 1956.

Rovea, Giuseppe. Filosofia e religione in Antonio Rosmini. Milan: Sodalitas, 1951.

Sciacca, M. F. La filosofia morale di Antonio Rosmini. Rome: Bocca, 1938.

Collections of Articles

Atti del congresso internazionale di filosofia "Antonio Rosmini," 2 vols. Florence, 1957.

Crisis (1955), no. 6.

Giornale di metafisica (1955), nos. 4 and 5.

Humanitas (1955), nos. 9 and 10.

Rivista della filosofia neoscolastica (1955), nos. 4 and 5.

Rivista rosminiana (1955), nos. 3 and 4. Contains an extensive bibliography.

Teoria (1955), nos. 3 and 4.

A. Robert Caponigri (1967)