Spaventa, Bertrando (1817–1883)

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Bertrando Spaventa, the Italian Hegelian philosopher, was born at Bomba in Abruzzo, educated in the seminary at Chieti, and taught for a time in the seminary at Monte Cassino before moving to Naples in 1840. There he became one of a small circle of liberal students associated with Ottavio Colecchi (17731847), who taught privately in opposition to the "official" philosophy of Pasquale Galluppi. Colecchi was himself a devotee of Immanuel Kant, but he read all the German idealists carefully and in the original. Spaventa, like the other young men in Colecchi's circle, was convinced that the real meaning of Kant's work was to be found in the later idealists, especially in G. W. F. Hegel, and the Hegelian interpretation of the Critique of Pure Reason always remained the nodal point of his own speculations.

Spaventa's younger brother, Silvio, was imprisoned at Naples for his part in the revolution of 1848, and Bertrando was forced to take refuge at Turin for ten years. This was the period during which most of his ideas took shape. By 1850 he had renounced the priestly office to which he had, with great reluctance, been ordained some years earlier in the hope that by preferment he could relieve the poverty of his family. In Turin he turned his hand to political journalism, writing philosophical and historical polemics against the church and particularly against the Jesuits. He was already an enthusiastic student of Giordano Bruno and Tommaso Campanella.

The "Circulation of Italian Philosophy"

The first fruits of Spaventa's labors were his "Studi sopra la filosofia di Hegel" (in Rivista italiana, n.s., [November 1850]: 130, and [December 1850]: 3178) and his "I principî della filosofia pratica di Giordano Bruno" (in Saggi di filosofica civile, Genoa, 1851). His studies of Hegel were specifically concerned with the Phenomenology, but they contained the germ of Spaventa's most original and fruitful conception, which he termed "circulation of Italian philosophy." This germ was the claim, first voiced by Silvio Spaventa about 1844, that the real tradition of Italian philosophy had been cut off and driven into exile by the Counter-Reformation, so that "Not our own philosophers of the last two centuries, but Spinoza, Kant, Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel, have been the real disciples of Bruno, Vanini, Campanella, Vico and other great thinkers." In this view of the history of philosophy Spaventa's patriotism was neatly reconciled with his political and intellectual liberalism. He could use it both against the defenders of the status quo and against the patriotic chauvinism of Antonio Rosmini-Serbati and Vincenzo Gioberti, who believed that their native tradition enshrined a truth that had become corrupted in the rest of Europe. Spaventa himself held at this time that, on the contrary, nothing of value had survived in contemporary Italian philosophy.

He began to shift from this position toward his doctrine of a completed circle when he studied Rosmini's work in connection with an article on Kant that he wrote in 1855. He decided then that everything good in Rosmini's theory of knowledge had been stolen from Kant. This unjust judgment at least involved the admission that there were valuable elements in Rosmini's thought. When Spaventa began, in 1857, to work on a critical survey of Galluppi and Gioberti in connection with a projected study of Hegel's Phenomenology, his attitude changed dramatically, and he ended by writing in 1858 one massive volume of a planned two-volume work, La filosofia di Gioberti (Naples, 1863). The view that he now took was that all the fruits of European speculation from René Descartes to Kant were to be found in the work of Galluppi and Rosmini when it was rightly understood, and that Gioberti was even moving at the end of his life toward a critical reconstruction of his system that would have made it clearly the culmination of post-Kantian speculation.

Thus, in its fully developed form, the thesis that Spaventa proclaimed to the new nation when he returned as professor at Bologna in 1860, and at Naples from 1861 onward, was that the metaphysics of modern idealism was born in Bruno, that Campanella's theory of knowledge foreshadowed all the problems of rationalism and empiricism which were finally resolved by Kant, and that the achievement of the Germans had been anticipated by Giambattista Vico and had at last returned to be integrated with its sources in Galluppi, Rosmini, and Gioberti. As history, this thesis becomes more dubious with every succeeding clause. It must be taken rather as an account of the historical genesis of Spaventa's own idealism and as a model of how an idealist of the Hegelian type must strive, in studying the history of philosophy, to integrate different aspects of the truth as they appear. From this standpoint we can see how the emphasis on concrete experience that Spaventa found in Bruno and Campanella led him to feel that the rather abstract formalism of Kant's transcendental unity of apperception must be integrated with Rosmini's theory of the self as rooted in a "fundamental feeling"; once this was done, the Rosminian-Giobertian doctrine of knowledge as the intellectual intuition of Being could be jettisoned. Spaventa's most fundamental philosophical insight is to be found in his critical analysis of the difficulties that arise from an intuitive theory of knowledge.

Later Studies

The "circulation of Italian philosophy" and the critical reconstruction of Gioberti is, properly speaking, a sort of Italian version of the coming to consciousness of the Absolute in Hegel's Phenomenology ; Spaventa is remarkable among the Hegelians of his generation in that he regarded the Phenomenology as being of equal importance with the Logic in Hegel's system and as the key to a right interpretation of the system. He always rejected the religious interpretation of Hegel given by the "Right" and defended at Naples by his better-known colleague Augusto Vera. To admit that the Idea was really superior to and independent of the laborious progress of the Spirit in history would have entailed falling back into just the sort of Platonic intuitionism that Spaventa had so trenchantly criticized. The Being from which Hegel's Logic begins must therefore be taken as the thinking being of the Absolute Spirit itself that emerges at the end of the Phenomenology. Thus a completely human or immanent interpretation of the Logic as an actual process of thinking, rather than as an ideal pattern of thought, can be given.

Just how the Philosophy of Nature fits into Hegel's system thereby becomes even more obscure; Spaventa did not concern himself with this problem as such, but his ready acceptance of the Darwinian theory forced it on him in another way when the positivists began to produce evolutionary explanations of the Kantian a priori. Pointing to the vicious circle involved in a causal explanation of our belief in causes, Spaventa began in his last years to work out a phenomenalist account of experience that would do justice to the positivist claims while remaining firmly founded on Kant's first Critique. He died, however, before his work was finished. Esperienza e metafisica was published at Turin in 1888.

Spaventa was never widely understood or appreciated in his own lifetime. His most sympathetic follower was Donato Jaja (18391914), who inspired Giovanni Gentile to collect and republish Spaventa's scattered essays, along with some unpublished manuscripts. As a result of Gentile's work, Spaventa's true stature and importance have been recognized; and in Gentile's own "actual idealism" the three distinct strands of Spaventa's thoughtthe Italian tradition, the Hegelian dialectic, and critical phenomenalismare woven into a single synthesis.

See also Bruno, Giordano; Campanella, Tommaso; Darwinism; Descartes, René; Fichte, Johann Gottlieb; Gentile, Giovanni; Gioberti, Vincenzo; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Hegelianism; Kant, Immanuel; Phenomenalism; Rosmini-Serbati, Antonio; Schelling, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von; Spinoza, Benedict (Baruch) de; Vanini, Giulio Cesare; Vico, Giambattista.


additional works by spaventa

Saggi di critica filosofica. Naples, 1867.

Scritti filosofici. Edited by Giovanni Gentile. Naples: Morano, 1900. Contains biography and full bibliography to 1900.

Principi di etica. Naples, 1904. A study of Hegel's ethics.

La filosofia italiana nelle sue relazione colla filosofia europea. Bari: Laterza, 1908.

Logica e metafisica. Bari: Laterza, 1911.

works on spaventa

Cubeddu, I. Bertrando Spaventa. Florence: Sansoni, 1964. The most comprehensive monograph on Spaventa.

Grilli, M. "The Nationality of Philosophy and Bertrando Spaventa." Journal of the History of Ideas 2 (1941): 339371.

H. S. Harris (1967)