Varisco, Bernardino (1850–1933)

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Bernardino Varisco, the Italian metaphysician, was born at Chiari (Brescia). It was only in the later part of his long life that he developed his philosophy, for he began as a teacher of science and his early outlook was characterized by empiricism and positivism. These views found expression in Scienza e opinioni (1901). Thereafter he became interested in the problem of reconciling the scientific and religious ways of understanding the world and moved into metaphysics. In 1906 he was appointed professor of theoretical philosophy at the University of Rome, where he remained until his retirement in 1925. His metaphysic was a philosophy of spirit in the manner of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Rudolf Hermann Lotze and won him a considerable reputation in Italy and elsewhere.

The empiricism of Varisco's earlier phase was still apparent in the approach that he employed in constructing his distinctive philosophy. His starting point is the given fact of a plurality of conscious subjects. Each of these has its own private perspective upon the world, and each is also a spontaneous center of activity. In the personal subject, a high level of rationality and self-consciousness has been reached, but this is surrounded by an extensive penumbra of subconsciousness. Varisco thinks of conscious life as shading off imperceptibly into lower levels. Below the level of man's personal existence there is animal life, and it is argued that this in turn shades off into so-called inanimate existence. Thus, Varisco arrives at a kind of monadology, or panpsychism. Reality is made up of an infinite number of subjects, although at the level of inanimate nature these subjects are very primitive and have nothing like the self-consciousness of the personal human subject.

Varisco's metaphysic has a dynamic aspect, for these subjects are in constant action and interaction. The variations set up are of two kinds. Some arise from spontaneous activity in the subjects themselves, and in this way Varisco provides for freedom and for what he calls an "alogical" factor in reality. The other kind of variations arises from the mutual interaction of the subjects, and this happens in regular ways, so that the universe has also an ordered, logical character.

The most obscure and presumably the weakest part of Varisco's philosophy is his attempt to move from the plurality of subjects to a unitary reality. His appeal is to the notion of "being," which, implicitly or explicitly, is present in every act of thought whereby a subject grasps an object. Being is identified with the universal subject, with thinking itself in all particular subjects and in the world. In I massimi problemi, Varisco says explicitly that the universal subject is a logical conception that falls short of the notion of a personal God, although he believed that teleology and the conservation of value point toward theism. However, in his posthumous Dall'uomo a Dio (1939) he completes his pilgrimage from positivism to theism, arguing for a God who limits himself by his creation so that men can cooperate with him in creative activity. Such a view, he believed, supports a religious attitude to life and is especially compatible with Christianity.

See also Empiricism; Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm; Lotze, Rudolf Hermann; Metaphysics; Panpsychism; Positivism.


works by varisco

Scienza e opinioni. Rome, 1901.

La conoscenza. Pavia, 1905.

I massimi problemi. Milan, 1910. Translated by R. C. Lodge as The Great Problems. London: Allen, 1914.

Conosci te stesso. Milan, 1912. Translated by Guglielmo Salvadori as Know Thyself. London: Allen and Unwin, 1915.

Sommario di filosofia. Rome, 1928.

Dall'uomo a Dio. Padua: CEDAM, 1939.

works on varisco

Chiapetta, L. La teodicea di Bernardino Varisco. Naples, 1938.

De Negri, E. La metafisica di Bernardino Varisco. Florence, 1929.

Drago, P. C. La filosofia di Bernardino Varisco. Florence: Monnier, 1944.

Librizzi, C. Il pensiero di Bernardino Varisco. Padua: CEDAM, 1942; rev. ed., 1953.

John Macquarrie (1967)