Italian Perspectives

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The Italian cultural tradition has historically belittled the cultural, ethical, and social roles of science and technology. This is surprising given that an Italian, Galileo Galilei (1564–1642), was one of the founders of modern science, and that his Dialogues Concerning Two New Sciences (1638) praised the cultural role of technology and the philosophical importance of science. In the last half of the twentieth century, Italian appreciation of Galileo's theories increased, especially in relation to ethical discussions of science and technology, along with recognition of the philosophical importance due to technics and scientific thought.

Historical Background

Italian tradition was biased by the circumstances of Galileo's 1633 trial by the Holy Office of the Catholic Church. Despite his defense of science and technology, the trial ended with the Pisan scientist recanting his beliefs and being sentenced to house arrest for life. This condemnation long hindered the free development of scientific research and, together with the Counter-Reformation climate and Italy's difficult economic and political evolution, effectively sidelined the development of science and technology. Even though a few thinkers continued to maintain the importance of scientific knowledge and technological innovation, as a whole Italian intellectual culture became centered around literary, artistic, historical, and political activities.

This attitude was reinforced, in the first half of the twentieth century, by the hegemony of the neo-Hegelian idealism of Benedetto Croce (1866–1952) and Giovanni Gentile (1875–1944), who saw science as possessing no philosophical significance. Croce contended that science produces only pseudo-concepts of practical utility. Such concepts were subordinate to truth, which was, in his opinion, the exclusive province of the sciences of the Spirit (namely art, literature, philosophy, and history), of which philosophy was the crown jewel. True knowledge rises above science, which is irremediably tied to a practical horizon. Giovanni Gentile similarly devalued science, which he saw as oscillating between art and religion, unable to unify the two in a higher synthesis such as that achieved by philosophy. For Gentile, science combined the defects of art, objectivity and universality, with those of religion, subjectivity and rationality, and was thus the fruit of multiple errors and devoid of any autonomous historical development.

This negation of science by Croce and Gentile proved widely influential, both because it was set in a traditionally antiscientific culture and because these two neo-idealists played leading roles in the opposing political movements of liberalism and fascism. Their thinking exerted an almost dictatorial authority and aggravated the general cultural devaluation of science and technology.

Post World War II

Following World War II, the social and economic crisis in Italy contributed to the decline of the theories of Croce and Gentile. A new generation of intellectuals rejected neo-idealism, attacking its ambiguous cultural categories and sterile antinaturalistic, antiscientific polemics. In this climate, a dialog emerged among proponents of various ideologies including neopositivist philosophy, developed in Vienna by Moritz Schlich and Rudolf Carnap, the early ideas of Ludwig Wittgenstein, and the mathematical logic of Bertrand Russell. This led to the formation of a neo-enlightenment movement (Dal Pra and Minazzi 1992), with the participation most notably of Ludovico Geymonat (1908–1991) and Giulio Preti (1911–1972). Geymonat and Preti—through numerous studies, books, translations, and reviews— critically introduced neopositive issues into Italian thinking, arguing both the cultural value of science and the importance of technology.

Geymonat, beginning with his Studies for a New Rationalism (1945), delineated a neo-enlightenment philosophy centered in the philosophy of science, logic, and the history of science and technology, arguing for replacement of static with dynamic studies of scientific theories. Geymonat became, in 1956, the first Italian to hold a chair in philosophy of science (at the University of Milan) and, in 1974, to win the Médaille Koyré for history of science, awarded by the Académie Internationale d'Histoire des Sciences in Paris. He also was mentor to a group of young scholars working in these fields. Geymonat's own work culminated in the publication of the highly regarded, seven-volume History of Philosophical and Scientific Thought (1970–1976) and Science and Realism (1977). In these works, he developed a materialistic-dialectic perspective and placed the fundamental role of the scientific-technical legacy at the heart of critical comprehension of knowledge and of the historical development of society. Preti, in a series of books including Idealism and Realism (1943), The History of Scientific Thought (1957), and especially Praxis and Empirism (1957), related neopositivist themes to both the pragmatism of John Dewey and the philosophy of the young Karl Marx.

Parallel with work conducted by the neo-enlightenment thinkers was that of Valerio Tonini (1901–1992), a Catholic engineer and philosophy of science scholar. After working in the field of engineering for many years, Tonini turned to information theory, epistemology, the sociology of work, and bioethics. A member of the Académie Internationale de Philosophie des Sciences (International Academy of Philosophy of Science), in 1950 Tonini founded the Società Italiana di Logica e di Filosofia della Scienza (Italian Society of Logic and Philosophy of Science) and, in 1955, started a review of human sciences and philosophy of science called La Nuova Critica (The New Critic), which he edited until his death. Tonini also raised important issues regarding the philosophy of technology, to which he devoted a book titled Structures of Technology (1968). In the ambit of what was described as his long march to scientific realism, Tonini defined technology as the science of praxis. He argued that technology implemented processes that modify the environment and, as a new science, was capable of achieving semantic precision, synthetic rigor, and verification of its theories. It created a direct link to communication theory, information theory, cybernetics, control theory, process theory, and systems theory.

Contemporary Contributions

In the last quarter of the twentieth century, Italian scholars became particularly interested in science, technology, and ethics. Discussion of biomedical ethics, not only from a Catholic perspective, broadened, with reflections on nuclear weapons and environmental ethics. In 2001, the Council of Genetic Rights was founded in Rome by Mario Capanna.

In the early-twenty-first century, two of Italy's most influential thinkers in the area of science, technology, and ethics are Evandro Agazzi and Luciano Floridi. Agazzi especially has made important contributions to the critical study of these issues. Born in Bergamo in 1934, Agazzi studied philosophy at the Catholic University in Milan, and continued his education, in physics and philosophy, at Marburg, Oxford, and Münster. Agazzi was part of the logical-mathematical team founded by Geymonat in the 1960s. He thereafter became a professor at universities in both Genoa and Fribourg (Switzerland), and published a number of studies on mathematical logic, including Introduction to Axiomatic Problems (1961), Symbolic Logic (1964), and Themes and Problems of the Philosophy of Physics (1969), in which he outlined an original objectivist and realistic epistemological perspective.

Agazzi's positive philosophical revaluation of technology is rooted in the antitheoreticism with which he reacted to the epistemology of the neopositivists and Karl Popper (cf., his philosophical dialogue with Geymonat in Philosophy, Science, and Truth [1989]). He developed his own interpretation of the hermeneutic dimension of science, embodied in Wisdom the Technique (1986) and most influentially in Right, Wrong and Science: The Ethical Dimensions of the Techno-Scientific Enterprise (1992).

The merits of Agazzi's analysis rest with his arguments regarding the ethical dimensions of the scientific-technological undertaking. Agazzi proposed to distinguish between technics (know-how that works without an awareness of its purpose), technology (which he used to denote, by contrast, effective action that has an awareness of its purpose), and science (knowledge capable of explaining empirical facts by adducing reasons that explain why reality is configured in a given way). Technology represents the result of the development of science, and Agazzi stresses the subtlety of the interconnections between science, technics, and technology, analyzing the scientific ideology, technological system, and complex encounter between ethics, norms, and values within human action. By defending a dynamic model of knowledge, Agazzi opts for a systemic approach in which the regulation of research is configured as a projection of responsibility. From this perspective, his science and technic studies are closely entwined with those devoted to bioethics, fostering a debate between Catholic and secular thinking that has contributed to the development of a freer and more responsible society.

Luciano Floridi, a professor of philosophy (at the University of Bari in 2004), has done influential work on the relationship between philosophy and computing from an ethical perspective. For Floridi Information Ethics represents the philosophical foundational counterpart of Computer Ethics which is thought as a non-standard, object-oriented and ontocentric theory.


SEE ALSO Axiology; Galilei, Galileo; Pareto, Vilfredo.


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