History as Thought and Action
Croce's Uncertain Legacy
In the 1880s, precisely as Nietzsche was writing his mature works, Benedetto Croce began the intellectual quest that led to what he labeled absolute historicism. Like Nietzsche—and Heidegger a bit later—Croce lost his Christian religious faith as a young man, and his sense that the old religion was in irreversible decline fundamentally shaped his sense of the cultural challenge. Indeed, he believed his generation had the historically specific task of replacing the old religion, and he understood his own intellectual enterprise as a contribution to that effort. For him, as for Nietzsche and Heidegger, traditional religion was bound up with a dissolving metaphysics, so he too ended up an overtly antimetaphysical thinker who took it for granted that there could be no suprahistorically privileged grasp of things, no foundation, framework, or goal for human being.
But whereas Nietzsche and Heidegger ended up proposing extreme strategies in response to the loss of transcendence, Croce sought a kind of middle ground. In addition to opposing still-metaphysical claims to authority, he sought to head off what he found to be the overreaction that threatened with the eclipse of metaphysics. The vogue of Nietzsche during the first decade of
the century seemed but one indication of an unwelcome tendency toward irrational extremes, some of which invited playful self-indulgence, others, morbid self-preoccupation. To counter such extremes, Croce sought to refurbish certain traditional cultural components; indeed, he fastened on "history" to specify a way of conceiving both knowing and doing in a postmetaphysical world. We can know the world as history, and history is what we need to know, given what the world is. Moreover, it is history that we make when we act, building onto every present moment, each of which is nothing but the resultant of all human actions so far.
Such notions seem bland and tame alongside those of Nietzsche and Heidegger, so it has been easy to miss Croce's radicalism and originality. Even during the first half of the century, when he was among the best-known intellectuals in the Western world, the essential thrust of his intellectual enterprise was hard to pin down. To some he was a systematic, neo-Hegelian philosopher; to others, primarily an aesthetician and literary critic; to others, a historian, moralist, and organizer of culture. Then, by the later 1940s, Italians began to consider him passé as they looked for fresh ideas after Fascism. Many embraced Antonio Gramsci's innovative form of Marxism as a way beyond the Crocean framework. Gramsci's critique of Croce in his posthumously published Prison Notebooks helped cement the notion that Croce invited a premium on abstract speculation or mere understanding as opposed to concrete action. Indeed, Croce seemed to stand for a passive, conservative acceptance of whatever results from history. Moreover, he had apparently been a retrograde humanist whose influence had kept Italy from developing a modern scientific culture—and especially from embracing social science.
As the new discussion in the humanities gathered force in Western culture by the 1960s, Croce seemed safely neglected. Young Italians seeking to come to terms with the likes of Nietzsche and Heidegger assumed they should move as far from Croce as possible. Yet there was something anomalous about
Croce's dramatic eclipse, a fact recently emphasized by René Wellek, the distinguished historian of literary criticism. Wellek observed that in movements influential since Croce's death, from Russian formalism and structuralism to hermeneutics and deconstruction, Croce "is not referred to or quoted, even when he discusses the same problems and gives similar solutions." Yet Croce, for Wellek, was arguably the most erudite and wide-ranging figure in the history of criticism.
Even a cursory look, from the perspective that becomes possible with the waning of metaphysics, suggests that Croce came to be neglected for dubious reasons—and that he might fruitfully be reconsidered. Whereas he had indeed been an early critic of the new social sciences, the social scientific approaches he sought to preclude were precisely those that were falling into disrepute in wider intellectual circles a generation later. Between the wars, moreover, his radically antipositivist approach to historiography attracted innovative historians like Charles Beard and Carl Becker, who found exciting his way of addressing precisely the issues of presentism, relativism, and truth that have again been central in recent years. In the final analysis, however, even supporters like Beard found Croce's approach too radical and provocative, and Croce's historiographical thinking was not fully digested at that point. To be sure, his name came up as a matter of course in historiographical discussions even as late as the 1960s, but by then he was generally lumped with R. G. Collingwood, a misleading juxtaposition, because certain of Collingwood's best-known themes—reenactment, for example—are not really Crocean. Once the focus of historiographical discussion shifted with the publication of White's Metahistory in 1973, Croce virtually disappeared altogether.
This was curious because White had begun his career as a Croce partisan,
even proclaiming "the abiding relevance of Croce's idea of history" in an article published in 1963. Croce figured prominently even in Metahistory , but there White portrayed him as the sterile culmination of nineteenth-century historiographical traditions. By severing history from the search for usable general knowledge, Croce was voiding it of present political import and confining it to the haven of art. Moreover, White viewed Croce as deemphasizing action in favor of passive acceptance based on retrospective understanding. Yet it had been Croce's pioneering, radically antipositivist way of relating present action and historical inquiry that had excited those like Becker and Beard a half century before.
Croce was long viewed, in Italy and elsewhere, as a neoidealist system builder, operating within an essentially Hegelian framework. In the four works of his "Philosophy of the Spirit," especially the Logic and the Philosophy of the Practical of 1908, he established philosophical categories that he continued to invoke for the rest of his life. This seems to suggest a premium on systematic philosophy, established once and for all. But Croce came to insist that no philosophy, including his own, could be definitive. Indeed, his repeated attacks on system building and any pretense of definitive philosophy are among the most striking features of his thought.
Croce was seeking, among other things, to understand the role philosophy plays in a world without the foundations, essences, rules, or structures that philosophy had tried to establish. Even his relatively systematic Logic was an attempt radically to recast logic and thereby to show what truth comes to mean in an ever-provisional world of particular instances. Ernst Cassirer noted with disapproval in 1913 that "[Croce's] whole doctrine, even though it proclaims logic as the basic science, in fact turns out to be an unlimited historical relativism in which change is studied so to speak for its own sake, in which no objective-logical enduring factors of any kind are discerned or set off." Cassirer understood that Croce's was no ordinary logic; it was rather a kind of giving in to history, and Cassirer himself wanted no part of it. For Croce, philosophy would always be with us, but it would always be ad hoc and provisional—hardly foundational. Croce, then, was less concerned to establish his own philosophical system than to explore the limits of any such effort; he was
among the first to suggest that there is no privileged, foundationalist role for philosophy to play.
Croce has persistently been typed as a philosophical idealist, but though his debt to the idealist tradition is undeniable, he eventually concluded that "idealism" was a term to be abandoned and proposed that his own position be labeled "absolute historicism" instead. The point was not to specify another metaphysics but to grasp the sense in which, to use more contemporary phrasing, "nothing is unambiguously and decidably what it is." How might we conceive a world that is forever coming into being, that is forever provisional and incomplete? The philosophical concerns that had given rise to idealism as one response were simply no longer at issue.
Croce, then, portrayed himself as a radical historicist, yet major Italian students of European historicism like Pietro Rossi and Fulvio Tessitore have attacked Croce while embracing the German tradition of individualizing historicism, from Herder and Ranke to Dilthey and Meinecke. Because Croce criticized that tradition and embraced a species of totalism, these critics have found it easy to lump him with Hegel and the system builders of philosophical idealism. So it is hardly surprising that Croce's thinking has proven elusive—and easily misconstrued.
A Postmetaphysical Historicism
Renewing the most cogent theme in this long tradition of criticism, Tessitore charges that Crocean historicism was simply the culmination of the abstract reason of the Enlightenment; history is the history of reason, with everything explained and the irrational excluded. Given Croce's way of embracing the familiar categories at issue, this characterization seems plausible at first. Croce did emphasize the coherence and even rationality of history, accents that seemed suspect even in the 1940s, in light of events, and that may now seem utterly spurious, in light of our concern with contingency, discontinuity, and rupture. He even advocated "faith in history." But Tessitore's line of criticism is profoundly misleading, given our tendency to understand the central categories in Hegelian, still-metaphysical terms. With the break discussed in chapter 3, such notions became utterly different in cultural implication.
Croce was fully abreast of the debates about history that brought Wilhelm Dilthey, Wilhelm Windelband, and Heinrich Rickert to the fore in Germany
by the late nineteenth century. But once he had forged the essentials of his response, he felt he had gone beyond the terms of those debates—as in important respects he had. Croce's absolute historicism was a synthesis, or Aufhebung , of the Hegelian sense of totality and the opposing accent on individuality in German historicism. Thus he came to characterize his historicism as absolute, in contrast to the individualizing German version.
A sense of the particularity of things—the import of the concrete individual case—had led Croce to produce the paper of 1893 that first made his reputation, "History Subsumed under the General Concept of Art." Against the loosely positivist insistence that history had to be a science if it was to count as knowledge, he argued that history is not a form of science, seeking to derive lawlike generalizations with predictive power, but a form of art—art, however, understood idiosyncratically, as the mode of knowledge of particulars. His initial emphasis stemmed from a sense that reality is particular and thus in some sense historical.
In his subsequent work, Croce went further, turning the cultural tables by arguing that though science is essential to us, its laws and generalizations are only rough-and-ready abstractions from particular cases, based on questions we have formulated for practical purposes. To assume that science gets at stable laws, categories, or essences was the height of metaphysics. Up to a point, of course, this argument paralleled that of many of Croce's contemporaries, from Bergson to the pragmatists. But Croce was taking an extra step into a radical historicism; our ways of understanding the human world cannot be scientific because they are aspects of the ongoing creation, or coming to be, of something new, which endlessly makes necessary a renewed understanding even of what there already was.
But even as he emphasized individuality, creativity, and novelty, Croce understood that the old questions about the whole or totality did not simply disappear; rather, they had to be confronted afresh. He found his way of doing so especially through encounter with Hegel, whom he treated systematically in a once-famous essay published in 1906 and to whom he returned repeatedly throughout his long career. Although Croce's debt to Hegel was considerable, his departure from Hegel was just as important, as he never ceased to emphasize.
For Croce, Hegel's way of positing the totality as a single history had been essential, but Croce anticipated much of French postmodernism in denying that anything like Hegel's grand master story was at work in that total history. Hegel's conception rested on unwarranted teleological assumptions, and much of what he had sought to relate dialectically in fact remains distinct. The challenge was to posit a post-Hegelian totality, to conceive that single history as radically open, without following some necessary dialectic, without telos, and thus without any dominant thread given a priori by what spirit is on some level. With Croce's synthesis, the totality becomes concrete and mundane, particular and forever incomplete.
Croce found his way beyond the dichotomy between Hegel and historicism by developing one possibility in the legacy of his Neapolitan predecessor, Giambattista Vico. Croce invoked Vico throughout his career, claiming that only in our time, with the eclipse of metaphysics, could we begin to appreciate the most radical implications of Vico's thinking.
For several decades it has been de rigueur in Vichian studies to attack Croce's alleged idealist deformation of Vico, based on the assumption that Croce was a Hegelian affording privilege to conceptual thought. There was something Hegelian in Croce's understanding of Vico, and his way of adapting Vico led him to miss some of what Vico had to say. Still, Croce was not so much deforming Vico as pursuing one of the several directions Vico had opened; from Croce's perspective, in fact, Vico himself had fallen into inconsistency because he had not pushed hard enough in that direction.
Croce fully understood the revolutionary import of Vico's "poetic" conception of thought, and he took over wholesale Vico's notion of the autonomy of the creative imagination, or fantasia. For Croce, imagination is the original, creative power of spirit; it does not simply afford images of something—something already here—but gives form to mind and life, to thinking and acting. To be sure, Croce insisted on an ongoing role for the rational concept as well but not in a Hegelian way, folding fantasia within a concept conceived as higher, truer. In Croce's hands, the concept simply does not have the "Hegelian" function vis-à-vis the imagination that critics assume it must. Fantasia or poetry comes first and is never overcome altogether; the fact that it wells up continually is one measure of the endless openness and creativity of the world. But we are forever making a kind of rational sense of the world too, through a
distinguishable cognitive faculty. Croce ended up positing an endless "circle" of related but distinguishable forms of the spirit, or facets of human being, so that neither imagination nor cognition can be conceived as higher. Rather, each is equally essential to human being and to the endless coming to be of the world. And each is eternal.
What Croce found in Vico was a way of understanding reality as history—and history as totality—but without Hegel's metaphysical and teleological framework. Vico's radical way of bracketing nature leaves us with only the concrete human world, the world that results as human beings respond through their imaginative, creative language to what has resulted so far. Adapting Vico, Croce posited not telos, or even progress, but only neutral growth; what we do can only respond to—and grow upon—the resultant of what has been done before. In this sense, past actions endure even as something new results from what we do. The "reason" at work in history is nothing but this coherence, which is sufficient for there to be some particular world. We have seen that Nietzsche posited the same fundamental connectedness through time.
For Croce, then, it was axiomatic that at every moment a world has resulted from history, a world open to human understanding; we can look back and see how it came to be this way and not some other way. Indeed, we perceive a species of necessity to its becoming. But this is simply to say that the history had to be this way for there to be this world and not some other, not that the history had to be this way in some metaphysical sense. The present world has no metaphysical sanction, no suprahistorical legitimacy. It has only a bland historical sanction: there has resulted—so far—this particular world, the one in which we must operate.
Croce was well aware that in positing this sort of rationality in history he was not saying very much—certainly not what we long thought we needed to be able to say. But there is simply not much that can be said in advance, in a suprahistorical way, about the substance or content of history. What ultimately matters is what happens, what results from the sum of what we do. At the same time, however, what he said was not trivial but opened the way to a certain, relatively productive kind of postmetaphysical culture.
Part of what Croce found in Vico was a way of positing the creativity and novelty that seemed essential to a world that was perpetually incomplete. If we ponder the endless growth of the world through human response, we conclude that what there is, is creative—and indeed may be conceived as a single creative
spirit. To many, however, any reference to "spirit" suggests metaphysics in its most ethereal and futile form. But Croce had reason to insist that to posit a single spirit, growing in, through, and as history, was the most appropriate way of characterizing what "there is" in a radically concrete and antimetaphysical way.
The spirit does not operate apart from differentiated, historically specific human beings. Rather, it is nothing but us. We are all finite embodiments of the spirit, and as such, we all participate in the process through which a particular world endlessly comes to be. Each individual is creative, but our creativity must respond to the present resultant of history, or the total activity of the spirit so far, and we necessarily interact with others as we respond. Thus the creation of reality in history is a suprapersonal task, not of any one individual, but of the universal spirit, or dio-creatore , immanent in all individuals. In that sense, the question of agency falls away; it is a matter of indifference whether we speak of the creation, the happening, or the coming to be of the world. Ultimately, the Crocean spirit is nothing but the particular world, which grows on itself as the creativity that resides in differentiated, individual human beings responds to the resultants of prior creative responses. The world is a single creative happening that we belong to, that we are.
Though his reliance on the term "spirit" breeds confusion, Croce's way of relating totality and individuality anticipated recent efforts to do without the strong Cartesian self. His approach can be compared, for example, with that of Gilles Deleuze, who explored "the playful fold of the self" in an effort to posit something like individuality, and even some scope for novelty, without positing a self distinguishable from the universe enveloping it. In one sense, the Vichian Croce never embraced in the first place the assumptions that led to the "sovereign ego" and the other aspects of modern philosophy that thinkers from Nietzsche to Rorty have taken such pains to reject. So Croce found it relatively easy to deny a self conceivable apart from the happening, or coming to be, of this particular world.
In his effort to conceive the world in postmetaphysical terms, Croce shared several of Nietzsche's steps, and he seemed at first to offer an aestheticist vision inviting comparison with the aestheticist side of Nietzsche. For Croce,
as much as for Nietzsche, there is no "true world" that we can copy or represent, nor are there stable suprahistorical values that tell us what to do. The coming to be of a world rests on the capacity of human beings to say "thus I would have the world be"—and to act accordingly. The world at every moment results from the interaction of all our efforts to impose our own form, interpretation, or truth.
To be sure, Nietzsche, in some of his moods, accented the special role of the most creative individuals, while Croce emphasized the mundane process of interaction itself, leaving us with a kind of liberal pluralism and humility. The outcome of our interaction always transcends the intention of any oen actor; ongoing history-making is a collaboration. Yet even this difference is less important than it seems because, as noted in the last chapter, Nietzsche recognized that the present world had resulted from mechanisms that were all too egalitarian.
For Croce, human response is "moral" insofar as it stems from "care" for what the world becomes. Nietzsche, in contrast, valued response that is "beyond good and evil," no longer subject to the categories of our particular morality, which he found life-debasing. But up to a point even this difference is only one of terminology and accent. The ethical impulse that Croce emphasized aims to free up human creativity—and thus converges with the Nietzschean imperative of life enhancement. Crocean freedom is the freedom to respond creatively; Nietzschean power is the capacity to shape creatively. Nietzsche accented our continual striving for ever more power as we seek to impose our own interpretations on the world. Croce accented our continual striving for ever more freedom by overcoming obstacles to our creativity; freeing up creativity is the reverse side of the ongoing growth of freedom.
Still, in the final analysis, Croce's emphasis on history as thought and action contrasts sharply with Nietzsche's emphasis on fictions and quest for innocence. In fact, each set of responses makes clearer the basis of the other.
Knowing the World as History
As we have seen, Nietzsche seemed first to suggest that because the world is only empty becoming, it is radically open to whatever form human beings impose on it. Our particular world rests on a dominant understanding of the past that is simply the particular fiction, or "lie," that has resulted so far from
generally hidden human purposes. Even as he accented the scope for radical "genealogical" inquiry, Nietzsche suggested that in writing my particular history I am simply imposing my particular fiction, serving my wider effort to make possible a particular mode of life.
Questions about detachment and objectivity have bedeviled historians off and on for more than a century, but the wider eclipse of metaphysics has recently deepened their bite. As noted above, Croce was one of the first to confront this set of issues in a radically antipositivist way. Indeed, his approach was so radical that he seemed extreme and threatening to some contemporaries.
Although accents and terminology have differed, Croce was squarely on the side of those from Nietzsche to Derrida who have sought to conceive an alternative to the long-standing assumption that language represents an independently existing reality. Indeed, his starting point was more explicitly aestheticist than Nietzsche's. In his Aesthetic (1902), the book that made him famous, Croce adapted insights from Vico and German romanticism to posit a radically antipositivist view of the world, based on imaginative language as the cutting edge of the growing spirit. Worlds come to be in language, which is inherently poetic and creative. And for Croce, as much as for Nietzsche, historical questioning is a moment in a process of world-making that stems ultimately from the will of individuals to make the world a certain way.
In reacting against positivism, Croce was as eager as Nietzsche to jettison the ideal of a determinate historical truth to a fixed past. There is no historical "thing-in-itself," he insisted, no past "as it actually happened" that might be discovered and rendered once and for all. What the past was, and is, is not fixed or given, but, just as for Nietzsche, endlessly open and thus endlessly slipping, shifting. What it was depends on what it becomes, and what it has become so far is what it is for us. In that sense, there is no "past" but only the history that is generated as we make some present sense of the documents available to us at present—and of the present resultant of all previous attempts to forge some particular understanding. As Croce put it in 1939, we "interrogate the past in order to make of it the basis for present action, and the past that was thought in this way was never finished and stable, but always in movement and change, and it is inseparable from our present, which, too, is restless
and does not subside in achieving solutions but rather indefatigably poses new problems that will give rise to new solutions."
Such emphases seem at first to undermine any notion that historical questioning can, or needs to, get at truth. But though historical knowing for Croce can only be partial, interested, and provisional, he still insisted that what results from genuine historical inquiry is a particular truth, as opposed to some imaginative or useful fiction. Those who emphasized fiction, even "metaphor," remained under the shadow of metaphysics, with its image of representing a world already there. They were not radical enough to see what "truth" might mean in a postmetaphysical mode. But how could historical knowledge be possible when the world to be known is forever growing out from under us and when we ourselves, as would-be historical knowers, are historically specific and finite?
Croce made such a splash in Italy during the first decade of the century because he appealed to young, avant-garde intellectuals who, like their contemporaries elsewhere, were discovering Nietzsche at the same time. Croce and Nietzsche seemed to point in the same direction, away from positivist determinism and toward the scope for human beings, as free and creative "artists," to shape the world anew. At first, then, these young intellectuals thought they could have Croce and Nietzsche. But by 1910 they had grown disillusioned with Croce, who seemed to take back with the second hand what he had given with the first. As he worked beyond the Aesthetic to his more fully developed Logic and Philosophy of the Practical of 1908, Croce began insisting on the terms of his moderate alternative, partly to head off what he felt was the tendency toward irrational excess in the responses of his erstwhile followers. Rather than conceive life, the self, or the world as "literature," radically open to human aesthetic will, Croce was a spoilsport who imposed a kind of mundane discipline, on two levels.
First, we must respond to the particular world that has resulted from history so far, so that whatever we do, if it is to become real at all, will grow in a continuous way on what has already resulted. In a sense, we do remake the world by means of creative language, but in Croce's hands the scope for inventing new worlds by redescribing the past proved not to have all the heady consequences it first seemed to. We are not able to reinvent the world afresh simply by redescribing the old one, or by inventing a new language; we cannot leap out of our particular history or tradition. A particular world has resulted—and continually results—from the interaction of the creative responses of each of us. And we can only go on doing what we have always done, responding to that particular world, thereby adding to a continuous history, or coming to be.
So though we are always engaged in inventing a new language, it is a mundane and collective process, bound up with our response to the world that has resulted from the interaction of earlier responses. We may be as willful, as radical, as we like—and then see what happens.
Second, because we must respond to a world with a particular shape, we are well advised to know that world in a cognitive way, by using our heads, and this necessarily requires disciplined—though hardly disinterested—historical inquiry. Such knowing enhances our chance to connect with the world, so that we might help mold the next moment.
Although there is an irreducible aesthetic or creative element in our initial response to the world, Croce insisted that a distinguishable cognitive faculty comes into play when we seek to understand, which entails knowing the world as history. We misconstrue our cultural possibilities if, with our new sense that language is creative, we fail to grasp the ongoing point of that distinction. In one sense, Croce simply took for granted Vico's principle that we can know what we have made—the human world as opposed to nature, which only God can genuinely know. Knowing the world as history is one of the attributes of the spirit, one of the things human beings do, and "truth" is simply what happens when we approach the world in a certain way. For Croce, much as for Heidegger and Gadamer a bit later, human beings are open to the happening of truth. Indeed, human being must be understood as the opening for the happening of truth.
But knowing is only one of the things we do, and Croce was not claiming that any single work of history provides unvarnished truth or knowledge. Historical inquirers are themselves finite, individuated historical actors, with particular concerns and commitments; they operate in the practical as well as in the cognitive mode when they produce their histories, which are always partial and "interested." So how do we know if any particular historical account is true or not? Indeed, why should we seek truth in the first place, when we might seek power or some practical advantage? At issue is how the act of knowing and the capacity for truth relate to the practical side of the human spirit—and through it to the world of action.
Just as the knowing or theoretical side of what human beings do can be divided, in a rough-and-ready way, between the aesthetic and the cognitive, the practical side can be divided into the ethical and the useful. For Croce these are the four things human beings do, the four attributes of the spirit, and each of them is at work in historiography. Croce initially emphasized the distinction among these four categories, partly in opposition to utilitarianism, Marxism, and pragmatism, with their various reductionist tendencies. But the four categories were related as well, and Croce tried out various ways of conveying that relationship without ever finding a completely satisfactory solution. In his earlier works, he posited a circular relationship, but he gradually began featuring interconnections among the four categories, even assigning privilege to the
ethical by the 1920s. This made it clearer that the scope for knowing and truth is bound up with action, our mode of practical involvement with the world. But from the start, Croce had emphasized that practical considerations—both the useful and the ethical—are at work in the construction of any historical account.
Seeking to influence the culture's self-understanding, historians order their material in the way that makes their argument as convincing as possible. More generally, a desire to make the story interesting, or aesthetically pleasing, or morally edifying, or readily publishable, may affect the final form of the historical account. In each such case, the component of the practical that seeks "utility" has been at work. Partly because of such considerations, then, any actual work of history will be not pure historical truth but a messy mixture. Indeed, Croce could have accepted much of White's argument that the various ways of forming a coherent, convincing story from a given set of facts reflect characteristic rhetorical strategies that stem, in part, from the will of the inquirer. But even though any actual history will have practical elements, it will also, if it is genuine history, contain a component of truth, and thus there are cognitive criteria for distinguishing among historical accounts.
The scope for truth, too, is bound up with the practical—its ethical side, our care for what the world becomes. Croce insisted that genuine historical inquiry, as opposed to a bloodless antiquarianism, is not disinterested but stems from some contemporary concern. Indeed, "all history is contemporary history," because it is some such concern that leads the present inquirer to pose some particular historical question and thereby to forge some particular connection with what went before.
In explicit contrast to Ranke, who seemed engaged, as Croce put it, in the fine art of embalming a corpse, Croce understood the focus of history to be not some past moment apprehended for its own sake, then fixed once and for all, but some process, one of the endless ways the present has resulted from the past. Each of the endless succession of present moments is a new vantage point from which the historical inquirer illuminates, even constitutes, one of the infinite array of such processes. So rather than render the past "thing in itself," each historical inquiry participates with others in the ongoing happening or coming to be of some particular historical understanding. Our collective act of establishing some particular understanding is itself part of the ongoing process; the historical account is part of the history it studies.
Whereas for Hegel we discover the privileged content of history after making it, for Croce there is no a priori form to history determining a privileged content. But the reaction against Hegel does not undermine any scope for differentiation and articulation, so that everything in history is simply valuable "for its own sake." A particular, unstable hierarchy of significance endlessly results as we ask the particular historical questions we do, based on our contemporary concerns, and as we interact in an effort to persuade others of our answers. At every moment we decide what is privileged anew.
Because historical inquiry is immersed in an endless process, Croce was the first to admit that historical knowledge lacks what long had seemed the defining attributes of historical truth. But for two crucial reasons, this need not yield the giddy playfulness or the anxious vertigo it might initially seem to. The first reason concerns our practical need for truth to make our way in the world. The second concerns the process of interaction, or unacknowledged collaboration, from which truth results.
Croce sought explicitly to turn the tables on pragmatism by insisting that truth is possible precisely because of the practical stakes of our inquiries. In asking historical questions, we try to illuminate the present in its historical genesis, because we are caught up in practical situations in which we want to act effectively. We cannot say just anything as we construct our historical account, because our present has resulted from a past that has been a particular way and not some other way. Insofar as we genuinely seek to learn, we open ourselves to truth. The outcome, however, can only be a partial, provisional truth, not the definitive truth we long thought we needed—and thought we got by copying a stable, finished past.
Although Nietzsche himself did not develop them, his practice as a genealogical historian offered scope for the distinctions that Croce took care to specify. Nietzsche's interpretation of the emergence of our Judeo-Christian moral tradition was passionate and deeply interested, intended to illuminate aspects of present experience in order to foster a different mode of life. But in delving into that history, Nietzsche sought genuinely to learn something about the bizarre course of things that had resulted in this actual present, with its particular hang-ups and neuroses. He proved a powerful historian precisely because his present purposes demanded not an utterly fanciful and capricious creation but his particular true reading of the coming to be of our particular world.
When Croce addressed the relationship between our ethical capacity and historical inquiry, his first concern was to head off the sort of moralism that obstructs learning and truth. Thus he distinguished genuine history from moralistic history, or "oratory," intended to exemplify prior moral principles or to support a prior political stance. At the same time, Croce insisted that historical
understanding is useful only in a preliminary way: it prepares action but cannot determine it—cannot specify a particular course of action. In this sense, the practical and the ethical side of the practical remain autonomous. But Croce also recognized that it is ultimately the ethical dimension of human being that leads us to relate to the world in such a way that truth becomes possible. Insofar as, to adapt Heidegger's category, we care about the world, we seek genuinely to learn about it so that we can better affect what it becomes. It is this openness in inquiry that yields truth as opposed to entertainment or propaganda, willful fantasy or edifying fiction. Genuine historical inquiry serves the happening of truth because it is itself a moral act.
Any such premium on truth may appear prim and old-fashioned, even limiting and authoritarian, when compared to the recent, loosely Nietzschean emphasis on fiction and metaphor, which seems to invite openness and creativity. But Croce came back to the question of truth, and the distinction between historical knowing and fiction, partly because he had sidestepped the dualism of language and reality that had led us to posit "metaphor" in the first place. From a Crocean perspective, those playing up metaphor have not fully escaped the metaphysical notion of an independent, extralinguistic reality; language seems ever more fundamentally metaphorical as its capacity to mirror or represent that reality directly becomes increasingly doubtful. Croce's postmetaphysical conception has no place even for the shadow of that independent world; no hidden residue of a thing-in-itself remains. So language for Croce is not metaphorical, standing in indirect relationship with an independent reality, but more radically and fundamentally creative. And much of his effort was to show how that creativity meshes with the scope for truth in a postmetaphysical world.
Croce understood that though truth remains possible, we may sometimes prefer edification, for example, even in our approach to the stuff of history. As noted above, an array of practical interests, other than the need for truth, may inform any particular historical account. However, historical understanding in the overall culture stems not simply from the efforts of isolated individual inquirers but from a process of interaction. Individual historians may be as willfully creative as they choose, but their impact will depend on the capacity of their work to persuade others, who are seeking to make sense of some actual situation. At every moment, the resultant of the totality of historical questioning is an unstable composite, inviting further questioning and revision. Truth happens as a continuous process through the unacknowledged collaboration of the universe of historical inquirers.
In positing a middle ground, Croce was seeking to show that the departure from metaphysics did not have to yield the relativism that threatened to undermine any confidence in historical truth. Relativism afflicts us, Croce insisted, only if we assume our aim is to apprehend a stable thing-in-itself back there in the past, then find that we never manage to fix things once and for all. As we come to understand historical truth as particular and provisional, happening through an ongoing interaction among historical accounts, the conditions for relativism simply dissolve.
However, questions remain about the quality of the process of interaction through which historical truth may happen. Before addressing those questions, we must probe more deeply Croce's account of the world of action, especially his way of conceiving action as history-making. It is on that level that his divergence from Nietzsche is most dramatic.
Experiencing Action as History
We have seen that Croce insisted on the endless interaction of the theoretical and practical sides of what we do, so the scope for knowing and truth is bound up with practice, the world of action. Indeed, though we continue to know the world afresh, the whole movement of the spirit is toward action. But in considering practice, Croce took another step, giving a particular spin to his understanding of what we do. What happens through our actions is the endless remaking of the world in history. Purely contemplative thinking or understanding, even if possible, would be evanescent, unreal, because it would not enter history, contributing to that ongoing remaking. In a Crocean mode, then, we experience what we do as shaping the world for keeps. Thus Croce's emphasis on "the immortality of the act," the cumulative weight of our actions in the endless coming to be of the world.
Nietzsche and Croce started with a comparably radical way of embedding human being in the endless history through which the world keeps becoming some particular way. For each, our present is nothing but the resultant of the whole past, and what we do shapes the future, conditioning reality, as Nietzsche put it, for all eternity. Moreover, each denied that we might attune ourselves to some higher, extrahistorical dimension and thereby feel out of phase with our merely historical world, even though history depends on mechanisms that may seem cruel and that may, on occasion, entail a feeling of futility for the
individual. Indeed, each posited a kind of identification with the world as history and pointed toward a mode of affirmation, as opposed to alienation and the "absurd" sense of not belonging in this apparently cruel and futile world. Although we are "merely" historical creatures, we need not experience ourselves as inadequate or incomplete. In meshing with the world as history, we are congruent with all there is.
For both Nietzsche and Croce, this congruence undermines any basis for making moral judgments about anything that has happened historically. We come to feel instead the necessity of all there has been for there to be this moment, which we cannot coherently deny, for to do so would mean denying ourselves and thus the very possibility of such negation. Croce insisted that even our negative judgments presuppose the resultant of history so far, even as they help to change it. Nietzsche made much the same point as he deplored the claim "to judge history, to divest it of its fatality, to discover responsibility behind it, guilty men in it." Seeking to uncover the sources of this attitude, he suggested that losers who could not bear their own lives needed "a theory through which they can shift the responsibility for their existence, for their being thus and thus, on to some sort of scapegoat." This was a mode of ordering characteristic of dissatisfied individuals who, as the culture came to experience itself as radically historical, could do no better than to blame history itself for the fact that their historically specific lives had not turned out well.
But Nietzsche and Croce were subject to different preoccupations, and their modes of affirmation led to quite different conceptions of the cultural priorities. Indeed, Nietzsche posited eternal recurrence and the innocence of becoming partly to box out the sort of relationship with the world that Croce proposed a few years later. The Nietzschean sense of completeness dissolves the historicist tension that leads to a premium on action informed by historical understanding. History becomes a mere scaffold or foundation for self-justifying individual experience, even self-creation. We experience what we do as innocent play as opposed to weighty, history-making action.
Croce went in the opposite direction, emphasizing both endless openness and the cumulative weight of what we do. A purely historical world entails precisely the endless creativity and novelty that Nietzsche, in his later works, took pains to deny. The world is forever unfinished, and we feel its incompleteness as a call to further creative response in action. So my sense of affirmation means not that I settle for the particular world that has resulted so far but that I feel sufficiently at one with it to care for it, to feel some responsibility for what it will become next.
That sense of responsibility demands ethical response—response that is not merely self-serving—but it also calls my cognitive capacities into operation.
Croce was determined to specify a measure of rationality, a cognitive moment in action, partly in response to the increasing emphasis on will, passion, or myth in the culture of his time. Rather than respond on the basis of moral passion alone, we seek to understand the present moment, through inquiry into its historical genesis, so that we might more effectively act upon it.
The sense of responsibility that informs action as history-making contrasts directly with the innocence that Nietzsche sought to imagine. And when compared with Nietzsche's radical effort to work "beyond good and evil," Croce's emphasis on ethical response, like his emphasis on truth, appears safe and conventional at first. But Croce's historicist reduction had radically transformed the ethical category. Ethical response does not involve the application of transcendent, suprahistorical values; it is simply one of the defining attributes of human being. As individuated embodiments of the spirit, we all establish right, good, justice in the particular situations we face, thereby adding to what "justice" has come to encompass so far. Such response is "ethical" precisely insofar as it results from our care for the world, our sense of responsibility for it—insofar as we want what we do to last, affecting what the world becomes.
But though Croce's way of invoking the ethical was postmetaphysical and historicist, Nietzsche still had reason to head off any such conception. The mode of eternal recurrence dissipates any experience of the world as incomplete and inadequate and the consequent sense of responsibility. The world at every moment is complete, perfect; there is nothing else that needs to be done. Even insofar as my actions will change the actual, I do not act in order to change it. As Crocean weight disappears from action, so does the shadow of judgment and guilt. Thus the mature Nietzsche could imagine action as innocent play.
Croce could have said, with Nietzsche, that "my consolation is that everything that has been is eternal." But the sense for Croce was profoundly different. In a world without transcendence, I take comfort that what I do lives on after me, helping to make reality a particular way at all subsequent moments, forever. Thus what ultimately matters, what is ultimately real, is what I do, not my subjective experience, not what I go through as I decide what to do. The meaning of what I do is bound up with the larger, ongoing coming to be of this particular world.
Partly because he deemphasized sheer individual experience in this way, Croce drew fire from Italian existentialists like Nicola Abbagnano, who accused him of downplaying the subjectivity of the person, even of submerging the living, suffering individual into a blandly benign process. But Croce repeatedly
denied the charge of insipid optimism; for the individual, being caught up in the happening of a particular history was closer to tragedy than to idyll. Although he understood that responsibility entails anxiety for the individual, Croce saw no point in dwelling on that anxiety, and he denied that anxious personal experience was somehow privileged or ultimate. Such accents invited morbid self-preoccupation as opposed to a premium on responsible, history-making action. But even so, Croce was as forceful as Nietzsche or the later existentialists in probing the implications of the loss of transcendence for individual experience.
In Croce's world, desire for the immortality that only history can offer helps structure our lives. We want to affect what the world becomes, and we fear the sense of futility we feel when our actions fail to connect with the growing world. So we seek a vocation that enables us to focus our efforts and maximize our chance to respond effectively. Moreover, whereas Nietzsche sought to get out from under priests, theologians, the long shadow that Christianity still cast across the world, Croce sought explicitly to reformulate Christian categories as he accented human responsibility for the ongoing growth of the world in history. Indeed, his absolute historicism was very nearly a new "religion of history," based on this recasting not only of immortality but also of providence, grace, faith, prayer, and even God for a horizontal, postmetaphysical world.
"Grace," for Croce, is the individual's participation in the overall power of the spirit; "providence" fits some particular action to the historically specific moment, making that action effective. The individual may even "pray" for the grace necessary to act effectively and thereby mesh with history. And it is "faith in history," faith that what we do will interact with the contributions of others to have the desired impact on the future, that most fundamentally surrounds Crocean action. In entrusting what we do to history, we hope that those who come after will use our legacies well, just as we feel under obligation to use well what the past has bequeathed to us.
Again, however, it is crucial that our cognitive capacities come into operation, complementing these religious impulses. Even my choice of an overall vocation depends partly on my historical grasp of the world in which I find myself. As was true of the generation of 1914 in Robert Wohl's account, inadequate historical understanding impedes the connection between individual and present and breeds a feeling of futility.
If we feel ourselves responsible, are we then subject to judgment in Croce's
religion of history—along the lines Nietzsche feared? Even though he accented ethical responsibility in a way Nietzsche did not, for Croce, too, there is an important sense in which what we do is innocent. Insofar as my action is an ethical response to the world, it is not subject to second-guessing according to some external, transcendent standard, for there is nothing but me at this moment to establish the moral response to this particular situation. This is true whatever becomes of my response, whatever the world makes of it. Thus Croce's insistence that past actions simply are not subject to moral judgment.
Our actions are, however, subject to what Croce called historical judgment, and that would be sufficient to worry Nietzsche; even for Croce it adds a layer of anxiety in each of us as we act. Historical judgment seeks to determine what some action was—whether it was moral or not—and how it entered history. Insofar as my action stemmed from laziness, or a desire for edification, or a selfish concern with my own immediate advantage, it was not ethical. Such amoral utility may even have compromised my effort genuinely to inquire, seeking to learn; the resulting deficiencies in my understanding may have compromised the effectiveness of my action, even rendered it futile. So the historian who refuses risk, settles for propaganda, or curries the favor of reviewers, invites later condemnation. Even if my action is a pure, authentic existentialist gesture, it can be condemned insofar as I failed to prepare it through historical inquiry.
For Croce, then, there is no transcendent or last judgment, but my acts and even my vocation itself are endlessly subjected to the provisional judgment of history, which is all there is to determine the meaning of what I have done. In one sense, history is the harshest of judges, because it lacks the capacity to forgive or absolve. At the same time, however, the meaning of what I have done, its place in reality, can always be made different—by means of subsequent action, even by others after my death.
Nietzsche was actively seeking to avoid even such a horizontal mode of judgment, which he felt betrayed the legacy of Christian categories. Croce, however, did not deny that Christian categories were still at work in his way of conceiving judgment, responsibility, and the scope for creative ethical response in action. Indeed, he implicitly admitted what Nietzsche charged: It was through Christianity that we came to have this sense of creativity and responsibility; the notion of creative moral spirit derives precisely from the idea of God and the world as created by God. And our sense of being subjected to judgment for how we stand, or act, vis-à-vis the whole, now become history, inevitably follows.
In adapting Christian categories, Croce was seeking to enhance the
plausibility of his historicist way of conceiving individual experience in a world that was, just as Nietzsche had assumed, fundamentally post-Christian but that, nonetheless, could not deny the particular—Christian—way it had been. Though we have come to recognize its contingency, and though we might now wish to reject parts of it, Christianity, too, is immortal. And thus Croce's claim, in a controversial article of 1942, that "we cannot but call ourselves Christians" (non possiamo non dirci "cristiani" ).
Is Nietzsche, then, the more innovative and postmodern of the two thinkers? It may seem so at first, because Croce invoked religious categories like grace and providence that Nietzsche was willing to do without. But it was Nietzsche who longed for, and posited, redemption, a restoration of innocence. Croce did not feel the same need for redemption because he was less traumatized by the religious categories centering around sin and judgment. Each thinker was a pioneer in the post-Christian confrontation with the enduring legacy of Christianity in our tradition, and neither need be taken as privileged or more advanced.
Commitment and Collaboration, Humility and Faith
If they are to become real and enter history, our actions interact with others, and none of us can foresee the outcome, which always transcends the intention of any one actor. So for Croce, we operate in a dual mode, understanding that ongoing growth rests on the creative responses of individuals like us but also that no individual, even the "greatest," is sufficient. We are all collaborators in the endless happening of our particular world in history. Thus Croce sometimes found it necessary to insist that the maker of the world is ultimately the whole spirit—that the spirit is the only agent. But this does not mean we individual actors are but shadowy manifestations of spirit, as critics have long charged. It is simply to say that the individual is bound up with the growing whole—and thus is inconceivable in isolation.
This line of thinking was the basis of Croce's recasting of liberalism during the 1920s. At any one moment, each individual embodies part of the potential of the world, so the political system must invite the committed responses of everyone to the present situation. Those political commitments will differ, and the differences are irreducible. Croce argued in 1923, for example, that each of us will respond to a given situation differently, according to our temperament,
our hopes and fears, the situation we feel within us, the commitments to which we feel tied, the faith we have in certain men and certain things. Thus in our political interaction—and ultimately in all interaction—everybody counts, nobody is to be explained away. Our sense of being finite participants in a history-making process of interaction engenders the broadly liberal humility, pluralism, and tolerance that balances our individual commitments.
We feel kinship and collaboration not only with our contemporaries but also with all those who came before us, those whose responses have resulted in our world, the world entrusted to us. Croce made the point in a striking passage in 1930.
Whoever opens his heart to the historical sensibility is no longer alone, but united with the life of the universe, brother and son and comrade of the spirits that formerly labored upon the earth and that live in the work that they completed, apostles and martyrs, ingenious creators of beauty and truth, decent and humble people who spread the balm of goodness and preserved human kindness; and to all of them he makes entreaty, and from them he derives support in his efforts and labors, and on their lap he aspires to rest, pouring his labor into theirs.
Although some individuals have a disproportionate influence in certain spheres, for Croce, we are all historical actors, making some contribution to the ongoing growth of the world. And we understand that our world is the resultant of nothing but the sum of the actions of all those who came before us, that we have fallen heir to their collective legacy. This sense of kinship stimulates each of us to do our part, to pick up and transform, through our own present action, the world that they bequeathed to us. Insofar as we care, we feel ourselves under obligation to use their legacy well.
But we feel the anxiety of responsibility as we decide how to respond to that legacy and pass it on, transformed, to those who will follow. Moreover, even insofar as we have sought to maximize the effectiveness of our actions by understanding the present historically, we cannot know what will happen to what we do. So we also feel anxiety about how our response will enter history, whether the future will use it well. In our darker moments, our efforts seem futile and our commitment wavers. But the sense of kinship and ongoing collaboration helps nurture the faith that sustains us as we go on doing what we have always done, now with a different understanding of what is happening as we do so. There is scope for faith in nothing but history itself. I commit myself and act because I have faith that what I do will join with what you do to create a next moment that will respond, in ways neither of us can foresee, to the limitations of this moment and thereby yield a richer next moment.
This way of combining a sense of slippage and risk with a faith that, as we
entrust our acts to the future, we have not labored in vain is the core of the Crocean sensibility. And Croce experienced it in a deeply personal way. In concluding his Philosophy of the Practical in 1908, he noted explicitly that because there can be no definitive philosophy, the philosopher labors knowing that his work will promptly be superseded. But faith in history overcomes the resulting feeling of futility: "Every philosopher, at the end of his research, discerns the first uncertain lines of a new philosophy—that he, or someone else, will pursue. With this modesty—which stems from the nature of things, not from my personal sentiment, and which is also faith in not having thought in vain—I end my work, offering it to the well disposed as an instrument of labor." Although he was combative and sometimes arrogant in interacting with his cultural opponents, Croce emphasized his own historical specificity and finitude throughout his career.
This reflexive self-consciousness might have led Croce to one of the playful extremes that have become prominent within the postmetaphysical cultural universe. But he posited action as history-making partly to head off such extremes. So rather than accent slippage and the scope for self-deconstruction or innocent play, Croce featured the cumulative weight of what we do, the responsible labor that serves ongoing world building. As merely human constructions, our works are always finite, incomplete, readily deconstructible, but they participate in the continuing coming to be of our particular world. Thus Croce understood his own work as a contribution to that ongoing construction, an invitation to question, to labor further.
Each side of the Crocean coin was essential for the cultural middle ground he was seeking. Because the world is only a history, what I say is not definitive; but as a history, the world is sufficiently coherent to invite ongoing questioning and work. Each of us is only a collaborator, but it is crucial that there is scope for collaboration and that the world is endlessly remade through the interaction of all we do.
Still, Croce's emphasis on the history-making process of interaction raises questions about the quality of that process, the scope for distortion that it might entail. Croce considered the possibility of such distortion, but he concentrated on the self-serving "utility" in the individual's response to the world. In distinguishing the two sides of the practical spirit, he showed that the useful may interfere with the ethical, thus compromising my willingness to learn. Egotistical interest, including mere laziness, may lead me to cling to the familiar or to my own prejudices.
But Croce had little to say about societal or contextual forms of distortion. Thus, during the early 1940s, when the opportunity to begin devising a post-Fascist
politics engendered an especially rich discussion in Italy, he was widely criticized for ignoring the distorting impact of socioeconomic inequality and injustice. His insistence on the sense in which everyone is free—and is thus to be taken seriously—seemed at once abstract and complacent. In fact, Croce had an important point to make, but the terms of debate in the highly charged atmosphere of the 1940s led him to turn from certain questions that were becoming ever more intrusive with the emergence of modern mass politics. Yet these were questions that had to be addressed if he was to make his point effectively.
Although he accented the freedom of all individuals and the worthiness of all political commitments, Croce sometimes stuck in qualifiers that suggested the possibility of qualitative differentiation: if you act with purity and humility of heart, he said, if you are honest; if you act with a pure mind, in obedience to an inner command. But this was to leave an opening for—to take the most obvious example—the Marxist concept of ideology, as one account of the impurity in certain political commitments. Croce failed to push on to think more deeply about commitment, interaction, and distortion because in the climate of recrimination in Italy after Fascism, variations on such Marxist categories were being widely used to dismiss those with opposing views. Troubled by the facile use of the ideology concept, Croce simply reaffirmed his long-standing neoliberalism, emphasizing the freedom of individuals and showing how commitment can mesh with humility in our broadly political interaction. But more had to be said about distortion and about what it means to take our opponents seriously. How can we remain humble if we believe we have identified a systematic source of impurity in the commitments of our opponents—a source they themselves do not recognize?
Still, though it was seriously incomplete, Croce's historicist conception had significant implications for the process of interaction. He did not deny that injustices and inequalities were at work in contemporary political interaction. He had long emphasized that there are obstacles to human freedom and that overcoming those obstacles is an imperative—indeed, the central ethical imperative. But the climate of the 1940s, especially, led him to accent the collaborative nature of that process and the humility that ought to surround our individual contributions to it. In the modern political world it becomes ever more tempting to explain away the political commitments of those with whom we disagree—by reducing them to economic interests, for example, or by
claiming they have been distorted by the surreptitious coercion of the media. Thus it becomes all the more important to recognize that political commitments are irreducibly different. To insist that everybody counts was to deny that some—the rational experts, the enlightened elite—can climb to some purified level, transcending the finitude of everyone else, and specify rules, decision procedures, or what counts as undistorted communication. Though I may find distortion in the views of my adversaries, I take them seriously enough to argue with them, and I have faith in the outcome of our interaction. Indeed, as Croce liked to insist, even if I could be dictator of the world and impose my own view, I would prefer to rely on the outcome of that interaction, the judgment of history.
Rather than posit a goal or image of freedom, justice, and undistorted communication, Croce emphasized that distortions recur endlessly. At each moment we are hammering out what freedom is, and requires, in light of historically specific circumstances. This is the sense in which history for Croce is "the story of liberty." And as the world grows, our capacity for freedom expands—but only by overcoming ever-new obstacles. Present distortion is simply another historically specific challenge. And we act to free up human being at every moment, not in the hope we might at last achieve complete human freedom, but simply to maximize the scope for creative response to the present so that the history can continue.
Even if the earlier criticism of Croce for antiscientific humanism now seems irrelevant, his emphasis on the ongoing construction of the world in history may at first suggest the sort of subjectivist humanism that Heidegger, especially, has taught us to deplore. But Croce's way of relating human being to the whole entailed only a humble humanism—without the hubris that underlies the modern satisfaction with technological manipulation. Nor did Croce posit human being as a self-identical or transcendent subject, somehow in the process of becoming what it is through history. He accented collaboration and humility as he posited action as history-making partly because he, too, was seeking to undercut the hubris of subjectivism.
Although Croce came to be neglected by the 1960s, others echoed his emphasis on action as history-making as they sought to navigate between the old metaphysics and the extremes that became prominent with its eclipse. For example, Václav Havel, specifying the scope for action within Communist
Czechoslovakia by the 1970s, sounded Crocean themes as he sought a middle ground between an outmoded Marxism and a debilitating sense of absurdity. As we find ourselves forced to abandon the possibility of human mastery of history, we may feel that history is impenetrable and that what we do is futile. Havel insisted that, on the contrary, "we all contribute to making [history]. The good and the bad things that we do each day are a constituent part of that history. Life does not take place outside of history, and history is not outside of life." The "hope" that Havel went on to outline is almost precisely Crocean "faith in history." Even as we lose our faith in, or stomach for, the old sort of mastery of history, there is still a weaker, provisional sort of coherence and meaning, and we are all bound up with it. For Havel, as for Croce, what is ultimately at issue is how we experience ourselves in terms of our open-ended history.
Even E. P. Thompson sounded a Crocean note in discussing the ongoing process through which we make meaning of the past. "In the end," Thompson observed, "we also will be dead, and our own lives will lie inert within the finished process, our intentions assimilated within a past event which we never intended. What we may hope is that the men and women of the future will reach back to us, will affirm and renew our meanings, and make our history intelligible within their own present tense. They alone will have the power to select from the many meanings offered by our quarreling present, and to transmute some part of our process into their progress." Thompson, like Croce, was inviting us to understand what we do in terms of an ongoing history; we can only entrust what we do to those who will come after, just as we are responsible for the world entrusted to us.
With his emphasis on history as thought and action, Croce warranted a particular range of experiences, but his quest for a moderate position made him quick to preclude more extreme responses to the world as historical that merit a place in a postmetaphysical culture. Plausibly concerned that his contemporaries were too quick to indulge in irrationalism and wallow in Angst , he actively downplayed the Nietzschean premium on individual self-creation, and his framework affords little room for the responses of an array of subsequent thinkers, from Albert Camus to Richard Rorty. Because these thinkers paid greater attention to the mere capriciousness of the historical world and to the
sense of futility or suffocation it may entail for the individual, each suggested, as Croce did not, that individuality or selfhood must be forged in tension with history, even to spite it.
In the same way, Croce actively denied any scope for the religious "openness to the mystery" that Heidegger thought we might achieve by attuning ourselves to the sending of the particular world in history, to "coming to be" itself. The only mystery for Croce is the unknown, which is simply what has not yet happened—or simply the future. Openness to the mystery could be nothing more than the faith and commitment necessary to participate as the future comes to be. As we will see in the next chapter, however, Heidegger suggested that we might find new modes of religious experience by relating to the world as historical in a way that eschews the active, history-making orientation characteristic of Croce's historicism. From a Heideggerian perspective, Croce was simply overreacting, unnecessarily precluding even a new religiosity as he helped bury the old.
Not only did Croce ponder the place of historical inquiry in a postmetaphysical world but he wrote history himself, in response to the challenges of his own historically specific context. Most notable are the four full-scale works he published between 1925 and 1932, starting with the History of the Kingdom of Naples and concluding with the History of Europe in the Nineteenth Century. These were exercises in what Croce called ethical-political history, which reacted against historical determinism by tracing the thread of free human response. But Croce's emphasis on leading political ideals tended to be overtly elitist and to preclude analysis of the structural factors conditioning the responses of ethical-political agents. Thus his histories seem bloodless and one-dimensional, especially when compared with the innovative social history of the last half-century or so, which has moved beyond politics and articulated ideas to focus on ordinary people and everyday experience. To be sure, his insistence that we approach every historical actor as a free, creative moral agent remains useful as a check to the widespread historiographical tendency to take socioeconomic class as privileged and, more generally, to insist on quasi-reductionist modes of explanation. But his neglect of structural factors makes his works at best one-sided. It was unfortunate that his growing opposition to Marxism led him to turn from his earlier way of conceiving Marxist categories—historical materialism, class, ideology—as canons of historiographical interpretation, affording a useful range of questions.
But in deeper ways, as well, Croce's historiographical practice seems to compromise the more central cultural role for history that he advocated. Although the array of things that can be historical, and that can only be understood through historical inquiry, seems to expand to infinity as metaphysical foundations dissolve, Croce's way of conceiving reality as history entailed a limiting form of presentism, so his conception seemed to end up restricting, rather than expanding, the range of historical questioning. The premium was to understand the present in its historical genesis, to know what it is—the better to be able to act on it. What matters in any past moment are the seeds of the next, or what by now has resulted in our present world. What is lost, forgotten, or "held back," as the spirit grows in history, simply "is not," so the present moment, as the resultant of the whole past, embodies all that remains living of the past. Although Croce afforded wide scope for us to give new meaning to the past, his way of concentrating the whole past into each present moment precluded the potentially more fruitful relationship between us and those who came before us that Gadamer would later posit, partly by adapting Heidegger. Whereas Gadamer accented the scope for genuine dialogue between present and past, the Crocean approach has long seemed closer to mere monologue.
Croce was determined to deny some "modern predicament," and he had plausible reasons for foreclosing the histrionic breast-beating to which "modern man" has been prone. There is nothing special about our situation; there is no "pathology of modernism." But Croce's determination to play down crisis led him to conceive the whole course of history as a relatively smooth continuity, without ruptures and thus without buried layers that subsequent historical inquiry might unearth. For both Nietzsche and Heidegger, in contrast, there is something quite special about our time, and very radical historical questions—questions literally inconceivable before—become possible, and necessary, as a result. Whether or not we find Nietzsche or Heidegger convincing on this score, Croce seems to have been too quick to preclude such possibilities—and the scope for radical historical questioning that would follow.
In some of his moods, Croce himself surely knew better, as when he saw the historically specific task of his generation to replace the old religion. Though every generation presumably faces its historically specific tasks, some such tasks are deeper than others; Croce's own generation faced a crisis or rupture, and to understand it surely required a new and deeper kind of historical questioning, of precisely the sort that Nietzsche and Heidegger opened up. Yet Croce did not seem even to encourage such questions, let alone formulate them himself.
Because philosophy can only follow history in the Crocean universe, Croce maintained that the philosophers in our tradition have not all been dealing with the same big problems but have responded in an ad hoc way to the confusions that have resulted from historically specific situations. However, this way of relating philosophy to history means not only that philosophy cannot have been foundational in the usual metaphysical sense, specifying foundations that are already there. It also denies that philosophy can have played a foundational function in our tradition—the function it has played for Heidegger or Colling-wood or Ortega y Gasset. For each, philosophy was historically specific, even contingent, but once established, the particular philosophy constituted a kind of channel shaping the culture's subsequent possibilities. Because Croce did not conceive the function of philosophy in the same way, he did not afford the same scope for unearthing such buried layers through radical historical questioning.
But though Croce did little to expand historical questioning in practice, his absolute historicism helps us understand the expansion that has in fact taken place and the constructive cultural role it can play. The moment of Crocean response, then, must be considered in tandem with others, some competing, some complementary. As I have emphasized, Croce's quest for a moderate direction places him between the competing extremes of Nietzsche and Heidegger. Still, for all their differences, the responses of Nietzsche and Croce had something important in common; each confined our experience to this particular world, a world that results from nothing but history. Heidegger's response, in contrast, led to a kind of disengagement from our world, the particular sending of being in history to which we belong. From a Heideggerian perspective, in fact, Nietzsche and Croce were twin representatives of the nihilism that threatened to envelop Western culture now that metaphysics had run its course.