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.