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Humanism is an existentialism: Renaissance and Vichian legacies in Italian philosophy between Hegel and Heidegger.

I, too, always believed that our philosophy should reflect our national genius. [...] it is natural for a free people to recognize itself and have true consciousness of itself in its philosophers, as well. When such recognition fails, it is to no avail to import from abroad: for one's own self-awareness cannot be purchased as if it were a commodity [...].

(Spaventa, Filosofia italiana 7-8) (1)

This essay accounts for the Italian "difference" in philosophy until c. 1947--a turning point in intellectual history marked by the rise of the so-called "Franco-German reflection on being-human" (Skocz 85) in the wake of Sartre's Existentialism is a Humanism (1946) and Heidegger's retort to the same, Letter on "Humanism" (1947). In a recent reappraisal of this epoch-making exchange, students of French philosophy stress the "paradox of an encounter between the French Cartesian tradition of consciousness and reason and a thought marked by the German phenomenological tradition" (Pettigrew 1-2). In fact, Francoise Dastur claims that the German tradition provided the French with "the means of breaking out from a Cartesian-inspired reflexive philosophy, and of thinking the concrete situation of human beings in the world and in history" (267). Yet a difficulty in implementing this shift continuously qualified French Heideggerianism, beginning with Sartre's "existential Cartesianism" (Pettigrew 2). In 1968, Derrida returned to the Sartre/Heidegger exchange and the topic of "nationality" in philosophy with a pertinent question: "Where is France, as concerns man?" (114). At last, the same should be asked of Italy: Where was Italy, as concerns man? And how did the Renaissance and Vichian tradition of Humanism and Latin sensus communis philosophy prepare and affect the Italian encounter with Heidegger?

In following pages, I correlate a handful of thinkers whose concerns and initiatives exemplify Italian idiosyncrasies immediately after World War II; at the time, that is, of Europe's shared attempt to redefine the philosopher's task. Nicola Abbagnano (1901-1990), the leading representative of secular or humanistic Italian Existentialism; Enrico Castelli (1900-1977), a prominent Catholic existentialist and cultural promoter; Eugenio Garin (1909-2004), Italy's leading historian of Italian Renaissance and twentieth-century philosophy; and Ernesto Grassi (1902-1991), a onetime student of Heidegger and international spokesperson for the studia humanitatis, were all to some degree existentialists, Vichians, historians of philosophy, and invested in the philosophical merits of the Italian Renaissance--Quattrocento Humanism in particular. I shall argue that these qualities positively determine the Italian anomaly between modern philosophy and postmodern theory. However, it will not do to begin in medias res. A brief introduction to the origins of Italian Vichianism is necessary to grapple with the course of Italian thought between Hegel and Heidegger. A somewhat longer historical perspective is all the more relevant when we realize that the present academic year (2010/2011) celebrates the 150th-year anniversaries of a unified Italy (1861), the birth of Renaissance studies with Jacob Burckhardt's The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860), and, as we shall see, the concurrent rise in Italy of a philosophical "nationalism."

Overcoming the "Renaissance Shame"

In a well-known passage from his The Life of Giambattista Vico Written by Himself, a commissioned autobiography from 1725, Vico provided an enduring template for future developments in Italy's "embodied" philosophy:

We shall not here feign what Rene Descartes [Renato Delle Carte] craftily feigned as to the method of his studies simply in order to exalt his own philosophy and mathematics and degrade all the other studies included in divine and human erudition. Rather, with the candor proper to a historian, we shall narrate plainly and step by step the entire series of Vico's studies, in order that the proper and natural causes of his particular development [tale e non altra riuscita] as a man of letters may be known.

(113; emphasis added)

And again, commenting on his work in the continuation of 1731:

And, as may be seen, he wrote it as a philosopher, meditating the causes, natural and moral, and the occasions of fortune; why even from childhood he had felt an inclination for certain studies and an aversion for others; what opportunities and obstacles had advanced or retarded his progress; and lastly the effect of his own exertions in right directions, which were destined later to bear fruit in those reflections on which he built his final work, the New Science, which was to demonstrate that his intellectual life was bound to have been such as it was and not otherwise [tale e non altra].

(182; emphasis added)

Vico presents himself as a historian and philosopher interchangeably: as someone whose individuality is formed by personal readings, writings and, appreciably, his diversity from Renato, the founder of modern philosophy.

Donald Verene notes that Vico's life narrative is indeed incommensurable with that of Descartes, who in his own intellectual autobiography, the Discourse of 1637, had glossed over his humanistic upbringing at La Fleche and reduced his entire existence to a solitary meditation in a stove-heated room (3). According to Nancy Struever, furthermore, Vico's life is not exemplary; it is not "presented for imitation." Rather, he "argues self-dependence, and thus curtails interest in dominant inquiry modes, proffering only its own, inimitable practice" (431). What Struever calls Vico's "idiosyncratic authority" offers a valuable alternative to one's understanding of self and knowledge and forces the reader to generate his or her "own possibilities." Indeed, the best part of Italian modern philosophy "iterated," rather than "emulated," Vico's alternative mode of inquiry. In Vichian terms: How do we come to be such as we are and not otherwise? This is the central, humanistic question that motivates, albeit differently, all self-avowed "Italian" thinkers from Petrarch's Familiares to twentieth-century representatives of a tradition that remained unwaveringly keen on providing philosophical speculation with a full Sitz-im-Leben.

During the first half of the nineteenth century, arguably the "Vichian century" par excellence (Garin, "Vico" 70), many followed Vico's quest for an antiquissima italorum sapientia, or ancestral Italian wisdom, be it Pelasgian, Pythagorean, or Scholastic. Later, as Italy was nearing its long delayed unification, Vico's oeuvre gradually came to serve a philosophical nationalism. This major shift in Italian Vichianism is due to Bertrando Spaventa (1817-1883), arguably the foremost Hegelian philosopher of his time. He claimed: "It is now time and a special duty for all of us [Italians] devoted to the cultivation of knowledge to question ourselves again, our history, and our scientific and literary tradition; time to recall ever more vividly what we have been in modern civilization and culture, what we are now and what we once were [...]. It is not time to write the biography of an exceptional individual but, as it were, the biography of a nation" ("Unita spirituale" 195). It would appear that if Vico had successfully tested his genealogical method on the history of nations and his own life narrative, time had come for its application to the spiritual development of Italy. The point for us is that in opposition to the imaginary Italy preached by his predecessors, Spaventa first called for "a historical Italy, one founded in history." One's national consciousness could no longer be posited and handed down by intrinsic right, but rather had to be attained by use of scholarly elbow grease. Explicitly commanding to let go of Vico's alleged drivel in the De antiquissima and turning, instead, to the lasting achievements of his New Science (Filosofia italiana 48), Spaventa recovers for his time the central Vichian intuition regarding the historical essence of man: a being determined a posteriori, made and knowable as such--verum ipsum factum.

In Spaventa's attempt to attain a first phenomenological history of Italian philosophy, Vico was pivotal for his Hegelian flair as much as for his privileged historical position. Spaventa established the idea of Vico's mediating quality: a solitary heir to the Italian Renaissance legacy--of which henceforth he will be taken as a systematic spokesperson--and a precursor to the best products of German Idealism. With Spaventa's project the idea of an Italian philosophical "primacy" (primato) slowly gave way to the notion, vouched for by Hegel himself in his posthumously published Lectures on the History of Philosophy, of its "precursory" character (Vorahnung or precorrimento) since the Renaissance and not earlier. Thus Spaventa's famous historiographical premises according to which Italian philosophy, shortly after inaugurating the modern world, would have been smothered on the pyres of the Inquisition and forced to emigrate to the land of the free, that is, Germany. The task at the time was to bend the course of history by recovering one's national philosophy in German Idealism and return it to Italy.

The master plan was fully mapped out just as Italy achieved its political unification. On 23 November 1861, Spaventa introduced a series of lectures on Italian Humanism and philosophers (Bruno, Campanella, Vico, Galluppi, Rosmini, Gioberti, etc.), with the following words:

Italy inaugurates modern civilization with an army of heroic thinkers. Pomponazzi, Telesio, Bruno, Vanini, Campanella, Cesalpino, appear to be the sons of many nations. They more or less point to every subsequent development in philosophy between Descartes and Kant. So that Bacon and Locke have their precursors in Telesio and Campanella, Descartes also in Campanella, Spinoza in Bruno, and in Bruno himself one can recover some of the Monadology of Leibnitz, Spinoza's adversary. Finally, Vico uncovers the new science; he anticipates the problem of knowledge, insisting on a new metaphysics proceeding from human ideas; he posits the true understanding of words and myths, and thus establishes philology; he senses the notion of spirit, and thus creates the philosophy of history. In short, Vico is the true precursor of Germany. I said precursor, but I should have said more, because Vico still awaits to be fully discovered.

(Filosofia italiana 23)

Spaventa's notion came to be known as the "circulation of European thought": Italian philosophy is as much German as the German is (or could be) Italian. Far from being motivated by purblind nationalist fervor, Spaventa sought the reintegration of Italy in the course of European modernity, whose best fruits it had failed to harvest despite its early contributions. In Spaventa's own analogy, if the soundness of a state is measured by the health of its individual citizens, a healthier Italy could have contributed to general European prosperity.

While Spaventa's legacy in twentieth-century Italian philosophy would deserve to be studied in detail, it will suffice to emphasize two of his major and most durable achievements, both of which, as I shall argue, endured until Italy's confrontation with German and French Existentialism(s) in the postwar period. First, it is to Spaventa's credit to have inaugurated the systematic study of the Renaissance in Italy. When calling for a history of Italian philosophy, one grounded in its original Renaissance phase, Spaventa launched what could be defined a Grossforschung: a large scale and collaborative project that would take several generations and about a century to complete. In fact, in the late nineteenth century he was immediately inspirational in the production of monographs on Renaissance philosophers, something he did not attend to personally despite his wishes. It often goes unappreciated that Spaventa's praise of the Renaissance in nineteenth-century Italy was far from obvious, or even to be expected. Perhaps to the surprise of non-Italians, Risorgimento Italy--from representatives of Neo-Guelphism, such as Vincenzo Gioberti (1801-1852) and Cesare Balbo (1789-1853) to fellow Hegelian Francesco De Sanctis (1817-1883) --had often rhetorically portrayed the Renaissance as a low point in the country's history; Italy had failed to match its cultural achievements with political ones. The Renaissance was a frivolous and unsound period for which the Risorgimento itself would make amends. As noted by Carlo Dionisotti (164-65), at the time of Georg Voigt's 1859 pioneering work on fifteenth-century Italian Humanism (Die Wiederbelebung des classischen Alterthums) and Jacob Burckhardt's discipline-founding work of 1860 (Die Kultur der Renaissance in Italien), hardly anyone in Italy could have equaled or even appreciated such feats of erudition.

Not even Spaventa, however, was able to convert instantly Italian misgivings into genuine enthusiasm for the Renaissance. The "three crowns" of twentieth-century Italian philosophy--Benedetto Croce (1866-1952), Giovanni Gentile (1875-1944), and Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937), the last of whom became known piecemeal only after the end of WWII--still present traits of this ambiguous rapport. Italy's overcoming of its "Renaissance shame" was a long process that culminated, interestingly, as European philosophy took a definitive Kehre, or turn, with Sartre's and Heidegger's exchange on the question of Humanism. Eugenio Garin, a central protagonist in the history of this emancipation and an unflinching anti-Hegelian, provided an exceptional characterization of Spaventa's most enduring achievements when noticing that by breathing an extra century of life into Hegel, Italian Idealism had retarded the death of philosophy implied in his system and replaced the flight of Minerva's owl with the manual labor of the untiring "mole" ("Filosofia e politica" 19). What Garin meant is that Spaventa fastened philosophy to scholarly work and its effects on society. Like Vico, through Spaventa, many Italian thinkers continued to be at once philosophers and historians, or better, historians of philosophy with a particular penchant for the Renaissance. This is undeniably true of Croce, Gentile, and Gramsci, as well as that younger generation of scholar-philosophers who were raised under the so-called "hegemony" of Italian Idealism and made responsible for yet a new rebirth after 1945.

From an Italian perspective, the second lasting effect of Spaventa's reform is to have securely locked Italian and German philosophies to a common destiny. While the Italian Auseinandersetzung, or critical confrontation, with Germany is by no means exclusive, the privileged status of this dialogue cannot be denied. Spaventa's famous image according to which Italian and German philosophies hover like two suns on a "common horizon"--as well as his related claim that German and Italian consciences were in fact two in one, "an altogether better conscience"--should be kept in mind when examining the period in which Heidegger substituted Hegel in the Italians' interests. In light of this conviction, careful attention is due to the Italian assimilation or, as Spaventa would have it, "translation" of German philosophies into Italian, for neither does Italian Idealism identify with Hegel's nor is Italian Existentialism equivalent to Heidegger's. To the contrary, as we shall see, by the time Heidegger published his Letter, Italians were not only obviously armed with a less perfunctory understanding of historical Humanism but, beginning in the late 1930s, also equipped with their own distinct brand of Existentialism.

From Gentile's Actual Idealism to a Positive Existentialism

Garin identified the "team" of scholar-philosophers who would soon thereafter confront French and German existential Humanism(s) (and anti-Humanisms) in a passage of his very Vichian autobiographical essay:

Between 1943 and 1944, I often discussed the Italian Quattrocento with Ernesto Grassi, with whom I would read texts by Quattrocento and Cinquecento authors while discussing the image of Humanism he was attempting to create in confrontation with Heidegger, whom he knew well. In those very same years, Enrico Castelli was planning for later times--indeed, in case any later times would come to pass--an edition of Italian philosophers about which he would often come to talk to me in Florence, as I spent my spare time working on that History of Italian Philosophy that was published in 1947 (and again, revised, in the Einaudi edition of 1966).

If Grassi argued with Heidegger about "Humanism," and Castelli originally revisited "existential" itineraries in his own way, the profound crisis of culture and the perception of the world's tragedy were given voice in a multiplicity of languages against the backdrop of a varied Existentialism. Despite the superficiality of many debates, up to the 1943 "inquiry" on Bottai's Primato, the problems that began to question the meaning and function of philosophy and its possibilities of survival in view of political urgencies and religious concerns [...] emerged in the context of a general dissatisfaction with "idealistic" certainties.

("Sessanta anni dopo" 141)

During those years, Garin added, "the tragedy of the present was reflected onto the past; it helped us--or so we believed--to see the past" (140). In his memoir, Garin also acknowledged his fondness for a particular feat of scholarship: Marcel Bataillon's massive Erasme et l'Espagne (1937). If Europe could find comfort in Erasmus's irenicism and the alumbrados, Italy could flaunt the syncretism of Pico, on whose philosophy Garin had become the foremost expert with the publication of his seminal Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. Vita e dottrina (1937). In particular, Pico's Oration on human dignity still retained the power of a manifesto:

Despite its undeniable "rhetorical" overtones, the exaltation of human liberty, the appeal to religious and philosophical peace among every man, and the celebration of "spiritual" values in an epoch marked by unrestrained racism stirred echoes in apparently unrelated historical periods. The insight that lies at the center of much of Pico's work regarding man's indeterminate nature, free to make himself as he wishes, master of his destiny, deprived of a determined "form" or "species," appeared then to match some of the extreme appeals of Sartrian Humanism. As hatred, massacres, and the racial doctrines flared up, in a world in which scientists would race for the most refined techniques of total annihilation, a voice that would place man back at the center of infinite horizons of freedom and values was very seductive despite its apparent irrelevance.

("Sessanta anni dopo" 139)

Renaissance studies and the restless longing for yet a new rebirth went hand in hand for a generation that was preparing to take on the intellectual destiny of Italy after a long and thorough formation.

Garin's recollections allow for some crucial insight into the Italian contribution to "the reflection on being-human" between France and Germany. Some of the circumstances are well known. Grassi, Heidegger's Italian student, will soon after, in 1945, commission Garin's "manifesto" L'umanesimo italiano (Italian Humanism), which he will then publish in German translation alongside --indeed, as a corrective of--Heidegger's Letter in 1947. (2) Garin's famous book derived from the Renaissance section of his History of Italian Philosophy, a project that, as we shall see, Gentile had left ruefully incomplete since its first commission by Italian editor Vallardi in 1901. Garin, thus, would take on what had originally been Spaventa's mission to provide a comprehensive history of Italian philosophy and publish it also by 1947, although, as he specifies, the additions of 1966 make the second edition the true endpoint of this venture. (3) Castelli's "future plans," moreover, would involve putting Garin's extraordinary philological competence to task with the commission of several translations of Italian Renaissance texts, including Pico's major works. (4) Finally, with Grassi, a longtime friend and collaborator, Castelli organized the first International Philosophy Conference of the postwar period--this, too of Pichian inspiration --which took place in Rome on 15-20 November 1946, with the representatives of sixteen nations, most notably, Italians, French, and a group of German survivors hand-picked individually by Grassi and Castelli during an adventurous trip through an occupied Germany.

While I wish to touch on each of these philosophical "events," the account should begin with the "inquiry" that took place in Primato, a journal directed by former Fascist minister of education Giuseppe Bottai. With this indication Garin calls attention to the fourth member of our "existentialist" group. In 1943, Nicola Abbagnano squared off with the hardened remnants of old-school philosophizing in Italy: the Idealism of Giovanni Gentile, Spaventa's self-declared heir, and a roster of his most loyal followers. The contention was on whether Existentialism could amount to an overcoming of Gentile's Actual Idealism. It is once again to Garin's credit to have pointed out that the "death" of Italian Idealism had not occurred in 1945; that is, it had not even roughly coincided with the end of the war or Gentile's assassination in 1944. Rather, he accurately described this process as a slow and painstaking "agony" lasting as long as forty years between the 1920s and the late 60s ("Agonia e morte" 2829). Elsewhere ("Introduction" 77), Garin specifies that the decline began with an internal virus within Gentile's school, culminating in 1937 with the publication by Ugo Spirito (1896-1979)--a onetime loyal student of Gentile--of a book significantly entitled La vita come ricerca (Life as Research). This definitive "rottura" or break with "systematic" philosophy occurred just as Gentile was republishing for one last time his 1916 manifesto of Actual Idealism: Teoria generale dello spirito come atto puro (The Theory of Mind as Pure Act). In the preface to the last edition of 1938, Gentile warned his detractors: "Italian youth is much more pensive and serious than usually acknowledged. And I have faith in them. For them I thus set out to republish with renewed care a book that was originally meant for them" (458). Gentile seemed not to have realized that the youth of Italy had been reading his book for many years already, and that their criticism would amount to a final shove.

While Garin bravely delved into the history of twentieth-century Italian philosophy, (5) he would not account for the "external" contribution of his generation to the overcoming of Gentile's Actual Idealism. (6) The few representatives selected here--Abbagnano, Castelli, Grassi, and Garin--were far from mere contemporaries; rather, they all were raised by teachers who were hostile to Gentile and under whose protection they had voiced their concerns from the outset. Abbagnano and Castelli, the two official "existentialists" among them, had begun their careers with explicit refutations of Gentile's Idealism.

The titles of their works, like Spirito's, are indicative of an epochal shift in philosophical concerns. In 1923, at the age of 22, Abbagnano published Le sorgenti irrazionali del pensiero (The Irrational Sources of Thought). In 1924, at the age of 24, Castelli produced Filosofia della vita: Saggio di una critica dell'attualismo e di una teoria della pratica (Philosophy of Life: A Criticism of Actual Idealism and a Theory of Practice). In pre-existentialist times, (7) both works claimed that Actual Idealism had led to the oblivion of lived-life and its pathos. Though Gentile had defined his philosophy an "absolute immanentism," he appeared to have failed in his stated goal of providing ideas with arms and legs. Younger Italian philosophers, however, understood that Gentile did not represent an easy target for a loosely defined Lebensphilosophie or, later, for an equally indefinite Existenzphilosophie. While gravely outmoded as far as its rhetorical language and erudite references, Gentile's philosophy was motivated by the urgent concern--shared by his European contemporaries--to promote an overhaul of Western metaphysics. In his quest for a coincidentia oppositorum ("Rinascita" 261) that would permanently close the subject/object (or immanence/transcendence) gap posited by Platonic dualism, (8) Gentile drew heavily from his "older brothers" in philosophy, those Renaissance "thinkers who had infused my heart with light and warmth" (Pensiero italiano x). If, as I claim, the Italian tradition of Humanism (from Petrarch to Vico) remained a common source of inspiration in the philosophical renewal that took place during the mid-twentieth century, a successful antidote to Gentile would entail an altered interpretation of the Italian Renaissance's role in the course of modern philosophy.

Vico's well-known anti-Cartesian polemic played a central role in Gentile's etiology of "subjectivism" or "modern philosophy"--a Renaissance or humanistic tradition for which he positioned himself as the last spokesperson. Gentile stated: "Modernity amounts precisely to the slow, gradual conquest of subjectivism: the slow and gradual identification of being and thought, of truth and man. It amounts to the foundation, so celebrated throughout the centuries, of the regnum hominis: the establishment of a true Humanism" ("Concetto della storia" 280-81). Gentile, like Burckhardt, strongly believed in the awakening of man in the Renaissance. According to Gentile, Italian philosophers of the period --Pomponazzi, Telesio, Bruno and Campanella--had followed in the footsteps of their Quattrocento predecessors by extending the "kingdom of man" to nature in its entirety. Their Naturalism, however, continued to present traits of an enduring Scholasticism: a faith and reliance in transcendence that only subsequent, non-Italian philosophy would eventually overcome.

In Gentile's narrative, Descartes's cogito finally grasped the identity between truth and the act of thought, while Vico--whose merit was to have enlightened the connection between knowing and making--provided the vitality that Descartes lacked in a deadly, and rather Platonic, turn to an objectified res cogitans. (9) Nevertheless, Vico's verum-factum equivalence also appeared too static to Gentile, whose favorite heuristic device was to fluidify any philosophical substance or noun in view of a "living logic" (logica vivente) ("Esperienza pura" 417). His anti-scholastic vitalization of Latin terminology included a significant variation on the guiding, Vichian motif of Italian philosophy. Gentile altered Vico's verum et factum convertuntur into verum et fieri convertuntur or, even more firmly, verum est factum quatenus fit (Teoria 475): truth is never a fact, something made once and for all, but rather something perennially in the making, an act. In Gentile's explanation: "The act [atto], so that it not be converted into a fact [fatto] and that it be grasped in its actual nature [natura attuale], as a pure act [atto puro], can only be conceived of as thought [pensiero] [...]. As soon as we descend from act to fact, we find ourselves outside of thought, in the realm of nature. There are not spiritual facts, just acts [of the mind]" ("Atto del pensare" 318). It appears that without Gentile's intervention, Vico's philosophy could have relapsed into sixteenth-century Naturalism and its outward projections.

In a surprising turn that may be qualified as a "Vichian Cartesianism," Gentile grafted a newly vitalized Vico back onto Descartes. In so doing, life, history, and reality are identified, indeed, assimilated to the eternal and allencompassing act of a thinking-subject that leaves no residues of a primitive dualism. The point is that a younger generation will repudiate Gentile's coalescence of French and Italian philosophical achievements. According to Garin, Grassi, and Castelli, the humanistic alternative proffered by Quattrocento thinkers will appear largely incommensurable--perhaps in keeping with Vico's truest intentions--with the tradition of modern subjectivism that in Italy now went from Descartes to Gentile. As Garin stated on many occasions, Actual Idealism marked the death of a "way" of philosophizing. After Gentile, in other words, the understanding of philosophy as philosophia perennis gave way to new insights that allowed for a different, non-linear, periodization of the history of Western thought. Dear to Garin, as to his colleagues, was the conviction that pre-Cartesian (or humanistic) philosophy, and post-Gentilean (or existentialist) philosophy could originally meet on a shared antifoundationalism.

The moniker of "purus philosophus" that Croce attributed to Gentile was perhaps well-earned by a thinker who had overstepped all limits by equating philosophy to a perverted redire in se ipsum ("Concetto della storia" 275) and man to a greedy giant capable, unlike Tantalus, of devouring all fruits of nature and absorbing all dimensions of reality into the infinite sphere of its consciousness. (10) Gentile's "divinized" man was bound to appear, rather, as a monstrous Ubermensch. A younger Castelli, a religious thinker inspired by Blondel and Laberthonniere's "philosophy of action," prematurely pointed to the lack of ethics and of practical religious concerns in the official philosophy of Italy. What he defined as Gentile's "solipsism" could hardly contemplate interaction with anything "other" than the self, be it God or, more dangerously, one's fellow man. Furthermore, Gentile's role as the "philosopher of Fascism" could only corroborate suspicions for a philosophy that had originally aimed at turning man into an "actor" or maker of truth and had ended with staging a 10 monologic one-man show, be it Gentile's own or Mussolini's. (11) According to Gentile's battle cry, "aut Caesar, aut nihil" ("Concezione umanistica" 754).

The Italian concurrent turn to Existentialism and a new era in Renaissance studies is already distinguished by a reaction to a too strongly defined man, and a too philosophically, in a traditionally Cartesian sense, understood Humanism. It should thus come as no surprise that the Italians' embracing of Existentialism would be attended by a return to the "civic" Humanism of the Quattrocento. In Garin, Castelli, and Grassi--self-proclaimed representatives of a "postRisorgimento" generation of "survivors" (Castelli, "Avventura filosofica" 3-4) --Spaventa and Gentile's heroes of thought--Telesio, Campanella, and the "frenzied" Bruno in particular--will gave way to another set of protagonists: the more modest community comprised of Coluccio Salutati, Leonardo Bruni, and Leon Battista Alberti, among many others.

The trauma of Fascism and Gentile's Actual Idealism manifested itself differently among Italian thinkers who wished to persevere, albeit apolitically, in a positive revaluation of the Italian philosophical tradition. Castelli, for example, would forsake any attempt at a systematic philosophy. Instead, he dedicated his life to the endorsement of series, institutions, conferences, and scholarly journals intended to promote a confrontation between a newly interpreted Italian heritage and state of the art philosophical concerns in Europe: Phenomenology, Existentialism, Hermeneutics, Demythologization, etc. (12) His legacy is best represented by the approximately 3,000 pages, published posthumously, of his journal intime--an exceptional, though still unexplored, contribution to one of the dearest genres of existentialist literature. (13) As I will shortly return to Castelli's diaries in order to describe Italian expectations immediately after the war, I should now describe Abbagnano's more epoch-defining reaction. Between 1939 and 1948, Abbagnano developed his initial anti-Gentilean criticism (14) into a full-fledged "Existentialism, Italian style" (Langiulli 11) or "Positive Existentialism." Despite some critical acclaim, which had prophesized that Abbagnano's name would endure in history alongside those of Jaspers and Heidegger, Italy's brand of Existentialism remained unappreciated abroad. Was it too "Italian"? The point is that no other existential solution could have been built on Renaissance premises.

As for much Italian philosophy, Abbagnano's Existentialism was also created in critical confrontation with the German model. He reacted against popular existentialist "fads" and proposed an academic Existentialism nurtured, unusually, by American Pragmatism (Dewey's in particular) and various forms of instrumental Empiricism. Against the teleological triumphalism of what he calls "Romantic philosophy," which accepted no errors in history and interpreted man as a manifestation of "Pure Act" or "Infinite Spirit," Abbagnano accepts the German notion of man's "throwness" into the world. However, unlike Jaspers and Heidegger, Abbagnano emphasized possibility as the norm and supreme category of existentialist thought against any form of "nihilism" and "defeatism." In a late clarification of his intentions, he wrote:

The existential possibilities have been, in fact, clarified and described in their negative and nullifying sense, as if the exclusive prospect were the radical impossibility of all that man can be and can do [...]. Aggressively intent on destroying the illusion of certitude-- an important task and rich in positive implications--these philosophies have taken no interest in that which is probable for man. They have ended by neglecting the sources from which man draws the means and the techniques of his positive expectations: nature and society.

("Existentialism in Italy" 7)

Instead, Italian Existentialism-though sharing in the struggle against past Idealisms--did not sacrifice values to the analytic of existence. Its distinguishing feature is visible, rather, in a "coherent" use of the category of possibility, supported by a particular strong-willed "attitude" (atteggiamento) and a truer commitment to man's finitude.

The criticism that Abbagnano leveled against Jaspers and Heidegger--and, in due time, against French Existentialism(s), be it Sartrian (15) or the theistic brand of Marcel, Lavelle, and Le Senne (16)--concerns the paradox of a commonly posited "equivalence of the constitutive possibilities of existence" ("Existentialism is a Positive" 45). Such equivalence, in Abbagnano's view, amounts to a covert determinism: "If all the possibilities that constitute existence are, for one reason or another, equivalent, then existence is impossible" (45). This is true of Heidegger, who nullifies possibility in accepting only death--a necessity--as well as of Jaspers's "symmetrical" view, which holds that man's attempts to achieve Being are ultimately thwarted by a Scheitern, scacco or stalemate. Either option offers "man no criterion to distinguish between possibilities" and leaves in its trail only "suffering," "unhappiness," or "death" (47). Abbagnano's "positive" or "third" way focused on providing or, at least, admitting "a criterion of choice that would allow us to pinpoint the authentic possibility". Inevitably struggling against instability and personal dissipation, in a life certainly replete with errors and defeats, man is nevertheless capable of construing a coherent existence as long as he learns how to choose that single possibility that is his own. One's identity, the unity of one's personality, is built in the unwavering commitment to one's choices and in the perseverance of a particular, well-defined goal. Thus, man "can, therefore he should [...]. This reasonable faith is all that can constitute his dignity and his value as man" (51). Faith in "human dignity" and self-realization is ultimately what sustains Italian Existentialism.

While Abbagnano tended to keep his sources secret, a discerning eye cannot fail to notice the Renaissance connotation of his philosophy. Italian or Positive Existentialism indeed amounts to an updated variation on the homo faber theme and the related topics, all so dear to the Italian humanistic tradition, of dignitas hominis, libero arbitrio, and virtu's mastery of fortuna. The scholarphilosophers to whom I now turn were all "Italian" or "positive" existentialists in Abbagnano's terms.

Planning for an "Existential Humanism"

While I am here unable to account for the vast scholarly output of Castelli, Garin, and Grassi, a first look at their correspondence around 1945 provides sufficient insight into their intentions and expectations at the time of Europe's emerging debate on Humanism: a philosophical "event" Italians were much more deeply involved with than is usually acknowledged. (17) As noted, the History of Italian Philosophy on which Garin was working during the war had been called for by Spaventa during Italy's unification. Though at the turn of the twentieth century Gentile had begun editing and introducing Spaventa's work with the aim of forcing Italians to "feed off' (the expression is Garin's) his ideal mentor, credit for a comprehensive and unified History is due to Milan-based editor Vallardi. When commissioning the project to Gentile in 1901, Vallardi expressed his wish for a work aimed at broadening the horizons of expert readers rather than for a student manual. In hindsight, the editor's immediate insistence on the swift completion of a project he wished to associate with the beginning of the new century is particularly striking. If Vallardi had hoped for submission as early as 1902, Gentile availed himself of the editor's leniency to alter, albeit slightly, the contract's details and committed to complete the work by 1903. As is known, however, over the following forty years Gentile would produce a mere introduction spanning from Petrarch to Lorenzo Valla.

Because of this unprecedented negligence, after almost half a century, and just three days after Gentile's assassination (on 15 April 1944), a new generation of Vallardis solicited Garin's involvement:

18 April 1944

It is with extreme sorrow that we learn today about Senator Gentile's death, and the news, as you may well believe, immediately reminded us of the History of Philosophy. Now, we are facing a totally different situation. No wrong would be done to the late, lamented Senator if you accepted to complete the first volume [...]. The late, lamented Senator had informed us that this volume was just about completed, though we are not in a position to confirm this. All we know is that it is far advanced in the Quattrocento and that the entire first (Beginnings and Francis Petrarch) and second (Philology) chapters of book II (Humanism) are completed; as for the third chapter (Lorenzo Valla and the beginning of Naturalism), we only have 21 printed pages. You could resume from chapter III, with the deletion, of course, of the 21 printed pages. We believe that this could be possible as well as convenient to all of us and the memory of the author. And we believe that Prof. Gentile's sons will have no reason to complain. Once we receive your approval, we will let them know that their father himself had named you as the only deserving successor in this project. [...]

(qtd. in Rubini, "The last Italian Philosopher" 223-24)

As Vallardi mentions, a few years earlier Gentile had already designated Garin as the only scholar capable of living up to his expectations in philosophical historiography. On 29 July 1945, Garin was contacted again and asked to rewrite everything from scratch. This resolution, of course, amounted to a painstaking farewell to Gentile and the epoch he had represented.

The correspondence between Garin and Gentile in the years preceding this letter, testify to the younger scholar's mixed feelings at the prospect of his involvement. In fact, until Gentile's death Garin had been keen on informing him of his progress, asking for his approval at every step of the way as if he had been actually asked to ghost write. Moreover, Garin's wish to specify in his memoir that the definitive version of the History appeared in 1966 should not go unnoticed, as this edition presented an important epilogue entitled "Rebirth and Decline of Idealism" by which Gentile and Croce were reintegrated into a narrative that now accounted for the milieu in which Garin's own generation was raised. In 1969, finally, Garin collected and edited Gentile's copious writings on the Italian philosophical tradition with the same title as his own: Storia della Filosofia Italiana. After a century-long quest for a History of their own, and on the threshold of Postmodernity, Italians finally had two. The gestation period of our epoch's philosophical concerns (1945-1968) is thus marked in Italy by an enduring confrontation with its nineteenth-century heritage--the protracted "agony" of Idealism to which Garin referred--and a partially overlapping trend, starting after WWII, usually referred to as the "deprovincialization" (sprovincializzazione) of Italian philosophy. This cathartic process was marked by a voracious intake of all those post-Hegelian alternatives French, German and American philosophers had been more freely pursuing for some time. However, what sets Garin, Grassi, and Castelli apart is their attempt to reconcile the two opposite exigencies of pre-and postwar Italian philosophy.

While Garin would eventually come to interpret his History as a tribute to an outmoded "genre," the commission had provided him with the opportunity to try his hand at a first comprehensive characterization of Humanism's philosophical achievements, one that significantly diverged from previous Renaissance scholarship. Grassi, a student and collaborator of Heidegger since the late 1920s, realized that Garin's work could be put to a different, universal use as soon as he was given the chance to read his colleague's manuscript during the war. Therefore, at the exact same time as he received the invitation to replace Gentile, Garin also collected Grassi's commission to extrapolate and revise the Renaissance section of his History in view of a German edition. In his first letter to Garin after the war, Grassi wrote:

26 October 1945

This letter might surprise you. [...] After many vicissitudes, including the plundering of our house on Lake Maggiore at the hand of the neo-fascists, we found shelter in Switzerland with the help of the Committee of National Liberation. But here comes the good news: we already would have made our way back with the other refugees had I not been offered the opportunity to give classes at the universities of Basel and Zurich as well as to direct three publication series. As for the latter offer, it actually amounts to resuming the "Geistige Uberlieferung" which will be reissued here as "Uberlieferung und Auftrag." It consists of three series: "Texts," "Writings" and "Problems and Interpretations." Collaborators: Guardini, Uexkull, Reinhar[dt], Otto, Szilasi, Jaspers, etc. The first three volumes have already appeared recently. I have immediately thought of you and your history of Renaissance philosophy, which--as you probably will recall-- I have been wanting to have translated [into German] for some time now.

(qtd. in Rubini, "The last Italian Philosopher" 225)

The edition Grassi resumed in Switzerland--the Yearbook "Geistige Uberlieferung"--was a short-lived projected series forbidden after its second installment, in 1942, because of the Nazi's misgivings about Heidegger. The second issue had included Heidegger's "Plato's Doctrine of Truth," a text to which Rosenberg took exception--as he did to the entire Grassian enterprise --for fear of granting Italians a prerogative over modern philosophy (see Farias 260-68). Five years later, in 1947, Grassi would republish the same text together with Heidegger's Letter on "Humanism" in the series "Problems and Interpretations," while Garin's Der italienische Humanismus appeared at the same time in the series "Writings." Finally, under the subject heading "Texts," Grassi would eventually present German readership with selected pages by Guicciardini, Bruno, and Vico, among others.

The following letter by Grassi more closely qualifies the project in which Garin was enrolled:

12 November 1945

[...] Great as far as your work is concerned. [...] Do not be too concerned to philosophize, rather, to provide a clear idea of the material treated by each individual author. [...] Write it so as to truly, for the first time, provide a history in which the content of the main works of each individual author is accounted for. Why do you merely want to allude to Campanella? Please write on him comprehensively. The same goes for the political theory of the Quattrocento and lesser known authors; leaving Machiavelli aside, who would need a book of his own [...]. I am not sure I am making myself clear: the main concern is to introduce little known works. [...]

Finally, in the same letter:

Ideologically, as you know, all of these authors [Grassi's collaborators: Otto, Guardini, Jaspers, Reinhardt, etc] come from a confrontation with Heidegger's existential philosophy, and one should only compare them to Sartre, G. Marcel or other so called "existentialists" in Italy to appreciate their originality, due also to their ability to free themselves from the fetters of Heideggerian terminology [...]. The problem concerning one's relationship to antiquity, and thus the humanistic tradition, is central to these publications. While I have experienced the fact that in Italy our relationship to antiquity is primarily a matter for philological and erudite studies, the need here to defend spiritual values has led to an original examination and revaluation of the humanistic tradition [...]. If I were asked to summarize this new inclination in a word, I would call it an "existential Humanism."


This document proves that as Garin set out to write his most influential book, Italian Humanism, he was perfectly informed of, if not totally "complicit" in, Grassi's establishment of an "Existential Humanism."

As noted elsewhere (see Rubini, "Philosophy as Philology" 238-40), Grassi's late claim that his interpretation of "Humanism" was formed in opposition uniquely to Heidegger's Letter is reductive, to say the least. The Existential Humanism Grassi engaged with before 1947 was actually created in collaboration with Heidegger against yet another neo-Humanism, the most established at that time in Germany: Werner Jaeger's so-called "Third Humanism." As is known, Jaeger was the heir to Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, who had engaged in a famous clash with a young Nietzsche. Taken together, Wilamowitz's and Jaeger's traditional philology amounted to a last act in German Mandarinism to which Grassi reacted with the new hermeneutics apprehended in Heidegger's seminars. In due time, Grassi enlisted the "rebels" of German academia--those who were close in inspiration to Nietzsche and Stefan George as well as Heidegger and his students--in his anti-Jaegerian campaign. The motto, of course, was Nietzsche's Philosophia facta est quae philologia fuit.

In other words, Grassi's Existential Humanism was a practice: a philosophical use of philology--"philologie als philosophie"--by which to attain a historically relevant, rather than merely erudite, resurrection of antiquity. With his philosophical philology, Grassi believed to have overcome the Italian idealist disregard for Greek thought with a proper application of Gentile's own intuition regarding the philosophical import of Quattrocento philology. (18) In this respect, Garin and Grassi perfectly agreed; Garin's own defense of humanistic philology as philosophy in his Italian Humanism was by his own admission inspired by Gentile, though the latter had continued to refer to Quattrocento thought as the "philosophy of the non-philosophers," (19) and the Heideggerian Grassi himself, whose articles on the topic Garin had reviewed in the late 1930s. Particularly impressive to Garin was Grassi's handling of Leonardo Bruni as the first, we can now say in hindsight, Nietzschean or Heideggerian "philologist." In light of this, we can begin to surmise what kind of impression Heidegger's "anti-Humanism" must have had on Grassi: it amounted to a personal betrayal of sorts that led to his obsession, after 1947, for the Letter's claim that Humanism equals Platonism or Western metaphysics. But to what extent, if at all, was Grassi prescient of the anti-humanistic turn Heidegger's philosophy would take?

Grassi's early career, which ends with his commission to Garin and the publication of his teacher's Letter, provides insight as much as it provokes new uncertainties for philosophical historiography. By the time Heidegger replied to Jean Beaufret's query--"How to restore meaning to the word Humanism?"-- he already had been involved with at least four distinctive brands of neoHumanisms. Far from being a mere response to Sartre, as is usually maintained, the Letter on "Humanism" should be mined for its references to Jaeger's "Third Humanism," Grassi's "Existential Humanism" as well as, of course, Brachmann's Nazi-friendly "politischer Humanismus" (see Buttemeyer 289). One only wished Heidegger had delayed his text by a few months so that Garin's first comprehensive account of historical Humanism could be added to this impressive roster. From a strictly Italian perspective, however, what is to be implied from Grassi's report to Garin, which lists a number of "Heideggerian" collaborators but not Heidegger himself? Had Heidegger privately distanced himself from Grassi's Existential Humanism?

As noted, Grassi had first published his teacher's Plato's Doctrine of Truth as exemplary of the philosophical philology (or "Existential Humanism") he was promoting, stirring suspicions among Nazi authorities. Later, conversely, Grassi went on to reprint the same text in a single volume with the openly antihumanistic Letter. Both articles, to be sure, ambiguously lend themselves to a double interpretation. Heidegger concluded his text on Plato with the central claim of his future Letter: "The beginning of metaphysics in the thought of Plato is at the same time the beginning of 'humanism'" (181). Indeed, Plato's Doctrine made for a fitting prequel to the Letter and Grassi's idea to republish them together made perfect sense, though at this point both texts amounted to an anti-Romanitas statement that the Nazis would have appreciated. On other hand, as too often neglected, the Letter admits in passing "the possibility of restoring to the word 'humanism' a historical sense that is older than its oldest meaning chronologically reckoned" (262).

The historical or Renaissance Humanism Garin was revealing at the same time was in fact, like Heidegger's, informed by the desire to escape the "stifling" power of "metaphysical subjectivism"-for which, as we have seen, Gentile had recently provided a final apology in Italy. In 1952, Garin finally published the original Italian version of his Italian Humanism with an added, and for us important, subtitle--"Philosophy and Civic Life in the Renaissance" --and a new introduction that appears directed to Heidegger himself. He wrote:

If the truth were told, the real reason for this condemnation of the philosophical significance of humanism is a very different one. One can gauge the real reason from the constant hankering for that metaphysico-theological synthesis of "obtuse but honest scholasticism." It is in fact nothing less than the love for a kind of philosophy which the 15th century abhorred. The people who condemn humanistic philosophy lament precisely the thing which the humanists wanted to destroy, that is the grand "cathedrals of ideas, " the great logico-theological systematizations. The humanists disliked that idea of a philosophy which deals with every problem under the sun and with all theological researches and which organizes and delimits every possibility within the pattern of a preestablished order. The age of humanism considered that philosophy vain and useless and substituted for it a programme of concrete researches, precise and defined in two senses; one in the direction of the moral sciences (ethics, politics, economics, aesthetics, logic, and rhetoric) and one in the direction of the natural sciences which were to be cultivated iuxta propria principia, free of all chains and all auctoritas, and which have on every level that bloom of which an honest but obtuse scholastic knew nothing.

(3-4. emphasis added)

Reacting to Gentile's Vichian or humanistic Cartesianism, Garin presented a philologically accurate description of Quattrocento Humanism which seemed to disprove Heidegger's claim just as he was formulating it. Or conversely, if Heidegger's call for a "truer" Humanism is to be taken seriously, Garin had provided evidence of it in rather than beyond history.

The Deprovincialization of Italian Philosophy

In 1946, Enrico Castelli personally ushered Italian philosophy into a new era with a grandiloquent event--the first International Philosophy Conference of the postwar period. The occasion was a matter of great pride for Italian institutions, which managed to outbid a number of tenacious opponents intent on excluding defeated countries from a similar gathering. (20) Instead, inspired by Pico's plans for the Roman debate of 1487, Castelli immediately called for a pax philosophica in which old and new generations, uninvolved as well as eminently compromised thinkers (such as Heidegger) could resume debate after a long period of forced mutual estrangement. After much controversy, (21) and just as Rome was designated as an appropriate location, Castelli and Grassi briefly toyed with the idea of hosting the event at Palazzo Venezia. When, finally, authorities denied them permission to occupy Mussolini's former headquarters, hundreds of Italian philosophers, secular and Catholic, and a conspicuous number of foreigner thinkers representing fifteen countries were greeted in the chamber of a still inoperative Italian Senate.

Published eyewitness accounts provide a striking display. The speaker's chair was taken over by Giovanni Calo, president of the Italian Philosophical Association. Next to him, on either side, sat Enrico Castelli and minister of education Guido Gonella, bearing messages from Enrico de Nicola and Alcide de Gasperri--respectively, the first provisional head of state and prime minister of the newborn Republic of Italy. Below this trinity, in the honorary box, the fifteen spokespersons of the international delegations sat before a large spread of Europe's present and future masterminds, while journalists with their shorthand machines occupied the first ring of benches above them. Still higher, perched on the topmost tiers, priests, monks, and leaders of Catholic seminars from Italy and abroad presided like archangels over this improvised Platonic Republic. Castelli had called them to Rome with the following words: "[To hold] [a]n International Philosophy Conference even before peace is resolved among nations, demonstrates that the politicians' efforts to trace boundaries and limits between people is prematurely called into question by the philosophers' misgivings about the value of such boundaries" ("Programma" xiii). Over the course of five days, an eclectic group of philosophers came together to discuss the following topics: Historical Materialism, Existentialism, and the principles of science and language analysis. In hindsight, one should appreciate Castelli's acumen in selecting the main philosophical concerns of future decades.

While it would be interesting to account for Castelli's preliminary meetings with French authorities in philosophy in light of their hesitation about the participation of Nazi Germany, (22) Castelli's rallying of German thinkers, though partially unsuccessful, (23) may add a few interesting details on the Italians' relationship with Heidegger and his Letter. Thanks to his high-ranking connections, (24) Castelli managed to cross over into Switzerland and reconnect with Grassi in Basel on the evening of 6 June 1946. Three days later, the two Italian philosophers participated in what Gadamer called the postwar "international pilgrimage to Todtnauberg" (45) by presenting themselves at Heidegger's door. Many years later, Grassi mistakenly referred to this meeting in early June as the time in which the Letter on "Humanism"--which was actually written in the following November--was handed over. Unfortunately, neither Castelli's journals nor his dense correspondence with Grassi clarifies this mistake. These same sources, however, show that as he was meeting with German thinkers, Castelli conceived of a book that would collect their open letters in view of a future rehabilitation of Germany. Jaspers is the first to be counted in (Diari 225), then Eucken, Radbruch, Hallstein, Uexkull, Guardini, and finally, by the end of the trip (29 June 1946), Grassi reported to Castelli that "after a long discussion he [Heidegger] appears to be convinced to submit a letter for my volume (Letters from Germany)" (232). In short, Grassi met repeatedly with Heidegger after commissioning Garin's text and rekindling his prospects for an "Existential Humanism" in Switzerland. During these meetings he pressured Heidegger for a "letter" on behalf of Castelli, and later on somehow received and published Heidegger's Letter on "Humanism." Is this evidence enough to entitle Italians to read the Letter also as a response to some developments in Italian philosophy? The fact is that except for Grassi himself and Garin, no other Italian philosopher to my knowledge seized on the "opportunity" to take the Letter "personally," as it were.

One last detail concerning the exchange between Garin and Castelli should be mentioned in conclusion. Upon his return from Germany, Castelli rushed to inform Garin that his proposed title for the Roman conference had unfortunately already been submitted by Luigi Pareyson. Though he certainly attended, Garin did not present a talk at the conference, or, at least, his paper was not included in the proceedings or ever published elsewhere. What is of interest to us is that Pareyson's talk, the very same one proposed by Garin, was entitled Esistenzialismo e Umanesimo (Existentialism and Humanism). Garin was thus supposed to have delivered his own talk on this coveted topic exactly five days after Beaufret wrote to Heidegger, on 10 November 1946, asking for a redefinition of Humanism. Chances are that Garin would also have included a response to Heidegger's preferred interlocutor Sartre and his commanding text entitled Existentialism is a Humanism. In fact, earlier in the same year, Garin had spoken his mind in a short review of some recent "existentialist" works, including Sartre's. The paragraph Garin dedicated to the new existential Humanism of France succinctly portrays the Italians stance at that time:

I will not comment on certain arguments: for example, the idea that historical Humanism is Fascism. I will put this to rest next to the idea, maintained in Italy, that Existentialism is Nazism. All I wish to say, however, is that this [Sartre's] take on man, something in the making rather than an essence, is far from being new and original, and it entails the problem of transcendence that Sartre so easily dismisses. [...] Sometimes, knowledge of history could come in handy and the reading of any student manual [of philosophy] could have prevented easy inferences. [...] For all of these reasons, Sartre's text is bound to stir a curious irritation. A mixed feeling of aversion and regret due to the fact that hoary and enlightened truths may be so strangely perverted by our lack of humility, an attitude that a certain humanist would have deemed barbaric.

("Esistenzialismo" 189)

Garin laments what he interprets as Sartre's ignorance and superficiality. Subtly referring to both Pico and Vico, Garin claimed that if the gain of Existentialism was to have brought about an inversion between operavi sequitur esse and esse sequitur operavi--existence precedes essence in Sartre's famous terms--then, for those familiar with the history of philosophy, historical Humanism was already an Existentialism and not the other way around. Garin's reaction to Sartre mirrored Grassi's future rejoinder to Heidegger's Letter. The idea implied in that text that Humanism is equivalent to western metaphysics because it allegedly failed to understand that "language is the house of Being" --arguably the central achievement of Quattrocento humanistic philosophy in the Italians' view--was equally for Grassi the product of philosophical arrogance and historical unawareness.

Castelli's Roman conference presented no dearth of authoritative figures. However, the absence of the leading philosophers of France, Germany, and Italy --namely, Sartre, Heidegger, and Croce (25)--is perhaps indicative of the difficulties involved in promoting a transnational dialogue in philosophy. At least in this case, rather, the problem of Humanism and the incommensurable solutions offered by these distinct traditions support the all Italian conviction that philosophy is always inevitably a philosophy: the product of a certain human-being born and raised in a particular time and place, speaking and thinking in a given language, formed by certain sets of readings and human interactions.

In the prologue to his History of Italian Philosophy, Eugenio Garin expressed no doubt regarding the "nationality" of any philosophy, Italy's in particular:

In Italy, look at the origins of the Renaissance. To a philosophy linked with the experiences of art, civic life, and morality like that of Petrarch, Salutati, Bruni, Manetti, and Valla [...]. Humanism and Religion lived in Vico [...]. Humanism, in its classic requirement returned in contrasting form in Positivism as well as in the blossoming of Idealism. Instead of the great systematic constructions, a science of the human being and of its activities, a secular and earthly philosophy that left to religion the task of resolving the greatest problems was preferred. The two fundamental kinds of experience in which the Italian philosophical reflection was exercised were, on one side, the wealth of the artistic-literary production, and on the other, the problems deriving from the presence within Italy of the center of the Catholic Church and from Italy's own political crises. The first fundamental experience consisted in the philology in a Vichian sense as the science of human communication; the other consisted in politics and morality as the urgency of the problem of the State and of the Church-State. The second experience was religion understood especially as the need for the clarification of the earthly function of the Church. The great problems, the problem itself of the relation between world and God, were lived within the limits of political experience or of personal, moral, and religious meditation, rather than being confronted on the ground of metaphysics.


In Garin's view, the alternative philosophy of Italy identifies with the legacy of Renaissance Humanism, a non-metaphysical coping by human beings with their finitude vis-a-vis a never totally forsaken divinity.

As for its defining "experience," namely, an enduring confrontation with the Church, the second half of the twentieth century certainly was not going to disprove Garin's hypothesis. On the last day of the conference, the foreign delegation was led in full trim to the Vatican, where philosophers were lectured by a well-read Pope on the dangers posed by the existential notions of "Geworfensein" and "delaissement." Pope Pius XII stated: "We have no intention to enter into a discussion of Existentialism. Yet, we ask: what is left to philosophy, besides desperation, if it doesn't recover its solutions in God, in personal eternity and personal immortality? [...] Perennial philosophy does not risk of drowning into a 'pessimistic irrationalism,' nor in reacting with a 'religious voluntarism' to a stringent intellectualism. It [perennial philosophy] cannot be either one [...] because it has God as its leading premise [...]." (Castelli, Atti lix). Just so, as foreigners made their way home, the Italians' yearning for a new beginning in philosophy had to come to terms, yet again, with the evergreen option of Thomism and perennial philosophy. The (Renaissance) Humanisms that Grassi, Castelli, and Garin continued to study, promote, and develop for our age, lived out and defended the Italian philosophical "difference" in the second half of the twentieth century as Popefree countries went on to plan the advent of a so-called Post-modernity with the aid of Heidegger's alleged anti-Humanism and his call for a wholesale overcoming of Western thought.

Conclusion: Early-Modernity after Post-Modernity?

Postwar Italian philosophy underwent a forceful process of "deprovincialization" that, arguably, produced a meager yield in terms of that long-sought reintegration into the European mainstream. As Norberto Bobbio noted in 1981, the process of "deprovincialization" seemed to have led the nation back to a pre-Spaventa or Risorgimento epoch in which "Italy is once again little more than a geographical determination" (309). In truth, much has changed since Bobbio's claim. A recent flurry of publications shows renewed interest in Italy for its nineteenth-and twentieth-century philosophical tradition. To this day, however, it remains unclear if and how the Italian "way," partially accounted for here, could be of interest beyond national borders. If the present goal, after the post-modern moment, is to regain a more balanced rapport with history and the legacy of Western philosophy--without, however, falling back into new forms of metaphysical subjectivism--then the Italian tradition of Humanism has much to offer. Born in reaction to medieval Scholasticism, renewed in Vico's anti-Cartesianism, and finally rediscovered, starting in the mid-twentieth century, as a primitive Existentialism or Hermeneutics ("philology as philosophy"), "Humanism" is no longer a vague or even embarrassing notion but a concrete philosophical alternative we might be finally ready to embrace and develop.

The intuition of the philosophers presented here that Postmodernity is closer in its interest to Early Modernity than to any other epoch could be developed by a sustained "play" with Renaissance sources, such as the one that took place during the twentieth century with Greek philosophy. Renaissance studies, conversely, could benefit from a new historicism after the careful and successful unearthing, emendation, and translation of long lost or misunderstood materials. The problem of Humanism in the twentieth century bears witness to the negative consequences of a too strict division of labor between history and philosophy. Their reconnection could amount to a useful and much needed "presentism" in Renaissance scholarship and an equally necessary historical awareness in philosophy. Most importantly, we would no longer call for an "overcoming" of the past, and regain confidence in those hoary human accomplishments that sustain our own.

The University of Chicago

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(1) Unless otherwise noted, all translations are my own.

(2) Garin's influential book was first published in German translation as Der italienische Humanismus (1947). The original Italian appeared, with important revisions and additions, as L'umanesimo italiano. Filosofia e vita civile nel Rinascimento (1952).

(3) A third edition appeared in 1978 with an augmented bibliography.

(4) Castelli and Garin yearned for a wider reception of Quattrocento Humanism. The products of their intense collaboration includes the anthologies Filosofi italiani del Quattrocento (1942) and La disputa delle arti nel Quattrocento (1947); the edition and translation of Pico's De hominis dignitate, Heptaplus, De ente et uno e scritti vari (1942), Disputationes adversus astrologiam divinatricem (1946), and Coluccio Salutati's De nobilitate legum et medicinae, De verecundia (1947).

(5) In fact, Garin's 1955 Cronache di filosofia italiana (1900-1943) was the first important book dealing with Croce's and Gentile's legacies.

(6) In a recent and thoughtful introduction to Garin's early scholarship, Ciliberto calls attention to the fact that we still lack a comprehensive study of that generation of scholarphilosophers who were raised and began working under Fascism (vii).

(7) The first scholarly articles dedicated to Heidegger in Italy appeared in 1929-30, roughly three years after the publication of Sein und Zeit.

(8) See Gentile's judgment on the enduring Platonism of Western philosophy: "Tale scienza non si costituisce, perche e gia fatta; non diviene, ma e: e, s'intende, in se stessa. Noi, con l'analisi delle nostre idee, la scopriamo: ci ricordiamo, diceva miticamente Platone, di quel che vedemmo gia in una vita premondana. La verita, in una parola (e questo e il platonismo che non muore), e in se quella che e; e in se e tutta quella che e: [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]: un mondo in se perfetto. L'errore e dell'uomo immemore: la verita e pura, tutta verita, tutta luce. Noi le stiamo di contro; la vediamo o non la vediamo; ne siamo illuminati o restiamo nelle nostre tenebre: e nel secondo caso peggio per noi. Cio non tocca la verita, di se beata. Questo e l'oggetivismo antico, che culmina in Platone e resta, ripeto, consacrato nella logica di Aristotele per millennii [...]. Quest' oggettivismo e infatti momento di verita. Ma, come ogni momento, destinato a esser superato" ("Concetto della storia" 280).

(9) According to Gentile: "Il sum di Cartesio (che era un existere) diventa in Spinoza l'existentia che e inchiusa nell'essentia, oggetto della piu alta contemplazione: il sogggetto attuale (cogito) di Descartes diventa (come gia era diventato nell'argomento ontologico dello stesso Descartes) una res (cogitans); e come res, non piu attualita, ma fatto; non movimento, come era accaduto nella filosofia di Platone, ma idea del movimento: idea, di cui la viva esperienza [...] e una determinazione. Di modo che tutto il vivo della vita si contrae e si impietra nell'essere intelligibile, nel mondo sub specie aeternitatis; e l'uomo con la sua speculazione aspira a quella morta quiete dell' amor Dei intellectualis, dove non e piu dolore perche non e piu vita" ("Metodo dell'immanenza" 371). As for Vico: "[...] vide quell'essere stesso, che gia Cartesio aveva identificato col pensiero, muoversi con esso: giustifico, insomma, la storia, risolvendo in essa la filosofia."

(10) In Gentile's eloquent description: "Era inevitabile, perche questa e la natura dello spirito: di riversarsi perpetuamente fuori di se, nell'oggetto, destinato a diventare quindi parte di esso, ossia a trasformarsi in soggetto, per generare infine novella sete di estrinseca realta. Eterno Tantalo, stende in eterno la mano ai dolci pomi del reale: e non gia che non ne colga; ma non ne coglie mai tanti che bastino ad estinguere il suo inestinguibile desiderio. Quello sarebbe l'estremo giorno dello spirito, se mai toccasse l'ultimo oggetto, che, entrato anch'esso nella chiusa cerchia del soggetto e assimilato subito questo, facesse un deserto della realta, rendendo vana e impossibile ogni ulteriore ricerca, ogni coscienza nuova, e pero tutta l'attivita, tutta la vita dello spirito" ("Rinascita" 249-50).

(11) Augusto Guzzo, a onetime follower of Gentile and collaborator of Abbagnano, stated: "[...] [Gentile] faceva di ogni azione un soggetto di infiniti giudizi, di tutti i giudizi pronunciati o pronunciabili, un unico omogeneo discorso di tutte proclitiche, le quali, a furia di rimandare ciascuna il proprio accento alla sillaba successiva risulterebbero tutte impronunciabili, e non costituirebbero discorso, ma nel migliore dei casi, vaniloquio inintelligibile" (qtd. in Castelli, "L'avventura filosofica" 3).

(12) In 1931, Castelli founded the journal "Archivio di Filosofia" with the aim of providing an outlet for non-idealistic Italian philosophies. In the postwar period, until Castelli's death in 1977, the journal played a central role in the so-called "deprovincialization" of Italian philosophy by hosting debates and contributions by some of Europe's leading thinkers.

(13) Castelli was one of Europe's leading promoters of a "common sense" philosophy. The entries of his journals (1923-1976) meticulously account for his encounters with almost every European thinker of the twentieth century as well as the "everyman" met during his restless traveling.

(14) In his first book, Abbagnano stated: "Lo sforzo di contrarre nel pensiero tutta la realta e tutta la vita si e capovolto nel vuoto: l'atto stesso di celebrare la sua potenza massima, la sua assoluta spontaneita, sposta irreparabilmente al di fuori della sua cerchia astratta la realta e la vita e la sua stessa verita. Quando niente sembra cadere fuori della pura attivita del pensiero che eternamente si svolge, ecco che ci troviamo di fronte al fatto incredibile, paradossale: l'altro del pensiero, il pensiero vero, non puo giammai divenire il suo proprio oggetto, non puo giammai esser pensato! Ma allora? Allora la riduzione al pensiero non era possibile se non in quanto il pensiero non era pensiero, ma qualcosa di diverso e di opposto, e cioe attivita creatrice al di fuori o al di la del pensiero--vita irrazionale dello spirito. Illudendosi di affermare il pensiero, il Gentile ha affermato in realta questa oscura potenza vitale; e l'illusione a un bel momento si rivela per l'irreducibilita di questa piu profonda esperienza alle forme statiche del pensiero. Giacche per il pensiero non puo esserci che pensiero, giacche l'atto puro non puo divenire pensiero senza cessare di essere atto, affermandolo il Gentile pone al centro della sua dottrina un'intuizione necessariamente irrazionale. E la vita nelle sue elementari potenze sotterranee che trionfa pur attraverso di essa" (Sorgenti 90).

(15) On Sartre, Abbagnano wrote: "The first response that is presented to these questions is the acknowledgment of the absolute equivalence of all human possibilities, an acknowledgment that implies that every choice, by the very fact of being such, is justified; and that man is essentially free, that is, indifferent, before all the possibilities that are proposed to him. This is the response of the latest French brand of existentialism (Sartre, Camus). This is undoubtedly the most obvious answer, but also the most paralyzing. A choice that is not supported by the faith in the value of what one chooses is not possible since the acknowledgment of equivalence is already the renunciation of choice. That acknowledgment is equivalent, therefore, to the nullification and the loss of all possibilities indiscriminately, and hence, to the negation of existence as such" ("Existentialism is a Positive" 43-44).

(16) On French "theistic" existentialism, Abbagnano wrote: "Whether God is conceived as a Mystery who gives Himself to man in love rather than in rational speculation (Marcel); whether He is conceived as Being totally present to interior experience (Lavelle); or whether He is conceived as the supreme Value who gives Himself in the moral experience (Le Senne), the result of these interpretations is, in each case, that of offering man the guarantee that the possibilities of his existence are realized in the best of ways. The guarantee resides in the fact that existence is, in each case, a relation with a being (God) who has, by definition--or better who is, by definition--the possibility of fulfillment of all the highest human possibilities. The human possibilities are, in other words, already, from this point of view, realized possibilities inasmuch as they have been given or conceded to man by Being Himself, who contains them all in their full realization. Time then ceases to be a threat of destruction, and becomes a condition of realization. The success of human undertakings is guaranteed from the outset since, as Lavelle says, 'every possibility is destined to be realized'" ("Existentialism is a Positive" 46).

(17) In the following pages, I will discuss some recently published documents-- see the appendix to Rubini, "The Last Italian Philosopher"-found in the Fondazione Gentile in Rome and in Garin's archive at the Scuola Normale di Pisa. I am grateful to Michele Ciliberto for supporting my research and allowing me to cite from Garin's correspondence. Translations are my own.

(18) Gentile dedicated an influential chapter of his Storia della filosofia italiana fino a Lorenzo Valla to a lengthy discussion of "philology," which he interpreted as Humanism's major contribution to the birth of modern philosophy. Grassi and Garin treasured and developed Gentile's intuition throughout their careers, albeit in different ways.

(19) Gentile famously stated: "Oltre, insomma, la filosofia dei filosofi, c'e la filosofia dei non filosofi. I quali non sono filosofi di professione; e non sono filosofi perche non sono in grado di istituire una critica dei sistemi del loro tempo che sia all'altezza degli stessi sistemi; e non intendono neppure tutto il linguaggio dei filosofi di professione. Ma hanno un motivo di non volerne sapere di questo linguaggio; e questo loro motivo ha gia un valore filosofico, e un atteggiamento critico" (Pensiero italiano 31).

(20) It is the case of Holland, whose philosophers and authorities continued to oppose the attendance of an Italian delegation at their own International Conference of 1948.

(21) The Conference was originally planned to take place in Milan. Rome was chosen due to the great resistance put up by the leading representatives of Milan's Catholic University.

(22) Including Jean Wahl, Robert Aron, Raymond Bayer, Julien Benda, Maurice Blondel, Jean Hyppolite, Vladimir Jankelevitch, Gabriel Marcel, etc.

(23) Grassi and Castelli failed to enlist Jaspers, who declined the invitation due to his health, and Heidegger, who was forbidden to travel by French authorities.

(24) As director of the "Istituto di Studi Filosofici" (the Italian institute for philosophy), and conference organizer, Catelli obtained travelling documents that would not have been granted otherwise.

(25) Heidegger, as noted, was not allowed to travel. Instead, Croce repeatedly turned down Castelli's invitation while Sartre, in Castelli's own account, had become so famous that he was nowhere to be found in Paris at the time of his visit to enlist French philosophers.
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Author:Rubini, Rocco
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Date:Jan 1, 2011
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