Benedetto Croce’s Aesthetic as Science of Expression and General Linguistic is important because he was the first to expound the theory of Organic Unity, that form and content are one. Working from this principle and its corollaries, Croce evolved a conception of art and the means by which one could judge works of art of any time or place according to a consistent standard. He held that man’s activities are intelligible only as an effort to realize ideals—beauty, truth, ethics—and that history is the record of human intelligence building up civilization in all forms. Concrete reality, he stated, can only be reached through perception of the individual fact or historical knowledge. He saw the goal of philosophy as providing us with an understanding of history, of the spirit of man. But he felt every philosophy to be final only for the present problem which it solved, not for the problems that would inevitably arise afterwards. As a result he rejected all closed systems of philosophy and maintained the nondefinitive nature of philosophy.
The Aesthetic is divided into two parts: the Theory of aesthetic and the History of aesthetic. Croce revised this work several times, enlarging and changing it according to the development of his thought. In the first part he developed his theory of art as pure intuition, as a cognitive process concerned with the specific as differentiated from the universal. This cognitive activity is a spiritual activity which produces an image. This image is a complete unit—a finished painting, an entire novel—which brings together many details into a complex pattern. Precisely what this unit is, what processes man goes through in order to produce, reproduce, and evaluate it, and its relationship with other of man’s mental processes are the problems that Croce attempts to solve in his Theory of Aesthetic.
Man, said Croce is free, conscious, and creative, and his creative activity is a spiritual activity that results in an intuition, an image, of the real and the possible. This image is a mental picture of something quite specific and concrete, either an object or a person; thus, images furnish the material for all art. The details of a novel, for instance, its characters and descriptions, are individual details; all of these taken together form the image. This intuition is equal to but quite independent of intellectual knowledge, which is concerned with universal concepts.
A true intuition is expression; a fully formed artistic image is a verbalized image. That which is not expressed is not intuition but merely sensation or formless matter. The spirit can never apprehend this formless matter until it has given it form; then it becomes objectified and is a true intuition. Thus form and content become one. If one cannot express an idea, one does not possess it. As Michelangelo said, “One paints, not with the hands, but with the brain.”
The difference in intuitive knowledge between that of the genius and that of the average man lies in scope, not in kind. If this were not so, art could never reveal us to ourselves. For recognition to occur, there must be identity of nature between the artist’s imagination and ours. For this reason, also, there can be no supermen because the super-race concept is based on a difference in kind and not simply in scope.
The artistic genius is always conscious—otherwise it would be blind mechanism—and, although its expression is of emotion, of a state of mind and therefore always lyrical, it is wrong to say that only intellectual cognition is knowledge. Intuition is knowledge; the aesthetic fact is form and does not belong to mere feeling or psychic matter. Croce saw every expression as a single expression: spiritual activity fused all...
(The entire section is 1556 words.)
Criticism of Other Theories
Croce passes from a positive statement of his aesthetic theory to a criticism of rival theories. He considers briefly, and in turn, the theories that hold art to be an imitation of nature, the representation of universals, the presentation of symbols or allegories, or the portrayal of various forms of life. All such theories commit the fallacy of mistaking the intellectual for the artistic, confusing the concept with the intuition. Once people concentrate on the type of subject matter, the mode of treatment, the style exhibited, they lose the aesthetic attitude; they have passed on to the scientific or intellectual activity, the exercise of logic, which is concerned with concepts, or universals. “The science of thought (Logic) is that of the concept,” he insists, “as that of fancy (Aesthetic) is the science of expression.”
As the criticism continues, the outlines of Croce’s philosophy of spirit become better defined. The theoretical activity of the spirit has two forms: the aesthetic and the logical; the practical activity also has two forms: the useful or economical, and the moral. “Economy is, as it were, the Aesthetic of practical life; Morality its Logic.” Economy is concerned, then, with the individual and his or her values (just as aesthetic is concerned with the individual intuition and its value), while morality is concerned with the general, with the values of the universal. Nevertheless, the economic will (the practical will) is not the egoistic will; it is possible to conduct oneself practically without being limited to a concern for self. To act morally, one must act economically; but the reverse is not necessarily the case. To conduct oneself economically is to adjust means to ends, but to conduct oneself morally is to adjust means to ideal ends, to what the spirit would desire were it rational, aiming at the noumenon, the spirit, of the self. Just as aesthetic is concerned with phenomena, and logic with noumena, so the economic is concerned with the phenomena and morality with the noumena, the ideal.