Giovanni Gentile 1875-1944
Italian philosopher, critic, politician, and educator.
Gentile, along with and sometimes in opposition to Benedetto Croce, dominated Italian intellectual life for fifty years, both in universities and in his role as official philosopher of Italian fascism. Fundamentally anti-materialist, Gentile posited instead a theory he called actualism, which was in fact an extreme form of Hegelian idealism. Although Gentile held official posts in the fascist government of the dictator Benito Mussolini, he continued to produce innovative philosophical works and remains a respected thinker in the areas of education reform and aesthetics.
Gentile was born in Castelvetrano, Sicily, and attended the University of Pisa, where he was influenced heavily by his professor Donato Jaja, a well-known Hegelian scholar. In 1896 Gentile met and befriended Croce, who shared his distaste for materialism, and began to write for Croce's journal Critica in 1903. In 1914 Gentile became the chairman of philosophy at the University of Pisa, the position that had been held by Jaja. Two years later, he published his first major philosophical work, Teoria generale dello spirito come atto Puro (The Theory of Mind as Pure Act; 1916). In 1917 he was appointed chair of philosophy at the University of Rome. In 1920 he began his break with Croce when he founded his own journal, Giornale critico della filosofia italiana. The two philosophers' differences were intensified in 1922, when Mussolini appointed Gentile minister of education in his new regime. Gentile instituted educational reforms throughout Italy based on the theories he had defined in La riforma dell'educazione (The Reform of Education; 1920). When Gentile signed the Manifesto of Fascist Intellectuals in 1925, his personal and professional split with Croce—who vocally opposed Mussolini's fascism—was complete, and Gentile became the official philosopher of the Italian fascist movement. But despite his close relationship with fascism, Gentile maintained his intellectual integrity, producing some of his most impressive works while working in Mussolini's government. During World War II, however, Gentile's intellectual influence began to wane, in part because he supported Hitler's puppet regime in northern Italy. In 1944 Gentile was assassinated by antifascists when he went to negotiate on behalf of antifascist university professors who had been arrested.
Actualism, or actual idealism, as it was also called, was the cornerstone of Gentile's entire philosophical system. Known as a “reform of the Hegelian dialectic,” Gentile's actualism defined the act of thinking as the “pure act,” through which reality is created. Actualism is specifically dealt with in La Riforma della dialettica hegeliana (The Reform of the Hegelian Dialectic; 1913), Teoria generale dello spirito come atto puro (The Theory of Mind as Pure Act; 1916), and Sistema di logica come teoria del conoscere (System of Logic as Theory of Knowing; 1917). But Gentile also applied this fundamental tenet in his works on education, politics, religion, and aesthetics. Some critics find the tenet most successfully expounded in his works on education, particularly his Sommario di pedagogie come scienza Filosofica (Summary of Educational Theory as Philosophic Science; 1913-14) and La riforma dell'educazione, because of the moral responsibility inherent in it. In Gentile's major work on aesthetics, La filosofia dell'arte (The Philosophy of Art; 1931), actualism is applied to artistic creation as a process of self-translation, wherein the final work of art is a “translation” of the original emotion that led the artist to create. Gentile's Philosophy of Art was not as influential as Croce's studies on the subject had been, but Gentile is credited with resolving certain issues that Croce had failed to work out. Genesi e struttura della società … (Genesis and Structure of Society; 1946), Gentile's most important political study, was published after his death. His contributions to the field of history, including the massive Enciclopedia italiana, which he co-wrote and edited, are also considered significant.
Gentile's work generally has been overshadowed by that of Croce, in part because of his political affiliations, which Gentile explained with his theory that the individual's self-consciousness was embodied in the state. Many critics believe his works on aesthetics, in particular, have been unjustly overlooked. Some find in his Philosophy of Art beginnings of a break from his earlier authoritarian bias that made it possible for him to fully support Mussolini and to find in the dictator an example of the Hegelian ideal. But in his posthumously published Genesis and Structure of Society, Gentile is thought to have begun to more fully emerge from his former dependence on the ideal of authority. Gentile was perhaps the most influential Italian thinker of the first half of the twentieth century, and he is known to have had a great impact on philosophers across Europe, particularly the English philosopher R. G. Collingwood.
La Riforma della dialettica hegeliana [The Reform of the Hegelian Dialectic] (philosophy) 1913
Sommario di pedagogie come scienza filosofica [Summary of Educational Theory as Philosophic Science] (philosophy) 1913-1914
Teoria generale dello spirito come atto puro [The Theory of Mind as Pure Act] (philosophy) 1916
Sistema di logica come teoria del conoscere [System of Logic as Theory of Knowing] (philosophy) 2 vols. 1917-1923
La riforma dell'educazione [The Reform of Education] (philosophy) 1920
La filosofia dell'arte [The Philosophy of Art] (philosophy) 1931
Genesi e struttura della società … [Genesis and Structure of Society] (philosophy) 1946
(The entire section is 86 words.)
SOURCE: An introduction to The Reform of Education, by Giovanni Gentile, translated by Dino Bigongiari, Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1922, pp. vii-xi.
[In the following essay, which was published as the Introduction to Gentile's study The Reform of Education, Croce discusses the work he did with Gentile and Gentile's contribution to the field of Italian philosophy.]
The author of this book [The Reform of Education] has been working in the same field with me for over a quarter of a century, ever since the time when we undertook—he a very young man, and I somewhat his senior—to shake Italy out of the doze of naturalism and positivism back to idealistic philosophy; or, as it would be better to say, to philosophy pure and simple, if indeed philosophy is always idealism.
Together we founded a review, the Critica, and kept it going by our contributions; together we edited collections of classical authors; and together we engaged in many lively controversies. And it seems indeed as though we really succeeded in laying hold of and again firmly re-establishing in Italy the tradition of philosophical studies, thus welding a chain which evidently has withstood the strain and destructive fury of the war and its afterclaps.
By this I do not mean to imply that our gradual achievements were the result of a definite preconcerted plan. Our work was the...
(The entire section is 1151 words.)
SOURCE: “Religion & Idealism, as Presented by Giovanni Gentile,” in The Hibbert Journal, Vol. XIX, No. 2, January, 1921, pp. 249-62.
[In the following essay, Murri discusses Gentile's ideas about religion in modern Italy as outlined in his Discorsi di religione.]
The great modern nationalities sprang up, in the course of the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, out of a religious revolution. But Italy's religious revolution is yet to come; and attention to this fact will go far towards explaining the vacillations, the weaknesses, and the internal contradictions that afflict her and so strangely encumber her path.
There is more. Throughout the Middle Ages and on into the Renascence the attitude of Italians towards the Papacy and the Church of Rome showed a marked independence of judgment; and fresh springs of the religious life often rose from the bosom of the popular consciousness independently of any direct ecclesiastical impulse. We have only to think of Francis of Assisi, of Catherine of Siena, of Dante, or of Savonarola. But on the other hand, subsequently to the great religious movement of separation initiated by Luther, Catholic Italy was forced with ever-increasing stringency to carry the weight of the papal interests and the spirit of the counter-reformation, till gradually every flicker of spiritual freedom was quenched. It was not till the time of the Napoleonic...
(The entire section is 6059 words.)
SOURCE: “Modern Thinkers III: Giovanni Gentile,” in The Australian Journal of Psychology and Philosophy, Vol. IV, No. 1, March, 1926, pp. 8-17.
[In the following essay, Garnett explains and analyzes major ideas in The Theory of Mind as Pure Act.]
In The Theory of Mind as Pure Act Gentile has rendered the student of philosophy the valuable service of setting out in comparatively brief form a reasoned statement of his mature philosophical thinking. It is not an easy work to read, for the author has packed into it in concise form the thought of many years, and he revels in brilliant paradoxes which are intensely stimulating, but the meaning of which is not always easily grasped. The aim of this essay is therefore partly expository—to offer an interpretation of Gentile's thought or to serve as an introduction to the study of his work—and partly to present a criticism of his argument and conclusions.
Gentile is an Idealist and commences the exposition of his philosophical position by comparing his doctrine with, and distinguishing it from, that of Berkeley. Berkeley, he says, taught that “Reality is conceivable only in so far as the reality conceived is in relation to the activity which conceives it, and in that relation it is not only a possible object of knowledge, it is a present and actual one. To conceive a reality is to conceive, at the same time, and as one with it,...
(The entire section is 4706 words.)
SOURCE: “Gentile's Philosophy of the Spirit,” in Journal of Philosophical Studies, Vol. IV, No. 13, January, 1929, pp. 3-22.
[In the following essay, de Burgh examines Gentile's theory of Actual Idealism.]
Gentile's philosophy merits the attention of every serious thinker, for it presents the doctrine that reality is spiritual in a more uncompromising form than is to be found elsewhere, and claims to solve on this principle all the great problems that have beset the history of metaphysic. His own name for it is Absolute or Actual Idealism (Idealismo assoluto or attuale). For Gentile, nothing is real but the Spirit, and by the Spirit he means the pure act of self-conscious thinking. “The subject that conceives itself in conceiving All is the reality itself.”1 In the act of conscious thinking, the Spirit is present in its entirety as subject (Io universale, transcendentale, assoluto); generating therein by its own creative spontaneity a world of objects, and resolving the products of this act of objectification into the womb that gave them birth. In this immanent dialectic—pure subject (thesis), pure object (antithesis), subject-object (synthesis)—lies the rhythmic life-history of the Spirit. “Our doctrine,” writes Gentile, “is the theory of the Spirit as act which posits its object in a multiplicity of objects, resolving their...
(The entire section is 9721 words.)
SOURCE: “The Philosophy of Giovanni Gentile,” in The Personalist, Vol. XI, No. 3, July, 1930, pp. 185-92.
[In the following essay, Evans presents an overview of Gentile's philosophical system.]
Philosophy should yield a concrete notion of the meaning of reality. This is the aim of Gentile. His philosophy, he tells us, is actual idealism, for it considers the absolute idea to be an act; or equally well it may be described as an absolute spiritualism, for only if the idea is act is all reality spirit. He sets out from the identification of the Hegelian Becoming with the act of thought, for Becoming and not Being is Hegel's first concrete logical category.1
Such a concrete idealism means, according to Gentile, that the thinking of the philosopher is reasonable but not narrowly intellectual. It must contain not merely “mind,” but “the good spiritual disposition, what we call heart, good will, charity, sympathy, open-mindedness, warmth of affection.” In “the full concept of the spiritual act consists the living nucleus of philosophy.”2
The omission of mind from the concept of reality is not even intellectually satisfying. To leave out thought is for us, who are a critical and appreciative side of the universe, to leave out the meaning of reality. We are necessary to reality, for what is the reality of something which is not known to be...
(The entire section is 2811 words.)
SOURCE: “The Idealism of Giovanni Gentile,” in ISIS, Vol. XXIX, No. 79, November, 1938, pp. 366-76.
[In the following essay, de Santillana contrasts the thinking of “scientific philosophers” with Gentile's actualist idealism.]
Whatever we do know about the ways of knowing, and whatever clarification the scientific philosophers may have reached in their endeavors, one thing seems fairly certain, i. e. that common sense goes on being at a discount. Theoretical physics in the past thirty years has done much to discourage the simple-minded type of scientist who approached theory in the state of mind of the gadgeteer. A recent attempt at rigorous thinking—we refer to Professor Dingle's latest book—ends in a kind of reluctant idealism; all the more significant in that it proceeds from a physicist who has never been reconciled at heart even to relativity. All in all, and notwithstanding the brilliant punitive forays of a certain school of scientists into the field of philosophy proper, there is a general atmosphere of uncertain expectancy and dark miscomprehension.
It may therefore be highly interesting to compare the status of the scientific philosophers with that of a school of thought most thoroughly alien to science—Italian “actualist idealism” in the person of its eloquent and prolific expounder, Professor Giovanni Gentile, of whom Wildon Carr could write recently: “it...
(The entire section is 4153 words.)
SOURCE: “Gentile Versus Croce: A Comparison of Two Rival Aesthetic Systems,” in Symposium, Vol. XI, No. 1, Spring, 1957, pp. 75-91.
[In the following essay, Gullace contrasts the aesthetic theories of Benedetto Croce with those of Gentile in his La filosofia dell'arte.]
Gentile's name has been completely neglected in this post-war period, for reasons not hard to fathom. But whatever the sentiments or resentment toward Fascism's official philosopher, his vigorous contribution to the development of Italian thought in the past fifty years cannot be ignored. If Croce has dominated the Italian cultural scene since the turn of the century, Gentile has stood a close second to him. For over twenty years the two fought side by side the battle against positivism and pedantic erudition in literary studies. The new idealistic trends which characterize Italian thought in this first half of the twentieth century, the revival of studies and researches on the vexed problem of art, the aesthetic approach to literary criticism, must be credited to Gentile as much as to Croce. However, as art theorist and literary critic Gentile seems to be rather unappealing to militant critics, who consider his theories too rigid a system. This does not mean that his aesthetics is to be relegated to the domain of pure theoretical speculation: it contains many points which could be fruitful for literary criticism, and for this reason...
(The entire section is 7574 words.)
SOURCE: “Respice Finem: The Literary Criticism of Giovanni Gentile,” in Italica, Vol. 47, No. 1, Spring, 1970, pp. 3-27.
[In the following essay, Brown discusses Gentile's literary essays analyzing the poetry of Dante and Leopardi.]
If the primary purpose of literary criticism is to convey a sense of the unique individuality of a poet and his poems, as most Italian critics since Francesco De Sanctis have believed, then Giovanni Gentile is a much finer critic than has yet been recognized. Although Gentile's main interests, from the turn of the century until his death in 1944, were in philosophy and educational reform, he also wrote a series of critical essays in which he struggles, with increasing insight, to understand the nature of poetic individuality and to articulate his sense of the individuality of the poetry of Dante and Leopardi. Although Petrarch, Alfieri, and Manzoni also came under his scrutiny, only Dante and Leopardi sustained his interest and elicited efforts of understanding. Only his essays on them are complex enough to serve as counterparts to the advances in his philosophy. If his response to poetry seriously affected the nature of his philosophy, as I think it did, it is mainly the poetry of Dante and Leopardi that had this effect.
The significance of Gentile's criticism must be maintained in the face of almost universal opposition by...
(The entire section is 9236 words.)
SOURCE: “Gentile's Educational Theory: A Revaluation,” in Italian Quarterly, Vol. XVIII, No. 70, Fall, 1974, pp. 20-36.
[In the following essay, Caserta posits that Gentile's educational theories were based in spiritualism and argues that they continue to be relevant.]
The educational theory of Giovanni Gentile1 was born of a strong faith in man and felt with the force of a religion, a mission aiming to accomplish the regeneration of the Italian people and of the whole of mankind. School was thought to be a sacred temple where souls are made, the entire world a place of soul-making. The teacher, in fact, was often exhorted to become the new apostle, the missionary of a new religion, the religion of the Spirit. It is commonplace to recognize in Gentile's ideological program the continuation of the spirit that animated the Italian Risorgimento, the patriotic apostolate of Mazzini: “pensiero e azione,” but the broader scope of his pedagogical theory must not be lost along with what has been relegated to history. A forceful reaffirmation of the essentially spiritual nature of the educational process is no less urgent today than in Gentile's time. What can we learn from Gentile's educational theory? What should we modify or reject?
The intellectual climate in which Gentile matured and which together with Croce he energetically opposed as a thinker and as an educator was,...
(The entire section is 5659 words.)
SOURCE: “Giovanni Gentile,” in Modern Italian Social Theory: Ideology and Politics from Pareto to the Present, Polity Press, 1987, pp. 100-14.
[In the following essay, Bellamy questions whether or not Gentile's concept of actual idealism always leads to fascism.]
Giovanni Gentile was born at Castelvetrano in Sicily on 30 May 1875, and assassinated by communist partisans on 15 April 1944. Best known as the philosopher of fascism, he was as important as Croce, with whom he collaborated until 1924, in reviving the idealist tradition in Italy. In some respects his influence was greater than Croce's, since his university position gave him more opportunities for building up an academic school. This was particularly true after the fascist seizure of power when, as Minister of Education in Mussolini's first government, he was able to apply his ideas in a comprehensive reform of the educational system, and ultimately became the official cultural spokesman of the regime. Above all, the principle doctrine of his social philosophy—the unity of thought and action—forced upon him the moral duty, as he saw it, of putting his ideas into practice. This [essay] will therefore investigate the extent to which ‘actual idealism’ necessarily leads to fascism.
THE REFORM OF THE HEGELIAN DIALECTIC
Gentile's philosophy was more firmly rooted in the native idealist culture...
(The entire section is 7402 words.)
SOURCE: “Gramsci, Gentile and the Theory of the Ethical State in Italy, 1918-1920,” in Italian Quarterly, Vol. XXXI, Nos. 119-120, Winter-Spring, 1990, pp. 43-56.
[In the following essay, Schechter discusses the political philosophies of Gentile and Gramsci, finding that “the desire to unite the state and the civil society” links the two.]
Modern political philosophy has sought to deal with the relation between freedom and authority by invoking a range of concepts to explain how individuals might pursue their extremely diverse interests without at the same time undermining the presuppositions that make living together in society possible. The foundation which allows individuals to pursue heterogeneous aims, yet without permitting this pursuit to degenerate into a war of all against all, is commonly referred to as government or law. In Marxist thought the agency for regulating social conflict is defined as “the state”, which in modern societies, in contrast to feudal or ancient societies, is separate from the sphere of social conflict called “society” or “civil society”. The tradition of Marxist thought represented by Gramsci accepts the idea that the modern state is a separate sphere, which through its various institutions mediates conflicting interests in society. However, Gramsci and others also argue that the real basis of these conflicts—private ownership of the means of...
(The entire section is 7606 words.)
Brown, Merle E. Neo-Idealistic Aesthetics: Croce-Gentile-Collingwood. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1966, 260 p.
Examines the similarities and differences in the aesthetics of Croce, Gentile, and Collingwood.
Harris, H. S. The Social Philosophy of Giovanni Gentile. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1960, 386 p.
Examines the practical social applications of Gentile's thought.
Holmes, Roger W. The Idealism of Giovanni Gentile. New York: Macmillan Company, 1937, 246 p.
Explains innovations made by Gentile in the area of idealism.
Parente, Diretta da Alfredo. “Croce, Gentile, and Hegel and the Doctrine of the Ethical State,” Rivista di Studi Crociani (December 1983): 263-81.
Evaluates the respective Hegelian interpretations of Gentile and Croce as the two philosophers applied them to their theories of the state and ethics.
Romanell, Patrick. Croce versus Gentile: A Dialogue on Contemporary Italian Philosophy. New York: S. F. Vanni, 1946, 72 p.
Brief overview of the main point of dispute between Gentile and Croce.
Smith, William A. Giovanni Gentile on the Existence of God. Louvain: Editions Nauwelaerts, 1970, 138 p.
Examines the place...
(The entire section is 193 words.)