Aesthetic as Science of Expression and General Linguistic

by Benedetto Croce
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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1556

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.

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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 impressions into an organic whole; thus Croce proclaimed the indivisibility of the work of art. Not only is art a cognitive activity, but it liberates and purifies. By objectifying his impressions, the artist frees himself from them, and makes himself their superior.

The relationship between intuitive knowledge, or expression, and intellectual knowledge, or concept, is of two parts: first, expression, second, concept; that is, knowledge by means of the imagination or by the intellect; knowledge of the individual or of the universal; of individual things or of the relationship between them. Thus, man’s theoretic or spiritual activity of the mind is made up of intuition and logical thought. The other basic, spiritual activity which Croce recognized is the practical spirit or the will. This activity differs from the theoretic in that it is productive, not of knowledge, but of actions, which includes not only the will to do, but the will not to do. This volition, or will, can be directed toward the particular, in which case it is economic, political, or utilitarian, or toward the universal, in which case it is ethical. However, the theoretical form is the basis for the will; practice follows theory. But once an action has been completed, it becomes the object of thought. Thus, the spirit moves with a circular action; the four forms are coexistent and correlative in their distinction, but are not separate.

In analyzing artists and their work, Croce said that they cannot be criticized for their subjects; they can work only at what has moved their souls. And the question of sincerity has no place whatever. The artist can deceive no one since he can give form only to what is in his soul; he can deceive only by betraying himself as an artist by failing to execute his work in its essential nature. Further, art is independent of the useful and of the moral. An intuition or expression shows us the world, a truth, and thus has no relation to useful or economic activity. In artistic or literary criticism one should ask if it is expressive and what it expresses. Successful expression is beauty or, simply, expression because non-successful expression is not expression, or the ugly. Morality has nothing to do with this. Moral activity is the logic of the practical life. To will morally is to will the rational end, and whoever wills and acts morally cannot help willing and acting usefully.

By the same token, one should not criticize works according to laws, of epic or of tragedy, for instance, or according to rhetorical devices or categories. Croce felt that such terms should be used only to indicate certain loose groups, not to establish definitions or rigid requirements. Artistic expressions are either effective or ineffective, entirely on their own terms. Thus, Croce’s theory of art enabled him to consider all works of art of any age according to one standard. For example, he felt a perfect work would be both classic and romantic at the same time since “classic” refers to the fully-shaped image and “romantic” to the emotional content.

Expression in the natural sense cannot be aesthetic expression, as could be seen in the difference between grief and a song portraying grief. The complete process of aesthetic production he divided into four stages, as follows: impressions; expression or spiritual aesthetic synthesis; aesthetic pleasure; and translation of the aesthetic fact into physical phenomena, such as sounds, lines, shapes. Poetry, prose, and novels are physical stimulants of reproduction. These, plus memory and the assistance of physical facts, make possible the preservation and reproduction of intuitions produced by man. Natural beauty is simply a stimulus to this reproduction. This aesthetic activity will always agree with the practical because expression is truth. For example, the natural fact of the human body can be beautiful or ugly according to the point of view and to what is going on in the soul of the artist.

Croce stated that there is no such thing as the aesthetic progress of humanity because art is intuition; intuition is individuality; and individuality does not repeat itself. As a result, the history of the artistic production of the human race cannot be thought of as developing along a single line of progress. There are cycles, but not a steady development. Thus, the art of savages is not inferior; each individual’s spiritual life has its artistic world and so none can be compared with others in terms of artistic value. Tradition and historical criticism keep alive all the works of art produced by mankind. Croce felt this function to be of paramount importance because life without it would be little more than animals living in the present or the immediate past.

In his History of Aesthetic, Croce described the progressive attempts to solve the fundamental problem of aesthetics. Beginning with the Greeks, he showed the development of philosophic thought to be confused, obscure, or sterile, with only a tenuous, golden thread running from Aristotle to Vico, Schleiermacher, and De Sanctis to the time of his own writing. Thus, he concluded that Aesthetic is a modern science. However, in his later years Croce rejected this view, sacrificed without compunction his entire history, and replaced it with his conception of innumerable specific problems of aesthetics. Just as each work of art must be judged in its own terms, each thinker must be studied in terms of his own problems and not in terms of other problems and solutions. Thus, Croce saw man’s entire history as a constant, never-ending effort to attain the ideal.

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Criticism of Other Theories