Aesthetic as Science of Expression and General Linguistic

by Benedetto Croce
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Benedetto Croce’s Aesthetic as Science of Expression and General Linguistic is the first of four volumes in his Filosofia come sciensa dello spirito (“philosophy of spirit”); the other three are Logica come scienza del concetto puro (1909; Logic as the Science of the Pure Concept, 1917), Filosofia della pratica: Economica ed etica (1909; Philosophy of the Practical: Economic and Ethic, 1913), and Teoria e storia della storiografia (1917; Theory and History of Historiography, 1921). Croce is generally regarded as an inspired proponent of the idealist strain in philosophy, and Aesthetic as Science of Expression and General Linguistic, the introduction to his theory, continues to be the work for which he is best known, and it is by his aesthetic theory that he is judged.

The entire thesis of Aesthetic as Science of Expression and General Linguistic rests on the concept of intuition, and because of the ambiguity of that term, Croce’s work in translation never received the critical attention that the original Italian did. No English term, used without careful qualification, has enough levels of meaning, enough systematic ambiguity, to carry the burden of Croce’s central idea. If, in addition, as may very well be the case, one must bring to the reading of Aesthetic as Science of Expression and General Linguistic a certain tolerance of mind that the prevailing empiricist temper makes difficult, it becomes even more evident that one must resist the temptation to understand Croce all at once. The idea, however deceptively direct its initial expression, must be built with great care, according to Croce’s plan.

With this warning in mind, it becomes possible to take certain phrases as initial statements of Croce’s position, retaining them as expressions to be illuminated by further discussion and reflection, for otherwise they are practically meaningless. Thus, for Croce, art is intuition; intuition is expression; art is the expression of impressions; and expression is the objectification of feelings by way of representative images. Many negations follow from these affirmations; of them, the most important, for those who would understand Croce, is the denial that the work of art is a physical object.

Art as Intuition

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Croce begins Aesthetic as Science of Expression and General Linguistic with a careful elaboration of the distinction between intuitive and logical knowledge; it is a distinction that bears some resemblance to philosopher Henri Bergson’s distinction between intuitive and scientific or conceptual knowledge, but there is a difference. Bergson argued that certain matters cannot be understood analytically or by classes; they must be felt, in their internal particularity—to know by being is intuition. For Croce, the distinction between the object as known from the outside and as realized by itself is not the critical distinction, although it is encompassed by the distinction he does stress. For Croce, intuitive knowledge is the possession of images, but of images clarified by the attention of spirit, freed of all vagueness by the act of apprehension. The idea is remarkable enough to need and deserve amplification, and fortunately there are examples that clarify Croce’s idea of intuition.

Croce asks how a person can be said to have an intuition of a geometrical figure or of the contour of the island of Sicily, if he cannot draw it. The notion that the artist is skilled in the act of transferring an image from the mind to some physical surface, as if his peculiar gift were in the handling of a pencil or brush, is repudiated by Croce. Unless one possesses a sensation or impression contemplatively, realizing it as an individual image, expression has not taken place. Under the influence of sentiment, one may suppose that one intuits, but unless one knows an image as an expression, one deceives oneself.

To enforce his point, Croce points out that the term “expression” is generally limited to verbal expression, but he uses it to cover nonverbal expressions of line, color, and sound. Apparently, for Croce, expression is not merely the clear apprehension of an image; the image is expressive of the feeling that it evokes, and it is through the expression of feeling that it becomes full expression or intuition. Thus, in Breviario di estetica (1913; The Breviary of Aesthetic, 1915), Croce writes that “what gives coherence and unity to the intuition is feeling: the intuition is really such because it represents a feeling, and can only appear from and upon that.” He then goes on to affirm that “Not the idea, but the feeling, is what confers on art the airy lightness of the symbol: an aspiration enclosed in the circle of a representation—that is art.”

The Breviary of Aesthetic, which is in many respects a superior expression of Croce’s aesthetic theory, is interesting because of the series of denials by which the positive import of Croce’s idea is brought out by contrast. To claim that art is intuition, that the artist produces an image which is expressive of feeling, and that he realizes this image in its full individuality, involves the denial that art is a physical fact (for physical facts, according to Croce, “do not possess reality”). It also denies that art is concerned with the useful, with pleasure and pain, and that art is a moral act (for art, unlike morality, “is opposed to the practical of any sort”). Finally, it denies that art is conceptual knowledge (for intuition is unconcerned with the distinction between reality and unreality).

Croce distinguishes between “fancy,” which he describes as “the peculiar artistic faculty” and “imagination”; unfortunately, the translation of this passage of The Breviary of Aesthetic is misleading, for by “imagination” Croce meant the fanciful combination of images, while by “fancy” he meant the production of an image exhibiting unity in variety. The distinction can be grasped by reversing the terms: The mere fanciful handling of images is not art, and the composite image thereby produced is not a work of art; but if the imagination holds on to a sense impression, realizing its presence, taking an interest in it because it serves as the embodiment of feeling, then the image is a work of art.

The esoteric character of Croce’s central idea diminishes as one realizes that Croce was concerned to emphasize the artist’s ability to see more clearly what others only vaguely sense. “The painter is a painter,” he writes in Aesthetic as Science of Expression and General Linguistic, “because he sees what others only feel or catch a glimpse of, but do not see.”

Having argued that art is intuition and that intuition is expressive knowledge, Croce considers the critical rejoinder that, although art is intuition, not all intuition is art. He rejects the sophisticated notion that art is the intuition of an intuition—that is, the expression of intuitions. He argues that there is no such process and that what critics have regarded as the expression of expression is, as intuition, the expression of a more complex field of impressions than is ordinarily covered by intuition. He goes on to suggest that the word “art” is often used to call attention to intuitions more extensive in their scope than ordinary intuitions. However, from the philosophical point of view—which is concerned with essence and not with quantity—all intuition is art.

If the question arises as to whether content or form is the distinctive aesthetic element in intuition, and by content is meant impressions and by form, expression, then the aesthetic fact, the distinctive aesthetic element, is form.

Because art is the elaboration of impressions, the unifying of impressions into a single, intuited image expressive of feeling, it is a means of liberation for people; the objectification of the passions frees people from their practical influence. Artists are people of passion who are nevertheless serene; that is because they use sentiment in the intuitive activity, and by that activity, they liberate and purify themselves. The paradox of artists is resolved once it is realized that sensation is passive, but intuition, as the contemplative and creative activity of realizing images as expressive symbols, is active; through activity artists dominate what would otherwise dominate them.

Art is intuitive knowledge and not conceptual knowledge because knowledge by concepts, according to Croce, is knowledge of the relations of intuitions. Thus, conceptual knowledge depends on the intuitive, and the latter cannot be reduced to the former. Furthermore, concepts are universals; an intellectual conception is concerned with what is common to a number of things, or intuitions. However, intuitions are of particulars; individuals images become expressions and serve as works of art. Croce concludes his discussion of this point with the remark that “The intuition gives the world, the phenomenon; the concept gives the noumenon, the Spirit.” However, this statement is misleading unless we remember that the world presented in intuition is one in which distinctions between actual and possible, true and false, pleasant and unpleasant, and good and bad are irrelevant.


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The beautiful, considered as aesthetic value, is defined by Croce as successful expression, but realizing that expression that is not successful is not expression, Croce concludes by writing that beauty is expression. Consequently, the ugly is unsuccessful expression, or the failure to achieve expression.

Corresponding to the polar values of beauty and ugliness in the aesthetic are the values of truth and falsity for the intellectual, the useful and the useless for the economic, and the just (or good) and unjust (or evil) for the moral. In every case, the positive value results from the successful development of spiritual activity.

Croce’s central criticism of any form of aesthetic hedonism—of any theory that regards art as the production of the pleasurable—is that aesthetic hedonism fails to distinguish between the beautiful, which is the pleasurable as expression, and other sources of pleasure. He scornfully rejects any theory that finds the source of artistic activity in the sexual, in the desire to conquer. He admits that “one often meets in ordinary life poets who adorn themselves with their poetry, like cocks that raise their crests,” but he argues that such a person is not a poet, but “a poor devil of a cock or turkey.”

For Croce, the physical reproduction of intuitions, the making of physical objects that will stimulate those who experience them to the activity of recreating the intuitions, is an aid to memory, or a way of preserving intuitions. Physical reproduction is called “externalization,” and it is defined as the activity of producing stimuli to aesthetic reproduction.

In ordinary language, the physical objects found on the walls of art museums, the statues of stones or metal that stand in gardens, and other such physical, created objects are works of art; but for Croce only intuitions are works of art; the inner image guides the production of the physical “reproduction,” but the physical object is never the aesthetic fact. To confuse the techniques necessary for the externalization of art with the art activity itself is to confuse “Physic” with “Aesthetic.” Externalization is a practical activity, while aesthetic is a theoretic activity. Art is thus independent not only of the intellectual, the useful, and the moral; it is independent of the activity of externalization (which is one kind of useful activity). The effort to reproduce the expression by means of the physical object involves the effort to restore the conditions under which the physical object was produced by the artist; works that are to serve as stimuli to expressions are historically conditioned.

Croce concludes his Aesthetic as Science of Expression and General Linguistic with a chapter in which he explains why he chose to include the words “and general linguistic” in the title. Aesthetic is the science of expression because, for Croce, art is expression (intuition), and aesthetic is the systematic attempt to acquire knowledge about expression. However, Croce claims that aesthetic and linguistic are a single science; philosophical linguistic is aesthetic; “Philosophy of language and philosophy of art are the same thing.” Aesthetic is the science of general linguistic, then, because language is expression, and aesthetic is the science of expression. The defense of his thesis depends on Croce’s decision to mean by “Linguistic” a rational science, the pure philosophy of speech, and by “speech,” any mode of expression.


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Additional Reading

Brown, Merle E. Neo-Idealistic Aesthetics: Croce-Gentile-Collingwood. Detroit. Mich.: Wayne State University Press, 1966. The author devotes the first five chapters of this work, more than half the entire book, to Benedetto Croce. He emphasizes the development of Croce’s theory of art, which began with the view that art is representation and culminated by arguing that it is feeling objectified. The author addresses the influence of Giovanni Gentile on Croce’s changing views.

Casale, Giuseppe. Benedetto Croce Between Naples and Europe. New York: Peter Lang, 1993. The author argues that Croce sought to offer through his concept of historicism an alternative to both traditional religion and the culture of science. He places Croce’s ideas within the context of both Neapolitan and European culture.

Moss, M. E. Benedetto Croce Reconsidered: Truth and Error in Theories of Art, Literature, and History. Foreword by Maurice Mandelbaum. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1987. Arguing for Croce’s continuing philosophical significance, the author addresses his philosophical conceptions of truth, error, and objectivity and analyzes his theory of intuition.

Roberts, David D. Benedetto Croce and the Uses of Historicism. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987. This critical reassessment is the best intellectual biography of Croce available in English. The author includes an impressive bibliography, covering major themes of modern European intellectual history.

Ryn, Claes G. Will, Imagination, and Reason: Babbitt, Croce, and the Problem of Reality. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1997. A good assessment of Croce’s thought.

Sprigge, Cecil. Benedetto Croce: Man and Thinker. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1952. Sprigge’s admiring, though not uncritical, account of Croce’s life and thought is probably the best general biography of Croce available in English.

Ward, David. Antifascisms: Cultural Politics in Italy, 1943-46: Benedetto Croce and the Liberals, Carlo Levi and the “Actionists.” Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1996. A valuable treatment of Croce’s political philosophy.


Critical Essays