(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.