Giovanni Gentile Essay - Critical Essays

Gentile, Giovanni


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.

Principal Works

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


Benedetto Croce (essay date 1921)

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 spontaneous consequence of our spontaneous mental development and of the spontaneous agreement of our minds. And therefore this common task, too, gradually becoming differentiated in accordance with the peculiarities of our temperaments, our tendencies, and our attitudes, resulted in a kind of division of labour between us. So that whereas I by preference have devoted my attention to the history of literature, Gentile has dedicated himself more particularly to the history of philosophy and especially of Italian philosophy, not only as a thinker but as a scholar too, and as a philologist. He may be said to have covered the entire field from the Middle Ages to the present time by his works on Scholasticism in Italy, on Bruno, on Telesio, on Renaissance philosophy, on Neapolitan philosophy from Genovesi to Galluppi, on Rosmini, on Gioberti, and on the philosophical writers from 1850 to 1900. And though his comprehensive History of Italian Philosophy, published in parts, is far from being finished, the several sections of it have been elaborated and cast in the various monographs which I have just mentioned.

In addition to this, Gentile has been devoting special attention to religious problems. He took a very important part in the inquiry into and criticism of “modernism,” the hybrid nature of which he laid bare, exposing both the inner...

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Romolo Murri (essay date 1921)

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...

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A. C. Garnett (essay date 1926)

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...

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W. G. de Burgh (essay date 1929)

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...

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Valmai Burdwood Evans (essay date 1930)

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...

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George de Santillana (essay date 1938)

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...

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Giovanni Gullace (essay date 1957)

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...

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Merle E. Brown (essay date 1970)

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...

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Ernesto G. Caserta (essay date 1974)

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...

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Richard Bellamy (essay date 1987)

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...

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Darrow Schechter (essay date 1990)

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...

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Further Reading


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.


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