restricted access Benedetto Croce and the Uses of Historicism (review)
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148 JOURNAL OF THE HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY 28:1 JANUARY 199o David D. Roberts. BenedettoCroceand the Usesof Historicism. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, a987. Pp. xii + 449- NP. This book is a remarkably good survey of Croce's enormous output on the general topics of philosophy, politics, and history. Roberts shows an outstanding mastery not only of Croce's voluminous writings, but of the whole secondary literature about him since the first rebellion of his Italian "followers" in the early years of this century. Roberts's aim is to restore Croce to his proper place in the continuing dialogues and debates about historicism and hermeneutics. So far as one writer can achieve such a goal with one book, he has achieved it; if there are reasons to fear (nevertheless) that his achievement may not have the full effect that he hopes for, they are rooted in Croce's own personality and background, not in any failure on the part of Roberts. "[I]f we are to grasp the dominant concerns of Croce's intellectual life, we must approach him primarily as a Western intellectual who was seeking to address the central challenges facing our culture, not confine him to... his particular Italian, or Neapolitan context .... [O]n the deepest level he would have faced the same challenges had he been reared in The Hague or Philadelphia" (24). The final rhetorical flourish here is one of Roberts's rare tumbles into outright absurdity, for what is (perhaps) true in 1987 was not true in 1887. So we should be glad that the Italian background is never really lost sight of. Roberts's treatment of Croce's intellectual formation is rather impressionistic, but we do always have a vivid image of the mature Don Benedetto, the bourgeois Neapolitan worthy who was made a Senator of the Realm in 191o (a biographical fact that is not mentioned). The one serious fault in Roberts's account of Croce's formation--which is excellent on the influence of Vico and Marx--is his failure to take a properly European view of Hegel. He remains a prisoner of Croce's critique of Hegel, so that he is never able to see clearly how deeply Hegelian Croce was. He sees only the differences, and, as far as "historicism" is concerned , they are largely differences from a straw man. Having said that, almost nothing remains but praise. Croce maintained that philosophy was only the tool-bag of the historian. Roberts, who is an intellectual historian rather than a philosopher, takes Croce at his word, with the results that his book is the first (in English at least) to present Croce's thought in the way that Croce himself saw it. He gives us an insightful review of the "philosophy of the spirit" in about sixty pages, including the development of the concept of"utility" into "vitality" in Croce's last years. Then he embarks on a study of how Croce used his philosophical instruments in the theory and practice of historical and political interpretation. The theory of "absolute historicism" (and of how it can be "absolutely" true) is followed by "the religion of history." This was a kind of historicized Buddhism, in my view, until Croce startled everyone, in a942, by announcing that "we cannot but call ourselves Christians"; but it is only the comparison of Croce's historicism with Buddhism that enables us to see it as a "religion" at all. Roberts does not say this, but he does show clearly how far removed from any faith-religion Croce was. After this comes a long chapter on "Historicist Politics." I think this is the best thing in the book, because Roberts not only clearly displays the near-bankruptcy of Croce's BOOK REVIEWS ~49 actual politics as President of the Italian Liberal Party from 1944 to i947, but demonstrates through a study of Piero Gobetti that neither Croce's own conservatism nor his doctrinal rigidity was a necessary corollary of "absolute historicism" in politics. As the main intellectual beacon of opposition to Fascism during its twenty years of power, Croce enjoyed enormous prestige in 1944; but as Don Benedetto, with his great family estates...