Benedetto Croce and late History of the Philosophy of Science

Stefano Zappoli

Liceo Classico Statale "Paolo Sarpi" – Università degli Studi di Bergamo, Italy

Well known as a theorist of aesthetics, the Italian idealist thinker Benedetto Croce is practically unknown among historians of the philosophy of science working on the crucial period between the 19th and the 20th century. Despite this matter of fact, Croce’s work on Logic (1909) offers a very ‘up to date’ account of scientific knowledge as a ‘practical’ conceptualization of reality, that is not so far from the theories elaborated by Avenarius or Mach. The logic of Croce has been hitherto neglected as a valuable epistemological document: indeed, upon it still lasts the negative judgment formulated by Italian philosophers of science after the Second World War, who were deeply conditioned both by political reasons (the alleged ‘conservative’ character of Croce’s philosophy) and by Marxist ideology (particularly influenced by Lenin’s Materialism and Empiriocriticism). Similar statements, to be sure, should be re-discussed once we consider the results emerging from the history of epistemology of the last decades. This new scholarly reconstruction of the scientific and epistemological debate in Europe, above all in Germany, in the late 19th century demonstrates the enormous role played by Neo-Kantianism; thinkers like Frege and Husserl were deeply indebted to the logical theories of early Neo-Kantians such as Hermann Lotze. Husserl, for example, in his Prolegomena to a Pure Logic (1900), the first volume of the Logical Investigations, maintains «that applied logic, the technique of reasoning for a practical purpose, is itself grounded on a very general theoretical science termed […] ‘pure logic’. The basic error of psychologism is its conflation of pure and applied logic, resulting in a misinterpretation of the pure laws of logic as empirical laws of psychology» (Friedman and Ryckman, 117). In his struggle against psychologism (the main ‘logical’ stream among positivism, deeply influenced by Hume and Wundt), Croce initially devoted himself to a philosophical inquiry about the ‘scientific’ status of history, under the influence of German scholars such as Bernheim and Droysen (1893); afterwards, he entered the debate about Marxism and reflected on the ‘scientific’ status of political economy (1895-1901). In this way, Croce became perfectly aware of the most important epistemological questions of his time, getting acquainted with the theory of fictions (Vaihinger), the ideas of Poincarè and Le Roy about the (instrumental) character of scientific knowledge and the epistemological theorization of Rickert’s work about Die Grenzen der Naturwissenschaftlichen Begriffsbildung (1896-1902), and consigned this epistemological heritage to Italian Idealism. In my talk, I will give an essential picture of Croce’s connection to the contemporary philosophy of science through an account of his theorization of the difference between ‘pure’ and ‘empirical’ concepts, which he elaborated first in the Aesthetic (1901) and then in the Logic (1909). In this way, I will shed new light also on his alleged ‘Hegelianism’ – What is living and what is dead in Hegel’s Philosophy, 1906, engl. ed. 1912 –, as he derived it, for example, from Kuno Fischer’s System der Logik und Metaphysik oder Wissenschaftslehre (18652).