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Gentile counters the Doctrine of Realism

Giovanni Gentile on Dr John Dunn. Giovanni Gentile


In the Spinozist conception, reality is nature, the universe, existing independently of human thought which only aspires to know it, without ever attempting to transform it into a better world of its own - the moral world. The will is degraded by this doctrine of realism to a mere device of reasoning, compelling human conduct to conform to the laws of nature. Its function is therefore negative rather than positive. It is destined to put out of man’s mind any foolish desire to oppose himself vainly to reality, which, being what it is, cannot be changed to please us. Ecologism and the green movement is the latest variant of Spinozist philosophical passivity. This is the enchainment of man, for which the Promethean myth provides the allegory. Spinozist realism holds that the objects of knowledge do not depend for their existence on the knowledge of them. It makes knowing not the activity of the subject but its passivity. In this lies the enslavement that Gentile sought to escape.

Gentile conceptualised his response to Spinozist realism as the Theory of Mind as Pure Act, or Actionism, a philosophy without presuppositions that transcend the act of thinking. It proposed the internality of all the objects of experience (or the totality of the thinkable) in the activity of the thinking ego. Thus in Gentile’s Actionism we find the purest expression of the Promethean spirit.

We see our thought not as act done, but as act in the doing.

In no other way is a spiritual world conceivable. Whoever conceives it, if he has truly conceived it as spiritual, cannot set it up in opposition to his own activity in conceiving it.

If we would understand the nature of this subject, the unique and unifying transcendental I, in which the whole objectivity of spiritual beings is resolved, confronted by nothing which can asset independence, a subject therefore with no otherness opposed to it, - if we would understand the nature of this reality we must think of it not as a being or a state, but as a constructive process.

In the world of mind nothing is already done, nothing is because it is finished and complete; all is always doing.

In short, actuality constitutes reality. Reality is the act of present thinking. All history, all future, exist in the act of present thinking. There is no real future and no real past, but only the present thinking of the future and past.

Mind is neither in space nor in time but space and time are in it. The actual is the eternal present. Mind is the creator of the universe.

Is this the answer to the question - What am I? It was certainly Gentile’s answer.

Never was such an empowerment considered. In taking up his crown and mitre, even Dante did not have such universalising vision as this. Reality is not particularised by the particularised ego, argued Gentile, reality is universalised by the universalising ego. Do away with all presuppositions, because the external character of a presupposition limits the very act of thinking or experience. ‘The measure of pure experience is not outside of it, but inside of it.’

Knowledge is not about reality but is reality. The world about us becomes ours by knowing it, which means actively creating it.

Nosce Te Ipsum "Know Thyself” and you will know the world.

Nothing, in short, transcends thinking. Thinking is absolute immanence

The self of Gentile’s actual idealism is essentially a thinker who wills by transforming the nature of things, the realm of actuality, existence, according to his needs. This type of thinker is a Prometheus, not a Spinoza. The essence of the self is the will to think. The I is strictly speaking not I, but makes itself, or becomes I, constantly defending itself against the seemingly real, whereas ‘reality is a tale told by a thinker signifying everything’.

And this is the critical point, because Gentile attempted to revive the spirit life of man in the face of socio-economic and philosophical forces that would expunge it. In Gentile’s conception, spirit is man thinking. Man creates the world in the act of thinking - All is spirit. Thinking is the essence of humanity. The human thing to do is to think. To live is to think. Not to think, or to let others think for you, is to be sub-human. Gentile allowed for no compromises. Either spirit is everything, or matter is everything. He had no need of metaphorical bridges between the two.

If matter is everything, then spirit is nothing. But in thinking this, the spirit cannot attend, so to speak, to its own funeral. Therefore spirit is everything. Spirit is an absolute creator, not a contemplator. Spirit does not find the intelligible structure of the universe independently of and prior to its coming upon the scene but creates it in its eternal process of self-realisation. Spirit is pure activity and is not contaminated by anything passive or external. Spiritual life means the life of freedom. Man is not man naturally, but becomes man through self-knowledge and self-choice. Man is a spirit because he can choose to be a beast or an angel. Freedom implies growth from within, not from without. The growth of a plant illustrates the latter; the growth of a man illustrates the former.

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