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Croce on History

Aesthetic Defiguring

Massimo Verdicchio

The book is the first critical reading of all the major writings on history by Benedetto Croce. The study is not a summary but a critical assessment based on the relevance of Croce’s aesthetics for his concept of history. This account differs from previous studies which are characterized by the excluding or by minimizing the aesthetic, a process the author calls “defiguring.” Within this framework Croce’s concept of history is not a total philosophy but only an allegory of history: a narrative of the impossibility of history. In other words, Croce’s history is not unlike his definition of Hegel’s Phenomenology or his system as fiction. It is also not unlike Vico’s New Science, the other major influence on Croce’s concept of history, as an imaginative science. This study realigns Croce’s concept of history with Hegel’s and Vico’s to redefine, thanks to Croce, how we understand history.
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But the question remains whether the pattern of this narrative is “historical,” i.e., revelatory of a teleological meaning, or “allegorical,” i.e., repetitive of a potential confusion between figural and referential statement. (Paul de Man, AR 116)

Our examination of Croce’s concept of history has shown that if we take seriously the claim stated in the subtitle of the Estetica of the identity of aesthetics and linguistics, where linguistics is conceived as metaphorical or rhetorical language, and we keep in mind that history belongs under the category of art, as claimed in the 1893 essay, then history can no longer be defined teleologically, directed toward a future meaning, but rather allegorically, as narrating the impossibility of history as we know it.

There are reasons why Croce’s concept of history is allegorical and not teleological. Following Hegel yet keeping his distance from him, Croce insists on a conception of art as symbol, even though at a close reading the Estetica demonstrates a discrepancy between statement and example, between what language states and what it means. The Estetica shows that whereas the aesthetic is conceived as symbol, the language that describes art is allegorical. The same is the case with Hegel’s Aesthetik, where the symbol is only the apparent manifestation of art, while allegory is the motor that makes thought possible.1 In Hegel as in Croce, allegory is said to be inartistic, a kind of writing or cryptography, and disruptive of art as symbol. For these reasons, in Croce’s...

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