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A System That Excludes All Systems

Giacomo Leopardi's «Zibaldone di pensieri»

Emanuela Cervato

For many decades Giacomo Leopardi’s Zibaldone di pensieri has been seen as a collection of temporary thoughts and impressions whose final expression is to be found in the published poems (the Canti) and satirical dialogues (the Operette morali). The conceptual consistency of the work was thereby denied, privileging Leopardi the poet over Leopardi the thinker.

This book shows that such a perceived lack of coherence is merely illusory. The Zibaldone is drawn together by an intricate web of references centring around topics such as the ambivalent concept of nature; the Heraclitean «union of opposites» (ancients and moderns, poetry and philosophy, reason and imagination); and the tension between the desire for happiness and the impossibility of its realization. Largely unknown to the English-speaking world until its translation in 2013, the Zibaldone is Leopardi’s intellectual diary, the place where dialogue with the ancient classical traditions evolves into modern encyclopaedism and what has been described as «thought in movement». It establishes Leopardi as one of the most original and radical thinkers of the nineteenth century.


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Chapter 3: ‘To Know Is None Other than To Feel’


Chapter 3 ‘To Know Is None Other than To Feel’ In his article ‘La vita e il pensiero di Leopardi’ Sergio Solmi writes that, had Leopardi applied himself to philosophy with the same, scientific and earnest approach he had devoted to philology, a ‘spirito sistematico’ [systematic spirit] such as his would have started with epistemology, an analysis of rationality and its cognitive processes.1 This perceived lack of a Leopardian ‘theory of knowledge’, while indicative of the status of Leopardi studies in those years and the clear preference given to Leopardi the poet over Leopardi the thinker, is also the result of Solmi’s under-estimation of the active role readers need to assume in the approach to this text and in the coordination of its content. The absence from the many Disegni letterari of a specific treatise devoted to a theory of knowledge may indicate that its formal articula- tion was not a priority for Leopardi. Nevertheless, considerations about the components and operations of our cognitive processes abound in the Zibaldone, whose fragmentary and reticular expression may have prevented their identification as an epistemology proper. Leopardi’s understanding of our cognitive and mental processes, founded on Locke and Condillac’s notion of liaison des idées, is inextricably linked with his concept of system: the order of nature, whose main feature consists in its being ‘wholly connected and harmonious and interlinked in each of its parts’ (Zib. 1089–90) is reflected in the order and interconnectiv- ity of our knowledge of it. For this...

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