Croce between Hughes & White

by contributing editor Eric Brandom

The AHA met in Denver this past weekend. What follows is not a conference report, although there was much worthy of that. It is, rather, a response of sorts to two of the events I attended there in the form of a reflection on two classic works of intellectual history—H. Stuart Hughes’s Consciousness and Society and Hayden White’s Metahistory—that were discussed at these events. The very different books both assign great importance to Benedetto Croce, and treat him at some length as part of a much broader argument.

The problem of objectivity in social science occupies the heart of Hughes’s 1958 Consciousness and Society: The Reorientation of European Social Thought, 1890-1930. The book is rich, wide-ranging, and combines durable typologizing with uncommon subtlety. The narrative runs something as follows. In the middle of the 19th century, positivism reigned supreme, and positivists were certain that the social world could be known and perhaps even acted upon just as could the natural world. Such knowledge turned out to be at once elusive and unsatisfying. In the later part of the century, many thinkers in parallel staged a “revolt against positivism.” The positivism they attacked was often a caricature. For Hughes, the most enduring thinkers to emerge from this moment were those that felt deeply within themselves the pathos of the age, the wrenching pain of relativism, but also remained faithful to the core rationalist project of Enlightenment that had issued in the now-bankrupt positivism. Many proved to be all too willing to give up the egalitarian and democratic bent of the Enlightenment mindset when its notion of science proved unequal to social reality. Hughes’s story is partly one of the generation of 1890, but also of the encounter of this generation with the war in 1914, and the shards of what had come before that survived into the 1920s. This generation, Hughes writes,

had passed their youth at the climax of the Enlightenment—and simultaneously had inaugurated its most probing critique…their own psychological security—their confidence in such unstated assumptions as humane behavior and intellectual integrity—had given them the inner strength to inaugurate an unprecedented examination of conscience…The philosophies of urbane doubt—skepticism, pragmatism, pluralism—held no terrors for them (Hughes 426).

Their younger brothers (and here we indeed are speaking entirely about men) did seem to be terrified of these things, and Hughes identifies his period as one of experimentation and permissiveness between two ages of dogmatism.

Hughes identifies three figures as the geniuses of the age: Max Weber, Sigmund Freud, and Benedetto Croce. He explicitly writes about the problems and the figures he does because they have relevance in his own time, because the United States in the 1950s had not lost the orientation in social thought then established. Although Hughes doesn’t put it quite this way, as I read him, he believes that Weber more than anyone else posed rightly the central problems of value and objectivity and so provides a sort of standard—and leads into midcentury American social science; that Freud probed more deeply into the individual human psyche than ever before and is therefore an indispensable methodological tool, for instance for understanding Weber’s personality; and that Croce, who first formulated what Hughes takes to be the social science objections to Marxism, provides essential orientation for the historian in pursuing historical work.

Croce’s career can be schematized in terms of his three best-known slogans or positions: first, that history is to be subsumed under the category of art; second that all history is contemporary history; third that history is the story of liberty. This last is the title given in English translation to his 1938 La storia come pensiero e come azione, in which he defends what he describes as “absolute historicism.” Each of these slogans has a certain initial appeal. Yet Hughes’ description of the experience of reading Croce rings true:

Croce’s prose is limpid; it has the rare charm of sounding like the voice of common sense…With irresistible persuasiveness Croce carries his readers along with him. As we come to the end of a chapter we are both captivated and convinced. But when we subject the same pages to more careful analytical scrutiny, we find ourselves no longer so sure…we are driven to ask ourselves in despair: exactly what has Croce said anyway? (Hughes 223)

Indeed for Hughes the problem with Croce was that perhaps just because he in the end assimilated everything into the category of history, he never successfully came to terms with the non-rational character of value. Thus, “the ultimate irony of Croce’s thinking” is that “what starts as a rationalist theory terminates in a kind of mysticism” (Hughes 227). Hughes indicts Croce finally for a certain detachment, what has often been describes as an Olympian equanimity, “in brief, he lacked a sense of tragedy” (Hughes 229).

Irony and tragedy are key terms in White’s Metahistory, which appeared just 15 years after Hughes’ book. White uses the tools of structuralist literary criticism to examine what he calls the “deep structure” of the 19th century European historical imagination. The introduction establishes a system of interpretive categories: master rhetorical tropes, narrative or emplotment, explanatory or argumentative strategies, and modes of ideological implication. Just as, for Hughes, the truly enduring thinkers are those who struggled mightily with a deep contradiction, so for White those texts that remain alive to us are the result of internal struggle. Together with the centrality of rhetorical categories, White has taken on a theory of literary excellence: the best works struggle to synthesize incompatible modes. We as readers may continue to return to Michelet, but not to Ranke: “we admire the achievement of the latter, but we respond directly and sympathetically to the agon of the former” (White 191). White describes the larger goal of his book as an overcoming, through Irony, of the Ironic mode that is the origin of “the skepticism and pessimism of so much of contemporary historical thinking.” In so doing, “the way will have been partially cleared for the reconstitution of history as a form of intellectual activity which is at once poetic, scientific, and philosophical in its concerns—as it was during history’s golden age in the nineteenth century” (White xii).

The final chapter is on Benedetto Croce, regarded by White as “the most talented historian of all the philosophers of history of the century” (White 378). The first pages of the chapter recapitulate the path so far. After Nietzsche, “it remained only for a philosopher of history to reflect on this severed condition of historical consciousness and to conclude that historical knowledge itself was nothing but the existential projection of the Ironic mode to complete the cycle of possible historical attitudes in the philosophy of history…The problem would then be: how could one live with a history explained and emplotted in the Ironic mode without falling into that condition of despair which Nietzsche had warded off only by a retreat into irrationalism?” (White 378). Thus White must end with Croce because the task he believes Croce to have shouldered was just the one that White sees himself as taking up.

And Croce evidently failed. Looking over the first major phase of Croce’s work, from the 1893 programmatic essay reducing history to a subcategory of art, then the tetralogy of books from 1902-1917 making up his “Philosophy of Spirit,” White notes the central place occupied by history as a category. White goes on to object that “Croce consistently presupposed the absolute adequacy of his own “Philosophy of Spirit” for the spiritual needs of his age,” and that “he looked out at contending systems and back to preceding ones with that same Ironic gaze which the great cynics have shared with the great fanatics.” In short, Croce could not regard himself with ironic detachment (White 379). Despite his claims to have constituted “ethico-political” history, “in aestheticizing history, Croce de-ethicized it” (White 401).

White’s final judgment on Croce is withering. Croce’s liberalism, indeed his whole system of philosophy and history “was a sublimate of his generation’s awareness of the passing of an age, the Age of Europe, of humanism, and of that combination of aristocratic and bourgeois values which gave to the ruling groups of nineteenth-century Europe their distinctive life style” (White 423). History as contemporary history indeed. If White’s approach is narratological, it has frequently been pointed out that his chapters are nonetheless biographical. The chapter on Croce is no exception, indeed in the end the facts of Croce’s biography are adduced as evidence (not, White says, that more is needed) to show in good Marxist fashion that his work derives from his class position. White finds “the social equivalents of Croce’s main abstract philosophical categories: the principle of Life was nothing but a sublimation of aristocratic heroism; that of Death was nothing more than the bourgeois acceptance of practical exigency. The interplay of the two constituted Croce’s conception of culture, and the story of that interplay was his idea of history” (White 425)

The gambit of Metahistory, of course, is also to aestheticize history. White does not want to repeat Croce in emptying it of ethical content, if indeed we agree with him that this is what Croce did, and one can surely argue about his conduct under fascism. Rather, by being yet more self-conscious than Croce, White wants to pull the teeth of Irony itself and with liberatory intent:

Historians and philosophers of history will then be freed to conceptualize history, to perceive its contents, and to construct narrative accounts of its processes in whatever modality of consciousness is most consistent with their own moral and aesthetic aspirations. And historical consciousness will stand open to the re-establishment of its links with the great poetic, scientific, and philosophical concerns which inspired the classic practitioners and theorists of its golden age in the nineteenth century (White 434).

Hughes’s criticisms of Croce may be turned on White’s own attempt to overcome Croce. Like Croce his vision of what the writing of history might be seems impossibly encompassing. Beginning with art, White brackets the objectivity that so concerned Hughes and ends in historiography as freedom. White sets out with a rational formalist (although not a formist) account of historical thought and his book issues if not exactly in mysticism, in a therapeutic for historians.


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