Giovanni Gentile

Part of a Series on the Philosophy of History

Nick Nielsen
9 min readMay 30


Geovanni Gentile (30 May 1875–15 April 1944)

Today is the 148th anniversary of the birth of Geovanni Gentile (30 May 1875–15 April 1944), who was born in Castelvetrano, Italy on this date in 1875, and was assassinated by communist partisans on 15 April 1944.

Gentile is remembered today as the “official” philosopher of Italian fascism. In his 1927 paper The Philosophic Basis of Fascism, Gentile says that, “The authority of the State and the freedom of the citizen constitute a continuous circle wherein authority presupposes liberty and liberty authority. For freedom can exist only within the State, and the State means authority. But the State is not an entity hovering in the air over the heads of its citizens. It is one with the personality of the citizen.” This continuous circle Gentile believed was broken by liberalism:

“Liberalism broke the circle above referred to, setting the individual against the State and liberty against authority. What the liberal desired was liberty as against the State, a liberty which was a limitation of the State; though the liberal had to resign himself, as the lesser of the evils, to a State which was a limitation on liberty. The absurdities inherent in the liberal concept of freedom were apparent to liberals themselves early in the Nineteenth Century. It is no merit of Fascism to have again indicated them. Fascism has its own solution of the paradox of liberty and authority. The authority of the State is absolute. It does not compromise, it does not bargain, it does not surrender any portion of its field to other moral or religious principles which may interfere with the individual conscience. But on the other hand, the State becomes a reality only in the consciousness of its individuals. And the Fascist corporative State supplies a rep resentative system more sincere and more in touch with realities than any other previously devised and is therefore freer than the old liberal state.”

This exposition of Gentile’s conception of fascism is, in a sense, embedded within a philosophy of history, as Gentile’s argument builds up the development of modern Italian history up to his time as a growing historical crisis, and presents fascism as the solution to this crisis.

It has been said that Gentile’s philosophy of actual idealism played a role in the development of fasicism parallel to the role that Marx’s historical materialism played in the development of communism. Rik Peters writes of Gentile’s conception of history:

“‘L’esperienza pura e la realtà storica’ and the chapter on history in Teoria generale dello spirito come atto puro were Gentile’s two major contributions to the philosophy of history before the Sistema di logica. Taken together, they account for the subjective and the objective dimensions of historical thought. In his Pisan inaugural lecture, Gentile tried to show how the historian, on the basis of his subjective experience of reading a text, reaches a judgement based on his previously formed culture, which may be equated with his education. In the chapter on history in the Teoria generale, Gentile specifies this notion of culture in terms of ‘ideal eternal history’, which is very similar to Gadamer’s notion of effective history. Historical judgement can therefore be described as the act of thought which determines an undetermined ‘that’ into a ‘what’ on the basis of historiography. To put it in Gentile’s own words, res gestae (deeds done) and historia rerum gestarum (history of the deeds done) coincide; the past exists only in function of historical thought. From this identity of res gestae and historia rerum gestarum it follows that the sole norm for the objectivity of historical thought is historical thought itself. Outside this there is nothing because concrete thought does not presuppose a reality outside itself; concrete thought is completely norma sui.”

We find this idea of a complete history with no reality outside itself in Gentile’s The Theory of Mind As Pure Act:

“…history is true and effectual reality. When we have understood history by mentally reconstructing its reality, there remains nothing outside it, no reality independent of history by which we can possibly test our reconstruction and decide whether it corresponds or not.”

We are familiar with the identification of philosophy with history from Croce, Gentile’s elder contemporary. Gentile, however, takes this idea in a different direction than Croce. Further along in The Theory of Mind As Pure Act, Gentile says of history:

“It is commonly supposed that historical positivism stands on the same basis as naturalistic positivism. But it is not the same, for the naturalist, in so far as he is such, is necessarily positivist. He must set out with the presupposition that nature is and that it can be known; and its knowability depends on its being, whether its being is known or not. We mean by nature something the mind finds confronting it, something already realized when we are brought into relation with it; and positivism is nothing but the philosophy which conceives reality as fact, independent of any relation to the mind which studies it. History presents, indeed, in the positive character of its events, an analogy with nature; but its intelligibility consists in the unity of the real to which it belongs on the one side and in the mentality of the historian on the other. The history of a past is impossible if it is found unintelligible (if, for example, it is attested by undecipherable documents). Between the personages of history and ourselves there must be a common language, a common mentality, an identity of problems, of interests, of thought. This means that it must pertain to one and the same world with ourselves, to one and the same process of reality. History, therefore, is not already realized when we set out on our historical research ; it is our own life in act. If then nature is nature in so far only as it precedes the thought of nature, history is history in so far only as it is the thought of the historian.”


“Whoever does not feel this identity of self with history, whoever does not feel that history is prolonged and concentrated in his consciousness, has not history confronting him, but only brute nature, matter deaf to the questionings of mind. A history so conceived cannot prove a progress, because it cannot be conceived dialectically as a process of formation. It cannot be so conceived for the same reason as that which prevented Plato and Aristotle perceiving the dynamical life of nature. A history which is finished, self-contained, done with, is necessarily represented as all gathered and set out on one plane, with parts which are called successive, though they have no real and substantial succession, that is, an intrinsically necessary order, in which what comes after cannot go before because it implies and therefore presupposes that which comes first. There can be no such order in the history which is simply the matter of historical representation, for the order of an historian’s presentation of material is a nexus and unity which belongs to his mind. Strictly, history is not the antecedent of the historian’s activity; it is his activity. This is confirmed in the fact that every organization of historical elements, although each element has its own colour and meaning as positive historical fact, bears the imprint of the historian’s mentality (political, religious, artistic, philosophical). There is not a material element of history which remains point for point the same in the various representations which different historians offer, nothing which when we have despoiled a history of all the historian’s subjective particularity — according to the usual empirical conception — we can fix in its skeletal objectivity.”

Rik Peters makes a particularly telling observation about Gentile’s conception of history that is ripe for interpretation and extrapolation:

“It is on the basis of this history [of the idea of history], says Gentile, that Mommsen rightly claimed that he knew more about Roman history than Livy; after all, Mommsen had ‘thought more’, and that, according to Gentile, is equivalent to saying that in the nineteen centuries that separated Livy from Mommsen, the human spirit had thought more. This example shows that Gentile identifies objectivity with intersubjectivity: Mommsen’s history of Rome is more ‘objective’ than Livy’s because his account of Rome’s history takes into account the entire historiography, including the principles on which it is based, from Livy to the nineteenth century.”

I think it is misleading to say that Gentile identifies objectivity with intersubjectivity. What is at stake here — that is to say, what is at stake in the claim that Mommsen knew more about Roman history than Livy — is meaning of knowledge, and, more narrowly, historical knowledge. Livy had a knowledge of Roman history that no modern scholar can ever possess: the “lived experience” (in Diltheyean terms) of Roman history; Livy’s Roman history is history written by a Roman. Mommsen no doubt had an absolute knowledge of Roman history that exceeded that of Livy in terms of any objective quantification of knowledge, but he had no lived experience of Roman history.

The other interesting idea in this passage is that of the collective accumulation of knowledge since Livy’s time, the accumulated nineteen centuries of research and scholarship, which are, by implication, focused in the work of the contemporary scholar. This suggests a thought experiment. A Byzantine of the 14th century could have looked back on the history of Rome as nineteen centuries of continuous history, of which he might have counted himself a part. Compare this to the perspective of a twentieth century scholar who also looks back over nineteen centuries, but not understanding himself as a part of this tradition. Certainly the lived experience of a late Byzantine historian would have been radically different from the lived experience of Livy, but would it be as different from Livy as we see ourselves as different from Livy?

I have noted in other contexts that the author of Le Mort d’Arthur is closer to us in history than to the historical Arthur (if there was an historical Arthur), yet we place both Sir Thomas Malory and the historical Arthur in the past, and both as representatives of medieval civilization, and therefore more distinct from ourselves than from each other. Perhaps we are justified in doing so, as the above thought experiment suggests. However, our relative proximity to the past will always be a mixed bag. By being closer in time to Sir Thomas Malory than to the historical Arthur, we are more likely to be able to gather additional information about Malory than about Arthur, for example, through archaeology. Presumably, Malory could have known, and could have discovered things about Arthur that have since disappeared and so are inaccessible to us. Thus historical order matters, perhaps as much as historical proximity.

Further Resources


Peters, R. (2015). The Actuality of Gentile’s Philosophy of History. In B. Haddock, & J. Wakefield (Eds.), Thought Thinking: The Philosophy of Giovanni Gentile (pp. 164–200). Imprint Academics.

Gentile, G. (1965). Eighteenth-Century Historical Methodology: De Soria’s Institutiones. History and Theory, 4(3), 315. doi:10.2307/2504348


Gentile, G. (1928). The Philosophic Basis of Fascism. Foreign Affairs, 6(2), 290. doi:10.2307/20028606



Nick Nielsen