in "New Vico Studies", 20, 2002, pp. 125-28
Nicola Abbagnano, The Human Project: The Year 2000
Nicola Abbagnano, The Human Project: The Year 2000
Nicola Abbagnano was an existentialist philosopher known in the United States through translations of his work by Nino Langiulli and through Langiulli's Possibility, Necessity, and Existence: Abbagnano and His Predecessors, a study of Abbagnano's "critical natural flow and elegance of the original Italian. Langiulli's editions also includes notes, and index, and a bibliography, which were not included in the original Italian edition, thus making this English edition more helpful to scholars. His introductions provides an excellent overview of Abbagnano's works, dividing them into three categories: scholarly works in the history of philosophy, writings devoted to the central issues of his theoretical philosophy, and popular writings. The Human Project falls within this last category. Langiulli's introduction also situates Abbagnano's thought as a whole and The Human Project in particular within in the context of Enlightenment and post- Enlightenment philosophical debates.
Throughout his career, Abbagnano manifested and interest in Vico. In 1952, he published an edition of the New Science. His Storia della filosofia, contains a chapter on Vico and his "Vico, Yesterday and Today" is included in Fra il tutto e il nulla. This last essay is concerned with the Idealist and Materialist interpretations of Vico's theory of history. Abbagnano locates himself among those who argue for replacing the theory of the inevitable character of history in Vico with a problematic and contingent character. Abbagnano's interpretation of Vico on the contingent character of history is in accordance with his own view of history, a view that is crucial to The Human Project.
The central theme of Abbagnano's philosophy is "the interrelationship among the concepts of existence, possibility, and freedom as regards human finitude" (XVII). The Human Project carries this theme through in terms of the "project", the conditions of projection, in which we human beings find ourselves at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Above all, Abbagnano sets out the possibilities that are open to us and the necessity of a return to "the human measure" if we are to survive as human beings.
It is important to insist that this is not a book of prophecy, or a program for revolutionary rational reform, or a work of nostalgia. Abbagnano himself resists all the abstractions that the criticizes. This is rather a genuinely philosophical analysis of the human condition after the failures of the Enlightenment and a description of the human measure that acknowledges both our finitude and our capacity for action.
The book is based on an interview of Abbagnano by Giuseppe Grieco in the humanistic tradition and whose questions are truly Socratic. Chapter One is an Introduction by Abbagnano. Chapter Two and Three are a record of the interview, which falls under two major headings: " The Revolt of the Individual" and " The third Way". In his introduction, Abbagnanoo sets out what he means by "the human measure". The most important considerations is that "freedom can choose even its own negation of annihilation by subordinating human beings to an end which, directly or indirectly , implicitly or explicitly, negates it. "This occurs" when we interpret freedom as an absolute and creative force having no limits or conditions and no subjection to any rule" (7). Although he does not mention Foucault, Abbagnano's rejection of this notion of freedom certainly puts him at odds with Foucault and other post-modern thinkers whose project is this unlimited freedom.
The revolt of the individual is Abbagnano's characterization of the situation in which we find ourselves today. It is important to stress that the individual is, for him, not the isolated autonomous subject but the human being in his social relationship, the individual as Aristotle understands him when he says that man is a political animal. Human freedom is thus conditioned and limited, but also made possible, by these concrete realities. The revolt of the individual is against the absolutes and abstraction in terms of which the absolute notion of freedom is justified, i.e., the forms of the Infinite, such as Reason, Science, and History which, in denying human finitude, actually destroy our humanity. Hence, the horrific spectacle of cruelty and inhumanity of the twentieth century: "Once we nullify the single individual into an abstract entity, everything becomes legitimate" (16). Those who have claimed to liberate us from dependence of God have turned us into slaves of the People, Race, Party, Revolution, and Progress. The revolt of the individual against dehumanizing abstractions points in the direction of a new humanism.
In Chapter Three, "The Third Way", Abbagnano addresses himself to the possibilities for the future. Here, especially, we notice his determination to avoid abstractions. He his not one of "the many philosophical playboys who today pose as humanity's saviors" (57). The Third Way must transcend capitalism and socialism, both of which reduce men to means and instruments. Abbagnano is critical of both, but capitalism has the advantage that "without economic Way must be the result of an ethical and religious choice, not an economic, political, or ideological choice The Third Ways lies at the convergence of God's freedom and human freedom.
Chapter Four is presented as a comment on the interview, focusing on the theme of dignity and freedom, Here again, Abbagnano links the possibility of freedom to the human measure, to human finitude and community. Freedom does not mean the destruction of tradition. On the contrary, it requires the "human substance" of tradition: "affections, friendships, and affective solidarity in the face of difficulties and dangers" (103). Rather tan proposing some new abstraction so as to perpetuate and perfect the modern state, Abbagnano proposes two conditions for rediscovering our roots within our tradition: first, saving human communities from "elephantine", i.e., inhuman, growth, and second, reducing human communities to "the human measure" (104).
Chapter Five is also comment on the interview, focusing on risk and salvation. One of these risks is terrorism. That Abbagnano's analysis of the present condition did, in fact, allow him some insight into what was to come can be seen in his discussion of the internal logic of terrorism and his warning that free societies will be more exposed to terrorist activity. Salvation, for Abbagnano, cannot come in the form of any purely human projects that aspires to the Infinite in any of its abstract forms. "We can appeal to the Infinite only in the form that the great religions, Christianity especially, ha always proposed " (8). Thus, the possibility that Abbagnano holds out for the recovery of the human measure depends upon a form of Christian humanism that affirms the transcendence of the divine.
Vico is mentioned only once in The Human Project but his role is pivotal. Abbagnano writes that : "The truth…is that no one form of barbarity exists that we could call classical, inasmuch as it would come from civilization's absence. Barbarity of return can also exist : 'cultivated' barbarity, such as Giambattista Vico ha foreseen when he spoke of history's runs and reruns". This form of barbarity is "the poisoned fruit of a civilization that as lost the main road of the human measure" (49). The Human Project locates us within this Vichian history, rejecting both the cowardice of despair and the dreams of reason.
In "New Vico Studies", 20, 2002, pp. 125-28