filosofo del '900
The first born son of a middle-class professional family from Salerno, he completed his classical studies at 17 and then attended the Faculty of letters at Naples University. His mentor was Antonio Aliotta, an experimentalist philosopher, under whom he obtained his degree in November, 1922. His thesis Le sorgenti irrazionali del pensiero was published in 1923. Among the many reviewers of this work, it is Ugo Spirito who defines it as "one of the most meaningful expressions of criticism against the rationalist position, and one of the most rigorous and least naïve defenses of the theory of the irrational".1 He asks Abbagnano: "Why strive so hard to free life from the hindrance of rationalism only to throw it into the transcendence of the irrational, and thus instead of capturing its creative freedom, have this freedom destroyed by irresponsibility?"2 Recalling his first book, Abbagnano wrote: "I was poles apart from the dominant Hegelism of those days, even if the word 'existentialism' was born after the publication of Sein und Zeit by Heidegger: naturally, I already belonged to that movement that was still interested in facts, existence, individuals"3
At the age of twenty-three Abbagnano married Rosa Del Re, a daughter of the mathematician Alfonso Del Re, and then settled in Naples. For two years he taught at a High School "Torquato Tasso" in Salerno as a substitute and a little later as a regular teacher of Philosophy and History in Catania. He soon returned to Naples to teach in the Liceo Umberto I°. In 1927, he became the professor of philosophy, pedagogy and school legislation in the "Istituto Superiore di Magistero Suor Orsola Benincasa". At the same time he became secretary of the editorial staff at the philosophical review "Logos" edited by Aliotta; in 1939 he became a member of the editorial committee of the same review.
Salerno 1923 - Torquato Tasso high school
Abbagnano in the center foreground
philosopher, Benedetto Croce, then dominated Naples culturally.
Abbagnano's refusal to accept Croce's idealism caused him a cultural
isolation and a hindrance to advancing in the academic world. In
spite of it, and encouraged by Aliotta, he moved ahead with his
theoretical and historical studies. This was made easier by his
knowledge of French, English and German, which allowed him to consult
original texts of philosophy not yet translated, or ignored, or
"betrayed" by neo-idealism.
In 1926, he published Il problema dell'arte, a collection of four articles that had appeared in "Logos" in the years 1924-25. In 1927, his Il nuovo idealismo inglese e americano, in accord with Anglo-American neo-realistic philosophy, stressed the importance of the problem of relations, above all of the relation within reality of "one and many". This was in view of an enlargement of Italian neo-idealism and a renewed discussion of its dialectical bases.4 In 1929, his La filosofia di E. Meyerson e la logica dell'identità leads to a deep analysis of the philosophy of science, and of the logic and the metaphysics of the Polish philosopher, Emile Meyerson.
In 1927 he applied for a chair of Philosophy and History. The result
of the competition was favorable for him and marks the official
beginning of his academic career. He applied for the post of professor
of Philosophy and History at the University of Genoa, but was not
successful. This was a clear sign that his critical posture towards
the reigning idealism was an obstacle. In the meantime his productivity
increased. He continued to teach at "Istituto Superiore di
Magistero Suor Orsola Benincasa" and at the Liceo Umberto I°,
but he also devoted himself to the study of material for such books
as Guglielmo di Ockham (1931) and La nozione del tempo
secondo Aristotele (1933). La fisica nuova. Fondamenti di
una nuova teoria della scienza (1934), the basis of a new theory
of science belongs to the same period. He established "the main
lines of new physics so as to be able to find their gnoseological
)" and "to give an example of a gnoseology capable of
making the validity of new physics possible".5
He wrote: "Every knowledge of science implies a metaphysical principle,
without which it would be impossible to begin. This is the reason
why the validity of any knowledge can be guaranteed only by a study
of its metaphysical foundation. Besides, it is evident that the
problems of the inherent validity of knowledge, and of its absolute
validity in the whole system of knowing are intimately connected.
They are indeed one problem alone. This problem is the metaphysical
foundation inherent in the formation of all knowledge and it guarantees
every aspect of its validity".6
Two years later in Il principio della metafisica (1936) Abbagnano discussed again the topics of his previous work, La fisica nuova, enlarging and justifying his critical opinions as derived from an examination of relativity physics and quantum mechanics.
In 1934 he won the competition for the chair of Philosophy and the
History of Philosophy at the School of Education at Turin, but the
Minister of National Education, Cesare Maria De Vecchi, cancelled
the competition. The following year he again won the competition
for theoretical philosophy and was finally appointed professor to
the Education Faculty of Turin University. He taught there for three
Abbagnano represented a new voice in the cultural world of Turin, and beyond Turin at the very moment when existentialism began to appear on the Italian philosophical scene. In 1937 he published in Naples, Sommario di filosofia per i licei and Sommario di filosofia e pedagogia per gli istituti magistrali which became the basis for his great work, Storia della filosofia, published ten years later
La struttura dell'esistenza (1939) was the first book in
Italy of existential inspiration. Abbagnano wrote in the preface:
"We can define the dominant character of contemporary life with
the words of Karl Jaspers: Wir haben die Naivität verloren (We have
lost innocence) Philosophical naiveté consists nowadays in believing
that to philosophize has no effect on what we are philosophizing
about; that the object of philosophy remains isolated, while philosophy
keeps looking around for it so as to observe it after finding it".
"Regarding itself as a form of being, in that very act, philosophy
differs from being as a problem of being, as a doubt which questions
and seeks. That act gives birth to an intimate and essential relation
between being and inquiring about being: a relation which is the
true nature of human existence. In his way philosophy is no longer
as naïve as it was in its first period of life and appears as the
accomplishment and revelation of human existence in its nature.
It then becomes existential metaphysics. The following pages intend
to give a contribution to this kind of metaphysics, explaining the
meaning of existence as a 'structure'. The meaning of existence
as a structure is evident in them. The movement from the complexity
of the problems of life to the source of these problems, from the
possibility in possession of man to the transcendental possibility
that goes beyond this possession is recognized as the movement that
represents man in his finitude: the supreme condition of this freedom
is death. Man's faithfulness to death, as the acceptance and recognition
of the fundamental risk of existence, is the true destiny of man,
the possibility of his authentic constitution in history".7
In this book Abbagnano referred to both Heidegger and Jaspers and also suggested an alternative to idealistic philosophy. In 1965 Norberto Bobbio gave a speech about Abbagnano in Salerno during a ceremony organized by the town administration in honor of its famous fellow-citizen. In this speech he said: "La struttura dell'esistenza by Abbagnano is certainly the most upsetting among new theories. It bore no resemblance to any other philosophical works written in those years, not even in its form which was concise, linear, without the usual oratorical excess and the usual dialectical virtuosities. Furthermore, the works dealing with the polemics of idealism used the usual familiar jargon. Italian philosophy wasn't used to moderation. Abbagnano's book was so barely dressed as to clearly show its skeleton, where everything was in its proper place".8
In 1939 Abbagnano obtained the chair of the History of Philosophy at Turin University vacated by Adolfo Faggi, and began a seminar on this subject. In time he would have with him Pietro Chiodi, Pietro Rossi and Carlo Augusto Viano as his assistants and loyal disciples. Among his students were Giovanni Cairola, Giuseppe Cambiano, Umberto Eco, Franco Ferrarotti, Massimo Mori, Fernanda Pivano.
Taking up again the themes already expounded in La struttura dell'esistenza, Abbagnano, in his Introduzione all'esistenzialismo (1942) published in the series "New Ideas" by Bompiani Press, explained the meaning of existentialism and its conversion into a positive philosophy, carefully elucidating its positive character. He defended this position in a debate which appeared in the review, Primato, between January 1st and March 15th, 1943. The debate started with the publication of two articles by Abbagnano and Enzo Paci on Italian existentialism and its development in Italy and Europe. Armando Carlini, Ugo Spirito, Francesco Olgiati, Augusto Guzzo, Pantaleo Carabellese, Camillo Pelizzi, Galvano Della Volpe, Cesare Luporini, Antonio Banfi, Giovanni Gentile, Giuseppe Bottai and Giorgio Vecchietti also joined in this debate (The unabridged texts of the debate are found in Bruno Maiorca's book L'esistenzialismo in Italia published by Paravia in 1993). On his account Abbagnano made clear that "existentialism is not a school and rejects proselytism. As it is not simply a doctrine, it requires an existential position to support this doctrine of man as a whole. It may be for man a warning or a guide, but it cannot be a substitute for his decision and his engagement. It shows a way; it does not impose a system. Following this way, everyone can recognize his true nature and all men can understand one another and fulfill themselves in a unified community. Everyone feels, therefore, or must feel the need to define his position towards it. As for himself, he is ready to work and to fight for it".9 In reply to his adversaries, he spoke also for his friend, Enzo Paci, who had gone to war, pointing out that the many and different critics should have remembered that " existentialism calls man to his responsibility towards his nature clearly recognized and affirmed. The philosophy it tries to establish is about existence itself - an existence that has reached clarity and forthrightness with itself. It is not possible to philosophize in a true way if one takes only an objectivist standpoint, rationalism, lectures, myths. One must engage oneself. To engage oneself, one must know oneself and pursue only one task and give to it all one's energies".10
The meaning of "positive" existentialism and its distance from "negative"
existentialism are expressed in the work Esistenzialismo positivo.
Abbagnano opposed the negative forms of existentialism, asserting
that life, even if it is lived in a context of possibility and,
therefore, of doubts, becomes clear to individuals in the "rule"
of being obliged - to be, which allows the maintenance of dignity,
critical function, freedom. He explained the basic difference between
Italian existentialism which is positive, clear and constructive
and the French and German versions which get lost in the anguish
"The lesson drawn from these other trends of contemporary existentialism is that the equivalence of the possibilities in one's existence, which is their common premise, leads to the denial of existence itself as a possibility. If all the possibilities that constitute existence, for one reason or another, are equivalent, then existence is impossible. This assertion shows how important the consideration of value and of rules is for existentialism, even if in the other trends it has been completely neglected. Without a positive solution to the problem of valuation, existence becomes necessity, possibilities become impossibilities; existence denies itself at the very moment it recognizes itself. Compared with the existentialism, which can be defined as negative, not because it denies the beliefs, values or the reality it is not interested in, but because it denies the principle from which existence takes its origin, I propose a positive trend that justifies the recognition and the continuity of existence in its fundamental possibilities and allows the accomplishment of these possibilities. We are opposed to the existentialism that lives under the exclusive theories of Kierkegaard, the philosopher of impossible possibilities. Rather we propose an existentialism that brings Kierkegaard back to Kant and to all those philosophers who have worked to guarantee man the legitimate possession of his own limits".11
Concerning Abbagnano's existentialism, Bobbio wrote: "The only thing we can say with certainty is that existentialism was for Abbagnano, who had reached maturity through a training exemplary for the richness of experiences and vastness of documentation, a congenial encounter. It helped to untie the knots that the post-idealistic debate had entangled, and to find a way, at a moment when philosophy was asked to give a human message, besides a theory of its first principles".12
In the years after the war Abbagnano took part in many national and international congresses of philosophy. His philosophical interests took new directions. He became one of the leaders of the neo-enlightment culture that tried to suggest new ways of reflection and research, looking for new forms of connection with science and also with political life.
His experience, the vastness of documentation not only in the strictly philosophical field, but, above all, his encounters with intellectually fertile minds, cause Abbagnano to participate in many informal meetings. The first was in 1945 with Eugenio Frola, Ludovico Geymonat, Prospero Nuvoli, Enrico Persico; then with Piero Buzano and other such scholars in order to exchange ideas on general and particular questions of method concerning the sciences and disciplines each of them cultivated, from mathematical analysis to the history of philosophy, from symbolic logic to theoretical physics. Those meetings are still remembered as the origin of the "Centro di Studi Metodologici", officially formed in the Autumn of 1947 with the purpose of carrying out inquiries on the relation between logic and science, technology and language and which, in a short time, became the main center of diffusion of the then current epistemology, particularly neo-positivism. When in December 1952 the first Congress of Methodological Studies was held in Turin, Abbagnano began his address saying: "If we wonder what the origin is of the need that methodologic studies try to meet, we can answer that it is found in the principle of the verification of concepts. This means that, in any field of inquiry, a principle is valid only if it provokes and leads the investigation step by step, reaching results that can be checked. The social sciences, particularly sociology, are not exempt from this requirement. The purpose of this discussion is to explain some concepts of observation in sociology".13
This turning-point of Abbagnano's thought was remembered by Bobbio in this way: "The sphere of problems and interests has extended, above all in two directions: sciences and society. As for the problem of science, the presence of Abbagnano at the Center of Methodological Studies has been particularly useful. ( .) The questions of method, and, in general, of the philosophy of science were always one of the keypoints of his concern for the problems of the contemporary world ( .) His point of view towards science has always been averse both to the unconditioned exaltation of a critical positivism and to the complaints of idealists. He confronts science in a posture of reasonable trust".14
In 1948 Abbagnano began his contribution to the Rivista di Filosofia (founded in 1870 by Terenzio Mamiani in Florence, as the Rivista delle scuole italiane). Since 1945 this review had been edited by Norberto Bobbio, who had continued the work carried on in the forties by Piero Martinetti, and then by Gioele Solari. When in 1952 the "Rivista di Filosofia" published by Edizioni di Comunità passes to the Taylor publishing house (founded by his American wife, whom he had married in Turin in 1946 after the death of his first wife) Abbagnano becomes its co-editor with Norberto Bobbio. From then on the review published some fundamental essays of the new period of Abbagnano's thought, marked by the passage from "positive" existentialism to "new enlightenment". In 1951 Abbagnano explained his "new enlightenment" theory in a debate with Antonio Banfi and Norberto Bobbio, in a series of radio conversations (Third Program of the Italian Radio) on the topic "The Tasks of Philosophy":
"The first task of all philosophers is to justify the possibility of a philosophical dialogue; they must then recognize the horizon of the problems that can be discussed together, and the risks connected with all their possible solutions. At present a philosophy that decides to offer a one-sided and dogmatic point of view or be an ideological instrument, must clearly recognize the problems and establish the differences and similarities of these techniques. A philosophy, that could accomplish these tasks, would really help man to find his way in the world, and to make the world more human. Such a philosophy could, therefore, be considered a new enlightment".15
Norberto Bobbio and Nicola Abbagnano participating in the first conference of the "Centre of Methodological Studies"
the meantime Abbagnano developed a deeper interest in sociology.
Back from the XIV International Congress of Sociology held in Rome
in September 1950 and in the Summer of 1951, together with his student
Franco Ferrarotti, Abbagnano founded the "Quaderni di Sociologia",
the first review of sociology in Italy. Later in 1961 the University
of Rome established a chair of Sociology in the Faculty of Magistero
that was given to Ferrarotti, while in Turin the social Sciences
would be taught at the Faculty of Letters and the Professor was
Of Abbagnano's commitment to sociology, Bobbio wrote: "In this field Abbagnano has been a promoter and a guide. It's no use reviving the complaints about the neglect of sociology in Italy after the war. To give it back its place of honor, a work of diligent documentation was necessary. It was also necessary to separate the dross from fruitful gems, to make concepts clear and to set tasks. Abbagnano begins the task in the years 1950-55, when the interest in the sociological research began to flourish again in Italy, among objectives, dissents and the first näive infatuations".16
In a collection of his articles, published in "Quaderni di
Sociologia" between the years 1951-59, Abbagnano said that
he intended to simplify and put in order the language of sociology
and to define the nature and the importance of the conceptual and
methodological tools sociology has at its disposal. In addition
he wanted to specify the relations between sociology on one hand,
and philosophy, the historical disciplines and the physical disciplines
on the other. "History aims at recognizing and rebuilding those
events that, from any point of view, are meaningful for human life
so that they may show new ways, choices or developments for life
itself. Sociology aims at describing the various aspects of human
life. That is why it is a complex set of relative uniformities and,
therefore, of possible repetitions that are important as a whole,
and not individually. It also aims at solving the individual and
properly historical event in the mix of ordinary everyday events.
The sacrifice of one of these ways of inquiry, in favor of the others,
means only an impoverishment of culture and stresses only a partial
aspect of human historicity. Both ways must be cultivated and developed
without antagonism or vain polemics. It is indispensable to define
their respective spheres exactly to reach this aim. Such an outline
is also useful as a critical definition of the possibility of sociology.
Because of this, sociology itself appears as a discipline fit to
bridge the humanities and natural sciences, thus eliminating a fictive
and odious opposition in the contemporary world".17
Abbagnano contributed mightily to philosophical historiography with his Storia della filosofia in three volumes, published between 1946 and 1950 by UTET. It was the crowning achievement of a long period of intense work "a work that, in closely tying doctrines to the personalities of philosophers and stressing, therefore, existential meaning, represented a clear break from idealistic philosophical historiography, the kind practiced by Gentile and by his school, which includes De Ruggiero. Abbagnano had spent a long time preparing his work, first with intense reading and with specific studies during the Neapolitan period, then with Sommario di filosofia per i licei published by Morano in 1937 and with the Antologia del pensiero filosofico published by Paravia in 1940, then again with the successful Compendio di storia della filosofia also published by Paravia in 1945-47 and finally with a series of university courses. Generations of students and scholars learned from these works. The Storia della filosofia, after forty years is still the best comprehensive exposition of the development of the philosophical thought available in Italy (and, according to Willard Quine, in the international literature)".18
In the collection of essays published under the title Possibilità e libertà (1956), Abbagnano resumed and continued the analysis he had been carrying on for years, since La struttura dell'esistenza in 1939. That book is not a discussion about the old problem whether man is free or not, but a set of analyses on the function that the category of possibility has in science, in philosophy, in contemporary art, and on the levels of freedom that are possible to distinguish in different human activities. Abbagnano concluded the preface saying: "If the following pages may induce someone to do accurate and prudent inquiries, resting on verifiable data and meant to solve problems connected more or less directly with man's daily behavior, they will have accomplished their main task".19
In 1955 Abbagnano was invited by the American Government to visit the United States. For three months he gave lectures and attended seminars in the main universities from coast to coast so that he could meet the most prominent representatives of American philosophical thought, as well as such Europeans as the German philosopher, Rudolf Carnap, who was then a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles.
The fifties and sixties were for Abbagnano the years when he reached a full and strong intellectual maturity. He planned and coordinated the impressive Storia delle scienze for which he wrote the introductory chapter "Problemi di storia delle scienze e fasi della scienza".20 After finishing his monumental Storia della filosofia, he considered writing a Dizionario di filosofia. His working method did not allow any improvisation, and a strict self-discipline obliged him to work arduously for about ten years.
Nicola Abbagnano and Carlo Verde, president of UTET
In 1961 the Dizionario
di filosofia was published by UTET, which presents it as "a
veritable conceptual summa, a kind of philosophical system exposed
through great 'voices'. That marked the summit of that effort of
theorical clarification in which Abbagnano was a master". Antonio
Santucci wrote this about the dictionary: "A methodological organization,
in which the results of many readings were ordered. I think, and
I'm not the only one, that it is Abbagnano's greatest work during
his neo-enlightenment period. He explains the meanings of concepts
in different schools and in their internal developments; he describes
the convergences and divergences of doctrines, the problematic attempts
and the most important alternatives, with an analytic purpose justified
by the platonic exhortation of the Euthydemus".21
When Abbagnano had concluded this second monumental work, the editor of the daily paper of Turin, "La Stampa", Giulio De Benedetti, invited the philosopher to contribute to the cultural page of the daily paper. He now had the opportunity to offer the gifts of clarity and rigor that characterize his thought, to a wider public. This collaboration lasted about ten years. Later many of those articles were collected in two volumes: Per o contro l'uomo and Fra il tutto e il nulla.
In particular, in April 1968, together with twentytwo scholars such as Diego de Castro, Silvio Ceccato, Giacomo Devoto, Bruno de Finetti, Paolo Sylos Labini, Giuseppe Ungaretti, he took part in a meeting promoted by "Civiltà delle macchine" the discussion was about the future. Abbagnano took up this subject again in "Lettera per il futuro" that concludes his last book Ricordi di un filosofo.
9-12 April 1968
Diego de Castro and Nicola Abbagnano
the beginning of the seventies, Abbagnano went through a sorrowful
period. In the Summer of 1970, within a few months, he loses his
American wife, Marian, who shared with him the difficult years of
the war and an arduous period of intellectual labor, and he loses
the oldest of his students, Pietro Chiodi, for whom he had a great
Abbagnano nearly isolated himself from society. Only in his teaching and in his writing did he find reasons for living. In 1972, having reached retirement age, he vacated the chair of the History of philosophy that he had possessed since 1939. But he left also, in the minds of many students, the memory of his thinking, of his teaching and his rigor of method which he encouraged his close collaborators to employ. Their own rigorous methods were encouraged by his appreciation for their work and this, in turn, enriched their strength of will. It inspired them to carry out, without hesitation, a pre-established purpose and helped them to overcome moments of discouragement, which were sometimes due to a lack of self-confidence.
Unexpectedly, that year, a time that he himself calls happy, there begins for Abbagnano "a happy period because in June 1972 I had married Gigliola, my third wife". The wedding ceremony has been officiated in Turin by Cardinal Michele Pellegrino, an authentically and deeply religious man, with whom Abbagnano had a true and intense friendship despite being an avowed secularist.
A few months later he moved to Milan, where he began a new and long period of activity, assisted by his new wife with loving care. Abbagnano worked on the revision of his great Storia della filosofia, in anticipation of a new updated and enlarged edition. At this time he also published Questa pazza filosofia and L'uomo progetto 2000 (a book translated and edited in the United States by Nino Langiulli).
He slowed down his activity as a scholar in 1985 when, though he had never taken part in active politics, he accepted the office of councilor for culture in the town council of Milan (He left the office one-year later). He continued this kind of work through contributions to the daily paper "Il Giornale nuovo" at the invitation of Indro Montanelli and Guido Piovene, and also to the magazine Gente. These articles which began in 1974 were then collected in the books La saggezza della vita and La saggezza della filosofia.
He became more interested in the problems of daily existence and his style became more popular, based on the belief that philosophy must be conceived as "wisdom" under the inspiration of Plato. About those years he said: "I haven't ceased my research. I turned it to a practical end, that is, to practical philosophy (in a period when individual freedom must be ever more defended, as my friend Bruno Maiorca wrote in an essay dedicated to me). I am morally convinced that philosophy cannot be a solitary meditation. It must help us to live by considering everyone's self-determination, dignity and freedom, and always in their regard".22
Mayor Paolo Pillitteri and Francesco Alberoni delivering to Abbagnano the gold medal "Ambrogino" of the City of Milan
In official acknowledgements of his merits as a professor and a philosopher during the last thirty years of his life, he was awarded many prizes, among them a gold medal from his hometown of Salerno; a gold medal for the distinguished persons in the field of culture from the President of the Republic; a degree honoris causa in philosophy from Paris; the international prize "San Valentino d'oro"; the prize "Salernitani illustri"; "Penna d'oro" from the Presidency of the Republic; the prize "Pannunzio"; the national literary prize "S. Margherita Ligure Franco Delpino"; the prize "Branca"; the international prize "La Madonnina"; the prize "Lions Club Milano"; the gold medal "Ambrogino" from the Milan Town Council.
Although advanced in age, but devotedly assisted by his wife, Abbagnano kept his intellectual activity alive by writing and reading, in order to be always informed about what was happening in the philosophical world, and not in Italy alone. In his last book, Ricordi di un filosofo, published in 1990 and edited by Marcello Staglieno, he recorded his memoirs. They recall the Naples of his youth and the Turin where he arrived in 1936, and return to the decisive moments of a life that had been active, yet marked by tragic personal events.
Nicola Abbagnano and Nicola PaoloMaria Marvulli
A part of the book is dedicated to thinkers and friends, and to some important themes of our time. The last is what the future will hold for the generations of the third millennium: "Destiny is not always predictable. The next, but also the last destiny will in fact inherit what we left: the measure and the order of life or its destruction. Let us then prepare a good life for future generations. We haven't much time, tempus fugit".23
that book he expressed a decisive rejection of pessimism, and wrote
this about death: "I didn't fear it, and still do not fear it, because
it is part of our existence".
Abbagnano died in Milan on September 9th, 1990. He is buried in the cemetery of Santa Margherita Ligure. In the mausoleum of the Milan Cemetery, a memorial plaque commemorates him among other famous men.
Rosanna Panelli Marvulli