Croce and Whitehead On Concrescence

by George Allan

George Allan is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Chairman of the Department at Dickinson College, Carlisle, Pennsylvania, having been educated at Yale. He is a coordinator of the Society for the Study of Process Philosophies.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 95-111, Vol. 2, Number 2, Summer, 1972. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Dr. George Allan examines Whiteheadian themes in some of Benedetto Croce’s thought, in an attempt to make Whitehead’s thought more understandable.


Benedetto Croce seems not to have read the works of his slightly older contemporary, Alfred North Whitehead; nor vice versa. The neo-idealist vocabulary of the Italian philosopher, in comparison to the empiricist and often scientific vocabulary of Whitehead, may have contributed to this mutual disregard. But beneath the language differences there are striking similarities that deserve investigation.

In this essay I shall attempt to encourage a program of Whitehead-Croce studies by doing two things. First, I shall briefly sketch some key themes in Croce’s philosophy, and shall do so in such a way as to expose the process character of his thought. My strategy will be to associate Croce’s account of human action1 with the rhythms of becoming articulated in Whitehead’s theory of concrescence. Second, I shall draw out some implications from this association: on the one hand, utilizing the detailed precision of Whitehead’s analysis to assist in clarifying Croce; on the other hand, using a Crocean insight to remove a Whiteheadian ambiguity.


Croce speaks to us of Spirit. In attempting to probe the character of history, to understand men in their actions and interactions, their creations and their destruction of what they create, he has recourse again and again to the notion of Spirit at work in the world. Or, alternatively, Liberty: which is Spirit understood as making for the liberation of individual potential and the attainment of optimal value (SPA 50-62). The language is idealist -- indeed at times Croce utilizes "the Absolute" as yet another synonym for "Spirit." But Croce is no idealist. It is important to confuse him neither with Hegel nor with Hegel’s successors.2 Thus Croce vigorously criticizes dialectical idealism for its willingness to postulate a supra-historical power at work in events but ultimately snore real than those events. He insists, in contrast, upon the historical immanence of Spirit, denying the actuality of any entities other than individuals, other than concrete individual actions and occurrences. Thus there is for Croce no "cunning of Reason," no reality that in each given historical moment is partly articulated, partly still implicit: that reaches out across the actions of individual men and of peoples toward the ultimate attainment of its absolute reality as concrete universal. There are, rather, only the multifarious acts of men, mutually related but uncompromisingly unique, each of which manifests fully and with absolute concreteness the reality of Spirit.

Thus Croce’s notion of Spirit is not unlike the category of Creativity developed in Process and Reality. It is an ultimate metaphysical principle but one which exhibits itself only modally. Moreover these modes are events, activities: in one sense discrete and in one sense organically fused with all that was or will be. But there is one important difference. Whereas for Whitehead the modes of Creativity are actual occasions of microcosmic dimension, for Croce the modes of Spirit are human actions. Thus a comparison of the two philosophies must in the first instance be indirect, a matter of metaphor or of analogy based on formal parallels. Although different in content and detail, both actual occasions and human actions are processes of becoming, dialectical in character and constitutive through their activity of temporal historical reality. They are thus isomorphic at an appropriate level of abstraction. It is at that level that I shall begin our discussion. But there are hints in both Croce and Whitehead that suggests parallels in content as well, and I shall conclude the first part of this essay by briefly exploring them.

I shall attempt to indicate the extent of the structural similarities between these two modally displayed ultimates, Spirit and Creativity, by framing Croce’s analysis of human action in terms of the phases of genetic analysis describing the process of concrescence. I assume the reader to be more familiar with Whitehead than with Croce. Thus although all my documentation is illustrative rather than exhaustive, I shall content myself with merely alluding to Whitehead, plus specifying occasionally a page from Process and Reality, while for Croce references will be more frequent and will often indicate relevant sections from his writings rather than proof-texts. It is my aim to encourage the reader to initiate his own comparative study.

With human action, as with concrescence, our starting point is "transition": the "set of all actual occasions" which "is by the nature of things a standpoint for another concrescence which elicits a concrete unity from those many actual occasions" (PR 322). Transition is the process by which this given is appropriated by a new standpoint. The inherited "physical" data are then supplemented by "conceptual" activity and integrated in "propositions" judged adequate to the evidence. If our attention is focused upon the concrescent process only up to the point of initial propositional integration, when the data of experience still reek of their vector origins but have attained the unity of being a single complex datum for the prehending subject (PR 321), then we have something similar to what Croce calls the "theoretic" moment in human action. He, like Whitehead, analyzes it into thee phases, into what are for Croce three degrees of spiritual activity: "intuition," "conceptualization," and a synthesis of the two in an act of "historical judgment." Or, since Croce often refers to these processes by the name of the discipline which is peculiarly concerned with each, we can speak of the "aesthetic," "logical," and "historiographical" phases of the theoretic moment.

The first phase, intuition, is appropriative. It is an experience of one’s world rich with emotional content and the stimuli to emotion, a world complex, confusing, demanding, a world to be taken account of (B 1-21). For Croce intuition is no merely neutral sense reception; first of all, because the individual receives his world always from a standpoint: from a specific situation with its unique concerns, irrepeatable possibilities and inescapable limitations (L 208-21; FP 33-52; SPA 19-22, 103). The intuiter is situated concretely, and what and how he perceives is a function of that situation. Even the experience of a universal such as red or triangularity is always the experience of red-thusly-exhibited, of this-triangular-shape-there (L 176-78; TS 51-63). Croce has earned a reputation as being radically "historicist" because of his insistence upon this non-neutrality of all experiencing.

But intuitions are not the neutral registering of color-patches for a second reason: what is experienced is nothing so abstract and empty as a color-patch. We experience a world of passion and impulse, a world not yet fully shaped, not yet mastered (SPA 192-93). Indeed, the fundamental sense of liberty, of the labor of Spirit, is as a process transcending the world by mastering it, by giving it meaningful form. And there is a third reason why intuition is not neutral receptivity. Where the object of intuition is another human action, what are intuited are not external shapes and colors easily registered and filed in the memory but rather the human person in all his spiritual immediacy and affective intensity (TSS 128-35). The intuition of a prior act is a feeling of feeling, demanding appropriate response.

Thus it is possible to think of Crocean intuition as akin to a physical prehension of past occasions. For it is the appropriation of initial data from a perspective, the character of the’ appropriation being a function of that perspective’s limitations and possibilities, and the resulting objective data bearing in upon the present in a manner requiring mastery or surrender. Croce does not have as strong a sense of the causal efficacy of the experienced world as does Whitehead. He emphasizes much more the artistry of intuition’s shaping and expressive power. But for both Croce and Whitehead the immediate experience of the world is already a movement from reception to possession, from suffering the world to subduing it (F 21): a movement prefiguring the more complex process of becoming that it initiates.

The second phase in the theoretic moment is, for Croce, a conceptual one. But concerning the origin and character of concepts Croce is very unclear. He distinguishes "pure concepts" from "pseudo-concepts," meaning by the latter abstractions from the particulars of experience which we use to classify and thus more easily remember things. Indeed, all scientific theories belong to this level of empirical generalization (L 19-39, 179-97). Pure concepts, on the other hand, are "universal" and "concrete," and would seem to satisfy nicely Whitehead’s requirements for metaphysical predicates (PR 300). That is, they are everywhere exemplified by their full and non-abstract immanence in particulars, but they are not reducible to the sum of their particular exemplifications (L 40-43). Croce’s occasional lists of pure concepts range from predicates appropriate to the four degrees of Spirit -- beauty, truth, utility, and moral good (L 92) -- to lists briefer and lists more expansive (L 31, 75). Since Croce implicitly accepts the ontological principle, inveighing as he does against realities not located in historical particulars, it would seem that the pure concepts share at least this in common with the pseudo-concepts: that they are not a priori, that the process by which one comes to entertain them is much as Whitehead describes the process of conceptual valuation.

Thus both pure and pseudo-concepts have many of the characteristics possessed by Whiteheadian eternal objects, although Croce’s pseudo-concepts are frequently in danger of becoming mere abstractions without transcendence and his pure concepts mere transcendentals without concrete reality. Like Whitehead, he seeks a middle ground between Hume and Kant but with mixed success.

But whatever their origin, the function of Crocean concepts is identical to the function of eternal objects. Epistemologically, they are tools for clarifying, ordering, and giving meaning to experience -- they are "the drawing aside of a veil from the face of the real" (SPA 187; cf. L 284-95; TSS 108-12) Practically, they are lures for action, propositioning passion with possibilities for exemplification (SPA 50). The latter role, the practical, we shall turn to later. The former epistemological role is played out in the third phase of the theoretic moment, the phase of historical judgment.

An historical judgment for Croce is the belief in a proposition the subject term of which refers to a particular object of intuited experience, the predicate term of which refers to a pure concept (L 148-60; FP 86-93; TSS 11-26).3 In the fullest possible sense, the object of such an intuition would be the whole complex given to experience, and the concept would be the complete set of all pure concepts relevantly ordered. Thus an historical judgment, minimally, is the act by which a particular fact is understood, by which abstract possibility is distinguished into truth and falsity. But, optimally, an historical judgment is the act of appropriating all past experience as a unity of data, an initial plurality of particulars the interrelatedness of which thought has now exposed and understood. It is an "aptitude for understanding real situations by linking them with their genesis and connecting their relationships" (SPA 186). Croce speaks of "the historical event" as this complete unification of experience in experience (FP 97; cf. L 297; FP 246-72). To appropriate "the historical event’ is to know the given-to-oneself as what it truly is, without falsehood or partiality. An historical judgment in this fullest sense is, of course, an ideal to be approached. Croce makes no claim for any person ever actually achieving such purity of understanding. Yet it is the goal and normative measure of the search for truth.

In somewhat similar fashion Whitehead’s account of the phases of concrescence is one in which the past is prehended physically, along with conceptual prehensions derived therefrom. But further, this influx of data for subsequent synthesis into a determinate satisfaction gains an initial propositional unity (PR 342). It plays its role within the subjective immediacy of the occasion as datum and not just as data: there is an initial unification by which the plurality of inheritance presents itself as the past of the nascent present.

In the historical judgment, thus, the theoretic moment culminates. The past has been taken up into the life of present activity and articulated there in its unity as constituting the given for that present But it remains tinctured with its vector origins: it remains the past given, that which is other than the living present, not that present but given to it. The transformation of vector into scalar form, of the given past into the given present, is a further labor of creation, of what Croce calls the practical moment in action.

Croce summarizes his account of the theoretic moment, its nature and its importance, as follows: "We are products of the past and we live immersed in the past, which encompasses us. How can we move toward the new life, how create new activities without getting out of the past and without placing ourselves above it? And how can we place ourselves above the past if we are in it and it is in us? There is no other way out except through thought, which does not break off relations with the past but rises ideally above it and converts it into knowledge" (SPA 43-44; cf. SPA 7, 46-49; FP 293-305).

We inherit a past along routes of physical prehension which convey it to us as possessed of overweaning power demanding our conformity to it. The possibility for new activity depends upon our ability somehow or other to rise above this brute inheritance and to master it. The vehicle of success is conceptualization. The necessary although not sufficient prerequisite to fresh creation is to think the physical, to transform a physical demand into a mental problem, and in thus understanding the past, thinking it through, grasping it for what it was in a true proposition integrating the physical and conceptual, we lay the groundwork for the sort of creative activity in which new actuality is born. "The past must be faced or, not to speak in metaphors, it must be reduced to a mental problem which can find its solution in a proposition of truth, the ideal premise for our new activity and our new life" (SPA 44).

We shall turn, then, from premise to activity, from historical judgment to historical action. Croce speaks of the practical moment as complementing and completing the theoretical. "Historiography, as regards practical action, is preparatory but indeterminatory. . . . Knowledge is always of the event, not of what is to be done" (SPA 187). Possessing knowledge, we are not freed from the further task of seeing our own needs, deliberating, and choosing. Practice means the exercise of will, the deployment of physical energy in the pursuit of determinate, historical outcome. Croce distinguishes two degrees or phases of practice, the "economic" and the "ethical." An activity is economic insofar as we view it in terms of the relationship between means and ends, noting the obstacles to he overcome and the strategies by which the will reconciles differences and attains its goal. The economic, in short, is the utilitarian: it has to do with expediency, with the efficiency and effectiveness by which the agent transforms his situation toward a solution to the problem before him. In similar fashion the supplemental phases of concrescence are "non-ethical" when seen only in terms of the first seven categories of obligation. The focus is upon technique, upon success, and not upon the quality of the outcome.

But an action can also be seen in terms of its ends, and indeed is incompletely seen except when the character of the ideal aimed at and the outcome attained be taken into consideration (PP 513). Croce is obscure in speaking of the ethical degree of human action, but seems to mean by it that aspect of an act which opens out beyond the narrow and immediate interests of the actor. A moral act is one which aims at a more general unity than one sufficient to achieve individual satisfaction. Ultimately it aims at a self-unification in which the satisfaction of one’s own interests are at the same time supportive of thc interests of others and take their place in a network of universal harmony. In I fully ethical act one "promotes the realization of the Real, lives a full life and makes his heart beat in harmony with the universe: cor cordium" (FP 446; cf. FP 348-63, 440-51). Morality, in short, is an aim at intensity of outcome in the Whiteheadian sense: an intensity which prepares the future to be a preserve for its accomplishments, rather than merely flashing brilliantly and alone across the momentary sky without successor; an intensity involving massiveness of included elements in a harmony of contrasting detail; an intensity aimed restlessly beyond the acceptable to the better and toward the best (cf. categoreal obligation eight).

There is thus for Croce a certain parallel between the theoretic and practical moments in action (E 55-60; FP 3-20, 293-305). Economic will, like intuition, is an appropriation, a manipulation of material -- but with something left out. The merely aesthetic lacks the discrimination of true and false which when added culminates in the achievement of determinate understanding, the historical judgment. The merely economic lacks a discrimination of good and bad which when present harnesses technique in the service of optimal achievement (FP 438-63). Thus the moral in practical action is an urge toward those propositions displayed in historical judgment which, if rendered determinate, enhance the value of the world. The story of liberty is the account of the successes and failures of this incessant urge.

The outcome of action is the possession and enjoyment of Being: the flux of becoming terminates in an achieved value which Croce describes as "sufficient" and "perfect," meaning by this determinate, settled -- an Absolute (FP 302). What Hegel and "the philosophers of history" locate at the end of time, as the culmination of a world-historical dialectic, Croce like Whitehead finds in the termination of each moment of action.4 Each dialectical movement of becoming is for him "finite and perfect in itself, as far as it encloses the infinite in its actuality. . . . In every stage of development, man possesses and enjoys truth, goodness, beauty, every form of value" (EMR 23f). And if each achievement, to be sure, "gives rise to doubt and dissatisfaction and tile demand for new achievement, yet now and again there is achievement; something is possessed and enjoyed and the apparently precipitous race is in reality a succession of reposes, of satisfactions in the midst of dissatisfactions, of fleeting moments spent in the joy of contemplation" (SPA 54).

When we generalize the above statement so as to remove its specific reference to human consciousness, we have as fine a statement of the rhythm of concrescence, perishing, and transition to new concrescence as one could wish for: "Reality is development, that is, infinite possibility that passes into infinite actuality and from the multiplicity of every instant takes refuge in the one, to break forth anew in the multiple and produce the new unity" (FP 247; cf. 269, TSS 83-93). Croce finds an important place within his system for the two further concepts crucial to an analysis of this rhythm: the perpetual perishing of all achievement, both mental and physical; and the objective immortality by which what perishes gains also a permanence of attainment through its role as datum for further actions (L 493-500; FP 246-61; TSS 91-93; SPA 85-92, 161-69, 265-71).

Croce speaks of this rhythm as a rhythm of self-surpassing of development, of progress (FP 444). Although there are innumerable texts in which he seems to be proclaiming a linear, or at least ultimately linear, progress in history, a progress toward increased liberty, Croce’s theory is in fact of a quite different sort. There is progress in the sense that each action is internally a concrescent progress from an initial problem to an eventual solution, and each new problem-solution builds upon the foundations of the old. But there is no solution which dissolves all problems. Without obstacles there can be no life: becoming is inescapably a tale of struggle, of conflict, of the dialectic between inheritance (being) and possibility (nonbeing). There is a teleology in each action toward optimal outcome but no telos to the universe as a whole, and no optimal outcome überhaupt. Liberty is perpetually in peril and must perpetually rise triumphant from the ashes of old accomplishment (SPA 59-62). In similar fashion, Whitehead is open to misinterpretation (e.g., "the creative advance") but like Croce distinguishes carefully between concrescent teloi and a cosmic telos, and denies the latter (PR 128, 169).

Croce is easily taken for an idealist philosopher of history not only because he speaks of progress in history, but also because he quotes with approval Hegel’s famous slogan: the rational is the real and the real the rational (FP 253; SPA 200). But this is not to be taken as meaning that each historical activity brings onto the stage of the real that which ought to be, nor that agents act always in the service of cunning forces unfolding through them the best of all possible worlds. What-is is not what had to be nor what ought to have been. What-is is, and therefore must have some reason for existence, must be the outgrowth of an historical process and not an inexplicable surd. To find the reason for an event’s existence is thus to give an account of its genesis and development. But to make an historical judgment is to do just precisely that: "to understand the existent in its reasons for existence" (SPA 200). Hence whatever is, is rational. To be is to have a reason for being, is to arise from antecedents and to take a place among contemporaries, without which it would have no origin nor any place. The claim of the identity of the real and the rational is, as Croce interprets it, no more and no less than an appeal to the ontological principle and the principles of relativity and process (categories of explanation eighteen, four, and nine). The philosophy of spirit, he is saying by implication, accepts and insists upon the fundamental principles of the philosophy of organism.

One last point of comparison deserves mention in this brief sketch. As I have already noted, the most salient difference between Whiteheadian and Crocean analyses of becoming is that one focuses upon actual occasions, the other upon human actions. Not only is there a contrast between microcosmic and macrocosmic phenomena, but concrescing occasions for Whitehead comprise the whole of reality, are its ultimate building blocks, whereas human actions make up only a very minuscule portion of the occurrences in the universe. For Whitehead all nature is marked by the rhythms we have been discussing and the rhythm of human action is but a special case. The thrust of Croce’s theory leads in this same direction, however, and its implications he willingly accepts although never adequately develops.

For Croce historical reality is the outcome of processes of human action; its concreteness is the result of dialectical interactions involving theory and practice, thought and will. Nature also is real. Like history, it is concrete and actual, the outcome of processes of becoming. The conclusion seems inescapable: "If so-called nature be, it develops, and if it develop, it cannot do so without some consciousness" (FP 249). Consciousness, but not cognition: "nature is . . . that form of spirituality and activity which is not cognitive" (L 342). But this definition -- activity which is not cognitive -- is precisely the definition of willing: the non-theoretic moment of Spirit. Hence nature is akin to history in that it too is the result of activity, although an activity devoid of the reflective moment.

At one point Croce defines action as activity plus cognition (E 47-49), thus supplying the defining characteristic of the uniquely human at the same time that he refuses to dichotomize man and nature into distinct orders of reality (TSS 128-35; SPA 292-97). History, like Nature, is active: its reality is the fruit of activity. But man also cognizes and thus his activity takes the peculiar form of action. Furthermore, although human action involves cognition it culminates not in thought but in will. Consequently, "man makes himself nature at every moment, because at every moment he passes from knowing to willing and doing" (L 343). Men transcend nonhuman nature in their action. By their powers of self-consciousness, of imagination and understanding, of expression and of criticism, they rise in freedom above the limits of the given situation to entertain novel possibilities and develop creative solutions to the problems besetting them. But as the theoretic moment of action is translated into practice, human freedom plunges back into the natural order. transforming it. Human action, like all activity, is the bringing to be of concreteness, the becoming of being. But for man the process involves a freedom and a mastery not accorded the rest of reality.

Because of this intimacy between man and Nature it is possible in principle to make historical judgments concerning any natural phenomenon; that is, to feel its feelings with the same intuitive penetration by which we know another human action. But what is possible in principle is not undertaken in fact. The distance is too great, the quality of consciousness too rudimentary, too nonhuman, to be bridged by an act of intuition (SPA 295). We know only what we make, says Croce, echoing Vico. And nonhuman realities, although they also fashion their reality, make themselves not as we do. We must remain content, therefore, with the exteriorized "pseudo-knowledge" of scientific classification.

Thus Croce hovers at the brink of organicism. Like Whitehead, he finds Nature to he a continuum of kinds of activity, varying in complexity and including among the kinds one that involves a peculiar elaboration of the "mental pole," a transformation of the conscious mode into the cognitive, of activity into action. Whitehead’s method allows him to claim knowledge of all these kinds of processes through the speculative generalization and interpretation of immediate experience. But Croce’s insistence upon intuition as the route to real knowledge, his suspicion of abstraction and schematization, prevents an extension of his theory beyond the world of human artifice, leads him to draw back from the Whiteheadian brink and to limit his theory to the historical.


Croce is not as precise a writer as one might wish. His insights into specific problems are often brilliant in their clarity, and his philosophical vision in its fundamental themes is unmistakable. But he is deficient in what is the forte of a mathematical mind such as Whitehead’s: the schematizing of detail. Consequently one benefit to be derived from associating the philosophies of Whitehead and Croce is the opportunity to use the former’s technical complexities to interpret the latter’s obscurities and remove debilitating vagueness and ambiguity.

To illustrate, let me focus upon the notion of historical judgment. Outside the area of aesthetics, Croce is best remembered for two claims: that all history is contemporary history (TSS 11-15; SPA 19-22), and that history and philosophy are one and the same activity (L 310-29; SPA 35).5 The two claims are really one. For history becomes contemporary, becomes a living vitality within the immediacy of the historian’s thought, only when appropriated through an historical judgment. "Chronicle" or "philological history" is Croce’s term for the process of gleaning and organizing information without rethinking it in its immediacy. But to rethink past facts of human action is to impregnate data with thought, to think concretely. And that is just exactly what it means to do philosophy: mere abstract ratiocination is for Croce not philosophy but either mathematics (L 406-19), metaphysics (E 64; L 420-37), or mysticism (L 449-61). Thus philosophy brings intuition together with pure concepts, the past is in this manner made alive in the present, and the name of such concrete understanding is historical judgment.

But the account is unsatisfying; Croce’s words bear opaque meanings, they lack the very clarification of fact by thought which they purport to enunciate. In reading the wide variety of views on historiography which Croce is accused of or praised for holding, one cannot help but think the fault may be due not solely to the perversity of his enemies and the blind loyalty of his disciples. Is an historical judgment an act of empathy in which the historian "identifies with" a person who lived long ago and comes to appreciate him better through feeling the very emotions he once felt? Is it a kind of mental miming, reenacting at the level of thought an event previously acted out in concrete practice? Is it, as one critic goes so far as to suggest, a grasp of the truth of all the past in a synthetic understanding worthy of the Absolute Itself? (3:93, 164. 288). Perhaps any of these. Croce gives grounds in his writings for such interpretations just as he does for more sensible ones.

If, however, the similarity to Whitehead be accepted, the Crocean historical judgment can be given "systematic" definition within the schema of concrescent phases. And if the results are adequate to Croce’s "pre-systematic" language and consistent with the rest of his philosophy. then Croce scholarship will have been advanced in so far forth.

According to Whitehead, a conscious perception is the feeling of a contrast between two feelings. One, the indicative physical feeling of a particular state of affairs, i.e., of a nexus of actual occasions. The other, a perceptive feeling of a proposition the logical subjects of which are part of the objective datum of the aforementioned nexus, the predicative pattern of which is a set of eternal objects derived directly or by reversion from the same objective datum (PR 409). It is the correlation of a possible state of affairs with an actual state of affairs, the one entertained conceptually, the other experienced efficaciously. If this vivid contrast between felt fact and felt proposition is felt with the subjective form of belief as to the congruence of the one with the other, the conscious perception is affirmed by the perceiver as true (PR 408, 411).

Now the set of all true perceptive beliefs concerning a specified past occurrence would be a set of feelings each of which contrasts an experienced fact with a proposition referring to that fact. But the results would be doubly inadequate to any attempt at a complete description of that past event.

For on the one hand the facts in present experience are not those of the occurrence in question but are rather connected to it only in complex and often tenuous ways. In short, there is a problem of inference from present fact to past fact: a problem of the authenticity of documents, the accuracy of witnesses, the proper identification of artifacts.

On the other hand, much of the relevant data leave no permanent trace at all. They are felt by a contemporary only with difficulty and generate no enduring objects characterized by the repetition of dominant forms of definiteness. That is, the intentions of the actors, their purposes, thoughts and passions, leave no public monuments. The historic routes are nexus but not societies and so have no independence of the fragile human body of which they are member. Yet without these data the perspective one has on an occurrence is deficient, incomplete and without human meaning. Human fact is debased to brute fact (TSS 73). The difficulty of gaining perceptive feelings of another’s aims and emotions is thus aggravated by the historical character of the occurrence in question.

Moreover, the historian who limits himself to conscious perceptions is not only circumscribed as to the available physical data, but equally circumscribed propositionally since his stock of concepts is restricted to those derivate from precisely this same and meager stockpile of felt data.

It seems obvious that an historian who attempts to carry out his task of describing and explaining past events by restricting himself solely to conscious perceptive judgments and the purely logical inferences therefrom will not get very far. At best he will have information about the dates and locations of various products of human action: parchments and potsherds, dikes and dams, battlefields and graveyards, and old campaign posters. These he can arrange in some order, presumably a temporal one. But no more. He would be, in short, a chronicler. Whatever history is, however, it is clearly more than chronicle; it is more than the arrangements of conscious perceptions judged to be true.

An imaginative feeling differs from a perceptive feeling in its lack of identity between the datum which includes the logical subjects of the proposition felt and the datum from which the predicative pattern is derived (PR 400, 402). Whereas these are identical in perception, they are different in imagination. Forms of definiteness other than those capable of being extracted from the direct experience of an occurrence are entertained as possibilities. If merely entertained, what we have is the free play of imagination, the aesthetic construction of propositions without regard to their relationship to what could or ought to be (PR 419). But if the imaginative feeling is brought into contrast with experienced fact through a feeling with the subjective form of an interest in the congruence of proposition to fact, then the result is an intuitive judgment. And if, furthermore the form of the judgment is a suspended one, then this possible configuration of characteristics being imaginatively entertained is taken neither as exemplified in the actual world nor as incompatible with what is exemplified, but instead it "tells us what may be additional information respecting the formal constitutions of the logical subjects, information which is neither included nor excluded by our direct perceptions" (PR 419).

A suspended intuitive judgment, in other words, entertains possible truths concerning the data before it in experience. But it does so not out of aesthetic delight in the possible but out of a concern for the truth. It is a judgment to the effect that something not directly experienced may nonetheless be the case: that the author of the parchment may have intended to speak the truth and that he may have meant this and not that by his words; that the circle of stones may have been laid out by men who labored at its construction for the purpose of astronomical observation; that this grave may contain the body of a man who died through a misjudgment growing out of an emotion blinding his powers of reason. An intuitive judgment of "yes-form" differs from a conscious perception only in the imaginative origin of the characteristics asserted as true of the event being judged.. A flicker of insight supplies what dogged perception would otherwise provide. But in the suspended judgment intuition reaches beyond its eyes and ears to grasp truths which make possible the understanding of human actions, both past and present.

An act of imagination is not the vehicle for experiencing something otherwise not open to experience. It is not a kind of Bergsonian empathy able to stretch beyond usual modes of feeling to a unique grasp of another’s immediacy, unhindered by the midas-touch of conceptualization. The unimaginative and the imaginative feel the same world. But in imagination predicative patterns derived from physical feelings other than the ones in question are brought into play and used to characterize propositionally the occasions encountered. We predicate our emotions of another’s behavior, or emotions felt. In our experience of one person we project as also present in the inner life of another whose feelings we do not have access to. An historical judgment is an imaginative act of this sort. By the play of its conceptual resources it indicates further possible truths concerning the occasion directly experienced. And as we affirm these possible truths as our own, we open out that horizon of meaningful but not immediately experienced fact which we call history.

Relating these comments to Croce’s two statements about historical judgments, we can give them the following interpretation. All history is contemporary history in the sense that an historical fact is an imaginative elaboration of the predicative pattern of a contemporary event. Thus the historical horizon of our experience is a function of facts directly experienced, taken in conjunction with imaginative articulation of those facts and decisions with respect to the subjective form of critical belief in the truth of the resulting propositions. The merely past is, to be sure, objectively immortal in the present. But it is so without meaning, without that sort of awareness and appreciation of the past of present conscious occasions which is embodied in the act of historical judgment. And philosophy understood as concrete thinking is in this sense indistinguishable from historical judgment. For imagination as here used by Whitehead refers to the philosophical work of entertaining and manipulating concepts, and utilizing them for the purpose of organizing, clarifying, and interpreting the deliverances of the senses.

Aesthetic intuition plus philosophical conceptualization are brought together in the concrete thinking of the historical judgment. Croce here speaks pre-systematically of the integration of an indicative feeling with an imaginative feeling into an intellectual feeling having the subjective form of suspended judgment.

Whitehead refers to the intuitive judgment as the "triumph of consciousness" (PR 245) for here awareness of what-is floats upon the background of what is not but could have been or could still be. This negative dimension of the experience of fact informed by imagination issues in propositions revealing present attainments as contingent and susceptible to alternative determination in the future Thus, like Croce, Whitehead sees the historical judgment as the culmination of the theoretic moment in all human action, and at the same time as the seedbed for practical effort aimed at transforming present conditions into desired outcomes.


I shall now reverse the procedure of the last section and briefly illustrate one way in which Croce’s thought might prove helpful to the interpretation of Whitehead. The question of historical change is worth considering, for it is unclear in Whitehead what relationship holds between the character of concrescent activity and that of historical transformation, between becoming and change.

One possible reading of Whitehead would be to apply, literally or figuratively, the structures of concrescence to the process of historical transformation. If the extension is taken in a literal manner, then one may speak of actual occasions that endure for hours or even weeks (cf. 2). But although this accords with the definitions of "event" in Whitehead’s philosophy of nature writings, it would wreak havoc upon the metaphysics of Process and Reality. Concrescence is not temporal but creative of the temporal; the epochal droplets of reality must therefore be on the order of half a vibratory period or a specious present.

A figurative extension, however, would seem systematically legitimate. That is, a human act, an institutional process, a battle, the rise and collapse of a civilization, might all be metaphorically described as concrescing processes. The structural parallelisms developed earlier in this essay between human action and concrescent becoming support this interpretation. At both the microcosmic and macrocosmic levels there is movement from inheritance to achievement, from problem to solution. But if the forms of the two processes are similar, their contents are not. Historical processes deal with complex societies of enduring objects and the shifting patterns of defining characteristics they variously exhibit, whereas concrescence tells the tale of the birth of each momentary event in that complex.

Metaphors are dangerous. They are justified by certain similarities in structure, yet it is all too easy to assert further structural similarities where none exist. It is important to pinpoint precisely the moment at which fruitful analogy gives way to disanalogy.

Now one of the features of concrescence is its dialectical character. Dialectical, in the sense that an initially implicit unit is made explicit through a process rife with contrasts requiring resolution. The particularity of physical inheritance and the universality of conceptual envisagement are transformed, through a series of resolutions each in itself partial, into a concrete universal the essence of which is the history of its unfolding. Question: is this dialectical character applicable to the macrocosmic regions? Is Whitehead’s thought amenable to the claim that history is dialectical, that the rhythm of human interaction waltzes from conflict to resolution to new conflict? Whitehead has been both criticized for lacking and praised for possessing such a notion. How should he be interpreted?

Croce’s answer is to insist upon the disanalogy. Fundamental to his philosophy is a careful analysis of the difference between "opposites" and "distincts" (E 13-31, 55-66; FP 293-305; cf. footnote 2). Indeed Croce’s self-assessment of his importance in the history of Western philosophy rests in no small part upon his critique of Hegel and of Marx, and of all philosophy of history, for confusing opposites and distincts. From that confusion flow the distorting philosophies of idealism and materialism, and the utopian aspirations which he sees as having destroyed nineteenth-century liberalism and encouraged the growth of the barbarisms plaguing the twentieth century. Certain niceties of theoretical definition are thus, in this instance, of overriding human importance.

The philosophy of spirit emphatically affirms conflict as fundamental to the processes of becoming. Croce describes human actions, which are for him the basic units of becoming, in terms of the struggle of opposites, the clash of beauty and ugliness, truth and falsehood, utility and inefficiency, good and evil. All action arises amid such opposition, and always must do so. Croce saves his choicest polemic for those who would describe life otherwise or who dream of a day when such conflicts should cease (L 462-78; FP 53-72, 192-214; SPA 256-61). "Strife and victory is everywhere and in every moment of universal life" (FP 250). The overcoming of opposition is the work of dialectic, hence becoming is through and through dialectical. But in contrast to this, the transition from occurrence to occurrence, from one human act to another, is not dialectical. Each act is a manifestation of Spirit, and the relationship between the various works of Spirit is definitely not a dialectical one. The degrees of Spirit, the four modalities of human action -- the aesthetic, logical, utilitarian, and moral -- are distinct each from the others. But their interrelationship is not one of mutual dialectical opposition. The birth of each is dialectical but the transition from mode to mode is not.

What is distinct, for Croce, is also concrete and therefore capable of existing in its own right, whereas opposites are, taken by themselves, abstractions. Thesis and antithesis are moments in a concrete synthesis, each by itself incomplete. But no spiritual mode is in this sense incomplete. For example, an aesthetic act is fully concrete: the intuition-expression of a poem is real and not abstract, complete and full and not a partial approximation to something higher. Logical thought does not complete art, it is not a higher form of Spirit achieving conceptually what the artist is capable of expressing only in the incomplete medium of the sensuous. Rather it is altogether another form of spiritual expression, different but not superior, distinct from the aesthetic but in no sense its "overcoming."

Croce complicates the theory of distincts by arguing that the four spiritual forms, although distinct, are not separate. This in two senses. First, there is an order among forms such that the conceptual contains the aesthetic, the economic contains both of the others, and the ethical includes economic, conceptual and aesthetic degrees. Artistic expression might lack a dimension of conceptual reflexivity, but the articulation of an idea requires sensuous embodiment; some acts of expediency may be ethically irrelevant, but any moral act has its quality of utility or non-utility. Second, to speak of a specific spiritual mode of human action is really to claim the dominance of that mode in the act and not its exclusiveness. The "circle of Spirit" is, for Croce, the fact that all four degrees of Spirit are found exemplified in every human act although with varying importance.

Nonetheless, the process by which an individual passes from, say, the aesthetic mode to the conceptual (that is, from an act in which aesthetic form predominates) is not a dialectical one. Nor, for that matter, is the transition dialectical from one aesthetic act of intuition-expression to another. As though the paintings of an artist were to be arranged into three periods, one of thesis, one of antithesis, and one of synthesis! As though an individual in his spiritual development were to outgrow art, foregoing the childish delights of making poetry for the manly task of writing philosophical treatises! The foolishness of the claim is obvious. Each individual achievement, each art work, each poem, each treatise, is the outcome of a dialectical struggle between given conditions and envisioned possibilities. But the achievements are not dialectical advancements upon one another. They are merely different, each with its own proper completeness, integrity, value. One achievement may set the conditions against which the next must struggle, but it is never the case that one is but a partial and abstract moment in the unfolding of the other.

The misapplication of the dialectic of becoming to the processes of historical transition Croce, with Hegel and Marx explicitly in mind, decries as a "false application of the dialectical principle" (L 101), an "abuse of the triadic form" (LDH 97), or, more polemically, "a powerful but vitiated dialectic" (EMR 25). For it is Croce’s contention that historical dialectic entails both a denial of the intrinsic worth of present achievement and a yearning toward some future utopian realm in terms of which all present effort is evaluated The first notion reduces present achievements to merely instrumental value, while the latter de fines the ideal of life in terms of the cessation of struggle. Both are therefore nihilistic claims, for life finds value only in its intrinsic immediacy, which is an arena of ceaseless struggle. "The eulogy of Life is also a eulogy of Death; for how could we live, if we did not die at every instant?" (PP 252). History always pursues her indefatigable work, . . . her apparent agonies are the travail of a new birth, . . . her expiring sighs are means that announce the birth of a new world" (TSS 93).

To confuse distincts with opposites is therefore an error in theory fraught with grave practical consequences. In a concrescent process earlier phases can be understood only in the light of the ultimate satisfaction aimed at. The constituent elements have no independent actuality but are functions of a process which transcends them (PR 359), using the dash and contrast of their divisive purposes as the vehicle for its intended outcome. Therefore to carry this dialectical structure over into an analysis of historical development is to see the past as incomplete, the multiplicities of individual achievement as only apparently diverse, and the transitions from moment to moment as guided by an underlying cosmic aim toward its final apotheosis.

Such a move would destroy the central features of the philosophy of organism. The transcendent freedom of the actual occasion would be threatened by the pervasive control of the cosmic aim. The determinate completeness and intrinsic value of each satisfaction would be reduced to a partiality akin to propositional unity: by itself merely an abstract moment in the drive toward concreteness. The democracy of diverse achievement would be swallowed up in an eventual unity comprising the only true reality.

It would seem, in sum, that a careful scrutiny of Croce’s theory of distincts, his account of the varieties of Spirit’s manifestations, would help in removing from the philosophy of organism the last vestiges both of the Victorian romanticism it occasionally professes and the Hegelian-Marxist romanticism to which it is susceptible. Whitehead remarks at one point that the theory of concrescence "is nothing else than the Hegelian development of an idea" (PR 254). And indeed it is, as long as one does not go on, as Hegel did, and transform the whole of history into the one single instance of idea’s development. To do so is to misplace the concreteness, or rather to misplace its structure: to abstract the form of becoming from its place within the life of actual occasions and to spread it across the spangled heavens of the cosmos. If with Croce’s assistance Whitehead interpreters are able to resist this temptation, then they, as Croce before them, will be able to boast of having "overcome the abstractness of Hegelianism" (TSS 314).


Croce’s critics tend to divide into two camps: those for whom he is too idealist, and those for whom he is too empirical. For example, Mandelbaum (3:39-57) argues that Croce holds a view of intuition in which the knower creates his object of knowledge, and that Croce is led thereby to disdain empirical verification and to overcome skepticism by recourse to a "metaphysical faith" in the Absolute. But Collingwood (1:263-78) argues that Croce is burdened by an excess of empiricist and naturalistic elements in his metaphysic, and that it is only when he shakes free of these influences that his work on history becomes fruitful.

So to the empiricists Croce is too much the idealist, to the rationalists too much a relativist; to the worshippers of the Absolute his pluralism is unfortunate, to the atomists his syntheses regrettable. This two-sided critique is one to which Whitehead also is open. Indeed, it has been the aim of process philosophers from Plato on to seek a middle course between the abstract alternatives advocated by the "gods" and by the "giants." That Croce should likewise draw the fire of both, suggests it may not be entirely in error to interpret the philosophy of spirit as a philosophy of organism.



E -- Croce, Aesthetic as Science of Expression and General Linguistic. New York: Noonday Press, 1922.

EMR -- Croce, Essays on Marx and Russia. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1966.

L -- Croce, Logic as the Science of the Pure Concept. New York and London: Macmillan and Co., 1917.

FP -- Croce, Philosophy of the Practical. New York and London: Macmillan and Co., 1913.

LDH -- Croce, What Is Living and What Is Dead of the Philosophy of Hegel? , New York: Russell & Russell, 1915.

SPA -- Croce, History as the Story of Liberty. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1941.

TSS -- Croce, History: Its Theory and Practice. New York: Russell & Russell, 1960.

1. R. C. Collingwood, "Croce’s Philosophy of History," Hibbert Journal, 19 (1921), 263-78. Reprinted in Essays in the Philosophy of History, Austin University of Texas Press, 1965.

2. Nathaniel Lawrence, "Time, Value, and the Self," in Ivor Leclerc, ed., The Relevance of Whitehead. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1961.

3. Maurice Mandelbaum. The Philosophy of Historical Knowledge. New York: Liveright Publishing Co., 1939.



1The most valuable sources for Croce’s position are the four volumes of his massive Filosofia come scienza spirito: Vol. I. Estetica come scienza dell’espressione e linguistica generale. 1902 (E). Vol. 2. Logica come scienza del concetto puro. 1909 (L). Vol. 3 Filosofia della practica, 1909 (FP). Vol. 4. Teori e storia della storiografia. 1917 (TSS). And In addition, the crucial later volume. La storia come pensiero e come azione, 1938 (SPA).

2 Croce argues that Hegel’s dialectical solution to the problem of unity and difference ultimately breaks down due to his fundamental confusion of "the synthesis of opposites" with the "theory of degrees," his failure to distinguish what are mutually exclusive and abstract from what are distinct but concrete. The result, says Croce. is an unintended dualism in Hegel. Spirit and Nature are sundered and the empirical degraded to an incomplete moment of the conceptual. Hence the followers of Hegel split, almost inevitably, into a "right" which abandons itself to the transcendental fancies of dialectical idealism, and a "left" which reduces itself to the positivist barbarisms of dialectical materialism. Croce seeks to heal the division by rethinking the nature and limits of dialectic. The third part of this essay develops the issue more fully. (See LDH, especially Chs. 1. IV. X.) See also Croce’s "An Unknown Page from the Last Months of the Life of Hegel," in Philosophy, Poetry, History (London & New York: Oxford University Press, 1966), pp. 170-91,

3 This definition will be more fully explicated in the second part of the essay.

4 The third part of this essay is an elaboration of this point.

5 Croce occasionally distinguishes philosophy from history, calling the former the "methodological moment" of the latter (TSS 151). The two views, however, are compatible. They result from an ambiguity in Croce’s use of the term "philosophy." When it is defined as a methodological moment, it is being taken in the narrow sense of "logic," of the conceptual phase of the theoretic moment of action. But philosophy, understood more broadly as the theoretic moment itself, becomes identical with the historical understanding. An early view on the nature of historical judgment, developed in the Estetica, was discarded by Croce and is omitted from the present discussion.