Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Joshua Brazee: "The Other Renaissance"

Joshua Brazee

Book Review

Rocco Rubini, The Other Renaissance: Italian Humanism between Hegel and Heidegger. The University of Chicago Press (Chicago, 2014), 408 pp. ISBN: 9780226186139

1> Professor Rubini’s book traces the confrontation between modern Italian philosophy and Italian Renaissance humanism. Modern Italian philosophy began to disregard humanism as shameful because of its perceived emphasis on the individual, and this sense of shame dominated Italian Renaissance studies until the mid-20th century when the scholars and philosophers Ernesto Grassi, Eugenio Garin, and Paul Oskar Kristeller reinvigorated humanism as a philosophy, largely through the lens of German existentialism. Yet, despite the affinities between humanism and existentialism, the 20th century German anti-Cartesians, according to Rubini, ignored Renaissance humanism. This, he argues, is a sad irony given that Descartes explicitly defined his intellectual project against humanism. These anti-Cartesians missed an opportunity to argue for their insights as, in fact, “a pre- or early ‘modern’ ambition” (5).

2> Italian Renaissance humanism was shameful for the Italians for two reasons. The first, because, according to Bertrando Spaventa (1817-83), the Italians lost ownership of their own legacy. Instead of growing and being cultivated in Italy, humanism found a new fatherland in Germany. Secondly, the Italians believed the Renaissance individualism praised by Burckhardt to have been a political and philosophical failure, leading to the chaos that dominated the Italian states until their unification in 1860-61. Rubini begins his narrative with the work of Vincenzo Cuoco (1770-1823), whose Historical Essay on the Neapolitan Revolution (1801), and Plato in Italy (1804-06) attempted to combat French rationalism by returning to the political and historical realism of Machiavelli and Vico. Even in the absence of a strong philosophical tradition in Italy, Cuoco was trying to develop an Italian way of thinking. This, of course, is humanism. Others, like Spaventa, looked outside the borders of Italy to see where Italian thinking had found a new fatherland. He names “Spinoza, Kant, Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel” as the “true disciples of Bruno, of Vanini, of Campanella, of Vico and other illustrious thinkers” (63). The Italian shame could be overcome, according to Spaventa and others, by showing how Italian Renaissance humanism had in fact blossomed into a powerful philosophical tradition elsewhere.

3> Giovanni Gentile (1875-1944) responds to the rise of positivism in Italy by affirming humanism as “prepar[ing] the freedom of spirit of modern times” (99). At the end of the 19th century and throughout the twentieth century, Italian philosophers, historians, and critics attempted to breathe new life into our understanding of humanism by positioning it as a counter-movement to the positivism, rationalism, and empiricism that dominated contemporary philosophical discussion. Like Gentile, though despite obvious and important political disagreements, Eugenio Garin (1909-2004) and Ernesto Grassi (1902-1991) argued for a renewed understanding both of Italian Renaissance humanism as well as for a radically different take on contemporary philosophy and the scientific and technological world views that came to dominate. The chapters on these two 20th century Italian critics and philosophers, as well as a chapter on Paul Oskar Kristeller (1905-1999) are the cornerstones of the book, in large part because of the importance of these three figures, especially Kristeller, in informing contemporary work on humanism.

4> Grassi, a student and friend of Heidegger’s, through his writing and editorial work, had begun to set the stage for a reinterpretation of humanism as philosophy. Grassi used Heidegger’s insights about the nature of the poetic word to counter Heidegger’s claim that humanism is just another chapter in the long history of western metaphysics. Grassi argued that the humanists had in fact anticipated some of Heidegger’s insights, and that Heidegger, himself not a strong student of humanism, missed these insights completely. Eugenio Garin agreed with Grassi, and his own work elaborated on these insights. Garin’s Italian Humanism provided a philologically accurate description of quattrocento humanism, one that, according to Rubini, acts almost a counter-manifesto to Heidegger’s “Letter on Humanism.” Moreover, Garin took Hans Baron’s insights about civic humanism and turned them into an existentialism. He saw in civic humanism a reconciliation of the personal, the social, and the holy worlds, a reconciliation after which contemporary philosophy was then again striving (284).

5> Although Garin and Kristeller began their careers as friends and intellectual compatriots, their reconnection after the end of the war was short-lived. Kristeller’s work on the Renaissance seemed, at least to Grassi, to be indebted to the anti-humanism and Renaissance shame that he and Garin had been combatting. Kristeller, on the other hand, did not believe that humanism had much to offer that was philosophically original. Yet despite these differences, Rubini maintains that Kristeller, like Grassi and Garin, contributed strongly to the sense of humanism as a philosophy precisely because of how his neo-Kantiansim informed his scholarship. That is, the philosophical nature of the debate Garin and Kristeller were having about the essence of Italian Renaissance humanism turned scholarship about the Renaissance “into a genuine philosophical discourse” (307). According to Rubini, this is a “philosopher’s humanism” which engages in precisely the kind of philosophical thinking that Renaissance humanists would have wanted us to engage in.

6> This is an excellent and important book, one that will prove indispensable to the history of philosophy, dramatically changing our understanding of Italian Renaissance humanism, its legacy, and its future. Working out of the tradition of Grassi and Garin, Rubini’s narrative allows us to see past the limited and often severely limiting judgments of modern critics and philosophers about Renaissance humanism—a legacy of judgments reaching as far back as Descartes—to again to discover what was philosophical about the movement, and what may still be philosophical about it today. Writing in 1940, Grassi argues that modern thinking begins only with Descartes if we believe that the problem of knowledge takes priority. He writes, “If we dispute that priority, then the philosophy of humanism and the Renaissance gains its new and central meaning and proves itself to be a field full of historical and speculative problems.”[if !supportFootnotes][1] Rubini’s book asks us to again take Grassi and Garin’s insights about humanism as philosophy seriously.

7> The book’s style also recommends itself. Although it deals with sometimes weighty philosophical problems, its narrative agenda, telling the story of this other Renaissance and its continual disappearance in modern criticism lends the work a sometimes almost breezy readability. Of course, this too speaks to Rubini’s philosophical as well as historiographical agendas. The other humanism that Rubini reveals in his narrative grants a significance to history and biography that philosophy after Descartes, in its emphasis on truth and knowledge, denies. The story is a much a part of the philosophy, in that we come to attend to the changing nature of human existence through its concern with how its path informs its present, but also in how it allows us to see certain possibilities for the future. For Rubini, those possibilities lie in an explicit reengagement with Italian Renaissance humanism.

8> I worry that while Rubini here has strongly suggested where we might take our understanding of Renaissance humanism, he has broken off too prematurely. What’s missing at the end of this book is something more programmatic, either a reading of a Renaissance work that brings to bear his insights, or something short of a manifesto. Of course, the book is already very long, so this may not have seemed reasonable. But unless Rubini’s readers are already actively engaged with the work of Garin or Grassi, then this book’s conclusions may not lead to any immediate changes in the field. I hope that this doesn’t lead to a loss of momentum for what might be some of the most interesting and challenging insights in Renaissance studies in almost 30 years.

9> Yet in any case, this is an important work. As our own moment wrestles with the place of the professional humanities both in the university and in the world, this book might provide some of the themes and motifs for new insights into the necessity of our work, as well a renewed defense of the humanities.



[1] Grassi, Ernesto. “Der Beginn des Modernen Denkens: von der Leidenschaft und der Erfahrung des Ursprünglichen.” Geistige Überlieferung: ein Jahrbuch. 1.1940: 36-84: 37.


Joshua Brazee is a PhD Candidate in the Department of English, University of Wisconsin-Madison. His dissertation examines how Renaissance English poets understood the differences between their work and the work of the burgeoning new sciences, as well as the rhetorical strategies they used to maintain those distinctions in their poetic practice.


Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature and Culture,
http://appositions.blogspot.com/, ISSN: 1946-1992,
Volume Nine (2016): Texts & Contexts


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