History & Praxis: Antonio Banfi and the Milanese School of Phenomenology

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[Paper presented by Francesco Tava at the 2016 Annual Conference of the British Society for Phenomenology. Manchester, 2-4 September]

Let me say by way of introduction that rather than talking of the future of phenomenology this paper will tackle phenomenology’s past. More precisely, what I am going to deal with is a secondary and often neglected chapter in the history of phenomenology that for many reasons is still meaningful today, in light of the most recent trends of phenomenological research. The reason why I decided to focus on the contribution of Milanese philosophers, and especially of Antonio Banfi, to the development of phenomenology, is due to the project of a philosophy blog that I have recently started, together with a group of collaborators in Italy and abroad.

click here to see the blog project

The idea of starting this blog is motivated in part by the initiative of the Open Commons of Phenomenology, which aims at offering a complete overview of the phenomenological movement, through the creation of a series of research blogs, whose activities encompass a wide range of topics and authors within the phenomenological movement. This idea is also partly motivated by an impression I had when I was a visiting scholar in the UK, few years ago. At that time, I remember a number of British students who addressed me, as they had a keen interest in Italian philosophy, which they intended to pursue. As a matter of fact, the idea that today foreign scholars have of Italian philosophy is severely limited to specific areas of research that, despite their utmost importance, fail to describe its complexity. Workerism, Biopolitics, New Realism, Italian theory, are all fairly recent phenomena, which certainly deserve great attention, but that cannot (and neither intend to) give a complete overview of contemporary Italian philosophy. Something that lacks in all these reconstructions is indeed phenomenology. Despite this omission, though, it is well known the great impact that Husserl’s work had, especially from the 1920s until the end of the 1960s, on Italian culture and philosophy. The reception of phenomenology over these forty years constitutes a complex issue that cannot be displayed in its full length here, and that would rather require detailed analyses. Rather than retracing the manifold interpretations of Husserl’s works given by Italian thinkers (click here if you are looking for an excellent article on this topic), I would opt today for a much easier task. Basically, I will focus on the work of Antonio Banfi.

The two fundamental questions that I intend to address are:

1) What are the main characteristics that determine the originality of Banfi’s thought with reference to phenomenology.

2) What is the meaning of his thought for today’s and tomorrow’s phenomenology.

To answer the first question in a nutshell, we might recall what Jan Patočka said regarding Italian phenomenology, in an interview he gave in 1967. Talking of the most promising philosophical trends that, according to him, were emerging in those years, Patočka mentioned first Merleau-Ponty, who had for him the merit of fostering a phenomenological account of corporeality and of the embodied subject. Second, he recollected Antonio Banfi and Enzo Paci, who focused their investigations on history, and on the essentially historical character of human reason and experience.

This element of history is indeed what distinguishes the rather different interpretations of phenomenology given by both Banfi and Paci. Banfi’s philosophical background sinks its roots in neo-Kantianism (especially in the Marburgh School of Cohen and Natorp, which justifies the strong emphasis on epistemology in his work) and also in neo-Hegelianism, even though he opposed the main idealistic trends that spread in Italy in early twentieth century (Croce, Gentile), and was rather influenced by Marx. Although he probably started reading Husserl already in the 1910s, during a research stay in Berlin, Banfi’s real approach to phenomenology dates back to the 1920s: in 1923 he wrote two articles on Logical Investigations and on Ideas I, and a chapter of his 1926 book Principi di una teoria della ragione is devoted to phenomenology. Trying to summarize very briefly Banfi’s approach, one might say that it consists of a radical and pragmatic reinterpretation of the idea of intentionality.

(“La fenomenologia e il compito del pensiero contemporaneo”, 1939)

How can the idea of “intentionality” have an anti-dogmatic power, as suggested in the quote above? According to Banfi, Husserl, by sketching his theory of intentionality, could avoid the double reductionism that neo-Kantianism never truly overcame. On one hand, he avoided in fact the naturalistic and objectivist reduction and, on the other, the subjectivist and psychologist one. Reality, as we know and make experience of it, is therefore neither seen as the outcome of a spiritual process, whose action ends up determining it (as is for example in Gentile’s actualism), nor it results from a historical becoming that human mind can only passively acknowledge (as in bare historicism). Bridging subject and object on a new level, which is neither ideal nor material, intentional acts contribute to frame a new idea of rationality which for Banfi, contrary to what Husserl maintained, presents a fundamental dialectical character. This dialectics of reason, which emerges between subject and object in the process of intentional acts is for Banfi what determines authentic human experience.

In light of the discovery of this new subjective-objective level, which is for him precisely what also Hegel aimed at describing by introducing the idea of an objective spirit, phenomenology can start a series of investigations of human experience in all its various forms. This is precisely what Banfi tried to do over the 1930s, by shaping a complex philosophy of culture. This project however emerges already in the Principles for a Theory of Reason:

Commenting on these words, Enzo Paci praised Banfi’s far-seeing interpretation of the meaning and task of phenomenology, which consisted for him of a “method aimed at the unitary foundation of the various fields of knowledge”. Although this definition can be already detected in Husserl’s early work, it is only after the publication of the second volume of the Ideas that the project of a far-reaching investigation of the various expressions of human culture takes hold in phenomenology, that is almost 30 years after Banfi first sketched his philosophy of culture. The main trait of this philosophy of culture, as Banfi describes it in the 1930 essay “Riflessione pragmatica e filosofia della cultura”, is the refusal of the idea that cultural forms can be established a priori, through a rational scheme that bypasses the thickness of human concrete experience and historical contingency (as for example happens in Croce’s dialectics). Far from this, the “pragmatic reflection” of man on culture only originates in its concrete and historical formation, which Banfi calls the “process of culture”, and only from this concrete formation one can mine the principle of its constitution. In other words, every cultural formation (art, ethics, law, religion) cannot be interpreted simply on the basis of its theoretical principles (aesthetic criteria, moral norms, positive laws, religious dogmas), but must be attained through a phenomenological process which aims at that substrate of notions, traditions and precepts that regulate that given sphere. A concrete phenomenology of art, for instance, should start analyzing the basic art practices, as they appear in everyday life, and later turn to the reflections that stem from these practices, moving towards a more and more precise definition of aesthetic principles, and the consequent emergence of artistic taste, until reaching a definition of beauty per se. This process is characterized by a never-ending dialectics; every time a new cultural form is institutionalized, and becomes thus part of a cultural heritage, the emergence of new practices and experiences break the equilibrium of this institution. Taking into account that this same scheme applies not only to art, but to every cultural sphere, the result is a complex cultural panorama. This panorama becomes the main subject of a long series of essays that Banfi devoted to aesthetics, philosophy or law, religion, natural sciences, and that he later collected in two volumes entitled La ricerca della realtà.

click here for volume I
click here for volume II

The tangled dialectics between the different manifestations of human culture, whose outcomes tend to diverge more and more and whose harmony fatally broke after the catastrophic events of twentieth century, is also at the origin of what Banfi defined as the crisis of our times. A kind of crisis that is not, like in Husserl, a crisis of human capability for relearning or returning to rationality, but is rather the crisis of human history and culture, which is caused by the lack of a historical rational order. According to Banfi, the solution of this crisis cannot be phenomenological, but rather entails identifying a new and non-intuitive principle of reason, which will eventually allow humanity to overcome its internal dialectics. In epistemological terms, this passage corresponds to what Banfi called “theoretical conversion”. Human thinking, from the pragmatic layer which is at the origin of its cultural formations, turns to a new level, which is no more based on intuitive and pragmatic experiences, but is rather established a priori through a purely rational process. This conversion also represents a clear estrangement of Banfi’s philosophy from Husserl’s phenomenology, and is regarded by many interpreters as one of its weakiest points. In concrete terms, the necessity to establish a purely rational and non-intuitive principle, in order to overcome the social and historical crisis, results in Banfi’s political thinking, and can be resumed as a switch from the form of critical rationalism that he developed over his entire career, to dialectical materialism. Already in the 1930s, and especially in the 1940s and 1950s, until his death in 1957, Banfi became one of the most prominent figures in Italian Marxism, not only as a scholar, but also as a dissident (during the years of fascism), and later on, after WWII, as a politician (he became senator in 1948). According to many interpreters, this passage is nothing but abrupt, and rather corresponds to the logical outcome of his thought, whose main task has always been attempting to establish a tight bond between theory and praxis, between reason and history. In this respect, Fulvio Papi wrote that for Banfi “only historical materialism, combined with a critical conception of reason, can build a philosophical platform that is able to resolve in itself the problems that stem from various cultural areas […] without subjecting them to a dogmatic prospective” (in Antonio Banfi e il pensiero contemporaneo, 1967). I think this position is questionable, as Banfi’s perspective radically diverged from the position of many of his students who in the late 1950s, and especially during the following decade, strived to shape an original form of Marxist humanism, by combining early Marx’s output with the dissident thought that was spreading in Eastern Europe. Banfi referred as well to the necessity of fostering a new “humanism” in philosophy and society, but recurring to this word he had in mind not much the recovery of the alienated individual in both socialist and capitalist societies, but rather a rational re-construction of society on rational bases, whose completion results being more important than the various aporias against which this process inevitably runs up against. Marxism becomes therefore for Banfi the fundamental precondition for a new humanism: “Marxism – he wrote in 1948 – becomes the organizing force of a new, wide human culture, and of the conscience of man who fully takes on the responsibility of this destiny”. Two years later, in his 1950 book L’uomo copernicano, he insisted on this point, in an even more radical way:

Banfi’s insight into these topics must be certainly contextualized. These are years of reconstruction in Italy, after the end of WWII. Not only material, but also cultural and philosophical reconstruction. For Banfi, the only way to overcome the crisis of history consists of building history, and the only way to engender this reconstruction is reorganizing man’s cultural forces, i.e. the sources of human creativity. The emphasis on the anti-dogmatic character of intuition, which we encountered in his writings from the 1920s, seems here to disappear. Rather than a neat description of historical phenomena, a much more ideological vision of history ends up prevailing in Banfi’s writings. One of the most despicable examples of this tendency is probably his stance against the Hungarian revolution of 1956, which he accused on various occasions of being a merely bourgeois an counter-revolutionary phenomenon, and his praise for the Russian invasion.

In conclusion, the second question I raised seems to leave unanswered. What is the meaning of Banfi’s thought, if there is any, for today’s philosophy and phenomenology? What remains of it, once it has been cleansed of all the ideological and illiberal sediments that so deeply compromised it? I think that a positive element still stems from it, if we look back at the early stage of his thinking, which is also the one that the interpreters have more often overlooked. By ranging from Banfi’s first phenomenological intuitions until his project of a philosophy of culture, one can still find valuable material for future philosophical investigations. This does not mean of course concealing the problematic aspects that Banfi’s later output entailed. It means understanding this aspects in a new way; as setbacks that do not diminish, but rather emphasize the historical relevance of this thinking.

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