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Open Journal of Philosophy
2013. Vol.3, No.2, 273-277
Published Online May 2013 in SciRes (http://www.scirp.org/journal/ojpp) http://dx.doi.org/10.4236/ojpp.2013.32043
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 273
Anticipations of Hans Georg Gadamer’s Epistemology
of History in Benedetto Croce’s Philosophy
Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Columbia University , N e w Yo rk, USA
Received January 3rd, 2013; revised February 5th, 2013; accepted February 18th, 2013
Copyright © 2013 Cody Franchetti. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons At-
tribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the
original work is properly cited.
In Truth and Method Hans Georg Gadamer revealed hermeneutics as one of the foundational epistemo-
logical elements of history, in contrast to scientific method, which, with empiricism, constitutes natural
sciences’ epistemology. This important step solved a number of long-standing arguments over the ontol-
ogy of history, which had become increasingly bitter in the twentieth century. But perhaps Gadamer’s
most important contribution was that he annulled history’s supposed inferiority to the natural sciences by
showing that the knowledge it offers, though different in nature from science, is of equal import. By
showing history’s arrant independence from the natural sciences, the former was furnished with a new-
found importance, and thrust on an equal footing with the latter—even in a distinctly scientific age such
as ours. This essay intends to show that the idea of history’s discrete ontology from science was prefig-
ured almost a century earlier by Benedetto Croce. Croce and Gadamer show compelling points of contact
in their philosophies, notwithstanding that they did not confer equal consequence to what may be identi-
fied as Gadamer’s principal substantiation of history’s epistemology—hermeneutics. Of course this essay
does not aspire to be exhaustive: the thought of both philosophers is far too dense. Nevertheless, the main
points of contact shall be outlined, and, though concise, this essay seeks to point out the striking similari-
ties of these two cardinal philosophers of history.
Keywords: Gadamer; Croce; History; Epistemology of History; Historical Knowledge; Non-Scientific
Truth; Hermeneutics; Tradition
The history of the hermeneutic tradition and its application to
history is essentially German. Born out of philology, which was
dominated by Germany in the nineteenth century, the herme-
neutic approach sought Truth in Interpretation. The first to em-
bark into an ontology of hermeneutics was Friedrich Schleier-
macher, who, in the first half of the nineteenth century, de-
scribed the task and the nature of interpretation. If it was
Schleiermacher who inaugurated modern hermeneutics, Hans
Georg Gadamer brought its culmination, for in Truth and Meth-
od he revealed its original impetus—that of bearing truth out-
side of the natural sciences, which hitherto had its exclusive
right. Applied historically, hermeneutics rid history of the
shackling argument against its veracity—of being a “soft” sci-
ence—and conferred its independence as an ulterior way of
knowing. Gadamer demonstrated in its fullest sense that her-
meneutic understanding is the epistemology of historical knowl-
edge and how the latter is altogether different from scientific
This conception of history was first held at the turn of the
twentieth century by the Italian Benedetto Croce, who despite
being situated well outside the European cultural dialogue—
Italy had become increasingly provincial in the nineteenth cen-
tury—was one of the few Italian intellectuals who read and was
influenced by Schleiermacher, and, more generally, by German
philosophy. In history’s gradual appropriation of its own, para-
scientific validity Benedetto Croce represents an important sta-
tion, for his philosophy anticipates a number of Gadamer’s con-
The Demise of “Method” in
One of the most important aspects of Gadamer’s thought has
been the dismissal of the dominance of scientific method as the
source of truth in historical understanding. This mental frame,
Gadamer insists, is an inheritance of the natural science model
inaugurated by Descartes. In his Idea of History, Collingwood
recognized that it was Croce who for the first time posited his-
tory’s independence from science:
Croce, by denying that history was a science at all, cut him-
self at one blow loose from naturalism, and set his face towards
an idea of history as something radically different from nature.
We have seen that the problem of philosophy everywhere in the
late nineteenth century was the problem of liberating itself from
the tyranny of natural science1.
It had taken a long time for the forces of skeptical positivism
unleashed by the English and Scottish thinkers to weaken
enough to conceive of another way of knowing; this other
knowledge was not the one that originated with the reconstitu-
tion of the world outside Doubt. Croce’s non-scientific inter-
pretation of history superseded other similar, contemporary at-
tempts such as Dilthey in Germany and Bergson in France:
though both of them recognized the necessity of finding legiti-
macy outside of science, it was Croce’s merit to separate his-
tory from natural science entirely.
Croce’s argument toward an identity of history completely
independent from empiricism was to unhinge it from the idea of
“universal history”. Universal history was an inheritance of
German idealism; it was an ideal shared by the German histori-
cal school of the nineteenth century, which believed there was a
history that existed in itself that was an objective act of self-
consciousness, part of a wider, collective consciousness. This
was a manifestation of a concept that had originated in the
Eighteenth century with Voltaire’s Essai sur les Moeurs, but
which fully sprouted in Germany with Hegel’s concept of
“Weltgeist’; its effects reverberated in historians” thought
throughout the nineteenth century—often polemically. Ranke
was a paradigmatic example, for he believed history to be
composed of “spiritual beings” which in their totality would
constitute “world history”; Droysen sought to understand the
“inner essence” of things; Dilthey conceived of the historical
world as an existing text that had to be deciphered. According
to Gadamer, this idealistic footing was the limitation of nine-
teenth century’s historiography: it had the positivist prejudice
of an “infinite knowledge”, as well as the belief in universal
knowledge as a thing in itself; and despite the German histori-
cal school reacted to Hegel’s eschatological vision of history as
self-awareness, its stance nevertheless betrayed the age’s epis-
The historical school was forced into a theological under-
standing of itself. If it was not to undermine its own disposition
to think of itself as progressive research, it had to relate its own
finite and limited knowledge to a divine spirit, to which things
are known in their perfection. It is the old ideal of infinite un-
derstanding applied to the knowledge of history2.
Gadamer calls it the “old ideal”, because despite nineteenth-
century historians and thinkers reacted to—or thought they
were breaking off from—the rationality of the Enlightenment,
they were still anchored to scientific models of knowing. Croce,
too, violently opposed this old way of conceiving history, for
he viewed the historical gaze as subjective. He refuted the no-
tion of universal history by saying that “the only thing of im-
portance is the actuality of the new situation and the new dispo-
sition of soul that has been produced” and that thus “we know
at every moment all the history that we need to know; […] That
‘remaining’ history is the eternal phantom of the ‘thing itself’,
which is neither the ‘thing’ nor ‘in itself’, but only the imagi-
native projection of the infinity of our action and of our knowl-
edge.”3 Here, his polemic is mainly directed at Hegel’s idealism
that “taught reason in everything”4; but Croce made sure to add
that “to negate universal history does not mean to negate the
universal in history”5. This is the crux of his concept of history:
the subjective thinker makes history by thinking it, and history
is universal in its being thought. Therefore Collingwood’s ap-
pellation of Croce’s vision of what constitutes history-making
as a methodology was mistaken: “within the concrete whole
which is historical knowledge, philosophical knowledge is a
component part: it is the thinking out of predicate-concepts.
Croce put this by defining philosophy as the methodology of
history.”6 Collingwood was fundamentally right in essence, but
I would argue that his choice of the word “methodology” is
misconceived since Croce inveighed against method in histori-
Narrative as an Escape
Croce’s other argument for history’s independence from sci-
ence is the appropriation of the narrative element in history.
Firstly, he stressed the distinction between history and chroni-
cle. Chronicle, he maintained, is dead narrat i v e —non-historical.
History, on the other hand, while it may be composed of chro-
nicle, is history only if thought out consciously.
First comes history, then chronicle: first comes the living
being, then the corpse; and to make history the child of chroni-
cle is the same thing as to make the living be born from the
corpse, which is the residue of life, as chronicle is the residue
In other words, the act of narration must be performed to
make sense of chronicles—to apply them to real life’s contin-
uum—and that very act is history. This idea is strikingly similar
to Hayden White’s; in fact, it is its direct antecedent. The only
difference here between Croce and White is that the former
considered chronicles themselves as being narratives, while
White, under the influence of the postmodernist “linguistic turn”,
deemed the world—including chronicles—as a form of story-
telling itself. Croce’s modernity here should be stressed: think-
ers of the later 20th century such as Danto, Hayden-White, and
Ricoeur, who have been hailed as great originals, did not duly
acknowledge this contribution by Croce. After having distin-
guished with some insistence between chronicle and history,
Croce makes the essential step of divesting historical knowl-
edge from method when stating that the superiority of docu-
ments over narrative is a methodological prejudice that is en-
tirely fictitious. “It was the clean cut which he made in 1893
between the idea of history and the idea of science that enabled
him to develop the conception of history so much farther than
any philosopher of his generation”8. It is of great historical
interest to note that Croce himself did not recognize the sig-
nificance and originality of his move, for he did not emphasize
it: he spoke in an exalted state about connecting history to art
but not about severing it from science. This, I believe, reveals a
significant aspect of nineteenth-century culture: that Croce was
not nearly as proud of severing history from science, as for
having attached history to art, is symptomatic of a dominating
current of the period, which believed that all eventually coa-
lesces into art. It is also telling about our own time that Croce’s
abutment of art and history is disturbing today, for positivism,
ironically, in the age of non-Newtonian physics, seems to have
1Collingw ood, 1946: p. 193.
2Gadamer, 2004: p. 207.
3Croce, 192 3: p. 55.
4Gadamer, 2004: p. 216. Gadamer calls Hegel the last and most representa-
tive of ancient “logos” philosophy for this reason.
5Croce, 192 3: p. 59.
6Collingw ood, 1946: p. 201.
7Croce, 192 3: p. 20.
8Collingw ood, 1946: p. 193.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
regained its reins over the collective unconscious as the sole
way of understanding9. And only those whom we consider
radical thinkers recovered this idea in contemporary times, with
statements like, say, “emplotment is the mimesis of action” (P.
The Subjectivisation of History
Let us now turn to some of the arguments made against
Croce’s and Gadamer’s stance the “metaphysical” notion of
history, another correspondence shall emerge. Somewhat simi-
larly to Gadamer’s reification of the historical immanence of an
historian’s prejudices, Croce posited history from the subjective
point of view. In Historians and Historiography of the 19th
Century G. P. Gooch illuminates this aspect of Croce’s phi-
The past, he [Croce] declares in History, its Theory and
Practice, exists for us solely as a subjective idea of what hap-
pened. All history is contemporary history in the sense that we
can only think of the past with the mind of our own day. The
notion of sequence, indispensable for the practical purposes of
life, fails to provide us with objective reality. The sole reality is
subjective—occurred. History is not a science: unlike the world
of nature, it has no ascertainable laws. Nor can any philoso-
phic system be extracted from it, for every mind and every age
regards it from a different angle. While the facts are historical,
interpretations are purely subjective. To Croce the average
historian is a mere chronicler, for facts only become history
when they have passed through the crucible of an individual
Croce is in effect conferring authorship to the thinker of his-
tory. For this reason, it is not surprising that both Gadamer and
Croce have been criticized as being relativistic; but the counter
argument is already within their work, since the relativistic
argument against them is mainly born out of oversimplification
of their thought. Gadamer’s description of understanding as an
experience of history itself wrests the question of truth out of
the reach of empiricism. For him, historical understanding is
neither a child of method—or any normative datum—nor of
relativism, because in our understanding of history our historic-
ity is manifest: “In all understanding, whether we are aware of
it or not, the efficacy of history is at work.”12 Croce made a
similar case when stating, “truth itself perishes, particular and
determined truth, because it is not re-thinkable save when in-
cluded in the system of a vaster truth and therefore at the same
time transformed.”13 Croce and Gadamer, in different ways, are
expressing that truth is born out of interpretation, which is sub-
jective, surely, but also based on the constantly changing truths
of history (or the texts that the historian is trying to understand).
We have seen that Croce’s subjectivisation of history prefig-
ures Gadamer’s ideas; but other antecedents of Gadamer’s
thought may be found in Croce’s position in the history of the
hermeneutic approach. Though Gadamer may be its culmina-
tion, we ought to start with Schleirmacher, for it was he who
inaugurated modern hermeneutics and stressed the importance
of reconstructing the meaning of the original intention of a
text14. Schleiermacher was the first to speak of the hermeneutic
circle; a metaphor for the way comprehension runs—under-
standing the part from the whole and the whole from the part.
Since the movement from part to whole and back was constant,
in a sort of gyrating motion, progressively expanding, he called
it “Zirkel im Verstehen” or circle/compass of understanding/
comprehension. According to Schleiermacher, the hermeneutic
circle was the methodology of understanding; and as a philolo-
gist he described the circle as the way we interpret texts. Croce
was influenced by Schleiermacher’s Aesthetic and wrote about
it in a late essay15. In it Croce acknowledged Schleiermacher’s
foundational step for the independence of interpretation and
language from logic, stating that “Schleiermacher circumscrib-
ed appropriately aesthetical understanding as a form of know-
ing that is not yet logical knowledge.”16 Though Croce never
wrote about hermeneutics directly, we may infer that he at-
tached implicitly as much importance to it as Gadamer, since,
as we saw, subjective understanding was to both thinkers the
germ of historical thought. Croce’s belief in the inalienable
historicity of history-making is an earlier and less audacious
step than Gadamer’s concept that in understanding the past we
bring ourselves into the historical situation; and with us we
bring our own prejudices (or prejudgments) and as well as those
of our age, which are history, even though some historians are
still bound by the Cartesian “prejudice against prejudice”17 and
Without explicitly mentioning the hermeneutic circle, Croce
exhibited a Schleiermachean perspective of understanding: the
part versus the whole and back, “The individual is called the
subject of the judgment, the universal the predicate […] But for
him who dominates words with thought, the true subject of
9I open, for example, a contemporary New York Times editorial and find the
gray mentality that pervades today’s rationality, as well as its general igno-
Some peopl e live in roman tic ages. Th ey tend to believe that g enius is the
roduct of a divine spark. They believe that there have been, throughout the
ages, certain paragons of greatness—Dante, Mozart, Einstein—whose ta-
lents fa r exceeded norma l compr ehension , who h ad an o ther-world ly access
to transcendent truth, and who are best approached with reverential awe.
We, of course, live in a scientific age, and modern research pierces hocus-
ocus. In the view that is now dominant, even Mozart’s early abilities were
not the product of some innate spiritual gift. His early compositions were
nothing special. They were pastiches of other people’s work. Mozart was a
ood musician at an early a
e, but he would not stand out among today’s
top child-performers. What Mozart had, we now believe, was the same thin
Tiger Woods had—the ability to focus for long periods of time and a fathe
intent on improving his skills. Mozart played a lot of piano at a very youn
age, so he got his 10,000 hours of practice in early and then he built from
there (David Brooks, “Geniu s: the Modern View.” Th e New York Times: 1
May 2009, A 23).
10Ricoeur, 1990: p. 224.
11Gooch, 1959: p. xxxvi.
12Gadamer, 2004: p. 300.
13Croce, 1923: p. 91.
14“To understand a writer better than he understood himself” is his famous
and often quoted phras e.
15L’estetica di Schleiermacher, written in 1933.
16[“Schleiermacher bene circoscrisse il campo dell’Estetica come quello di
un conoscere che non è ancora il conoscere logico.”] Croce, 19 96: p. 554.
17Gadamer, 2004: p. 283.
18For the historian usually chooses concepts to describe the historical par-
ticularities of his objects without expressly reflecting on their origin an
ustification. He simply follows his interest in the material and takes no
account of the fact that the descriptive concepts he chooses can be highl
detrimental to his proper purpose if they assimilate what is historicall
different to what is familiar and thus, despite all impartiality,subordinate
the alien being of the object to his own preconceptions. Thus,despite his
scientific method, he behaves just like ever yone else—as a child of his time
who is unquestionably dominated by the concepts and prejudices of his own
age. (Gadamer, 2004: p. 397).
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 275
history is just the predicate, and the true predicate the sub-
ject.”19 Croce is following Schleiermacher closely—even liter-
ally, for Schleiermacher himself wrote, “The subject must re-
ceive its final determinacy via the predicate and the predicate
via the subject”; Gadamer calls understanding a “fusion of ho-
rizons”; from this point of view, too, we may regard Croce as
the link between Romantic hermeneutics and Gadamer, even
though Croce did not address hermeneutics directly.
Other points of contact between Croce and Gadamer appear
in their response to Dilthey’s aporias. Dilthey was the first to
apply hermeneutics as the epistemic tool of history. Gadamer
acknowledged this contribution, but criticized Dilthey for en-
visaging historical understanding as a methodological practices,
though hermeneutics and method are not commensurable (cfr.
Romantic hermeneutics and the philosophical method on
which it is based are not adequate as the basis of historical
study. Similarly, Dilthey’s concept of inductive procedure,
borrowed from the natural sciences, is inadequate […] the
epistemological Cartesianism that dominated him proved
stronger, so that in Dilthey the historicity of historical experi-
ence is never truly integrated in his thought. […] Thus Dilthey
ultimately conceives inquiring into the past as deciphering and
not as historical experience20.
Now Croce has, as far as I know21, only mentioned Dilthey
once, in reference to Schleiermacher (polemically too, I might
add, since he blamed him for not having heeded Schleier-
macher’s Aesthetic). But if we read Gadamer’s last sentence
above and confront it with Croce’s quote below, Croce’s an-
ticipation of Gadamer’s emphasis of history outside of empiri-
cism—in flagrant opposition to Dilthey’s epistemology—is
[History] arouses the mind from its empirical slumbers and
makes it see that in place of supposed things there are in reality
spiritual acts […] History would indeed be in a fix if it expected
to be born of what comes after it, to be born of external things!
Thing, not thought, is born of thing: a history derived from
things would be a thing—that is to say, just the inexistent of
which we were talking a moment ago22.
Croce’s and Gadamer’s proximity is evident here; both
thinkers see the historical experience as a form of history.
Croce’s implication that history is an act of the spirit—a sort of
phenomenology of the historian—fringes, albeit embryonically,
with Heidegger’s idea that understanding is ontological. It was
upon Heidegger, who renewed previous questions of being
(thus superseding Dilthey’s aporias) that Gadamer built his
recognition of the interpreter’s prejudices as an essential con-
stituent of historical understanding, since Heidegger showed
that the latter is a function of the Dasein and its questions with
Finally, Croce also anticipated Gadamer’s stress on tradition.
Croce found his own antecedent in the writings of Gianbattista
Vico, who defined historical knowledge as different from the
knowledge that the “modern sciences” yielded. According to
Croce, Vico anticipated nineteenth-century philology by defin-
ing the influence of tradition over it: “[philology] proceeded by
testing and selecting those authorities which seemed to it to be
the most worthy of faith, it is always a question of faith and not
of criticism, of verisimilitude and not that certainty that is
truth.”24 Gadamer, too, in a chapter devoted to Vico acknowl-
edged the latter as a lonely voice in the struggle against meth-
odological strictures, who instead appealed to tradition and
sensus communis against the abstract universality of reason:
“He does not deny the merits of modern critical science but
shows its limits. Even with this new science and its mathemati-
cal methodology, we cannot do without the wisdom of the an-
cients and […] the training in the sensus communis, which is
not nourished on the true but the probable, the verisimilar.”25
Here the correspondence between Gadamer and Croce is not
only conceptual but also literal.
It is curious that Gadamer disregarded Croce despite the phi-
losophical similarities of his Italian antecedent. That Gadamer
praised Vico for his crucial role in the reaction against the
preeminence of scientific knowledge over all other forms of
knowledge makes Gadamer’s disregard for Croce ever more
conspicuous. After all, Vico influenced Croce more than any
other thinker, and, as we have seen, Croce himself indubitably
anticipated Gadamer’s thought. Yet in Truth and Method Gada-
mer mentions Croce but once and does not acknowledge neither
his contribution nor his landmark position; he mentions Croce
only in passing—and unfavorably—in a passage where dis-
cussing Emilio Betti, an Italian legal historian who wrote on
legal hermeneutics: “Clearly reacting against Croce’s extreme
position, Betti seeks the mean between the objective and the
subjective element in all understanding.”26 Gadamer here is
displaying the same superficiality, as we saw above in the facile
criticism that had been directed at Gadamer himself, when the
latter was accused of relativism. Croce, as we saw above, in
stating that “truth itself perishes […] because it is not re-
thinkable save when included in the system of a vaster truth
[…]” he affirmed that the ‘subjective’ truth a historian gener-
ates in his understanding of history is always set against “a
vaster truth” which contravenes its possible excesses. This is
exactly the same defense that Gadamer made when countering
the portrayal of his thought as relativistic: Gadamer’s saying
that our being indissolubly rooted in history means we under-
stand it by fusing our own truths with that of history—the very
thing we are trying to understand—is strikingly similar to
Croce’s argument. The similarity of the criticism leveled against
both Gadamer and Croce, as well as their defense, abuts these
two philosophers considerably.
I should like to end this essay with a quote from Gadamer,
which, while embracing Croce’s fundamental—as well as his-
torical—move of history outside the realm of natural science,
19Croce, 1923: p. 60.
20Gadamer, 2004: p. 234.
21In the 1681 pages of collected works of Croce’s works on the philosophy
22Croce, 1923: p. 24.
23Gadamer studied with Heidegger in Freiburg in the mid 1920’s and was
influenced by him. According to Gadamer, Dilthey’s limitations—in short,
not having conceived of understanding itself as a historical act—were over-
come by Heidegger. In Being and Time Heidegger designated the hermeneu-
tic experience as the way we understand our being, our “thrown-ness” into
the world. Heidegger saw interpretation as indissolubly tied with being,
hence, not a method. Upon this conception of hermeneutics (as well as
Heidegger’s analysis of the historicity of the Dasein) Gadamer built his
of historical understandin
24Croce, 1923: p. 29.
25Gadamer, 2004: p. 19.
26Gadame r , 2004:
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 277
REFERENCES also reveals the marrow of Gadamer’s idea of historical under-
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Anticipating an answer itself presupposes that the questioner
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This is the truth of historically affected consciousness. It is the
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chimera of perfect enlightenment, is open to the experience of
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Gooch, G. P. (1959). History and historians in the nineteenth century.
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Gadamer, through an itinerary that started with Schleier-
macher and passed through the ideas of Benedetto Croce has
re-attached us to the original meaning of the word history, the
one embodied in its etymological root “his” that itself stems
from the Indo-European root “vid”—view.
Ricoeur, P. (1990). Time and narrative, volume 1. Chicago, IL: Univer-
sity of Chicago Press.
27Gadamer, 2004: p. 370.