Philology as Philosophy: The Sources of Ernesto Grassi's Postmodern Humanism

By Rubini, Rocco | Annali d'Italianistica, Annual 2008 | Go to article overview
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Philology as Philosophy: The Sources of Ernesto Grassi's Postmodern Humanism


Rubini, Rocco, Annali d'Italianistica


"Gli studi umanistici sono un immergersi nel passato per farlo essere ancora, un additare e un rimembrare: indicare un ricordo. Indicare un ricordo ha in se qualcosa di non chiaro, perche indicare e un dire: 'vedi...'; e ricordare e lo stesso che vedere; indicare e richiamare l'attenzione, e ricordare e gia attendere; e se e gia attendere, perche indicare? e cosa vuol dire poi richiamare l'attenzione, se l'attenzione e gia in atto?"

(Castelli 1)

Current reconsideration of some distinguished Renaissance scholars and postmodern philosophers has renewed both interest in, and controversy surrounding, Renaissance and contemporary humanism(s). The purpose of this essay is to reintegrate Ernesto Grassi's perspective into a debate that has too long suffered from its absence. Those readers who focus on the humanism Grassi developed in the 1980s often conclude that his work, though intriguing, was merely an idiosyncratic reaction to Martin Heidegger's antihumanism. In reality, Grassi's humanism was a complex mediation that engaged with and transcended the estranged worlds of Renaissance scholarship and Continental philosophy. The following essay defines the current context from which Grassi has been excluded, before returning to the philosopher's early career to articulate the foundations of his diffused and gradual approach to the problem of humanism.

Between "umanesimi" and "umanismi"

The major event of the past few years in Renaissance studies is the reconsideration of one of its most distinguished protagonists, Paul Oskar Kristeller. This reappraisal is primarily a concern of American academia, where for fifty years or more Kristeller has been the reigning authority on humanism. The recent investigation of Kristeller's formative years in Germany and Italy and the recovery of his early "philosophical agenda" (Blum 30) has cast doubt on whether his alleged greatest achievement--the "determined historicizing of humanism and Renaissance philosophy" (Hankins, "Kristeller" 138)--was not, after all, tainted by philosophical prejudices. As a younger generation of scholars is ready to admit, Kristeller's allegiance to neo-Kantianism and its commitment to the rationalist tradition of philosophy (from Plato to Kant) may have prevented him from according to humanism its full due as an alternative philosophy.

In turn, a critical recent development in Continental philosophy is an emphasis on the anomaly represented by Hans-Georg Gadamer's work with respect to the mainstream philosophical discourse of his time. Donald P. Verene points out that, besides Ernst Cassirer, "Gadamer is the only thinker of the first order in twentieth-century German philosophy to involve Vico as part of the basis of his thought." If, as Verene believes, "to study Vico is to study humanism and to study what humanism is" (138), Gadamer may count among the few postmodern philosophers not to have shared in Heidegger's unwarranted antihumanism. Similarly, Jean Grondin goes as far as to argue that the question concerning "humanism" is a test to determine "why and at what point a Heideggerian such as Gadamer ceases to be Heideggerian." According to Grondin, Gadamer's Truth and Method should certainly be read as a rejoinder to Heidegger's "Letter on 'Humanism.'" "To put the thesis bluntly," he writes, "Gadamer is a humanist and Heidegger isn't" (157).

It is to his credit that Christopher S. Celenza made a first step toward bridging the long standing divide between Renaissance scholarship and contemporary philosophy. In The Lost Italian Renaissance, Celenza argues that Kristeller's philosophical conservatism has significantly delayed Renaissance scholarship's assimilation of the methodological and epistemological progress made by other disciplines. Indeed, in Celenza's view, the non-Kristellerian attitude toward philosophy held by most twentieth-century thinkers could prove beneficial to the study of humanism and its representatives.

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