The Dearth of Racial Thought

September 10, 2019


“Pp 34-37.” Notes on the Originality of Thought: the Concept of Internal Necessity: Poetic Thought and Constructive Thought, by Leone Vivante, S.n.}, 1927.


Certain modes of expression and certain conceptions seem to favour the belief that the character of universality of thought is explained by referring to the old and far reaching experiences collected by it. Thus it is said, for instance, that primitive words contain the wisdom of the race: hence their value, their deep meaning which is full of truth and not limited to any time or place; hence their stable validity. A profound thought is assuredly deeply rooted in the great mass of past experiences; it does not universalize them, does not make them become truth, unless it renews them, that is, unless it spiritualizes them. The universality of a thought is given by its spirituality, that is, by its internal necessity, (or with reference to a kindred concept) by the originality of its motives (values, schemata): it is not essentially given by the fact that the thought in question touches a larger number of experiences. Certainly the principles which are most essential and least specified reach up to the interpretation of life in a vaster circle. A principle in its essential meaning interprets not only the activity of one man, but that of all men, and of all creatures. But the force of this universality does not arise from the fact that a given thought is the thought of a very large number of men and of generations, and reflects a very large number of experiences. It does not appear that massed experiences must of themselves produce universality. The passing through many experiences may avail to awaken, to form, values which are profound and true; but in themselves experiences heaped together might bring about opposite effects. And if we have recourse to the wisdom of the race, in order to explain the universal and almost prophetic value of certain truths, it should be remembered that the race by itself rather diversifies and separates, and may be a principle of one-sidedness instead of truth. Let us consider the character of universality which belongs to poetry. A poet is universal, in the inner and true sense of the word, in proportion to his greatness; and he is still more universal when his utterance is in verse, with full spontaneity (originality). This, for instance, can be seen, as I think, in the dramas of Shakespeare. When his thought rises and concentrates itself in verse, it is full of clearness and truth, and it would be difficult to discover his nationality, to find an indication that might lead us to suppose, for instance, that he was not an Italian; whereas in the prose passages of his dramas we may seem to find something that savours particularly of the English character or stamp. Is this because in the prose passages there is more of that which is exclusively national, whether as regards custom or date, while the poetic passages abound in what belongs to the race? It is not the race, but life in its eternal principles. If sometimes human utterances override custom, traditions, and the profound differences between people and people, this is not due to the race, but to an originality, which at the same time is universality, proper to life. 


The essential and universal character of a thought cannot be explained by reference to the wisdom of the race, or to all the experience of the past. Certainly that which is essential, and therefore universal, realizes itself and is revealed in the spontaneity of forces which are less explicit and intentional, and quickens into life the whole organism, and all the wealth of past experiences. But it would be making an idol of the past, if we were to attribute to our organism, in so far as formed, constituted, the truth, and not rather one-sidedness (and all that is limitation, which is proper to matter, to the form formed, to the conditions qua conditions). It is precisely this which the nature or essence of poetic thought puts in evidence. Poetic thought exists in so far as it intends to overpass the limits of past experiences, and of every reality not being the very activity of thought (and these limits are the individual, the race, humanity itself, qua conditions, structure, traces). In the liberty (originality) of poetic thought, the race disappears, and along with many other conditions it is transformed into truth. Everyone claims to have given convictions because they are just or true or well founded, not because, for instance, an ancestor of his was a Teuton or a Latin. The past is the wealth and more than the wealth of thought, but it would be useless to look to the past for the principle of universality.


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