Gramsci to Philosophers: the philosophy is already done!

Antonio Gramsci (1891 – 1937) was an Italian writer, politician, political philosopher, and linguist.  As a founding member and onetime leader of the Communist Party of Italy, he was arrested and imprisoned by Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime in 1926 on the pretense that he was somehow involved in an alleged attempt on Mussolini’s life a few days earlier.  During his time in various prisons, Gramsci wrote more than 30 notebooks and 3000 pages of history and analysis tracing Italy’s development, theories of nationalism, education, and an elaboration of Marxist theory.

One of Gramsci’s ideas that has grabbed me by the lapels and threatened to derail my progress on a Putnam paper I’m trying to wrap up is his posit that everyone is a philosopher.  Now, the natural response of every philosopher in the room is–repeat after me–“if everyone is a philosopher, then no one is a philosopher.”  However, Gramsci’s justification for the outrageous claim actually has some resonances with my intellectual formation reading Dutch Calvinist philosophers like Abraham Kuyper and Herman Dooyeweerd.

Gramsci argues that a group’s philosophy is that intellectual conviction consistent with the group’s social/political action which is exposed when the group confronts a historical problem. When there seems to be a conflict between the common sense philosophy of a group and its common action, that disparity is explicable only as the expression of a profounder problem rooted in the social order. Thus, in any case where praxis conflicts with the common-sense philosophy of a group, that common-sense philosophy is a self-deception.  In my Dutch Calvinist upbringing this antimony of intellectualized philosophy–the things I say I believe–and the philosophy that is enacted in my praxis–the things that I do–can be explained in terms of “worldview” that is, a pretheoretical/precritical orientation to the world that is more intrinsic to my person than the affectations of my public espoused persona.  One behaves consistent with this pretheoretical set of convictions about the world and their place in it and in that regard there is no disparity between one’s philosophy and one’s praxis.

Similarly, Gramsci argues that the true philosophy of the group dispels the affected philosophy borrowed from other sources manifesting in the fits and starts of political action. This deeper and truer philosophical conviction was only temporarily subordinated so that the group might adopt a public philosophy that it enacts in normal life, but which is thrown off during the heat of political action.  In this sense, everyone has what might be called a set of unconscious philosophical convictions which only arise as conscious philosophies through their outworking.  However, in that outworking one’s philosophy is bundled with the groups and eventually becomes an ideology which is the new hegemony–a commonsense philosophy of the people which opposes the totalizing philosophy of the capitalist state.

Under Gramsci’s view, the philosophy is already done… it exists in praxis and awaits only synthetic formal codification of the academy.  The commonsense philosophy of the people actually opposes and limits the synthetic philosophy of the academy in as much as scholarly philosophy represents the position of the state.  Yet, this synthetic philosophy of the academy is necessary in order to understand the problems that brought about the formation of the commonsense philosophy of political groups–what we might call “interest groups.”

Reflection upon Gramsci’s writings through the lens of Dutch Calvinism actually turns up some surprising questions such as:

1) Under Gramsci’s conception an original or primordial ‘philosophy’ is a pretheoretical construct—that is, it is founded in, built-up, and finds its ultimate expression in historical praxis/action. Sure, later that praxis can be formulated as a synthetic/intellectualized form, but this later theoretical form can not be considered co-constituitive. So, these pretheoretical convictions about the way the world ought to be—which themselves seem to be constiuitive of historical “problems” as how else could something be considered a problem which did not violate a conviction about normatitivity—must be simple rather than complex. However, the synthetic or intellectualized form of such pretheoretical philosophies of praxis are always complex, multifaceted, and often contradictory. Is this the necessary result of the synthesis of pretheoretical praxis with theoretical cognition or are philosophers doing philosophy wrong?

My guess is that Gramsci would argue that the process of the synthesis of commonsense philosophy into the hegemonic fronts–as intellectualized philosophies–muddy the waters of primordial philosophy.  That is, the coalescing of the many philosophies of a group into the praxis of that group when confronted by a historical problem is a unity of action but a plurality of philosophy.  This reality is expressed when philosophies of praxis are synthesized into necessarily complex and even contradictory academic philosophies.

2) Presumably, pretheoretical philosophy does not differentiate between the noumenon—thing in itself—and phenomenon—experience or knowledge of things—as such differentiation would seem to be a function of rationality as an intellectual/theoretical faculty. Yet, such distinctions would seem to be necessary in political action. For example: to say “ sweatshops are bad” one would need to distinguish between labor as a positive noumenon and the negative phenomenon of corrupted labor practices. How, then, could pretheoretical constructs result in complex and nuanced social praxis?

To circumvent this apparent difficulty Gramsci could argue that primordial philosophies are not synthetic–only in the sense that the intellectual conviction does not precede the primordial conviction (not top down, but bottom up)–and that these historically determined convictions just sort of aggregate over time into relatively complex and nuanced convictions like “labor is good, but sweatshops are bad.”

For the record, I would love to be set straight on Gramsci’s conception of at what point a primordial/unconscious/organic  philosophy becomes a theoretical/conscious/synthetic philosophy.  For my dear, dead, dutchmen the transition from precritical to critical, from pretheoretical to theoretical is not a point that needed great elaboration–little rested on that transition other than the fact that actions arose from a precritical orientation supplemented by and open to revision from critical faculties.  For Gramsci more seems to rest on move from primordial or protophilosophy to synthetic or actual philosophy.  Again, I’d love to be set straight–that’s what comments are for.


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