Italian idealism, born from interest in the German one and particularly in Hegelian doctrine, developed in Italy starting from the spiritualism of the nineteenth-century Risorgimento tradition, and culminated in the first half of the twentieth century in its two greatest exponents: Benedetto Croce and Giovanni Gentile.
In the age of Romanticism, Italian patriots' philosophical circles, especially in Naples, found in Hegelian idealism the way to give a spiritual and cultural imprint to the historical path towards national unification.
The interest in the Hegelian doctrine in Italy spread especially for the works of Augusto Vera (1813–1885) and Bertrando Spaventa (1817–1883), without omitting also the importance of the studies on Hegel "Aesthetic" by Francesco De Sanctis (1817–1883), author of the Storia della letteratura italiana.
De Sanctis's concept of art and of literary history, inspired by Hegel, will stimulate the genesis of Crocian idealism.
Augusto Vera, author of writings and commentaries about Hegel, was a famous philosopher in Europe, who interpreted the Hegelian Absolute in a religious and transcendent sense.
An opposite interpretation was formulated by Bertrand Spaventa, for whom the Spirit was immanent in the history of philosophy.
Reconstructing the development of Italian philosophy, Spaventa argued that Italian Renaissance thought of Bruno and Campanella had been at the origin of modern philosophy, but had stopped due to the Counter-Reformation. Its task now was to catch up with European philosophy, linking up with Vico's mind philosophy, which along with those of Galluppi, Rosmini, and Gioberti, had anticipated themes of Kantism and German idealism.
Se la filosofia non è una vana esercitazione dell'intelletto, ma quella forma reale della vita umana, nella quale si compendiano e trovano il loro vero significato tutti i momenti anteriori dello spirito, è cosa naturale che un popolo libero si riconosca e abbia la vera coscienza di se stesso anche ne' suoi filosofi.
If philosophy is not a vain exercise of the intellect, but the real form of human life within which are compounded and find their true meaning all the past moments of the spirit, then it is natural for a free people to recognize itself and find the true conscience of itself in its own philosophers.
Spaventa reformulated the Hegelian dialectic, reinterpreting it from the perspective of Kantian and Fichtian conscientialism or subjectivism. He considered the act of thinking prevalent with respect to the phases of objectification and synthesis. That is, he supported the need to «mentalise» Hegel, because the Mind is the protagonist of every original production. The synthesis of the actual thinking of the Spirit was then placed by Spaventa, as the only reality, not only after the hegelian moments of Idea and of Nature, but so as to permeate them also from the beginning.
See also: Actual idealism
After a parenthesis characterized by positivism, in 1913 Giovanni Gentile (1875–1944) with the publication of The reform of Hegelian dialectics resumed Spaventa's interpretation of the Hegelian Idea, seeing in Hegelian Spirit the category of becoming as coinciding with the pure act of thought in which the whole reality of nature, history and spirit was transfused. Every thing exists only in the mental act of thinking it: there are no single empirical entities separated from the trascendental consciousness; even the past lives only in the actual, present moment of memory. To Gentile, who considered himself the "philosopher of Fascism", actual idealism was the sole remedy to philosophically preserving free agency, by making the act of thinking self-creative, and, therefore, without any contingency and not in the potency of any other fact.
Gentile reproached Hegel for having built his dialectic with elements proper to "thought", that is to say that of determined thought and of the sciences. For Gentile, instead, only in "thinking in action" is dialectical self-consciousness that includes everything.
Una concezione idealistica mira a concepire lo stesso assoluto, il tutto, come idea: ed è perciò intrinsecamente idealismo assoluto. Ma assoluto l'idealismo non può essere se l'idea non coincide con lo stesso atto del conoscerla; perché - è questa la più profonda origine delle difficoltà in cui si dibatte il platonismo - se l'idea non fosse lo stesso atto per cui l'idea si conosce, l'idea lascerebbe fuori di sè qualche cosa, e l'idealismo pertanto non sarebbe più assoluto.
An idealistic conception aims at conceiving the absolute, the whole, as an idea, and is therefore intrinsically absolute idealism. But absolute it cannot be unless the idea coincides with the act of knowing it, because — and here we find the very root of the difficulty in which Platonism is entangled — were the idea not the act itself through which it is known, it would leave something outside itself, and the idealism would then no longer be absolute.
Gentile made a pivotal distinction to factors concerning Idealism's own criteria for reality, which have stood since Berkeley's adage «esse est percipi» by distinguishing between the concrete real «act of thinking» (pensiero pensante), and the abstract «static thought» (pensiero pensato).
To his actual vision was opposed since 1913 Benedetto Croce (1866–1952, cousin of Bertrando Spaventa) who in his Essay on Hegel interpreted Hegelian thought as immanentist historicism: he also understood the Hegelian dialectic of the opposites in a different way, integrating it with that of the «distincts». According to Croce, in fact, the life of the Spirit also consists of autonomous moments that are not opposed, but rather distinct, that is:
Referring to Giambattista Vico, Croce identified philosophy with history, understood not as a capricious sequence of events, but the implementation of Reason, in the light of which it becomes possible the historical understanding of the genesis of facts, and their simultaneous justification with her own unfolding.
La storia non è mai giustiziera, ma sempre giustificatrice; e giustiziera non potrebbe farsi se non facendosi ingiusta, ossia confondendo il pensiero con la vita, e assumendo come giudizio del pensiero le attrazioni e le repulsioni del sentimento.
History never metes out justice, but always justifies; she could not carry out the former act without making herself unjust — that is to say, confounding thought with life, taking the attractions and repulsions of sentiment for the judgments of thought.
Historian's task is therefore to overcome every form of emotionality towards the studied matter, and to present it in form of knowledge, without referring to good or evil.
After having characterized Italian philosophical culture for over forty years, after the second world war the neo-idealism entered a crisis, replaced by existentialism, neo-positivism, phenomenology and marxism.