The Italian Research Seminar
Francesca Bordogna (Notre Dame) - "The Dynamic Psyche: Italian Pragmatism and Fascism”
Thursday November 10 at 5:00pm in Special Collections, Hesburgh Library
In 1926, four years after the march on Rome that came to symbolize the fascists’ ascent to power, Benito Mussolini famously declared that William James’s pragmatism had been “of great use” to him in his political career.Whereas neo-pragmatist philosophers and leading U.S. intellectual historians have argued that Mussolini radically misinterpreted James’s work and that James’s pluralistic and democratic epistemology could not have served as a source for fascism, other scholars have documented that Mussolini sympathized with a loosely Jamesian variety of pragmatism developed at the turn of the century by Giovanni Papini and Giuseppe Prezzolini and known as “magical” or “psychological pragmatism.” However, a full picture of what Mussolini or other fascists may have borrowed from either form of pragmatism is still missing.
Combining perspectives from the history of science and reception history, this talk offers two new insights into that probable chain of influences. First, it argues that Italian psychological pragmatism is best understood not as a group of philosophical doctrines, but as an experimental way of life, consisting of psychological and somatic exercises that drew heavily on James’s psycho-physiology, epistemology, and metaphysics. Papini and Prezzolini offered it as a secular form of “mysticism,” as a practical instrument through which prospective philosophers and political leaders could make their ideas true and create new realities in accordance with pragmatist conceptions of truth and reality as largely “man-made.” Second, it suggests that Mussolini and other fascists similarly drew on pragmatism as a practical resource for a form of psychological and somatic asceticism they called “fascist mysticism.” Worrying little about pragmatism’s pluralism, they viewed pragmatism as an instrument by which to verify fascist principles and create a new political reality.