Antonio Banfi (1886–1957)

Antonio Banfi (1886–1957), an Italian philosopher who worked in the University of Milano, is related to Whitehead’s thought mainly as a translator and promoter of his philosophy of science. Banfi’s interest in Whitehead’s ideas derive from his conception of reason as a rational non-dogmatic activity, for which the Whiteheadian attitude of an “open synthesis” was particularly inspirational.

Banfi’s main contribution to philosophy is his long book on the Principles of a Theory of Reason (1926) which brings together ideas deriving from his masters, Husserl, Simmel, Dessoir. In this and other works Banfi promoted a new approach for Italian philosophy, which had been dominated by Neo-Scholasticism and Existentialism. Banfi condemned these philosophical approaches as either vitiated by dogmatism (the Neo-Scholastics) or by irrationalism (the Existentialists). He thus sought to find a philosophy that was non-dogmatic but at the same time did not renounce reason.

Banfi conceived of this philosophy as having an “immanent historical consciousness,” that is, the awareness that philosophy develops itself over a plural, not univocal tradition, always historically articulated, dependent on the processes of culture in general, and in particular those related to the “life-world.” Philosophy thus should not hope to reach a final synthesis, the closure of the system, nor timeless truths. It is mostly against the Italian neo-Scholastics that Banfi directed this criticism. Against their approach, Banfi praised an open rationalistic attitude and was critical most of all of all forms of dogmatism.

Philosophy as “open system,” then, is filia temporis, for it cannot ignore the problems that characterize its own time. Philosophy in Banfi’s view recognizes itself as temporally conditioned, accepts this temporality of thought, and poses to itself this temporality as its own problematic. But its systematic approach allows this kind of philosophy to avoid relativism. Its concrete commitment to an open system gives the certainty and the confidence in life, in life’s constructive force, and brings a sense of quiet human equilibrium. Banfi’s ideal is a new, open Enlightenment, which is able to find in the chaos of the living world a structure and law—not in the sense of a dead, absolute order removed from of time, but rather an ever changing, ever adjusting, progressive equilibrium.

Banfi does not reject irrationalism as the expression of unavoidable tendencies present in the life-world. Instead he rejects the theoretical generalization of these tendencies, the pessimistic view that sees no role to reason, the theoretical conception of the world as irrational in itself and thus as unknowable. Banfi sees in this standpoint the counterpart of dogmatism—that dogmatism which is nostalgic of a world in which reason is unchangeable, and the open activity of human research is to find immutable laws. Not being able to reach this fixed realm, and not being able to accept the openness of the world, such dogmatic philosophy ends by declaring the world to be lawless and existence meaningless and absurd. On the contrary, according to Banfi, the world displays laws that are knowable if reason conforms to their openness, and thus allows human existence to find a new harmony with nature.

Thus Banfi is in search for a new form of metaphysics: one that he can accept as critical, non-dogmatic, and what he calls “Socratic” insofar as it inserts itself in the relationship between life and reality, and is able to intuit the metaphysical character of experience. This open metaphysics, with respect to which each single metaphysical construction is a partial and often stiffened perspective, is never given as objective knowledge. Rather it always surfaces anew as a deep pathos of reason, for which the problem of existence unfolds itself in a life, and within life the harmony of the Absolute shines as something always to be sought again. Banfi likes to call this approach a Socratic one insofar as it represents a disquietude of the soul rather than a definitive possession, a need to go forward in the search for truth over against the clash with reality. Neither a prophet nor a moralist, the philosopher is the one who seeks progress in spite of hopelessness.

It is within this framework that Banfi read Whitehead. Whitehead was basically unknown in Italy, as Banfi writes in the introduction to his 1945 translation of Science and the Modern World (the first work by Whitehead published in Italy). Whitehead represents for Banfi a form of speculative philosophy open to metaphysics, but one not hardened into the mannerism that Banfi condemns. In Whitehead the results of scientific investigation coexist with a philosophical attitude which gives to the former their general form and its reflexive critical evaluation, without superimposing an abstract schema that does not derive from experience but only from prejudice.

This element of critical evaluation of the results of the sciences is for Banfi of the highest importance, and he wonders whether Whitehead is always up to this task. But Banfi praises the Whiteheadian conception of events as networks of relations, for in this conception he sees the capacity to describe experience, in an attitude that is close to the phenomenological approach. In this vein, Banfi reconnects Whitehead to the tradition of Platonism, insofar as this is the tradition of an open rationalism that seeks to understand the variety of experience without subsuming it into an abstract model. Banfi underlines the presence in Whitehead’s philosophy of a dual attitude: on the one hand, the attention to the complexity of events and their relationships, but on the other hand, the search for ideal structures that account for the lawful happening of the events themselves. The structures thus allow the philosopher to find the laws of events, but the multiplicity and indeterminacy of the events deter the philosopher from seeking closure of system and provide the means for a critical evaluation of the theory itself.

In this perspective Banfi is a little suspicious of the more speculative drift taken by Whitehead’s works. He rather likes to stress the importance, in Whitehead’s reflections, of attention to the living multiplicity of phenomena (broadly understood, thus not only naturally but also psychically and spiritually envisaged). But he does not fail to acknowledge the presence in Whitehead of a genuine conception of God as a principle of limitation, seen as the effect of God’s action on the infinite realm of the possibles so as to realize the one effective world. In this perspective Banfi evokes Leibniz, but insists on the difference between them, insofar as Whitehead avoids an abstractly moralistic principle of perfection and adheres to his faithfulness to empirical experience. For Banfi, the most important lesson of Whitehead’s philosophy is his balanced humanism, according to which the great adventure of the sciences, after having developed themselves in the creation of a theoretical world and its technological outcomes, arrives at its own limit, and thus displays a need for a renewed effort of creative imagination, of religion and the arts, as inspiring powers for the organization and harmonization of human life.

Banfi’s decision to introduce Whitehead to Italy by translating Science and the Modern World is part of his wider cultural action, mainly related to his teaching at Milan University on a wide range of scholars who inherited this message and developed it. Thus Banfi’s school is mainly responsible for the Italian reception of Whitehead’s works, thanks in particular to Enzo Paci (one of Banfi’s most important pupils) and the philosophical journal Aut-Aut. Paci’s teaching, in turn, inspired a number of important works devoted to Whitehead: the monographs written by Carlo Sini and Pier Aldo Rovatti deserve to be mentioned here. Thus Milan, through Banfi’s work, can be seen as the place where Whitehead found its main and most important reception in the Italian philosophical scene.

Works Cited and Further Readings

“Filosofia d’oggi”, Studi Filosofici, 3-4, 1946.

“Verità ed umanità della filosofia contemporanea”, Studi Filosofici, I, 1947.

Principi di una teoria della ragione, Milano-Firenze, Parenti, 1960.

I problemi di una estetica filosofica, a cura di L. Anceschi, Milano-Firenze, Parenti, 1961.

Filosofi contemporanei, a cura di R. Cantoni, Milano-Firenze, Parenti, 1961.

Filosofia dell’arte, a cura di D. Formaggio, Roma, Editori Riuniti, 1962.

Incontro con Hegel, Urbino, Argalia, 1965.

Esegesi e letture kantiane, a cura di N. De Sanctis, Urbino, Argalia, 1969.

Author Information

Luca Vanzago
Dipartimento di filosofia
Università di Pavia, piazza Botta 6, 27100 Pavia

How to Cite this Article

Vanzago, Luca, “Antonio Banfi (1886–1957)”, last modified 2008, The Whitehead Encyclopedia, Brian G. Henning and Joseph Petek (eds.), originally edited by Michel Weber and Will Desmond, URL = <>.