Galvano della Volpe (1895-1968) was born in Imola, Romagna, to a conservative aristocratic family. After teaching in various licei (high schools) in Romagna and then at his alma mater, the University of Bologna (1929), he obtained a chair in the history of philosophy at the University of Messina, where he was to spend the rest of his academic career as a somewhat isolated figure (he commuted from Rome to Messina for ten days a month). As an academic philosopher he contributed to the major fields of his discipline: logic, politics, ethics, and aesthetics. His philosophic positions, however, underwent revolutionary changes. Starting as an idealist but soon criticizing the “actualism” of Giovanni Gentile (the most prominent idealist to be associated with Italyʼs fascist regime), he was soon exposed, because of the historical bent of his research, to other schools of thought: he published a study of DAVID HUMEʼs empiricism (La filosofía dellʼesperienza di Davide Hume) in 1933 and in the next ten years turned to pragmatism, existentialism, and the work of FRIEDRICH NIETZSCHE. This period prepared his transition to Marxism on a theoretical level, made possible on the practical level by the allied occupation of Sicily in 1943. The following year he became a member of the Italian Communist party. Della Volpeʼs interest in aesthetics developed with his philosophical maturation and can best be understood in this context; his Critica del gusto has perhaps remained his best-known work, partly because it has not met with as much challenge from the philosophical “technocrats” and their established “schools” as his work in other fields, partly because it showed the originality of his methodological approach to the Marxian tradition (which is certainly not limited to his work on aesthetics) in its brightest light. Despite the recognition for this work, della Volpe never gave rise to a clear “school” of criticism (in the sense of a number of scholars who identify with and/or are frequently subsumed under a particular label or category), although some of his followers are sometimes known as his “school,” and his most prominent pupils did not devote themselves to the field of aesthetics. The importance of his arguments and of his use of a materialist methodology within the Marxian tradition is, however, inversely proportional to his “popular recognition.”

Della Volpeʼs return to what he considered some of the most basic questions of logic, epistemology, and methodology and the examination of some of the great struggles of the history of philosophy (ARISTOTLE versus PLATO, Galileo versus scholasticism, IMMANUEL KANT versus G. W. Leibniz, and Karl Marx versus G. W. F. HEGEL [Opere 3:139 ff., 4:283 ff.]) were the first steps in the transformation of his own philosophic praxis, overcoming idealist hypostasis and dogma (see also KARL MARX AND FRIEDRICH ENGELS). To some extent della Volpe had already attempted to reconcile the contrasting principles of the “dialectic of opposites"” (of reason) and the “dialectic of distinct entities” (of idealized matter), as represented by Gentile and BENEDETTO CROCE, at the outset of his career (1:7, 34-38), but it was only after his introduction to historical materialism that a satisfactory "synthesis of heterogeneous entities" or “tauto-heterologic identity” could take shape (4:418 ff.).

The above-mentioned “synthesis” allows della Volpe to unify the achievements of both philosophical traditions: that of reason coinciding roughly with the recognition of the necessity of meaningful conceptual relations (unity, deduction, contradiction) and that of matter with the recognition of the distinct and discrete nature of reality and our experience of it (multiplicity, induction, noncontradiction). It follows that scientific cognition requires the circular (concrete-abstract-concrete [4:458, 464-65,470-79 ff.) process of testing hypotheses by experiment, that is, “reason” with "“matter” (praxis). The use of historical “determinate abstractions” (in della Volpeʼs conception determinate abstractions are the opposite of idealist abstraction, in that the chain of abstractions can always be controlled and verified, the meaning generated by the process of abstraction can be followed back to its origins in empirical reality [see 4:418 ff.]) was della Volpeʼs answer to idealist abstraction, where idea and reality are improperly mediated, giving rise to vicious circles and hypostases in the logical argument. His interest in logic and gnosiology found its crowning achievement in Logica come scienza positiva (1950, 2d ed., 1956, ed. Ignazio Ambrosio, 1969), where he elaborates “the specific logic of a specific object” (for della Volpe this follows from his conception of “determinate abstractions”: each field of scientific inquiry should rationally be limited by material or empirical properties of this field; the resulting chain of abstractions, hypotheses, theories, and sciences will thus be shaped by the object of inquiry). He also applied this methodological approach in working through the contradictions of opposing traditions in the realm of ethics and politics. The development of socialism out of bourgeois individualism (and its legal implications) was his principal concern, and the result was Rousseau e Marx (1957, 4th ed., 1964).

Finally della Volpe extended his scientific method to the realm of aesthetics, countering the Romantic tradition by emphasizing the cognitive aspects of art rather than the fantastic. The resulting summa is Critica del gusto (1960, 3d ed., 1966). To explain the specific characteristics of literature, della Volpe employs structuralist theories of language, including its “glossematic” elaboration in the work of Hjelmslev (“glossematic” was the term Louis Hjelmslev used to describe his own linguistic theory, and by extension it came to designate this particular school of Danish structuralism; the emphasis in Hjelmslev's theory is on the "internal relations" of language, and it excludes any consideration of the "substance" of expression and content as opposed to its “form” [see esp. 6:221-25]). Poetic language is thereby qualified as polysemous (plurality of meaning is intentional and constructed), in contrast with everyday language, which is ambiguous (plurality of meaning can be either accidental or intentional; this level of language is that from which the polysemous and the unequivocal abstract), and scientific language, which is unequivocal (any plurality of meaning is intentionally avoided; language is constructed and valued for its lack of ambiguity) (6:91 ff.). The resulting meaning of an artistic work is “organically contextual,” whereas that of a scientific work is “omnicontextual.” To better understand the formal characteristics of the literary text, the interpreter prepares a “critical paraphrase” of the content and compares the original with it (6:138 and esp. 146 ff.). Following logically from della Volpeʼs concern with the cognitive aspect of art is his emphasis on the translatability of poetry across natural languages.

Della Volpe then develops his methodological approach to include other artistic media, consciously continuing in the tradition of G. E. LESSINGʼs Laokoon but transforming it in the nonprescriptive context of historical materialism. Because of the specific characteristics of each medium, della Volpe in this case underscores the fundamental untranslatability of a workʼs effects across media. He applies the term genere (the Italian noun can be translated either as “genre” or, the meaning emphasized in this case, as “genus”) to specific material media, while criticizing its current usage referring to classifications within a medium, which he would rather define as (epistemologically nonessential) “species” (6:179-80).

The lack of an adequate philosophy of language and concept formation weakens the basis of his method, not only in aesthetics but most fundamentally in logic. Alternately describing the relation of language to thought as analogous to the distinction between form and content or to that between means and end (6:79 ff. and 158-59), ignoring problems of the relation of reference to semantics, and overlooking the implications of language as a human product are some of the defects imputable to his reliance on structuralism and its formal idealist tendencies. Obliviousness to other social functions of artistic media (literature, architecture) or to the number, power, and combination of senses they affect is not only curious in a thinker for whom the problem of sensation provided the break with idealism; it also weakens his distinction of the literary from the nonliterary, and of the cognitive from the sensory aspects of artistic experience. Characteristically, della Volpe recognized some of these flaws himself in his last article on art, “ʽLinguaggioʼ e ideologia nel film” (1968), focusing on the application of the linguistic model to other media and the relation of art to ideology.

The epistemological and methodological focus of his research led Galvano della Volpe to criticize idealist interpretations of Marx in literary theory and criticism as well as elsewhere. He first attacked GEORG LUKÁCSʼs Hegelianism (5:72 ff.) and later the idealist-historicist tradition of Italian Marxism that was partly derived from the work of ANTONIO GRAMSCI (5:52-55 ff., 6:11-12,40), whereas he occasionally used Gramsciʼs own practical criticism as a model. This concern for the materialist, scientific nature of Marxʼs research has led several critics to compare della Volpeʼs Marxism with that of another academic philosopher, Louis Althusser. While both are concerned with Marxism as science, Althusserʼs work is more structuralist and concentrates on the relation of art to ideology. What is more, della Volpe explicitly dissociated himself from Althusser in his analysis of the evolution of Marxʼs relation to Hegel (6:430). (See Marxist THEORY AND CRITICISM: 2. STRUCTURALIST MARXISM.) Della Volpeʼs major concern is instead to abstract the methodological kernel of Marxʼs scientific praxis, enabling others to apply it, thereby independently expanding and testing the Marxian scientific tradition itself. This was his main legacy to some of his followers, sometimes known as his “school”—Ignazio Ambrogio, Umberto Cerroni, Lucio Colletti, Nicolao Merker, Alessandro Mazzone, Armando Plebe, Mario Rossi, and Carlo Violi.

Mark W. Epstein


Galvano Della Volpe, Critique of Taste (trans. M. Caesar, 1978), Opere (ed. Ignazio Ambrogio, 6 vols., 1972-73), “Settling Accounts with the Russian Formalists,” New Left Review 113-14 (1979).

Massimo Alcaro, Dellavolpismo e nuova sinistra (1977); Nicola Badaloni, Il marxismo italiano degli anni sessanta (1971); David Forgacs, “The Aesthetics of Galvano Della Volpe,” New Left Review 117 (1979); John Fraser, An Introduction to the Thought of Galvano della Volpe (1977); Riccardo Guastini, “Astrazione determinata e formazione economico-sociale,” Il marxismo italiano degli anni sessanta e la formazione teorico-politica delle nuove generazioni (1972); Mario Montano, “On the Methodology of Determinate Abstraction,” Telos 7 (1971); Carlo Natali, “Galvano della Volpe e il principio di non-contraddizione,” Rivista critica di storia della filosofia 36 (1981); Giuseppe Prestipino, La controversia estetica nel marxismo (1974); Mario Rossi, “Galvano della Volpe: Dalia gnoseologia critica alia lógica storica,” Critica marxista 6 (1968); Carlo Violi, Galvano della Volpe: Testi e studi (1922-1977) (1978).

SOURCE: Epstein, Mark W. “Della Volpe, Galvano,” in The Johns Hopkins Guide To Literary Theory and Criticism, edited by Michael Groden and Martin Kreiswirth (Baltimore; London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994), pp. 192-194.

Essential English Bibliography

By Galvano della Volpe

Della Volpe, Galvano. Critique of Taste, translated by Michael Caesar. London: NLB, 1978. London; New York: Verso, 1991.

_________________. “The Legal Philosophy of Socialism,” in Socialist Humanism: An International Symposium, edited by Erich Fromm (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1965), pp. 425-440.

_________________. Logic as a Positive Science, translated by Jon Rothschild. London: NLB, 1980. (Original: Logica come scienza positiva, 1969.)

_________________. “The Marxist Critique of Rousseau,New Left Review, I/59, January–February 1970, pp. 101-109.

_________________. Rousseau and Marx, translated and introduced by John Fraser. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1978.

_________________. “Settling Accounts with the Russian Formalists,” New Left Review I/113-14, January–April 1979.

About Galvano della Volpe

Bonazzi, F. “Galvano della Volpe and the Sociology of Literature,” Sociologia Internationalis [Berlin], vol. 17, nos. 1-2, 1979, pp. 191-211.

Coniglione, Francesco. “Abstraction and Idealization in Marx and Hegel,” in Idealization I: General Problems, edited by Jerzy Brzezinski, Francesco Coniglione, Theo A.F. Kuipers, Leszek Nowak (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1990), pp. 61-88. (Poznan Studies in-the Philosophy of the Sciences and the Humanities; v. 16)

Forgacs, David. “The Aesthetics of Galvano Della Volpe,” New Left Review I/117, September-October 1979, pp. 91-107.

Fraser, John. An Introduction to the Thought of Galvano Della Volpe. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1977.

Hay, Kenneth G. “Concrete Abstractions and Intersemiotic Translations: the Legacy of Della Volpe,” in Thinking Through Art: Reflections on Art as Research, edited by Katy Macleod and Lin Holdridge (London; New York: Routledge, 2006), pp. 51-59.

_____________. “Concrete abstractions — a Della Volpean perspective on studio practice as research,” Journal of Visual Art Practice, vol. 2, nos. 1 & 2, 2002, pp. 64-77.

_____________. “Galvano Della Volpeʼs Critique of Romantic Aesthetics,” parallax, no. 2, February 1996, pp. 181-192.

_____________. “Generic Specificity and the Problem of Translation in Della Volpe,” in Text and Visuality: Word and Image Interactions 3, edited by Martin Heusser et al (Amsterdam: Rodopi B.V. Editions, 1999), pp. 295-307.

_____________. “Picturing Readings: Della Volpe and Lessing,” Paragraph, vol. 19, no. 3, November 1996, pp. 272-285.

Introduction to Della Volpe,” New Left Review, I/59, January-February 1970, pp. 97-100.

Jay, Martin. Marxism and Totality: The Adventures of a Concept from Lukács to Habermas. Berkeley; Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1984. Chapter 14: Scientific Marxism in Postwar Italy: Galvano Della Volpe and Lucio Colletti, pp. 423-461.

Montano, Mario. “On the Methodology of Determinate Abstraction: Essay on Galvano Della Volpe,” Telos, no. 7, Spring 1971, pp. 30-49.

_____________. “The ‘Scientific Dialectics’ of Galvano Della Volpe,” in The Unknown Dimension: European Marxism Since Lenin, edited by Dick Howard and Karl Klare (New York: Basic Books, 1972), pp. 342-364.

Galvano Della Volpe on logical positivism [conclusion]

Galvano Della Volpe on Henri Bergson

Galvano Della Volpe on E. V. Ilyenkov

Galvano Della Volpe on determinate abstraction & Evald Ilyenkov
by John Fraser

From Hegel to Marcuse
by Lucio Colletti

Marxism & Totality & Gramsci & Della Volpe
by Ralph Dumain

Note on the Poznan School

Greek Philosophy, the Scientific Revolution, Abstraction, Phenomenology, & the Money Economy:
Selected Bibliography

Vienna Circle, Karl Popper, Frankfurt School, Marxism, McCarthyism & American Philosophy:
Selected Bibliography

Anti-Bergson: Bibliography & Links

Positivism vs Life Philosophy (Lebensphilosophie) Study Guide

Marx and Marxism Web Guide


Galvano Della Volpe - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Galvano Della Volpe
by Claudia Fazio

A Philosophy of Revolutionary Practice: The first two theses on Feuerbach” (1977)
by Jairus Banaji, Historical Materialism (blog), 29 May 2020

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