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Portrait of David Hume (detail) by Allan Ramsey (1754)

Galvano Della Volpe (1895 - 1968)
Galvano Della Volpe

Galvano Della Volpe was born at Imola in the Romagna in September 1895, of an old but impecunious aristocratic family. In the First World War he served as a junior officer, returning to the North to study after hostilities ended. He graduated from Bologna University in 1920 and went on to teach history and philosophy at the Liceo Dante Alighieri in Ravenna, and later at the Liceo Galvani in Bologna (1925-38). In 1929, while still at the Liceo Galvani, he became a libero docente of Bologna University. From there gained the Professorship in Political Philosophy at Messina University (1938), where he was to remain until his death.

As a theorist, his main contributions took place in the three fields of moral philosophy, philosophical logic, and aesthetics. He wrote major works in each of these fields, whilst always maintaining that they were not separate fields of inquiry, but inter-dependent aspects of one material reality.

Undoubtedly the major work of historiography which Della Volpe published was La filosofia dell’ esperienza di Davide Hume (Rome, 1933); later republished as Hume o il genio dell’empirismo (Fierenze, 1939). It represents a clear move away from Giovanni Gentile, although Della Volpe pays homage to his teacher in the Preface. Although the work remains within the ambit of idealist historiography, Della Volpe is at pains to avoid any a priori criteria in his attempt at a “critical philology” of the work of Hume. For Hume, the concept was a “weakened image of the senses,” but Della Volpe was keen to point out Hume’s skepticism, evident in his emphasis on the distinction between impressions and ideas, and his embracing of empiricism (associationism and psychologism) rather than Idealism. Della Volpe took up Hegel’s famous distinction between “modern” and “ancient skepticism” declaring that, “the modern, that is ‘critical’ skepticism of Hume,” not only has nothing in common with the devaluation of the sensible which goes back to Protagoras, Plato and Pyrrho, but on the contrary, it appears as a radical critique of rationalism (“the general laws of nature”), precisely because it reinstates and gives value to the “positivity of the sensible manifold” (“of sense or feeling in general”).

In Fondamenti di una filosofia dell’espressione (Bologna, 1936), Della Volpe set himself the task of freeing aesthetics from Gentile and Croce’s romantic (mis)conception of art as “pure intuition,” whilst at the same time avoiding the one-sidedness of Hegelian Reason: “Today aesthetics, like philosophy in general, is at the cross-roads: either it must remain with those who differentiate too much (empirically) or it must remain with those who unify too much (abstractly). One must abandon both roads.” The true path is suggested by the empiricism of David Hume, which indicates that a philosophy which wishes to analyse the “fullness of human nature or mental being,” and which Della Volpe terms “experimental,” must abandon all a priori preconceptions, and “stick to the facts as presented to consciousness.”

Selected from The Della Volpe Home Page, by Kenneth G. Hay, School of Design, University of Leeds.


Della Volpe’s pamphlet of 44 pages, La Teoria delle Passioni di Davide Hume (Bolonga, 1931), is a closely reasoned study of Book II of Hume’s Treatise, which the author values as not an introduction to but an integral and important part of the ethical system of the third book. Hume’s analysis of the “passions” and his view of their function in the moral life are appreciatively examined and compared with the views of both the Sentimental school (Shaftesbury and Hutcheson) and the Continental school of rationalists (Descartes and Spinoza), to both of which Hume is preferred. Particular emphasis is laid on Hume’s exposition of sympathy as a natural tendency to feel as others feel, that is, as neither a feeling for others nor a mere contemplation of their feelings.

—T.E. Jessop, Philosophy 7 (July 1932)

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