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Language and Ethics in Historicist Thinking
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2012-02-20 07:42:44
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I’d like to continue the previous reflections on historicism and hermeneutics as they pertain to the philosophies of Vico, Croce, Heidegger and Gadamer. This remains very relevant to modern theoretical and practical cultural concerns in as much as historicism has been distorted and cast by those who defend traditional absolutistic authoritarian metaphysics as relativistic and even unethical. Even Vico, the father of modern historicism, has unfortunately been subsumed and misinterpreted as a Platonist or a Straussian of sorts. That kind of operation, in my opinion and that of the majority of Vico scholars, represents a great disservice to Vico scholarship; for it robs him of his uniqueness.

We have seen that in emphasizing language Vico rejects Descartes’ dualism. His way of bracketing the natural and the divine made it possible to conceive the human world as utterly on its own. "Natural" is no longer the touchstone, because "reality" is nothing but this human world, which continually comes to be as language responds to what language has done. With Vico's ingenious way of conceiving human origins, human beings are "always already" caught up in linguistic constructions; there is nothing else, no matter how far back we go. To say, with Vico, that knowing is bound up with doing means that we cannot aspire to the godlike certainty of settled knowledge because we are constantly making over the world. We can know the world we have made, but our knowledge is inevitably partial and provisional. In emphasizing imagination, Vico suggested that our way of knowing is rhetorical.  But rhetoric is not conceived as a sophistic device inimical to truth; it is simply the measure of our creativity and one aspect of the particularity of truth. Our particular creative way of knowing the world that has resulted so far helps make that world the particular way it next comes to be. So, given that they are embedded in the concrete historical world, our rhetorical truths are practical, serving action, in a way that Cartesian, "certain" absolute immutable truths can never be.

Heidegger moves in the same direction. He addresses what human being "is" in relationship to the coming to be of some particular world. Human being is the clearing for coming to be in language. And because it is the nature of being "to be" historically, the becoming actual of anything at all is also a holding back. So as the happening of the particular continues, there is always an other, and always scope for subsequent deconstruction of the actual, and always more history. Gadamer insists that language does not cut us off from reality but is the medium through which some particular world comes to be—over time, as history. The world that comes to be in language is not somehow inadequate but is reality given as particular, the particular reality to which we belong. The question then becomes how can one relate to the world of history that seems to be left with the waning of classical metaphysics? To posit a post-metaphysical actuality does not establish a solution but simply opens a new universe of possibilities. How does one experience oneself as belonging to and caring about the historically specific world that envelops all of us humans?


One of Croce's most important and insightful themes is exactly a sense of caring and responsibility for the world. In stressing our sense of kinship with all who preceded us, not just the dominant present or past elites, he seemed to share the renewed solicitude for past lives as opposed to process, a la Hegel, and even to give voice to its quasi-religious basis, the community of the saints as relates to us living and still journeying.  That sense of kinship is a stimulus to us to continue, to transform through our own action the world of our predecessors as bequeathed to us; it is central to the positive identification with the actual that leads to history-making action informed by responsibility. This is a far cry from dwelling with the gods on Mount Olympus in the ethereal miliew of universal abstract principles. Indeed, for Vico, Croce, Heidegger and Gadamer, the reduction to history does not dissolve the possibility of critical response, or even what can be called the moral impulse, but simply the possibility of specifying supra-historical "values." While the situations to which human beings must respond are radically concrete, evaluating does and must go on, because human being entails care for the happening of the world. The possibility of critical response to the ever-provisional actual is immanent, or built into human being. At the same time, the scope for endless moral response suggests that tension between human being and the actual is built into the very fabric of the human condition.

In emphasizing care, which for Vico reflects the care of a Providential God for the world he created, all those philosophers of history pointed toward this constructive sense of belonging and responsibility, but it is Gadamer who, even more so than Vico, puts emphasis on the sense of belonging to some particular tradition that leads us to work within it in a positive, constructive spirit, expanding it through dialogue, participating in its coming back together, or gathering. No matter how deep the discontinuity might be with a past world, we must start with what has already come to be and, even as we change it, build upon it. To care is equivalent to a disciplined moral response by asking historical questions in an effort to understand the particular situation to which we must respond. This is similar to what the existentialist and pragmatic philosophers advocate. What is rational, in post-metaphysical terms, is historical inquiry that seeks to learn, thereby preparing the way for criticism and action.

Vico, Croce, Heidegger, and Gadamer all insist on truth as they confronted human being as historical. Once the dualism of language and reality falls away, truth cannot entail mere representation. So these thinkers turn in another direction and consider the scope for a weak post-metaphysical conception of truth, bound up with what human being is and does and stemming ultimately from care, or ethical capacity. The capacity for the happening of truth is simply an ongoing human attribute, and truth is what results when human beings approach the actual in a certain mode, seeking to learn. As Heidegger puts it, truth comes to language through the clearing that is human being. Conversely, it is only in or through us, with our capacity for language, that truth comes to be

The above may sound rather abstract but the notion becomes clearer when translated into the mode of caring, constructive engagement with the world as historical that is implicit in Vico and Croce's conception and even more explicit in Heidegger and Gadamer's. Those thinkers responded to the generally pragmatist challenge by showing that interest and involvement do not undermine truth but make it possible. Because our inquiries have practical stakes, we do not make up just any story about how our world came to be but the particular kind of story we call "true." Rather than having completely decided on some particular political agenda, they are still deciding what to do next and seeking enlightenment. In Croce's terms, we are not only truth-seeking and cognitive but also aesthetic, moral, and utilitarian, and although openness to truth is itself ethical, any attempt to make the historical account serve a particular moral purpose will get in the way of truth. Insofar as such utilitarian and moral concerns creep in, the inquiry is not history, not the sort of thing that can yield truth. Even though ethical and rhetorical components structure any historical narrative, in principle the scope for truth enables us to differentiate historical accounts according to cognitive as opposed to moral or aesthetic criteria.

To recapitulate, the capacity for truth, for Vico, Croce, Heidegger and Gadamer, is simply an attribute of human being, it is crucial that human being is differentiated into finite, historically specific individuals who ask only particular questions on the basis of particular experiences, concerns, and needs. So our truths do not pretend to be exhaustive, pure, final, absolute, or even free of contradiction. What each of us comes up with will be at best only a true re-description—partial, provisional, to some degree idiosyncratic and contingent. Such weakness means, moreover, that there is no limit to the number of true accounts that we might find it illuminating to construct at any present moment. The responses of individuals like us determine which in fact get constructed. In Gadamerian terms, what comes to language through dialogue, as the world continues its particularizing growth, is a linear narrative.

As Vico amply suggested in his Scienza Nuova, this historicist approach to truth is the equivalent of a metaphysics of humility which does not presume to know the mind of God in regards to nature, which man did not create in any case, but begins more humbly with the contingent world of culture and history that man has made and to whose origins he can return with the aid of imagination as well as rationality. In that sense it is a “pensiero debole,” as Gianni Vattimo describes it, a far cry from a description of eternal immutable relations. It will be both metaphorical and personal in the sense that it is man that makes history and the history of every man is the history of mankind as well. Absolutists of various stripes and persuasion will reject such an approach and quite often present it as relativism, which it is not. But the absolutist does so at the risk of remaining stuck on Mount Olympus consorting with the gods as a demigod and finding it all but impossible to rejoin the world of humanity.


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