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Vico as Grandfather of Modern Historicism and Hermeneutics
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2012-05-08 08:29:17
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Within contemporary academic philosophical circles, especially in departments of philosophy, one can readily detect a misguided view that attempts to deny to Vico the very essence and uniqueness of his philosophy, namely the generally accepted fact that he is the grandfather of modern historicism, hermeneutics, the original discoverer of the significance of myth and  imagination as integral part of philosophical speculation. Within those circles, imagination, considered an undeveloped and primitive mode of reasoning, and always privileged in Vico’s philosophy, is subsumed under pure rationality, logic and abstractions construed as the supreme achievement of philosophy. This is what Vico would characterize as “the arrogance of scholars.”

To be sure, such an attempt remains that of a minority (mostly within the Straussian School) who seem to think that more attention will be paid to their school of thought, if not to themselves personally, by going against the majority view. This is an arrogant and ambitious project indeed. The idea seems to be not to stand on Vico’s giant shoulders and acknowledge one’s indebtedness to him and thus see further than one would otherwise, but rather to promote one’s own neo-Platonic views by subverting and subsuming Vico’s historicism. To even begin to realize how misguided and fallacious this effort is, it would suffice to consider what Vico scholars have been saying on Vico in the last century, beginning with Croce, all the way to present times. Moreover, a list of thinkers engaged by Vico's ideas would have to include Condorcet, Herder, Hegel, Compte, Yeats, Coleridge,  Arnold, R.G.Collingwood, and last but not least, James Joyce.

I include here a selected list of books by eminent Vico scholars of the 20th century, in chronological order, which can also be considered the primary sources for this particular take on Vico’s historicism:  Benedetto Croce,  The Philosophy of Giambattista Vico, 1913, Fish and Bergin, translators of Vico’s New Science (1948), Robert Caponigri, Time and Idea: The Theory of History (London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1953), Bruce Mazlish, The Riddle of History: The Great Speculators from Vico to Freud (New York: Harper and Row, 1966),  Leon Pompa, Vico: a Study of the 'New Science' (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975),  Isaiah Berlin, Vico and Herder: Two Studies in the History of Ideas (London: Hogarth Press, 1976),  F.M.Barnard, 'Natural Growth and Purposive Development: Vico and Herder', History and Theory (1979), Donal Phillip Verene, Vico’s Science of Imagination (1981), Paul Avis, Foundations of Modern Historical Thought: From Machiavelli to Vico (London: Croom Helm, 1986), Leon Pompa, Human Nature and Historical Knowledge: Hume, Hegel and Vico (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), Keith Jenkins, Rethinking History (London: Routledge,1991).

Indeed, Giovanbattista Vico (1668-1774), warned us against "the conceit of scholars".  He wrote that "scholars interpret ancient cultures on the basis of their own enlightened, cultivated and magnificent times". Exhibiting from the beginning of his speculation a probing interest in comparative mythology, Vico claimed that myth, ritual, and law were coherent within each society, that each society must be made sense of within its own culture and time. In other words, the way things turned out determines both our initial interest and our interpretation of the course of historical development and one cannot help bringing modern interests, that is, one’s own interests and perspectives, to bear.

A picture of Giambattista Vico's intellectual context is therefore vital to understanding his work. He greatly admired Bacon. He was contemporary with Newton, Voltaire, Leibniz, Spinoza, Hobbes, Hume, Addison, Locke,  all of whom had been influenced in some degree by Descartes. Vico's warning against the 'conceit of scholars" exhibits his sense of self-consciousness as an historian; that is to say, Vico was conscious that assumptions determine how history is written. Paul Avis calls Vico "the father of modern Philosophy of History". 

Pompa's description of the nature of historical assumption is that the search for solutions to historical problems requires philosophical ideas about knowledge and the human condition. Assumptions are foundational., as Jeremy Bentham's definition illustrated: that which is used to prove everything else, cannot itself be proved ; a chain of proofs must have their commencement somewhere. Vico also declares that assumptions flow through a corpus of work as blood flows through a body: In order to give form to the materials hereinbefore set in order in the Chronological Table, we now propose the following axioms, both philosophical and philological, including a few reasonable and proper postulates and some clarified definitions. And just as the blood does in our animate bodies, so will these elements course through our Science and animate it in all its reasonings about the common nature of nations.” (Section II, as translated by Fish and Bergin).

It is precisely the matter of assumptions which delineate Vico's departure from the Cartesian mainstream. Vico's deconstruction of Cartesian epistemology began from the inside. Cartesianism privileged a priori-deductive knowing, and a posteriori-empirical knowing, and by implication marginalised other knowledge, including theological knowing which a Thomas Aquinas surely includes. Descartes' epistemology is predicated on the assumption of atomized, rational human identity. That is to say, he assumed that humanity consisted of separate persons, and that each person was a rational entity separate from society and from the rest of the universe. This assumption is regarded as illusory in some Eastern thought-systems, but it was foundational to Descartes and the empirical tradition. This assumption about humanity was foundational to Hobbes, Locke. Rousseau, Paine. Vico stood firmly against this reductionist construction of humanity. 

Bruce Mazlish goes as far as attributing Vico's development of a critique of Descartes, to annoyance and professional pique. Something akin to my own annoyance at the egregious arrogance of Straussians vis a vis Vico’s philosophy. Certainly the threat was real enough. The mantle of academic honour and prestige was being torn at the time from the humanities, and flaunted by the new Cartesian disciplines. Paul Avis comments that Vico perceived that the Cartesian spirit and its influence on Catholic historical scholarship was a "kiss of death” to which I would add, not to dissimilar from the Straussian school’s influence on Catholic philosophical education in America.

Vico’s core critique of Descartes first appeared in 1710, in his The Ancient Wisdom of the Italians. In it we discern the epistemological doctrine verum factum convertantur (roughly, you can only know what you’ve made). The doctrine divided all knowing into the a priori and the a posterior thus: A priori knowing was the deductive knowing of logic, of reason, was irrefutable and exhaustively knowable only because it was a figment; it was a creation of the minds of humans. One such knowing is Mathematics.  Of course we might know the a priori exhaustively; we made it. This acknowledgement of its origin and limitation robbed a priori knowing of any necessary privileging over other knowings which were also man-made. Vico's verum doctrine is an obvious precursor of the pragmatism of William James whose dictum was that the true is that which works. The real relevancy of Vico's verum factum convertantur was in its consequence for a posterior knowing. For if humans could only truly know what humans had made, then humans could not truly or exhaustively know what they had not made. It followed that only God could know truly and exhaustively what God had made, i.e., nature. This kicks empirical knowing and the idea of the law of nature off its pedestal. Vico in fact thought Robert Boyle's experimental physics, "barbarous". 

Vico matched and mirrored Descartes' arrogance. Consider these mirrored passages:
Descartes: even if God had created several worlds, there would have been none where these (Descartes' laws) were not observed. Vico:the decisive sort of proof in our science is therefore this: that once these orders were established by divine Providence, the course of the affairs of the nations had to be, must now be and will have to be such as our Science demonstrates, even if infinite worlds were produced from time to time through eternity, which is certainly not the case.” This is Vico's "new epistemology", a sort of  knowing that participants in an activity claim to possess as against mere observers, rooted in the capacity for insight and reconstruction; a human could never know what it was like to be a frog or a pea, but a human could know what it was like to be tired, or ambitious, or to seek revenge. Vico's "New Science" was all about the privileging of this kind of knowledge. He considered historical knowing as superior; above mathematics and the empirical sciences. Vico did not claim originality; he located this "consciousness of the certain" in the discipline of philology,  including "all the grammarians, historians, critics, who have occupied themselves with the deeds of peoples." (Fish and Bergin, 63).

The question arises: what was Vico's conception of humanity as such? In the first place it rejects Descartes’ reductionistic model which abstracts humans from their social and legal context; something that was entirely foreign to the tradition of Renaissance Humanism. Vico's insistence that humans ought to be conceived socially had a long pedigree. The likes of Petrarch, Coluccio Salutati, Leonardo Bruni, Lorenzo Valla, and Leon Battista Alberti held it. 

Vico acknowledges traditional Catholic pessimism about human nature, with its Adamic imagery, "fallen and weak". Men, because of their corrupted nature, are under the tyranny of self-love, which compels them to make private utility their chief gain (Fish and Bergin, p. 91); but just as importantly he also attacks the conception of humanity which posits natural law, a fixed human nature from which timeless formulae about right behaviour, ownership, punishment, relationships, trade, government and a host of other things derive. These systems had been developed by thinkers such as Grotius, Pufendorf, Selden, Hobbes, Locke, Spinoza, Bayle. In 1724, Vico sought unsuccessfully for a sponsor to publish his attack. Lack of a sponsor forced him to cut his work by three-fourths; the result was the Scienza Nuova. (Fish and Bergin’s translation of Autobiography, 11).

Paul Avis feels that Vico was influenced towards his doctrine of humanity by Pico della Mirandola, who had asserted that: man alone has no determining nature beyond his own freedom. Confined by no unchanging essence of humanity, he creates himself by his deeds" (Avis Foundations, 138). Vico, on the other hand expressed it thus:In the night of thick darkness enveloping the earliest antiquity, so remote from ourselves, there shines an eternal and never-failing light of a truth beyond all question; that the world of civil society has certainly been made by men.” (Fish and Bergin, 96)  And thus:that which did all this was mind, for men did it with intelligence; it was not fate, for they did it with choice; not chance, for the results of their so acting are perpetually the same” (Cited in Pompa, 24).

This kind of historicism is uniquely Vichian. It constructs a pattern into the past which is not explained solely in terms of aggregate individual choice. Vico's explanation of humanity differs radically from those stories which explaine similarities in societies cut off from each other by a story of common origins. He explains similarities by positing a providential operation which operates through human choice, through human institutions and arrangements (Pompa, 97). This hidden providential law, - this divinity which shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will -, Vico explains as a cosmic purposive tendency. This idea is also discernible in the thinking of Herder, of Schelling, of Hegel, of Adam Smith and Marx, differently expressed as "invisible hand", "cunning of reason", "unintended consequences", even as "History". (Berlin, 75; Mazlish, 447).

As Vico himself puts it: “Men mean to gratify their bestial lusts and abandon their offspring and they inaugurate the chastity of marriage from which families arise.”  And: Out of ferocity, avarice, and ambition, the three vices which run throughout the human race, it creates the military, merchant, and governing classes, and thus the strength, riches, and wisdom of commonwealths. Out of these three great vices, which could certainly destroy all mankind on the face of the earth, it makes civil happiness. This axiom proves that there is divine providence. (Fish and Bergin, 62). Leon Pompa points out that this is a version of the argument for the existence of God from design. If there is an impetus for humanity's good other than individual human choice, even if it operates through individual human choice, then there is a divine providence. (Pompa, 57).

This providential operation has similar results in disparate and separate cultures: Uniform ideas originating among entire peoples unknown to each other must have a common ground of truth.” This axiom, also found in Jung as “the collective unconscious” is a great principle which establishes the “common sense” of the human race. And: “All nations...keep these three human customs; all have some religion, all contract solemn marriages, all bury their dead...we have taken these three eternal and universal customs as the first three principles of this science” (Fish and Bergin, 97, 8). Thus Vico introduced into Christian thinking a cyclical conception of time. He posited that each civilization might advance through three stages, and then regress to the first stage. Here too, Vico does not claim originality; he credits the ancient Egyptians. (Ibid, 69). The first stage is one of primitive culture:And here it is worth reflecting how men in the feral state, fierce and untamed as they were, came to pass from their bestial liberty into human society...and to keep them in it the stern restraints of frightful religions were necessary” (Ibid., 196).

The second stage was one of heroes, a feudal stage where the most powerful govern. The third stage was the mature age of men; moderate monarchical or republican government and reasonable access to justice for all. Vico identifies two cycles in the past; one ending in the fall of Rome, and another growing from its ashes, beginning in the barbaric middle ages, but now in the eighteenth century, in its last phase. This doctrine of cycles, corsi e ricorsi, is also conceivable as a spiral. Societies which collapse need not revert totally to primitive savagery. In his Pratica della Scienza nuova, Vico suggested that: wise men and princes of the commonwealths will be able, through good institutions, laws, and examples, to recall the peoples to their acme or perfect state.”

But civilizations might be halted in mid-career by conquest or some other disaster, as in the case of Carthage, for example. This spiral schema enables prediction. It is one of Vico's boasts that he had been able to "fill in" the gaps where records were wanting. Thus Vico is notable for having validated the study of myths , ancient poetry, and other art forms. Vico treated mythology as a language to be learned. He thought that metaphor was a fundamental category of human rationality and he reasoned that poetry emerged before prose in primitive societies (Ibid., p. 159). Vico privileged myth as a first-class form of imaginative knowing, useful to interrogate and thus imaginatively enter the thinking of the past. 

If historicism and hermeneutics teaches us anything at all, it is that we are all influenced by our human and intellectual context and acknowledging that simple creaturely existential reality helps us avoid the emphasis on ideas that seems most useful by hindsight. Vico would be the first to admit that he was also limited by his own human and intellectual context which was Cartesian through and through.  The Straussians never miss an opportunity to point out that philosophy per se demands a transcendence of context. I would submit that a good place to begin that imaginative journey of transcendence is Giambattista Vico’s historicist philosophy which embraces the particular without forgetting the universal.








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