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On Vico's "Barbarism of the Intellect": A Review-Essay On Vico's "Barbarism of the Intellect": A Review-Essay
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2012-05-23 07:44:04
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“Gli uomini prima sentono il necessario; dipoi badano all’utile; appresso avvertiscono il comodo; più innanzi si dilettano nel piacere; quindi si dissolvono nel lusso; e finalmente impazzano in istrapazzar di sostanze.” [Men first feel necessity, then look for utility, next attend to comfort, still later amuse themselves with pleasure, thence grow dissolute in luxury, and finally go mad and waste their substance.]

                               –Giambattista Vico, The New Science, bk. 1, paragraph 241

“The madness of our time is intoxicating. First it attracts, then it excites, but then it abandons, leaving behind relics of desperation. It is objective not subjective. This means that it is not the mental disease of particular individuals, although it is also that. Rather, the madness infects the mind of the culture itself by virtue of the culture’s ruling ideas. It is a madness that is omnipresent as it moves through the system of the world in the way a virus moves through an organism.”

            --Arthur DiClementi and Nino Langiulli, Brooklyn Existentialism, p.11

La Scienza Nuova. By Giambattista Vico, 1725.

Brooklyn Existentialism: Voices from the Stoop explaining how Philosophical Realism can bring about the Restoration of Character, Intelligence and Taste. By Arthur Di Clementi and Nino Langiulli. Fidelity Press, South Bend, Indiana, 2008.

A year or so ago Professor Nino Langiulli kindly gifted me with one of his books. Professor Langiulli happens to be one of my former philosophy professors at St. Francis College, Brooklyn, N.Y. (1964-1967) where I obtained a BA with a major in philosophy. I was lucky enough to be taught at SFC by excellent philosophy instructors, in fact the college made a reputation for itself based on its excellent department of philosophy. For that I am and remain grateful.

The book is titled Brooklyn Existentialism. It has dual authorship: Arthur Di Clementi, and Nino Langiulli, both former professors at St. Francis’ College. I have been re-reading the book lately and was impressed by the uncanny resemblance with an aspect of Vico’s historicist philosophy; something I had missed the first time around. And yet it ought not have been very surprising, given that professor Langiulli’s mentor in Italy, where he studied philosophy for a while, is none other than the late Nicola Abbagnano, a renowned Southern Italian philosophy professor and a Vico expert who taught at the University of Turin for most of his academic career and was also mentor to the post-metaphysical philosopher Gianni Vattimo, previously mentioned in my pieces on the dissensions between the two extremes of conservative Straussians and liberal deconstructionists.  What follows is an essay-review of the book in a Vichian key.

There is a famous passage of the New Science where Vico very succinctly and very imaginatively describes the three cycles of the historical course of civilizations thus : “Men first feel necessity, then look for utility, next attend to comfort, still later amuse themselves with pleasure, thence grow dissolute in luxury, and finally go mad and waste their substance.” (Book 1, par. 241). This motto has become de rigueur among Vico experts to summarize the three vichian cycles of history.

Now, compare, if you will, such a description with this one from Di Clementi and Langiulli found at the very beginning of the introduction to the book: “The madness of our time is intoxicating. First it attracts, then it excites, but then it abandons, leaving behind relics of desperation. It is objective not subjective. This means that it is not the mental disease of particular individuals, although it is also that. Rather, the madness infects the mind of the culture itself by virtue of the culture’s ruling ideas. It is a madness that is omnipresent as it moves through the system of the world in the way a virus moves through an organism.”  This paragraph can be construed as the master key for the proper interpretation of the book. It is in fact similar to the master key needed for the proper interpretation of Vico’s opus.

The operative word in both quotes is “madness.” As Langiulli aptly points out: by “madness” he is not talking about “the mental disease of particular individuals” but rather the social decadence that arrives during the last Vichian cycle of a civilization’s development when as Vico puts it “people go mad.” This last development when “alla fine impazzano” [in the end they go mad] inevitably bring to my mind the likes of emperors such as Nero and Caligula, the very icons of Roman decline and decadence.

And that is what Di Clementi and Langiulli are describing; a negative point of decadence when people disregard truth and even scientific evidence and create their own facts and their own world-view according to their pet philosophy or ideology. Some claim that such is the case with a Leo Strauss on the right and a Derrida on the left. One may ask: what, if anything is there in the middle? But we shall return to this question. But the four classical favorite villains of this sad state of affairs are Freud, Marx, Darwin and Nietzsche who are treated extensively throughout the six chapters of the book, as those modern thinkers who inaugurated the modern sensibility and wielded a disproportionate influence on the 20th century via their “bad ideas.”

Of course to talk of abnormal “bad ideas” one has to place them in contrast to normal “good ideas.” Where are the good ideas to be found? Not surprisingly one finds them in the same place where Leo Strauss found them: in antiquity within Greco-Roman civilization; in the likes of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and the vast pantheon of ancient philosophers. One the left one would find them in Derrida and Freud and Darwin, etc. So we seem to be back to Swift’s “battle of the books” which is also mentioned in the book in chapter 6 (Art, Beauty and Technology) on pp. 167-168. The authors, via the Brooklyn voices of critical common sense realism, inform the reader that there is indeed a battle being waged between classical antiquity’s good ideas and modernity’s bad ideas. These Brooklyn voices of common sense realism are allegedly very rough voices but they are truthfully honest voices, the voices one hears from people even today as they sit and chat on their brown-stone houses’ stoops at night, they are honest and blunt to the point of rudeness. This is not a phenomenon one can easily observe in Manhattan on the other side of the Brooklyn bridge dividing the two boroughs.

As the back of the jacket aptly puts it: this is “ethno-philosophy with a vengeance. It is the take-no-prisoners attack on the bad ideas which have corrupted the academy over the course of the last century combined with and equally frank discussion of the moral mischief these bad ideas have caused…it turns out that ethno-philosophy is not only not an oxymoron, it turns out to be the only philosophy worth doing. What were Socrates, Plato and Aristotle if not residents of an ethnic neighborhood, who became skeptical of the ruling ideas of their day and decided to do something about it speaking out. DiClementi and Langiulli have provided the same service to humanity in our day and age.” Also on the back cover one reads this: “Why Existentialism? Because existentialism derives from being and not thought. Because existentialism is a voice that describes the theme of human mortality and its counterpoint, moral imperfectability. Why Brooklyn? Because it is a particular place with a particular attitude, an attitude that can prove especially salutary to the inanities and mendacities that the dominant cultures has imposed on all of us.”

The very titles of the chapters hint at those bad ideas of modernity ushered in by the likes of Descartes, Hobbes, Nietzsche, Marx, Darwin, Freud, Dewey, Mead, Kinsey, the School of Frankfurt, Carl Rogers, just to mention a few. They are as follows: chapter one: The Madness in Education; chapter two: Dysfunctional Behavioral Sciences; chapter three: Science and the Bad Ideas of Scientism; chapter four: Derangements in Religion; chapter five: The Lunacy of the Law; chapter six: Art, Beauty, and Technology.

To recapitulate, what DiClementi and Langiulli wish us to take notice is the consideration of what Vico calls “the barbarism of reflection,” a kind of barbarism which is rationalistic and much more nefarious and harmful than the mere physical barbarism of origins.  The description of this sort of barbarism is given by Vico at the conclusion of the New Science  which largely pays homage to divine providence. As indicated in the section of the New Science on the Ideal Eternal History from which the introductory passage to this essay is culled, Vico points out that history is cyclical: it begins in a barbarism of sense and ends in a barbarism of reflection. The barbarism of reflection is a returned barbarism in which the common sense established by religion through poetic wisdom holding a society together has been broken down by individual interests. The interests are spurred because individuals each think according to their own conceptual scheme without concern for the society, which makes it barbaric. Vico describes the returned barbarism this way, “such peoples [in the barbarism], like so many beasts, have fallen into the custom of each man thinking only of his own private interests and have reached the extreme delicacy, or better of pride, in which like wild animals they bristle and lash out at the slightest displeasure (NS 1106).” These private interests lead into a civil war in which everyone betrays everyone else. This takes humanity back to where it started.

The way the “barbarism of the intellect” expresses itself is by way of the pervasive pugnacity and rudeness even among intellectuals and academics and philosophers, in or out of academia, and found in every aspect of contemporary modern life, something lamented throughout Brooklyn Existentialism which after all has as its subtitle: “Voices from the stoop explaining how Philosophical Realism can bring about the Restoration of Character, Intelligence and Taste.” This is a lament that one can also hear in modern philosophers such as Josè Ortega y Gasset who was of the opinion that philosophy ought to educate desire and the emotions as well as the mind, and Richard Rorty who way back in the 90s complained that philosophers had become “not smarter, but meaner, more pugnacious, more argumentative and rationalistic and much less imaginative.” I have written extensively on the issue of dehumanization and  good manners in Ovi magazine. For example: “Musings on Politness as Handmaiden to Philosophy” (August 3, 2007) which can be found at the following link: http://www.ovimagazine.com/art/1946, also “Dehumanization in the Light of Vico’s Philosophy” (February 14, 2011) which can be found at this link: http://www.ovimagazine.com/art/6844.

The authors of Brooklyn Existentialism are justifiably proud of their “toughness of thought” as expressed in their critical common sense realism and applied with a vengeance to mathematics, the physical sciences,  philosophy and art, to the point of becoming “blunt, brash, sometimes rude but without pretense and affectation.”  But here the question arises: as college professors for most of their lives is this bluntness and rudeness expressed by a rough honest language with a Brooklyn accent also a transcended oxymoron?  It is fine to be rough on the stoop where one lives, but can one do likewise at the college where one works? That is to say, is it possible to teach politeness and good manners to the young while advocating bluntness to the point of rudeness in our argumentations? This is an apparent contradiction which I am afraid the book does not satisfactorily clarify.

There is another perhaps even more important consideration: since the authors themselves in the conclusion to the book frankly admit that there are things within modernity which are admirable and worth preserving how do we proceed to bridge the divide between the ancients and the moderns? Do we choose one over the other after properly debating the issue or is a synthesis of sorts possible?  For there are indeed philosophers who have attempted such a synthesis but have unfortunately been relegated to near obscurity. Two worth considering are Vico and Croce. In this regard the reader may wish to see my article in Ovi titled “Historicism and Hermeneutics in Vico, Croce and Gadamer (February 13, 2012) at this link: http://www.ovimagazine.com/art/8267.

Be that as it may, the book should be adopted by departments of philosophy not only in Catholic liberal arts colleges, but even by those who focus on logical positivism and deconstructionism, if for no other reason than to examine what are perceived to be bad ideas and good ideas and how does one arrive at a fair judgment of one or the other. One need not agree with everything in the book. It could nevertheless stimulate some robust debates on the issue of the education of the emotions as advocated by Gasset, and Rorty, who remain modern philosophers searching for a synthesis. One of the issues that could be debated in the light of this book is this: is it possible to return to origins, back to the future so to speak?

I’d like to end this essay with a telling academic anecdote. As Di Clementi and Langiulli assert in their introduction: “Anecdotes contain their own truth and disclose the limitations of ‘scientific studies.’” Indeed, quite often anecdotes are existentially more instructive and enlightening than vast erudite rational philosophical dissertations.  I happen to be teaching philosophy as an adjunct professor at a Catholic University: Barry University, a rather small liberal arts college similar to St. Francis College run by Dominican nuns and priests. A few months ago I was assigned the task of revamping the syllabus for an introductory philosophy course titled “Thinking Philosophically.” In as much as I am convinced that to teach philosophy is ipso facto to robustly debate current issues pertaining to our modern predicament, I assumed that Brooklyn Existentialism would be a good text for that purpose, especially since it was written by a professor who taught exclusively at a small liberal arts Catholic college. I envisioned setting up a debate between the ancients and the moderns thus exploring the possibility of finding a synthesis of sorts which both Brooklyn Existentialism and the New Science indeed do. I therefore placed the book on the list of primary texts together with Nigel Warburton’s Philosophy, the Basics. To my surprise the final approval of the book was vetoed by the powers that be. It was thought best to place the book on the list of secondary readings. When I inquired as to reason why I was offered a rather vague evasive explanation: too controversial and not objective enough for beginner students of philosophy. I still do not know the exact reasons why the book was removed from the primary reading list but then as an adjunct professor I have little clout and saying in the matter.  

Undoubtedly, there are many ways to interpret the hermeneutics of that veto on my choice, not excluding the interpretation that it may well prove the very point of chapter one of the book (the madness of education), but I’ll leave that judgment to the astute readers who are familiar with academic politics. After all, Vico himself was a victim of academic politics at the University of Naples and underwent a similar experience after writing his New Science. One could do worse than Vico as a philosophy college professor.   

 


     
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Emanuel Paparella2012-05-23 13:55:33
A footnote: Vico says that it is not easy to exit the rationalistic time in which one lives (the third cycle) and imagine the mind-set of primitive man; once civilization has de-humanized itself, it may have difficulty finding within itself the kind of individuals who may transcend its “madness” return to origins and restore sanity. That may prove to be the gamble that the above reviews book takes. Here again I’ll let the readers come to a final judgment after they have read the book.


M. Andreacchio2012-05-23 15:21:57
It is not difficult to think of particular men reflecting in themselves the madness of their own times.

Langiulli's volume must have appeared "too controversial and not objective enough" to those who define objectivity as the ultimate or unquestionable rule of subjectivity. Is the volume in question "controversial"? Well, in the eyes of misologists, Philosophy is controversial by its very nature.

But, now, are we sure that Brooklyn Existentialism intends to find a synthesis of moderns and ancients?

What do you make of the statement pasted below, by Nino Langiulli?

"I should like to conclude this philosophical meditation with a nice (as they
used to say) Catholic prayer. Dear God, may you keep my fellow Platonists--Aristotle, St. Augustine, St. Thomas, and Leo Strauss--from grieving over the magisterial wisdom of Harold Bloom, that they had not become better persons for having read Plato. Amen."

(from: A LIBERAL EDUCATION: KNOWING WHAT TO RESIST; vewable online)


Emanuel Paparella2012-05-23 23:48:02
What was actually said in the piece above, had it been read with a modicum of care and reflection, is that the authors of Brooklyn Existentialism do not mindlessly condemn anything that is modern qua is modern, that in fact they detect some positive features within modernity and that therefore the question can legitimately be raised: “can a synthesis” be conceived and attempted thus transcending mere fanatical ideologies (such as that of doctinaire Straussianism on the extreme right and doctinaaire Deconstructionism on the extreme left) with their rigid positions preparing a general social chaos and madness, a la Nero and a la Caligula as Vico aptly points out? It was never declared that the authors were actually suggesting or attempting such a synthesis in their book. I simply suggested two great philosophers (Vico and Croce) who actually tried such a synthesis and even indicated links to how they might have gone about it.

Here is a passage, and there are others, where DiClementi and Langiulli proclaim the virtues and benefits of modern thought, with a caveat: “However much the sympathies of Brooklyn Existentialism with Swift and Premodern thought, critical common sense realism demands that they acknowledge and proclaim the virtues and benefits of modern thought (minus the isms) brought about by non-ideological science and technology, i.e., a science and technology aware of its limits. Not to do so would make them as stupid, foolish and doctrinaire as the ideological science and technology we discussed in chapter two and three.” (Chapter Six: Art, Beauty, and Technology, p. 168).

Another more practical academic consideration if I may, if I may. As mentioned, I don’t know for sure why the book was rejected by Barry University as primary reading source for one of its philosophy courses; until I know for sure I will not render a final judgment. I do know one thing for sure though: it is the equivalent of the kiss of death for any recommendation offered by the extreme right to the extreme left, and vice-versa. So much for philosophical objectivity Hence the importance of finding balance and moderation between those philosophical positions. I wonder if the above interlocutor knows anything about that!


Andreacchio2012-05-24 00:16:23
Mr. Paparella, what significant difference is there between "exploring the possibility of finding" and "intending to find"?


"I envisioned setting up a debate between the ancients and the moderns thus exploring the possibility of finding a synthesis of sorts which both Brooklyn Existentialism and the New Science indeed do" [Paparella]

"It was never declared that the authors were actually suggesting or attempting such a synthesis in their book. I simply suggested two great philosophers (Vico and Croce) who actually tried such a synthesis" [Paparella]

---
What do you make of Langiulli's appeal to Leo Strauss and St. Thomas as fellow Platonists?


Emanuel Paparella2012-05-24 01:33:39
Corrections: doctrinaire is misspelled twice in the above comment; “is” should be omitted from “qua is modern;” if I may is repeated twice unnecessarily.

It is intriguing to me that the above interlocutor, Mr. Andreacchio, opts to simply ignore the question of “the kiss of death” plaguing unsolicited advice coming from extremes on either extremes of the philosophical spectrum. Wholly unsolicited, he cavalierly forwarded advice concerning Brooklyn Existentialism to a Dean of the ACE program at Barry University. After that, the book was removed from the list of primary reading material and placed in a secondary list. As mentioned, I don’t know for sure the reason why the book was removed from the primary list but I suspect that it was his unsolicited cavalier recommendation that might have resulted in the opposite of what was intended. Perhaps he can enlighten us all on this rather bizarre issue.


Emanuel Paparella2012-05-25 13:20:48
After further discussion with friends and colleagues of the above essay-review I have a further comment to add. In the first place it needs mentioning that critiquing the form of the text, i.e., that its bluntness militated against the advocacy for more politeness and good manners in the new generation, does not invalidate in any way the core of its thesis. Since the formation of character is a priority in its argumentation it could be validly argued that once the formation of character is restored in our schools, good manner will return automatically. It sounds a bit circular, similar to Marx’s argument that justice will be restored once the proletariat disappears, but it is a sound argument, if indeed it were to made by the authors. As it is, the logical infrasture of the book stands.

In the second place, I’d like to point out that currently in Naples, Italy there is a whole intellectual movement which is attempting to bring back a nearly forgotten philosopher: Benedetto Croce. The raison d’être of the movement is exactly to provide a middle ground, and perhaps an alternative between the two extremes between modern liberal post-metaphysical Deriddarian philosophical deconstructionism on the far left and conservative Straussian neo-Platonism on the right. In the process a more good mannered philosophical dialogue may be exprected to ensue. It is to be hoped that the authors will look into such a movement and perhaps even consider joining it.


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