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Ovi Symposium; Third Meeting
by The Ovi Symposium
2013-07-05 10:31:20
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Ovi Symposium:

“A Philosophical Conversation on the Nature of Art within Modernity
and the Envisioning of a New Humanism”

between Drs. Nannery, Paolozzi and Paparella
Third Meeting: 4 July 2013


Dr. Lawrence Nannery has studied at Boston College, Columbia University and at The New School for Social Research where he obtained his Ph.D. He founded The Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal and authored The Esoteric Composition of Kafka’s Corpus. Devising Nihilistic Literature, 2 vols. Mellen Press.

Dr. Ernesto Paolozzi teaches history of contemporary philosophy at the University Suor Orsola Benincasa of Naples. A Croce scholar and an expert on historicism, he has written widely, especially on aesthetics and liberalism vis a vis science.

Dr. Emanuel Paparella has a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism with a dissertation on Giambattista Vico from Yale University. He currently teaches philosophy at Barry University and Broward College in Florida, USA. One of his books is titled Hermeneutics in the Philosophy of G. Vico, Mellen Press.



Section 1: “The Death of Music,” a presentation by Lawrence Nannery
Section 2: A comment on Lawrence Nannery’s presentation by Ernesto Paolozzi
Section 3: A comment on Lawrence Nannery’s presentation by Emanuel Paparella
Section 4: A reply to Emanuel Paparella’s observations on Dante and Benigni by Ernesto Paolozzi
Section 5: “The Autonomy of Art,” a presentation by Ernesto Paolozzi
Section 6: Comments on Ernesto Paolozzi’s presentation by Emanuel Paparella
Section 7: “Vico as Precursor of Modern Historicism and Hermeneutics,” a presentation by Emanuel Paparella
Section 8: Comments on Emanuel Paparella’s Presentation by Ernesto Paolozzi


The Death of Music
A Presentation by Lawrence Nannery
4th of July 2013


My previous article dealt with the phenomenon of the decline of classical music.  Now it is time to acknowledge the death of music in the West.

I am following in the footsteps of Nietzsche once again in saying what is not generally acknowledged.  In his first major work, The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche gave a very influential view of the sources of Greek tragedy, arguably the greatest artform ever to grace the culture of Western Europe.  But it only lasted for a certain period of time; it withered on the vine and eventually disappeared.

In Section 11 of the treatise Nietzsche turned his attention to the question of its decline and disappearance.  He states:  “Greek tragedy … died by suicide … died tragically.”  And the culprit was the tragic artist Euripides.  For it was Euripides the intellectual, not the tragedian, who enclosed his tragedies with the sickness of what might be called the bourgeois spirit, one that disbelieved in the gods of the tradition, and accused the gods of being immoral, no better than men. Earlier tragedies revealed but did not judge the gods, out of fear.  But the intellectual Euripides did not believe in the gods, and consequently had no such fear.  He thus has reduced the conflict onstage to a contest of mere opinions.  And at the same time a new form of comedy emerged, and even they were somewhat less interesting than Old Comedy, of which no complete work has come down to us.  

A similar sin against an artform was committed in the early 20th century by a series of musical theoreticians.  In the early 1920’s, for no clear reason, the Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg felt that it would be an interesting improvement in music to restrict new productions to what he called the “twelve-tone technique.” This involved a rejection of music played in the key of a dominant note, which for several reasons had been the basis of harmony in the composition of high music. 

Even before Schoenberg’s innovations there had been some movement in the same direction.  Stravinsky, Scriabin and Bartok had written and performed pieces of a similar nature since the year 1908.  But the later claim for tonal neutrality advanced by Schoenberg and some others — Webern for example — is more famous.  This innovation  widened the frame of what notes could be used, and also laid down a most important rule that all 12 tones of the chromatic scale be played, in any order, before any note could be repeated.  This guaranteed the death of melody, which is what almost all people consider to be music itself.

The movement toward atonality in music, it must be admitted, is something very different.  One can with training “read the music” more easily than one can understand it.  But, no matter, these movements of that period made headway nonetheless.  Astonishingly, melody became a dirty word in many music academies, and condemned as ‘finished,” or as not serious.  So, gradually, the graduates of these academies composed in the spirit of modernity, and believed that they were liberating music from the rules that had confined it to endless repetition until Schoenberg had challenged the need for a dominant note. 

 Since under the new regime any note could follow any other note, with the restriction that no note could be used a second time until all the 12 notes of the chromatic scale had been used — as an exercise in democracy, I suppose — but the works that obeyed this rule made not sense to the ear of the concertgoers.  The public hated the music and stayed away in droves.  Nevertheless, the academics persisted in their stance, and students were not allowed to compose in the traditional way open to them, it seems.  It became a common opinion that atonal music was superior to 19th century composers such as Tchaikovsky, who was condemned for making music that was too sweet, and objectionable, since his music was thought to be too emotional and sentimental.  If anyone like myself brought forward the criticisms of the new music, those in the know, those trained in the new prejudices of the music schools, showed great disdain for such positions, and superciliously explained that these criticisms stemmed from ignorance.

But, in my opinion, the people were right and the academics were wrong.  The academics were refuted by the public, and they have never gathered dominant support in the concert halls. One must conclude that the academicians forfeited the social nature of art, and that in itself was enough of a refutation.

The deeper question is, why did this new kind of music never really succeed?   To me this is quite obvious.  One merely has to do what is required of any member of an audience: viz., just listen to the music!  All the arts are sensuous, suited to our bodily nature, our emotional nature. Mathematics is not, nor is an ideology about any art that is mindlessly strict and astringent, as the use of atonality or the 12-tone scale is.

There is one area in which this modern music has had some success. That is in the area of the harsh sounds that arouse feelings of fear and of an unsettled character.  In this atonal music, the weird, the angry, threat, and the frightful predominate.  So therefore screeching noises are good for dissonance; low and lowly sounds are good for suggesting threat; and are very commonly used as background music in horror movies, or scenes filled with tension.

Also, the aleatory was thought to be tonic by the academicians, and so light sounds, such as short flitting noises that composers think the audience will take for lightness, fail miserably.  All that comes to the hearer by means of a string of unconnected sounds that are meant to convey free movement, but such flitting fairies of sound make no sense — such sounds cannot “build” and cannot be resolved.

In sum, what promised to be a widening of the available tools for music —devices intended to set a new standard for a wider topography of sound — failed totally. The devices actually functioned as policemen, forbidding any violation of the new orthodoxy.   Requiescat in pacem.

A litmus test, in my view, of the failure of this modern attitude towards music is validated by the complete inability to set choral music to these tasks.  The human voice will always be the final arbiter of what music can do with sounds. 

Negativity has always had a place in all the arts, especially when the intention of the artist is to portray negative emotions in his work.  And here tragic opera is most relevant.  In tragic opera, just as in ancient Greek tragedy, the negativity is raised up to another level, to the most delicious level of emotion in the hearers.  “Tragic joy” is experienced when the opera is successful, just as it was on the stage in ancient Greece. But if there is nothing else in a musical score but negative intentions, then the work can never achieve more than a marginal status.  And so this came to pass decades ago. 

In the end, these developments seem to add up to the conclusion that our culture has already experienced the death of music as an artform.  What has succeeded it in the concert hall from about 1970 until today has been a combination of strict adherence to a regimen of major pieces by the greatest orchestras playing the greatest works of the greatest composers, rarely if ever reaching into 20th century music, on the one hand, or a combination of the above with some music that pleases a knowing audience with music of highly-rated Broadway show tunes, which are often good enough for many listeners.  And that is all.

Something similar happened in Greek tragedy after the time of Euripides, but except for the bawdy comedy of Aristophanes none of it survives.


A Comment on Lawrence Nannery’s Presentation
By Ernesto Paolozzi

Ha pienamente ragione Larry Nannery. Le avanguardie sono diventate troppo presto ammuffita accademia. Nella musica, nella poesia nella pittura. E' uno dei più grandi equivoci della storia: ci si proclama rivoluzionari, sperimentalisti, avanguardisti e per cento anni si governa università, accademie musicali, musei di arte moderna. Eppure si rimane rivoluzionari, sperimentalisti, avanguardisti. Per dirla con Ennio Flaiano, grande scrittore, sceneggiatore di Fellini: gli avanguardisti vogliono fare la rivoluzione scortati dalla polizia. Così il pubblico si allontana sempre più dalla falsa arte senza riuscire a capire dove ritrovare l'arte. Lancio una provocazione: per ritrovare la musica "alta" contemporanea si deve ricercare fra le colonne sonore dei film. Ennio Morricone... chi sa? 

Translation: Larry Nannery is quite right. The avanguard movement has soon become stuffy academy. This applies to music, poetry, painting. It represents one of the greatest equivocations of history: they declared themselves revolutionaries, experimentalists, avanguardists, and for one hundred years or so have governed the universities, the musical academies, the museums of modern art. And yet they are stuck in being revolutionaries, experimentalists and avanguardists. To say it with Ennio Flaiano, a great writer and the scriptwriter for Fellini: the avanguardists wish to make a revolution escorted by the police. Thus the public distances itself more and more from a false kind of art without being able to understand where to find an authentic one. I’d like to put out there a provocative statement: to rediscover contemporary “high” music once again one may have to look for it among the film scores for movies. Ennio Morricone…perhaps?   


A Comment on Lawrence Nannery’s Presentation
by Emanuel L. Paparella

Larry Nannery’s critique of modern music seems to lead to a very interesting premise about modernity, namely that within an historical-hermeneutic approach not everything that arrives at the end of an era or a process is necessarily the best; that is to say, progress is not inevitable, deterministic, and unstoppable. After all, modern music, and some would also add modern art in general and the sad demise of the humanities in our schools and academies, may well reflect the Hegelian spirit of the times we live in and have our being, times wherein the decline and extinction of civilization and even that of humankind as a species, may be an ongoing process as we speak. Are we dealing with a Hegel turned up-side-down? With a negative kind of unstoppable regress parading as progress? Was Kierkegaard right in pointing out the Achilles’ heel in the dialectical theory of Hegel, its determinism? One wonders.

I was particularly struck by this statement in your essay, Larry: “But, in my opinion, the people were right and the academics were wrong. The academics were refuted by the public, and they have never gathered dominant support in the concert halls.  One must conclude that the academicians forfeited the social nature of art, and that in itself was enough of a refutation.” I concur here too but then I can well imagine one or two  elitist supercilious academics, those who go around parading their love of truth at the expense of even friendship and civilized behavior, coming back with a rebuttal such as this: since when have the ignorant “oi polloi” been the arbiter of what is artistic and of cultural value and what is only artifice and craft? Here the reflections on aesthetics of a Vico or a Kant or a Croce or a Paolozzi could prove most valuable.

Allow me to illustrate the above comments with a recent pertinent event. A book has recently been published in Italy in the form of an essay by a professor of Latin and Italian Literature (Prof. Amato Maria Bernabei) titled “O Dante o Benigni.” [Either Dante or Benigni]. I have not read the book yet but I have viewed an interview he gave to a journalist on the essay in question and available to all on u-tube. The interview is conducted in front of the Coliseum and one notices precious few people in the background. Contrast that scene, if you will, with that of Benigni reciting the Divine Comedy in front of Santa Croce in Florence with the square full of thousand upon thousands of people listening attentively. 

Basically the professor alleges that Benigni who recites Dante in the agora so to speak, is an impostor and a betrayer of Dante. Now, I tend to go along with his critique as far as the exegesis and the hermeneutics of the text is concerned, but I am less sure about the aspects of popularization and recitation of the Divine Comedy as carried on by the same Benigni, dubbed a Florentine clown by Prof. Bernabei.

 After all, Dante as a humanist could have written the Commedia in Latin with the educated people attending universities as the target audience. He decided to write it in the “volgare illustre,” a dialectical corruption of Latin, the language of the people of Tuscany, in effect giving a literature to such language and permitting thereby the forging of a cultural identity. In some way the same was preannounced by St. Francis of Assisi when he wrote the first Italian poem (the Canticle of Creatures) in Italian a hundred years before Dante. What seems to have happened subsequently is that the academicians took possession of Dante’s great masterpiece and reduced it to something precious to be read and commented by precious few in academia. That is to say, Dante was hijacked by the academics. Then in the same academia, beginning with the 19th century one begins to hear arguments by the logical positivists for disposing of Dante and indeed the whole field of the humanities altogether in order to give due privilege and priority to the sciences

So we end up with the spectacle of endowed chairs of Dante studies at Harvard and Yale where Dantists of all persuasions pompously instruct a handful of graduate students aspiring to the same chair. Vico called such spectacle “la boria dei dotti” or the arrogance of the learned. When one attends one of those classes (as I have indeed) one may learn much from those luminaries but at the same time one may be confronted by another sad spectacle, that of the professor who will spend three or four two hour classes on the exegesis and interpretation of one single verse of Dante’s opus, never occurring to him to take the trouble to simply read aloud a whole canto in order to give students a taste for the sheer beauty of the poem. Meanwhile the people have been starving for Dante as revealed by the fact that whole public squares will fill up whenever Benigni recites Dante. So here too, as mentioned by Nannery the academics have been refuted by the people.

It is at that point that one begins to suspect that professional pique and resentment may be behind the lofty essay of the above mentioned professor. How dare a clown from Florence usurp his domain? One asks: could this be what’s at work behind Bernabei’s essay? I am not sure, but perhaps you Ernesto, who is closer geographically to this event may be in a position to supply some answers here. One intriguing phenomenon of the u-tube video worth mentioning here is this: while Benigni’s recitations as also presented on u-tube are attended by hundreds of thousands of people listening attentively to Benigni’s recitation, in the professor’s u-tube video one notices no people listening, the professor is talking to the camera or to a virtual audience perhaps, he is not connecting to anybody and in fact seems to have difficulty even in maintaining eye contact with the interviewing journalist. He seems eager to return to the august halls of academia to dispense his precious pearls of wisdom to precious few selected students. I think that such a scene speaks for itself and needs no comments.



A Reply to Emanuel Paparella’s observations on Dante and Benigni
By Ernesto Paolozzi

Si, in Italia le performance di Benigni su Dante hanno infastidito molti professori. E’ normale, direi, che nasca una gelosia in questi casi. Dante è distrutto dalla scuola e dall’Università. Siamo tornati al filologismo e al nozionismo degli inizi del Novecento. Se i professori leggessero e spiegassero Dante sul modello della letture di Francesco De Sanctis e dello stesso Croce, non ci sarebbe bisogno di Benigni. Poiché si fermano al lavoro preliminare (e indispensabile) di comprensione del testo senza far rivivere la poesia, le letture di Benigni diventano salutari, utilissime per avvicinare lettori, anche giovani, al grande poeta. Benigni, poi, non è solo un attore comico. E’ uomo colto e, soprattutto, sensibile e appassionato. Questo per dire che non deve essere confuso con la cosiddetta cultura bassa che è dannosa come quella accademica. Si può essere colti e popolari. I “grandi” sono quasi sempre alti e popolari. Da Omero a Shakespeare a Mozart…

Translation: Indeed, Benigni’s performances on Dante have piqued many professors in Italy. I would consider it almost normal that events such as these would give rise to resentment. Dante has already been massacred in the schools and the universities. We have gone back to a pedantic philologistic approach of the beginning of the 20th century. If university professors were to read and explain Dante taking as their model the readings of Francesco De Sanctis and Croce, we would not have a need for Benigni. But since they begin and then stop at the preliminary (and indispensable) work of the text’s exegesis without bothering to revive its poetry, the readings of Benigni become necessary and very useful to provide the readers, even young readers, with an initial idea of the great poet. Moreover, Benigni is not only a comic actor. He is also a man of culture who is sensible and passionate. All this to say that we ought not to confuse his performances with the so called “low culture” which are as undesirable as pedantic academic ones. One can be cultured and popular at the same time. The great geniuses of art are almost always within high culture and popular too; beginning with Homer to Shakespeare and Mozart…


The Autonomy of Art
A Presentation by Ernesto Paolozzi
Translated from his book L’estetica di Benedetto Croce
4 July 2013


The other big question, connected to the first one, and in some way encompassing the entire Crocean problematic is that of the autonomy of art. Just as the idea of aesthetics had difficulties in establishing itself as an autonomous philosophical science, similarly the idea of the autonomy of art is a modern and fragile acquisition. We cannot discern one single great philosopher who, in the last two centuries, has not felt and at times openly theorized the autonomy of artistic expression, beginning with Baumgarten all the way to Kant, from Boudelaire to Flaubert and to Poe. Vice-versa, even when art has been distinguished from other human activities and at times located above them, it has been substantially reabsorbed within them, sometimes by philosophy, sometimes by ethics and even from hedonism. What was found useful was to confer on it an autonomous logical status.

Within Croce’s aesthetics this vexata quaestio was addressed from an exquisite theoretical viewpoint, conferring on art the categorical value of an irrepressible form of knowledge. As Croce writes: “because to dispute the independence or the dependence of art’s autonomy and heteronomy means in effect to search if art is or is not and if it exists exactly what it is. This is an activity which depends on another activity and is substantially that other activity and retains for itself a merely putative or conventional existence: that is to say, art which depends on ethics, on pleasure or on philosophy is after all ethics, pleasure and philosophy and not art.”

So, if art does not possess autonomy, why do we call it art? If two objects, a pen and a pencil have different names that’s because they are distinct; all the more so that is valid for a rigorously distinct philosophical distinction such as the one Croce utilizes to designate the various functions through which the practical and theoretical activity of man exhibits itself. On the other hand, to establish diversity and autonomy also means to establish relationships. The pen of our example has its individuality (given by its effectual givennss) because there are pencils and other objects. In a hypothetical world of pens only, there would not be any difference but only an absurd totality or unity. What is different implies a relationship. Now, if we pass over the world of empirical evidence to that of philosophical determinations, the issue becomes even more challenging. Distinction implies relationship but also opposition, or vice-versa. Art affirms with its autonomy that there are facts and events which are not art. In other words, every affirmation is also a negation.

So, the affirmation of the autonomy of art also implies the necessity to explain relationships and oppositions which justify its diversity. As Croce puts it: “Independence is a relational concept, and under this concept what is absolutely independent is the Absolute itself, or the absolute relationship: every particular form and concepts is both dependent and independent at the same time.”

However, to establish the autonomy, i.e., the independence of any spiritual form, it is necessary to trace its specific function which confers to it its necessity. Again, as Croce writes: “A form’s independence assumes the matter by which it expresses itself, as we have already seen in following the development of the origins of art as an intuitive perception of a sentimental or passionate subject. … But, in as much as the recognized independence forbids that we think of an activity as subsumed to the activity of another activity, the dependency must be such as to guarantee its independence.”

It is here that we find the fundamental reasoning of the entire Crocean philosophical journey. It is by implication related to Hegelian dialectic and in fact the entire philosophical tradition. As Croce writes: “Thus considering the issue in its generality, there seems to be no other way to think of independence and dependence as regards the various spiritual activities than that of conceiving them in their relationship of condition and conditioned, in which the conditioned overcomes the conditioned presupposing it, and then in turn becoming the condition, giving rise to a new conditioned and constituting a series of developments.”

Of course the development of which Croce speaks does not suppose a first unconditioned or uncaused but, as the same philosopher states it, the circularity of every form which is at the same time both condition and conditioned. To be able to understand this difficult Crocean position one must go back to his philosophical system, to the long and hard deepening of dialectic in relation to logic and distinctions. We have to keep in mind that in between the first Aesthetics and the Breviario, from which I have quoted above the philosopher has written the Logic as a science of the pure concept as well as his Essay on Hegel.

But to return to our fundamental issue, the artist is not some kind of special man who lives outside the world, devoid of any relationship. Artistic inspiration is always born from a practical need, utilitarian or ethical as the case may be. One wants to know something; one wants to express a particular interior world or a particular feeling; one wants to express a particular human condition of humankind, a social condition, or political condition or psychological condition. From this desire, this movement of conscience is born a second movement which is aesthetic knowledge and expression. This is an indissoluble circle which holds together praxis and art within a unity of distinctions. But of course relationships do not end there. The aesthetic moment exists in a nexus with the philosophical moment since, as we have seen, this second movement is related to the first. As Croce sees it, one cannot conceive an universal philosophical knowledge without basing it on the particular. Knowledge is therefore the a priori synthesis between particular and universal, that is to say, a judgment whose form is the coming together of the universal predicate with the individual subject. In order to explain this we have placed the moment of praxis at the outset of the movement of knowledge. But, as it is obvious, given the circularity of consciousness, it cannot be a first and in fact one cannot wish for anything before one knows it.

Consequently, if we put aside the idea that art is constituted only by great art and go back to conceiving of intuition as the normal function through which man knows the world in its individual aspects, we will grasp that a cognitive function needs to be distinct from other functions but that at the same time it cannot but utilize all other functions (and in turn serve them). Were we to look at one single artistic masterpiece, The Betrothed, for example one cannot but admit that it is a complex work, that can be individuated by its complexity into which flow all the categories or functions of the spirit as we now say in modern parlance. Manzoni must have desired to write such a novel, and not only this, but this desire must have resisted time year after year. He had to reflect and meditate on how to write it; had to plan an outline of the work; worked on a plot, outlined the protagonists. There are parts in the novel that are not poetical, wherein we can detect the writer’s ideology, his liberal Catholicism. All we need to do is think of the figure of Borromeo, the meaning attributed to pestilence, the recourse to the concept of Providence and the final edifying conclusion of the novel.

All of this does not mean that art (intuition) is not the fundamental and connotative element of the work, that is to say, the great ability of Manzoni to penetrate (to be able to know in depth) the most hidden human sentiments through those masterful portraits of don Abbondio, don Rodrigo, Renzo, Lucia, Agnese, fra’ Cristoforo, Perpetua, il Griso, don Ferrante and so on. And here we have arrived at the issue of the autonomy and the heteronomy of art as perpetual interconnection of problems, since art is a the same time autonomous and heteronymous.

As we shall see better later on regarding literary criticism and hermeneutics, it is obvious that an aesthetic judgment, a judgment that wishes to be aesthetic must be exclusively aesthetic. Judgment must remain autonomous, distinct, independent just as the category to which it refers is also independent, autonomous and distinct. Not to judge thus means to fall into moralism, philosophism, utilitarianism. It would be the same as to deny aesthetic value to I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed) because one discerns there a different religious sentiment. Which does not mean, as we have already seen, that one cannot consider I Promessi Sposi an historical document of a different nature that can be utilized for the most varied researches.



Comments on Ernesto Paolozzi’s Presentation
by Emanuel L. Paparella

Indeed, while the assumption by some scholars is that Kant’s Critique of Judgment (since the 18th century holding a central place in the German aesthetic tradition), is the most thorough and authoritative elucidation of the autonomy of art, Ernesto Paolozzi has put forward for our attention and consideration a very persuasive argument that it is Croce who best explains the paradox of rationality affirming that aesthetic judgments yield cognitive truth while at the same time they are autonomous and do not presuppose a concern with the object's purpose, utility, or even its actual existence.

Following this insight, I wonder if we ought not complement Croce’s brilliant aesthetic theory with its emphasis on the autonomy of art with that of Theodor Adorno. Paolozzi himself has hinted at the juxtaposition by mentioning Antonio Gramsci in reference to form and content in the first half of his presentation at the symposium’s first meeting.

In fact, Adorno too, as a Marxist within the Frankfurt School of thought, asserts that the autonomy of art resides not so much in specific aesthetic judgments of the subject but in the work of art and its production. It seems to me crucial to be cognizant of the fact that by subtly shifting the focus from aesthetic judgments to art production, Adorno is proposing something quite similar to what Vico and Croce’s aesthetic theories assume in asserting that man may only fully know what he himself has made culturally in the way of language or art or history (a Vichian insight this of which Marx for one was well aware, to the point of mentioning Vico by name in his writings). Indeed, this Vichian insight common to Croce, Adorno and Marx vies with Kant’s Critique of Judgment regarding the autonomy of art.

Adorno, not unlike Vico, Croce, Tolstoy, Marx, conceives of art as the reservoir for human freedom and the promoter of the liberation of the underprivileged and exploited from oppressive social forces and from the crass cultural economic devastations of the 20th century. This commendable ethical ideal, seems at first sight to contradict the autonomy of art from ethics, given that it can be easily be construed as the foundation of a political ideology (Communism, for example). Adorno’s philosophical strategy in this regard seems to be that of advocating a new type of art which transcends the dichotomy light/serious, high/low, tragic/comedic, utilitarian/ autonomous and finding its ideal example in the theater of Samuel Becket. Indeed as the ancient Greeks intuited the transcendental Forms, the Good, the True and the Beautiful are intertwined

Admittedly the above comments are a rather succinct and generalized overview of Adorno’s aesthetic theory. The interested reader, who may not have time to read the original source, may glean a more extensive explanation from chapter nine of the recent Ovi e-book on Aesthetic Theories of the Great Western Philosophers). In any case, I’d like to place on the symposium’s table this modest proposal: Adorno’s insights on aesthetics perhaps deserve to be pondered as part of our overall ongoing conversation dealing directly with that perpetually challenging question “what is art?,” analyzing art’s place within the cultural existential crisis of modernity and ultimately attempting to envision a new humanism for a new millennium.



Vico as Precursor of Modern Historicism and Hermeneutics
A Presentation by Emanuel L. Paparella
4 July 2013


Within contemporary philosophical circles, especially in academic departments of philosophy, one often comes across a misguided attempt to deny to Vico the very essence and uniqueness of his philosophy, namely the generally accepted fact that he is the grandfather and indeed the fountainhead of modern philosophical historicism and hermeneutics, the original discoverer of the significance of myth, the imagination (fantasia), and the poetical as integral parts of rational speculation.

Within those circles, imagination, positivistically conceived as an undeveloped and primitive mode of reasoning, but to the contrary always privileged in Vico’s philosophy, is customarily subsumed under pure rationality, logic and abstractions which are construed as the supreme achievement of human cognition. This is what Vico, from within his anti-Cartesian stance, would characterize as “the arrogance of scholars.” In more modern parlance it goes under the name of logical positivism, a movement that Croce for one and all bona fide humanists have had to contend with at the turn of the 20th century and beyond as we have hinted in our last conversation.

This subsuming and distortion of Vico’s philosophy is further promoted by that of a minority group within American academic circles; I refer to the Straussian School of thought. Theirs is a hubristic and ambitious project. Rather than stand on Vico’s and Croce’s giant shoulders, they’d rather subsume Vico and Croce to their neo-Platonism as interpreted by Leo Strauss, thus subverting both Vico’s and Croce’s historicism. To realize how misguided and fallacious this effort is, it would suffice to simply consider what eminent Vico scholars have been saying on these two great Neapolitan 18th and 20th century philosophers in the last one hundred years or so, beginning with Croce, all the way to the present. A list of great thinkers and artists engaged by Vico's ideas would have to include at a minimum intellectual giants such as Condorcet, Herder, Hegel, Comte, Yeats, Coleridge,  Arnold, Collingwood, and last but not least, James Joyce.

But to return to our argument, as already mentioned above, Gianbattista Vico (1668-1774), amply warned us against "the arrogance of scholars".  He specifically wrote that "scholars interpret ancient cultures on the basis of their own enlightened, cultivated and magnificent times". Exhibiting from the outset 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 but bring to bear modern interests, that is, one’s own interests and perspectives.

A clear 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 to 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. He is nothing less than the father of modern Philosophy of History. 

Leon 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 proven; 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 reasoning about the common nature of nations.” (Section II, as translated by Fish and Bergin).

It is precisely the matter of assumptions which delineates Vico's departure from the Cartesian mainstream. Vico's deconstruction of Cartesian epistemology began from the inside. Cartesian thought privileged a priori-deductive knowing, and a posteriori-empirical knowing, and by implication marginalized other forms of knowledge, including theological knowing which a Thomas Aquinas surely includes in his Summa. 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 is foundational to Descartes and the empirical tradition. It was such to Hobbes, Locke. Rousseau, Paine. However Vico and later Croce’s thought stand firmly against a reductionist construction of humanity. 

Bruce Mazlish goes as far as attributing Vico's development of a critique of Descartes, to annoyance and professional pique. Certainly the threat was real enough as we have seen in our first conversation. The mantle of academic honor and prestige was being torn at the time from the humanities, and was provocatively 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.”  I would add that such a kiss was not too dissimilar from the Straussian School’s influence on Catholic philosophical education in America in the 60s and the 70s. Vico and Croce could have been its antidote, but alas, they were all but marginalized at the time via the subsuming operation above mentioned.

In any case, 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 knowledge into the a priori and the a posteriori. A priori knowledge was the deductive knowledge of logic and reason, and was irrefutable and exhaustively knowable only because it was a figment; it was a creation of the mind of humans. One such knowing is Mathematics.  Of course we might know the a priori exhaustively; we made it, after all. This acknowledgement of its origin and limitation robbed a priori knowledge of any necessary privileging over other knowledges 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 posteriori 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 in some way mirrored Descartes' hubris. 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, not excluding "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’ reductionist model which abstracts humans from their social and legal context; something that was always 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 to it and promoted it.  So it can validly be asserted that before there was a Matthew Arnold in the 19th century to champion the humanities and liberal arts against a creeping “barbarism of the intellect” there was Vico, and later there was Croce. Precious few knew this simple fact till the beginning of the 20th century when Croce, who had great affinities with Vico, restored his memory and revealed his relevancy for modern concerns. Alas, Croce himself was eventually marginalized after his death in 1952.

Vico acknowledges traditional Catholic pessimism about human nature, with its Adamitic imagery, a "fallen and weak" nature. 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 behavior, 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 explain 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 teach us anything, it is that we are all influenced by our human and intellectual context. 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 Straussian school of thought likes to point out that philosophy per se demands a transcendence of context. I would submit that a good place to begin an imaginative journey of transcendence is Vico’s and Croce’s historicist philosophy which does not make the mistake of embracing the universal while forgetting to ground itself in the particular.

Addendum: I attach, in chronological order, a selected list of books by eminent Vico scholars of the 20th century from which the above quotes have been taken. They can be considered the best secondary sources for reliable Vico scholarship. The pioneer is first and foremost Benedetto Croce with his book The Philosophy of Giambattista Vico, 1913, followed by Fish and Bergin, translators of Vico’s New Science (1948), who together with Giorgio Tagliacozzo and Phillip Verene did much to introduce Vico to the Anglo-Saxon academic world, Robert Caponigri’s Time and Idea: The Theory of History of Giambattista Vico (London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1953), Bruce Mazlish’s The Riddle of History: The Great Speculators from Vico to Freud (New York: Harper and Row, 1966),  Leon Pompa’s Vico: a Study of the 'New Science' (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975),  Isaiah Berlin’s Vico and Herder:Two Studies in the History of Ideas (London: Hogarth Press, 1976), F.M.Barnard’s “Natural Growth and Purposive Development: Vico and Herder', in History and Theory (1979), Donald Phillip Verene’s Vico’s Science of Imagination (1981), Paul Avis’ Foundations of Modern Historical Thought: From Machiavelli to Vico (London: Croom Helm, 1986), Leon Pompa’s Human Nature and Historical Knowledge: Hume, Hegel and Vico (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), Keith Jenkins’ Rethinking History (London: Routledge,1991). Those are the best secondary sources in English which will give the reader a comprehensive view of Vico’s place within historicism and hermeneutics.



Comments on Emanuel Paparella’s Presentation
By Ernesto Paolozzi

Italian version: Non vi è dubbio, credo, che Vico, come dimostra Paparella, sia un precursore del moderno storicismo umanistico e del pensiero ermeneutico. Nella Francia, generalmente ostile al pensiero dialettico e storicista, un famoso sociologo diventato filosofo, Edgar Morin con il quale sono da qualche anno amico, ha sostenuto che Vico, autore de La scienza nuova, sia il primo filosofo della complessità.  La scienza nuova sarebbe appunto quella posizione anticartesiana che considera la storia, l’arte e la conoscenza come ricostruzione e creazione della realtà, come elementi indivisibili, come elementi necessari per comprendere la complessità della vita.

E’ un punto di vista interessante che si può collocare accanto ai pensatori, Benedetto Croce innanzitutto,  ricordati da Emanuel Paparella, che hanno riproposto il pensiero vichiano. Purtroppo, come ricorda sempre Paparella, negli anni Sessanta e Settanta Croce fu combattuto soprattutto per motivi politici: dai comunisti che cominciavano a conquistare le Università e la stampa e dai fascisti che non erano del tutto scomparsi. Si erano travestiti, per così dire, ma non scomparsi. Però a livello di cultura alta l’interpretazione crociana di Vico  rimaneva viva e si approfondiva. Penso all’opera di Raffaello Franchini ad esempio. Mi sembra giusto ricordarlo. Qualche anno prima erano comparse due opere che vanno ricordate.  Le quattro stagioni dello storicismo  di Manlio Ciardo e  Il tramonto della logica antica  di Alfredo Parente.  Ciardo, morto in povertà, tracciava un percorso che va da Vico a Kant, da Hegel a Croce per mostrare come si fa strada il pensiero critico dialettico e, dunque, umanistico e storicista  per abbandonare quella che Parente definisce logica antica, ossia la logica puramente analitica, astratta.  Franchini mostrerà come già in Aristotele (filosofo caro a Paparella) le due anime della logica coesistono. Quella dell’Organon e quella della fronesis , del giudizio senza contare le pagine sui contrari e i contraddittori e, naturalmente quelle sulla potenza e l’atto pagine decisamente dialettiche come già Hgel aveva compreso.

Il principio vichiano secondo il quale possiamo conoscere solo ciò che abbiamo fatto rimane uno dei momenti più alti del pensiero di tutti i tempi. Avete mai provato a spiegare ad un amico un percorso per raggiungere una città o un paese? Quante incomprensioni e, certe volte irritazione. Sembra non capire mai. E’ solo che voi avete già percorso quella strada, lui, poveretto, può solo “pensarla” in astratto. Soccorre, talvolta, l’arte, l’intuizione: un’immagine (un palazzo rosso, una casa decadente etc.) e ci si ritrova in sintonia. Mi scuso per l’esempio banale, ma dà un’ idea di ciò che vogliamo sostenere.

Translation: I don’t think there is any doubt that, as Paparella claims, Vico is the precursor of modern historicism and hermeneutics. In France, generally hostile to historicist and dialectical thought, there is a famous sociologist who turned to philosophy, a friend of mine, Edgar Morin, who asserts that Giambattista Vico, the author of The New Science is the first philosopher of complexity. The New Science would indeed be that anti-Cartesian philosophical position which considers art, history and knowledge in general as a reconstruction and indeed creation of reality, as interconnected indivisible elements necessary to grasp the complexity of life. It is appropriate to remember him here. This is an interesting viewpoint which can be traced back to certain thinkers, Benedetto Croce first and foremost, as Paparella reminds us, who have proposed to our consideration the thought of Vico. Unfortunately, as the same Paparella points out, Croce’s thought was attacked for political motives: first by the Communists who had begun to invade the media and the university and then by the fascists who had not completely disappeared. They had just changed their appearance. However at the level of high and deep culture the Crocean interpretation of Vico was alive and well. I am thinking here of Raffaello Franchini’s work which is worth mentioning. A few years before had appeared two works which are also worth remembering: The Four Seasons of Historicism by Manlio Ciardo and The Sunset of Logic by Alfredo Parente. Ciardo, who died in penury, traced a journey which goes from Vico to Kant, from Hegel to Croce to show how critical dialectical thought travels and how it is humanistic and historicist, antithetical to what Parente defines as the ancient logic, which is to say a logic that is purely analytical and abstract. Franchini for one will show how already in Aristotle (a philosopher highly valued by the same Paparella) the two souls of logic coexist and are friendly to each other: that of the Organon and that of the fronesis on judgment, not to mention the pages on the contraries and contradictories, and of course the ones on potentiality and act, all pages those which are undoubtedly dialectical, as Hegel for one had well understood.

The Vichian idea that we can fully know only what we ourselves have made remains one of the highlights of  philosophy for all times. Have you ever attempted to give directions to a friend on how to get to a particular city or town? Many misunderstandings will ensue; at times even irritation. That’s because you have already been on that journey while he can only envision it in the abstract. At times what is needed, is art, intuition, a simple image (a red building, a decadent house) and then the mutual understanding is restored. Please excuse this rather banal example but it provides an idea of what we are attempting to put across in this symposium.



Intro - P. 1 - P. 2 

2nd Meeting - 3rd Meeting - 4th Meeting - 5th Meeting - 6th Meeting - 7th Meeting - 8th Meeting -

9th Meeting - 10th Meting - 11th Meeting - 12th Meeting - 13th Meeting - 14th Meeting - 15th Meeting -

16th Meeting - 17th Meeting - 18th Meeting - 19th Meeting - 20th Meeting - 21st Meeting -

22nd Meeting -23rd Meeting - 24th Meeting - 25th Meeting -


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