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Vico's Poetic Philosophy within Europe's Cultural Identity 1/2
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2007-06-15 10:54:22
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There are two dangerous extremes in modern Western philosophy: that of mythos without logos leading to a false transcendence and ushering in the Nietzschean charismatic Man; and that of logos without mythos leading to pure rationalism and ushering in technocratic Man. In between those dangerous extremes there is Vico’s poetic philosophy, humanistic, holistic and able to harmonize the two extremes.

Vico’s New Science begins with an image, a frontispiece which Vico placed there so that the reader could recollect, at a glance, the whole opus. That image was not placed there for mere aestheticism. It informs the whole of Vico’s philosophy. The art of memory and recalling is indeed fundamental for a proper understanding of Vico’s speculation, one that is free of distortions, misrepresentations, misreading or subsuming. Within this image, very familiar to those who know anything about Vico, one soon notices that the universe within time and space has been divided into three observed and perceived phenomena: the divine, the human, and the natural world. Observed by whom? By Providence represented as an all seeing eye, but most importantly by man who needs poetic wisdom (represented by Homer receiving the light of providence as reflected by metaphysics). Without these Man cannot ascend to Truth. That image holds all those elements together. Hence the first important observation of Vico’s thought is that it represents a philosophy of recollective universals generating philosophical understanding not from rational categories but from the image.

In other words, imagination becomes a new method, rather than mere subject matter for philosophical thought. A corollary to this observation is that were we to use the rationalistic method (that of the category) to understand Vico, we would ipso facto distort him and misunderstand him. Another way of putting it is this: Vico’s thought can only be understood from the inside. The human mind has to apply the same methodology that Vico uses to arrive at an understanding of itself. In his oration on “The Heroic Mind” (1732) Vico tells us that the heroic mind is the basis of a true education and in seeking the sublime has as its goal human wisdom oriented toward the common good of the human race. Not too dissimilar it would appear from Plato’s Republic. However, in his address of 1737 to the Academia degli Oziosi (The Academy of the men of leisure) Vico has recourse to Socrates as exemplary of someone who could reason about all parts of knowledge, human and divine.

What Vico deplores in modern education is the loss of the perspective of the whole. He always insists that the flower of wisdom is the grasping of the whole through the particular and the specific. What Vico is suggesting is that the reader of his work needs to be heroic too but in doing so he ought not consider The New Science something esoteric, reserved to a select few initiates into the mysteries, but rather exoteric in the sense that the human mind has certain common traits and can therefore narrate to itself The New Science and arrive at the same conclusions as Vico did; that is, discern within itself the ideal eternal history narrated by Vico and thus experience the same divine pleasure. For after all the story is the story of humankind (“storia” in Italian means both story and history) and Vico, as Virgil with Dante, is a mere guide for the reader to attain the “dilettoso monte.”

What are the ideas to which Vico guides the reader? Basically they are wisdom, heroism, tragedy, barbarism (of both sense and intellect), memory, providence, imagination, ingenuity. All ideas which the Western philosophical tradition considers superseded. And yet these ideas contain principles which are basic to the shaping of any modern humanistic thought.

The greatest danger to those who would correctly interpret Vico is that of placing his thought at the service of a position that is not his own by pigeon-holing him into a school of thought or a discipline. One such is the philosophy of history, another is cultural anthropology. Croce, for example, while attempting to promote Vico’s ideas tried to see Vico as an Italian Hegel. He went as far as devising an imaginary conversation between Hegel and a visiting Neapolitan scholar titled “An unknown page from the Last Months of Hegel’s Life” (The Personalist, 45 (1964), pp. 344-351). Thus Croce insured that for the first half of the 20th century Vico would be seen through the eyes of a philosophy of the idea, or Idealism. In turn that inhibited an open reading of Vico’s own views.

Indeed Vico’s ship has been sailed under many flags: idealism, Catholicism, Marxism, historicism, modern methodologies galore, contemporary epistemology, emphasizing Vico as an influence, a mere precursor of more thorough philosophies; the most notable perhaps being Croce’s view of Vico as a precursor of Hegel. Thus Vico is robbed of his own originality. In his Autobiography Vico speaks of his hope to be an influential thinker but in Vici vindiciae he warns of the distortions of his thought already afoot (in the Acta Eruditorum where his book was reviewed). Later he writes to Abbè Esperti (1726) lamenting that the reception of his book was like that of an infant still born, then musing that indeed a book that displeases so many people cannot possibly have universal applause especially in a world dominated by the “chance” of Epicurus and the “necessity" of Descartes. Both are still alive and well in Europe. And how could Vico expect otherwise? His ideas were considered not modern enough, passé, anachronistic. His conception of “verum factum convertuntur” against which Croce argued could be traced back to St. Augustine’s doctrine that God creates by knowing or to Aquinas’ statement that “ens et verum convertuntur” (truth and reality are convertible), or the Renaissance Platonism of Marsilio Ficino, or the experimental method of Galileo (see Rodolfo Mondolfo’s Il verum factum prima di Vico (Naples, Guida, 1969).

To go from these antecedents to the principle of history made by humans, man who is his own history, was not an easy nut to crack within the prevalent Cartesian philosophical approach of the times. He was considered an anachronistic throw-back to the ancients, “the owl of Minerva of Renaissance humanistic culture” as Karl-Otto Apel defines Vico in his Die idée der Sparche in der Tradition des Humanismus von Dante bis Vico echoing Ernesto Grassi Macht des Bildes (Power of the Image. Cologne: 1970, p.194), where Grassi connects Vico’s thought to certain humanists: Salutati, Landino, Pico, Valla, Poliziano. But these men are usually regarded as mere literati and accorded little if any philosophical study.

Since Bergin’s translation of The New Science into English (1948, Cornell University), has come to be regarded as a tool to confront the fragmentation of contemporary thought. But once again his ideas have been connected to seminal thinkers in semiotic, phenomenology, structuralism, genetic psychology, myth analysis, literary criticism, linguistics, and so on. In other words, there seems to be a post-modern concern to seek the foundations of knowledge through Vico’s thought. And here indeed Vico has been most helpful. In grasping what Vico calls “the barbarism of the intellect” as symptomatic of the deep solitude of spirit and will of modern man [“la somma solitudine d’animo e di voleri”] which Vico associates with the end of the third era of the ideal eternal history, the era of men where pure reason reigns uncontested; a sort of decadence when men “finally go mad and waste their substance” (N.S., 241 and 1106). This is what Vico defines as reflective thought devoid of what he calls “sapienza poetica.”(poetic wisdom). This is a thought that has forgotten its connection with the imagination of the whole, a loss of the human image of itself; the inability of the thinker to reflect its own wholeness into the products of his own thought. This barbarism of thought is a kind of human experience deprived of a cultural guide or center, without a perspective on the human mind. As Elio Gianturco used to comment in his magisterial lectures on Vico at New York University (1970): we live in a Cartesian world dominated by procedures, efficient ordering and technological know how as fix-all for whatever ails us.

From what we have said above, it would appear that using Vico’s thought to seek the foundations of social humanistic knowledge fits quite well with Vico’s own concerns as stated in his orations: to connect knowledge with wisdom, heroism and eloquence. We should remember that Vico was for most of his academic career an Assistant Professor of Eloquence at the University of Naples. This is all well and good, but there is a caveat of which Vico himself warns us about; namely that the human mind has a propensity to reduce what is unfamiliar and distant to what is familiar and at hand. And Vico goes pretty far back into the origins of the human world. In other words, the propensity is to merge the meaning of Vico’s ideas to those developed more fully by later thinkers. Donald Phillip Verene calls this propensity “Vico’s Achilles’ heel” thus identifying the facility with which Vico’s thought has been transformed into viewpoints that are not his. This is astonishing indeed when one thinks that Vico himself takes pains in his oration De Antiquissima Italorum sapientia to declare that he belongs to no school of thought as such.


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Sand2007-06-15 11:56:55
First I must congratulate Mr. Paparella on the density and ingenuity of his obfuscations. On reading his latest piece I felt like the patron of a night club on New Years Eve slightly after midnight when the string confetti has descended and my spaghetti dinner has been inundated by the downfall. The spaghetti is inextricable mixed up with the confetti bestowing a very colorful aspect to the meal but attempts at consuming it are totally frustrated as the ingestion is deterred by large wads of indigestible material mixed in with the few lonely strands of spaghetti. I have not encountered such an odd mix since trying to make sense of L. Ron Hubbard’s minor masterpiece “Dianetics” and, of course, utterly failing. Somewhere in that jungle of arcane references and random eclectic mix of incoherent terminology I have heard the plaintive pitiful cry of an idea attempting to seek release. I made a vain attempt at rescue but was unfortunately unsuccessful. I readily concur that Vico cannot be placed in any school of thought since there seems no coherent thought there that would qualify to enter any school.

Paparella2007-06-15 13:47:43
This acerbic reaction of Mr. Sand togethr with his irony parading as humor when it only ridiculousness, leads me to the sad conclusion that Vico will forever remain beyond his comprehension. For, it is the rationalistic mind-set that needs to be changed to begin understanding Vico, not Vico's philosophy ( which will still be read in two thousand years) to the pseudo-logic of extreme rationalism. But it may be even beyond that: do I detect some sort of animus and an ax being ground? It does not take much imagination to figure out which.

Sand2007-06-15 16:49:14
If you could stop demonstrating your lack of humor and read my comment carefully you will understand that I have very little to say about Vico other than your presentation conveys very little about him that makes sense. It was not an evaluation of his philosophy but a declaration that your communication skills are so profoundly blunted by your fascination with uninformative references and vague terminology that no information was communicated. Perhaps you are crystal clear to the average reader but if you really want to say things to me you will have to be simpler and more direct in your style. Of course, you are under no duress to make things clear to me. I am merely laying out the conditions I require. If you feel no obligation to communicate with me, I shall have to write you off as inscrutable. There are no axes in the area and you need not fear my woodsman's capability.

Jack2007-06-15 19:46:01
Vico stated well that "to connect knowledge with wisdom, heroism and eloquence". Good point. Scientific knowledge without wisdom creates it's own ethics.

Sand2007-06-15 19:53:57
These are three of the words that I find disturbing and uninformative. What do you exactly mean by "wisdom", by "heroism", by "eloquence" in the context of discovering, for instance, exactly what the speed of light could be? The words, to me, are meaningless.

Sand2007-06-15 20:34:21
According to my dictionary the definition of rationalism in reference to philosophy is that it declares that reason alone with no reference to experience is the source of knowledge. Anybody who has the most elemental knowledge of science is fully aware that science endlessly refers to experience, to experiment, to reconfirmation of first results ad infinitum. This has nothing to do with the use of the word "science" as Mr.Paparella uses it. He is evidently totally ignorant of standard scientific procedures.

Paparella2007-06-15 21:38:58
Given that I never gave a definition of science nor did I declare science or technology bad in themselves, this rather nasty penchant for putting words in other's mouths must be integral part of Mr. Sand's imaginative sense of humor as exemplified in today's cartoon perhaps. Be that as it may, one wonders if Mr. S. has gone beyond the reading of the title of the title of Vico's opus, and if he has how does he explain the word science in it. Hint: one of the section of that universally recognized work is titled: "poetic logic."

Paparella2007-06-15 22:04:00
It occurs to me also that the other nasty habit Mr. Sand has exhibited in this forum is that of judging and promptly attacking a piece he does not agree with not only in a disagreable mode but also when only half has been published. Given that rationalists quite often divorce imagination from reason that may not be too surprising but it is still clever by half.

Sand2007-06-15 22:17:44
Which only confirms my estimate of your capability to clearly say what you are trying to convey.
Of course, since poetic logic is an oxymoron we seem to have come to an impasse.

Paparella2007-06-16 02:23:25
Rationalists always come to an impasse with their either/or mind-set. How about imagining both/and as another more mentally healthy option? Reading Vico's poetic philosophy rather than the dictionary definition of rationalism could be a first step.

Sand2007-06-16 06:29:26
Let me put this as simply as possible. I assume your submission's purpose was to tell people something you feel is important. Insofar as I am concerned, you have been totally unsuccessful. Sorry.

Paparella2007-06-16 12:13:33
The point was much more simple but again Mr. Sand missed it. It was that the submission had not been wholly published but that did not stop Mr. Sand for a second to cavalierly charge with sword drawn to attack the messanger bringing what he considers unwelcome messages. Indeed rationalists tend to do that sort of rather irrational thing and then they disengenuously say: nothing personal, I am just defending reason. It would be wiser for them to familiarize themselves with the elementary rules of reasoning (philosophy 101)and also take a few humanities courses, so that they could at least hold their own at a cocktail party without having to costantly hae to get on their horse for a charge thus making themselves ridiculous.

Sand2007-06-16 12:20:39
I await with bated breath for your eloquence and persuasive abilities to unhorse me. Unfortunately I am not at a cocktail party but I'll see what I can arrange on short notice.

Paparella2007-06-16 15:41:17
I trust that when you do go to a cocktail party, unlike Benigni in the movie Life is Beatiful, you do not enter it riding a horse.

I also wonder if you quite irrationally charge on a horse with unsheated sword anything you do not understand and/or remains obscure to you, or is the charge against the messanger a diversion from something that you might have understood only too well after all?

Sand2007-06-16 18:35:55
My inexcusable offense against you is apparently that I cannot understand you and since it seems you are totally confident that what you say is totally comprehensible by anybody, I am evidently on the attack. Have you not even the shadow of a suspicion that your skills of conveying your message may be somewhat lacking for at least me if not universally?

Paparella2007-06-16 19:38:21
I have absolutely not a scintilla of suspicion that you have not understood. But do you have any shadow of suspicion that you may be the only one who has not understood? Hint: under-stand. To stand on one's horse while charging that one does not agree with what one has not understood is not only irrational but ridiculous to boot. "I know that I don't know" is a more sane and rational stance, albeit a bit more imaginative.

Sand2007-06-16 19:53:24
Hell, man, you're the guy trying to tell me something. Instead of kicking me in the ass for my giving you curious looks, why not figure its up to you to get the message across?

Paparella2007-06-16 22:00:52
Interesting metaphor! Indeed language is highly metaphorical and the rationalist deludes himself when he thinks he can reduce it to mathematical logic or some kind of chess game. But that does not deter him from getting on his horse and charging with colorful metaphors what he claims he does not even understand.

Sand2007-06-16 22:26:38
You seem to be saying that I am colorful in telling you that you are not getting your message across. This is something that I understand very well. Who else would be able to know this? Evidently not you.

Wow2007-06-20 21:46:38
you guys are total fools...

Nick2007-06-25 04:50:03
On a more constructive note then Sand's, I'm not entirely sure that it is particularly inappropriate to examine Vichean thought in comparison to modern thinkers. As a method it has its drawbacks, yes, and of course if done badly these treatments are much worse then a proper exegesis of Vico's sources (a la Mooney), but if we think, for example, of Edward Said's use of Vico to illustrate his own discussions of humanism, or Grassi's reading of Vico with Heidegger, or alternately reading him with modern theorists of the state of nature (I have often been struck by the synergies between Freud's Civilization and its Discontents and the Scienza Nuova, for example) then we see that a reading of Vico can allow us to have a much greater dialogue with our contemporary thinkers. Good article, by the way

Nick2007-06-25 05:00:58
Oh, sorry, second comment reading through this article and Sand's criticism again.

There is now a good deal of work, fairly convincing work at that, that rejects this idea of Vico being not of any particular school. Certainly Sand's critique of Vico not containing any coherent thought operates only if we are unaware of the schools of thought to which Vico belongs. If we are to go about this project of viewing him on his own terms, as you suggest, then perhaps the more refreshing approach is to view him in relation to the traditions that emerge out of the end of humanist rhetoric and the birth of the scientific rationalism. Take for example his views on Aristotelian and Ciceroan topics - there is a train of thought that can be traced through Boethius, Ockham, Ramus, etc, until we reach Arnauld's Cartesian critique of the topical system to which Vico reacts in the De Nostri Temporis Studiorum Ratione. Or take his treatment of history in the New Science and read it in correspondance with the writings of Francis Bacon or in reaction to Gassendi. If you are interested in this, Paolo Rossi seems to be doing some good work in this area

An Italian student2007-10-22 12:32:18
What should Mr. Sand say that Vico's thought is incoherent, perhaps that he is over-rated?
So all people in the world who are studying Vico influence in humanities and social science are dumb and stupid people? There are a lot of isolated masters in any field of culture.

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