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Vico on the Nexus between Language and Time: another View
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2007-12-17 09:03:38
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The study of language is the starting point of Vico’s historicism. For Vico, language is humanity’s primordial historicization. In fact, Vico’s professed academic discipline was neither history nor philosophy but rhetoric, i.e., the study of language in its creative aspects and as a literary phenomenon.

The reason Vico rejects the Cartesian paradigm for the apprehension of reality is that, in its stress on rationalism, if fails to criticize itself in order to return to the springs of reason. Thus rationalism is unable to acknowledge that fantasia, which is to say, imagination, intuition and other non-rational factors play an important role in the creation of the human world. For Vico it is language, rather than “clear and distinct ideas,” that provides the most important documentation for the epistemological relationship between man and his world. This relationship of the mind with the external world is imaginative, sensuous and even emotional. It is there, within language that one may hope to discover the genesis (dubbed by Vico nascimento) of institutions and human development.

Vico informs us that most of his literary career has been devoted to pondering and researching how primitive man thought and spoke. From these reflections Vico derived his “poetic logic” defined as the master key of his New Science. That key is “…the fact that the early gentile people, by a demonstrated necessity of nature, were poets who spoke in poetic characters” (SN, 34).

Vico is able to recreated this primordial poetic phase of language by focusing on its dynamic, rather than its mere functional communicative aspects where the connection between signifier (form) and signified (content) remains an arbitrary one. For Vico verum factum convertuntur, i.e., content and form, are convertible. As Edward Said explains it: “Vico…associates intelligence with a kind of escape-and-rescue operation, by which the mind gathers and holds on to something that does not fall under the senses, even though that ‘something’ could not come into being without the body and sense experience (From “Vico and the Discipline of Bodies and Texts” in Modern Language Notes, 1976, p.823).

For us modern men, the recapturing of this mode of thinking lies in the fact that for us a mediating reason necessarily alters it. Lucretius in his De Rerum Natura, intimates a pre-logical phase of language; a language originating naturally, within feelings. Vico however goes further and postulates three eras: the era of the gods, the era of the heroes, and the era of men (SN, 31). To these three eras (which may be phenomenological and epistemological as well as chronological) he assigns three specific phases of language: (1) a mute phase characterized by body or sign language, (2) a spoken phase characterized by heroic emblems, similes, comparisons, images, metaphors, (3) a human language characterized by words agreed upon by the people (SN, 32). In the first two eras the language is expressive and poetic; here acts and objects have a natural relation to the ideas they are meant to signify.

The primitive men who made these poetic signs were poets (in Greek the word “to create” is poein). Behind the linguistic sign there is a real image. In fact, at its very origins the sign and the image are one. This is not easy for us to imagine because our linguistic signs do not, as a rule, evoke an image. We abstract things and their qualities out of existence and create notions to which the linguistic sign then attributes existence. But at the origins of language, the image signifies and is assumed to signify universally what it is: the “poetic universal” objectifies a section of experience into permanent significance. This still obtain for us in art where the singularity of the object “signifies,” i.e., it has autonomous value by itself but it is also universal. But even here we need to return to cave painting to better understand how the bull is not a mere representation, or for that matter, and aesthetic thing of beauty, or an abstract essence, rather it is a sign, a gestalt, a presence of the life force incarnated in the bull. Here, much better than in our modern art, one can perceive the dynamic power and vitality of life in act, something that is not accessible to reflection and analysis.

We should however keep in mind that Vico is not excluding rational induction from the creation of language. The three phases of language are three aspects of human nature which converge in producing language as activity and form. Here the unity of human nature establishes the universality of language. As Vico puts it: “From these three languages is formed the mental dictionary by which to interpret properly all the various articulate languages” (SN, 35). This is similar to Noam Chomsky’s generative grammar, almost a genetic endowment of Man.

Indeed, the very possibility of Vico’s science is related to the existence of universals of human nature reflected in linguistic universals formed by the human mind. There is a diachronic and a synchronic unity in language which is based on the unity of human nature. The failure to correlate spoken and written language produces in turn the failure to understand the origins of language. Regarding this matter Vico says that “the difficulty as to the manner of their origins was created by the scholars themselves, all of whom regarded the origin of letters as a separate question from that of the origin of languages, whereas the two were by nature conjoined…scholars failed to understand how the first nations thought in poetic characters, spoke in fables, and wrote in hieroglyphs (SN 428). In other words, Vico is saying that spoken and written languages are two aspects of the same phenomenon.

Vico is searching within the linguistic sign for clues to that kind of creativity reflecting, almost unconsciously, the lived experience of things. The three moments in which this happens are: (1) the silent, (2) the sacerdotal heroic, (3) the conventional. In the first phase man, still without a spoken language, confronts the world which he experiences and within which he is submerged almost as integral part of nature. Here there is no dualism, no awareness of the mind that knows as distinct from the surrounding world. The particular event, lived or experienced, is expressed through gestures subsequently rendered graphically as a hieroglyph. In contemporary linguistics this is called “topical recognition” of an experience for the purpose of representation.

In the second phase, i.e., the heroic, a particular content of consciousness relates to sense data by becoming their symbol and signifying them. Here there is still a necessary natural connection between signifier and signified which becomes arbitrary with the sign of the third stage where the necessity is merely historical. Within the Vichian linguistic scheme, this is the most genuinely creative stage: the sacerdotal-heroic. Here language is poetry. The theological poets see the sky and the earth as majestic animated realities and personify every natural phenomenon. Every cosmic reality is captured in images. In Vico’s own words: “This is the way in which the theological poets apprehended Jove, Cybele or Berecynthia, and Neptune, for example, and, at first mutely pointing, explained them as substances of the sky, the earth, and the sea which they imagined to be animated divinities and were therefore true to their senses in believing them to be gods” (SN, 402).

An inverse process obtains in the more properly heroic language. Here the particular individuation of a figure (for example, Achilles) precedes the signified (the strength of heroes). The signifier is the myth or the allegory, as for instance the legend of the hero (Achilles); the signified is the logos or the meaning; the idea of valor or strength proper to heroes. This idea Vico calls an “imaginative universal,” or the expression of a truth. The two, the myth and the logos can be distinguished but cannot be separated. Like form and content, they are inseparable. The two phases preceding conventional language are mental processes through which intuitive knowledge finds its form. A form of knowledge this which has been contemptuously neglected within Western Cartesian rationalism.

By the time we get to the third stage, that of conventional language, we find reflected there, in a shortened form, the universal processes of the divine and heroic phases of language. To say it in Vico’s own words: “In this way the nations formed the poetic language, composed of divine and heroic characters, later expressed in vulgar speech, and finally written in vulgar characters. It was born entirely of poverty of language and need of expression. This is proved by the first lights of poetic style, which are vivid representations, images, similes, comparisons, metaphors, circumlocutions, phrases explaining things by their natural properties, descriptions gathered from their minuter or their more sensible effects, and, finally, emphatic and even superfluous adjuncts” (SN, 456). Many of the elements of the conventional language (the third stage) can be traced back to that poetical or creative moment when the nexus between the sign and the thing is still necessary.

Finally, we must emphasize here that in his attempt to discover through language the documents of primordial human history. Vico’s conception of rhetoric is not one of rhetoric as a purely literary instrument, but rather one of rhetoric as a poetics informing the different forms of the linguistic act and consequently the different forms of human participation to things in time. These forms are primary creations, not artifacts of oratory. In fact, Vico associates his three stages of language with three major rhetorical figures of speech: the silent divine stage is associated with metonymy; the heroic with synecdoche; the conventional with metaphor. Irony emerges last as the product of pure reasoning and cannot therefore be a pure from of that imaginative creativity from which issued the other three tropes. The most important of these is metaphor. It is the most important tool for the development of poetic language. It is, in fact, the tool with which “the first poets attributed to bodies the being of inanimate substances, with capacities measured by their own, namely sense and passion, and in this way made fables of them. Thus every metaphor so formed is a fable in brief” (SN, 304).

This is consonant with the Vichian principle that the original creativity of man is based primarily on the senses, passions and imagination rather than on reason. Ernesto Grassi (in his Rhetoric and Philosophy, The Pennsylvania University Press, 1980) says that “No theory, no abstract philosophy is the origin of the human world, and every time that man loses contact with the original needs and the questions that arise of them, he falls into the barbarism of ratio” (p.25). Indeed that describes our technocratic Cartesian civilization. The origins of human history are to be found not so much in the discovery of primitive technology (tools, fire making, etc.) but in that mytho-poetic clearing of the primeval forest for the preparation of a human habitat. Metaphorically, that is one of the acts of Hercules. Every genuine metaphor is Herculean work. And it is this Herculean act, according to Vico and Heidegger, that needs to be re-created in order to rediscover human origins.

What are the hermeneutical implications of Vico’s linguistic speculation? Vico is the first linguist to point out that language is performatory in nature, i.e., at its most fundamental level it is intrinsically related to what it signifies. The specifically historical way in which he understands this performatory function of language is seen in this fundamental principle of the New Science: “The nature of institutions is nothing but their coming into being (nascimento) at certain times and in certain guises” (SN, 147). For Vico the nature of things is the verum or the content; the guise or mode of being is the certum or the form. And of course, one of the first things that comes into being in a special mode at a particular time is language.

In his De Antiquissima Italorum Sapientia Vico points out that in primordial times there is a kind of incarnation of a particular language to a particular people. Here too a principle of complementarity obtains: minds are fashioned by languages just as languages are fashioned by minds. The two poles (language/mind) are inseparable. It is absurd to think that there are “clear and distinct ideas” standing behind language which then language strains to express adequately, as Descartes thought. Rather, historical reality arises with the language that testifies to it. In turn that particular language has a “natural” or intrinsic relation to the historical reality. That is what the term “Latin people” intimates. The process remains complementary.

Vico is usually accorded little credit for the above described hermeneutics: the idea that understanding comes through language, that is, through the form of a literary or philosophical or even scientific work. The form pointing to a subject matter (the content) is already in itself an initial interpretation of the subject matter. Therefore, in order to understand the nature of language, one does not try to penetrate to the thought which Descartes assumed standing behind language. Rather, as Martin Buber aptly puts it: “The encounter with any of man’s works, especially those done through language, remains intrinsically historical. The link of language to history is “poetic wisdom” proper, transcending the dichotomy subject/object.

On the other hand, the Cartesian objectivity ends up reducing a “work” to a mere “object.” With such an operation, the language event cannot possibly seize and transform the reader. Being preoccupied with analysis, one will invariably neglect to listen to what is being spoken in the words and, most importantly, what is being left unsaid. In short, the work will not speak. How can it, since it has been reduced to an object, an it preventing any kind of I-Thou relationship with the reader.

Meaning can only arise in relationship. A wrong relationship will produce a distorted message. In order to have a proper relationship Man has to discern that since understanding is by its very nature linguistic, language is equally as primordial as understanding. Only through language can a world arise for Man. This world is a shared world only in as much as we share understanding through language. With the passage of time this shared understanding (of history in and through language) may of course change. That in effect means that the hermeneutical experience is a language event. Consequently the encounter with the being of a work of art or a text cannot be Cartesian, i.e., static and ideational outside of time. It is rather a truth that happens and emerges, always eluding efforts to reduce it to concepts and objectivity, to those alluring “clear and distinct ideas.”

Indeed, the being that happens in language is not the product of a reflective activity of the mind. Man’s relationship to language and history cannot be one of “using” them but rather, one of “participating” in them. In the presentation of contemporary histories, the reader rarely gets an invitation to participate actively in language as another man standing within a world made by language. What he ends up getting nowadays, especially from academic experts, is literary and “distinct” explanations of events looked upon as objects. A whole semester may be spent on literary analysis while the text itself will go unread and thus the student rarely discerns that a great literary work is truly an historical experience in the sense that understanding stands in a specific place in time and space.

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Sand2007-12-17 12:30:08
There is no question that human linguistic capabilities have enabled communication and cultural development in a direction denied to other species and, to a great extent, is one of the major bases for the sophistication of human understanding of the universe in general and humanity in particular. But it is a huge mistake to assume that language is the only avenue for dealing with the environment and with the internal patterns of society.

One of the obvious limitations of any particular language is the structure of the language itself. This is very apparent in the attempts to translate material from one language to another. Although there is reasonable success in translating prose and some success in poetry, poetry in particular most frequently loses a great deal in this maneuver since the basic architecture of the poem frequently is dependent upon crucial interrelationships of the syntax of the language plus the different strategies used in poetry to refer to concepts and words particular to the specific language.

Philosophers most particularly have fallen into the tempting trap that language provides the only method for thinking and this is a vital and tragic mistake because thinking itself is a matter of understanding the relationships of perceptions recorded into memory and how they might be manipulated to comprehend the nature and consequences of events. For a good portion of the time humans have tried to understand the nature of thinking it has been an almost automatic reaction to connect thinking only with language and thereby all animal life outside the human had been excluded from the aristocracy of thinking capability.

It is only within the last few decades that serious study has accorded other species with the capability for thought and some of our close primate cousins have been discovered to be able to understand and use words. One grey parrot also seems to have had some of this capability. Naturally this makes humans uncomfortable since, for thousands of years, people have slaughtered animals both for necessary survival and for mere entertainment with no qualms of conscience. And their religions have justified this massacre as a direct permission from their gods. But even a small amount of consideration of the matter should reveal that even very small animals must have the capability to learn in order to become aware of the dangers of existence and how to counter them.

Beyond that, language has many basic limitations. Unless there is direct experience of colors, tastes, scents and sounds to which language can make reference these basic experiences are impossible to convey by language alone. And thinking regularly takes place by engineers, scientists, artisans and artists, and cooks totally outside of language. I know this is true by personal experience.

There are other problems with mere linguistic thinking but this is a good introduction to the problems.

Emanuel Paparella2007-12-17 15:53:49

Author’s note:

For those readers who may have been intrigued by the above article and wish to further pursue the reading of Vico’s thought on language and history, you may consult the following site (of "Global Spiral," a publication of the Metanexus Academic Institute of Philadelphia) where I publish a weekly column on Vico titled “Journey into the mind of Vico.”


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