And Its Applications for Our Days
Giambattista Vico was an Italian Renaissance thinker who lived from 1668 to 1744. He is best know for the publication of Scienza Nuova and considered one of the last Humanist philosophers. Humanism is characterized by the rescue of Greek and Roman philosophy from the religious forgetfulness of the Middle Ages, a change first brought by the agency of Arab-Aristotelian philosophers whose work found reception in the Christian courts of Italy and Spain, one which would jettison an intellectual revolution that made Europe, Europe.
I first came to know about Vico through the work of José Faur, who did sketches on some parallels between Vico’s and Rabbinic thought. In all my days of reading books, I had never heard of this philosopher, which is odd because of the paradigm shift that his work represents. But the rationalistic trends of Descartes and Hegel would bury the Humanist tradition of southern Europe almost as soon it had reached its zenith with Vico and his Spanish contemporaries; Vives, Gracián and Cervantes. Emilio Hidalgo-Serna would lament it, “It is notorious… the grave silence that exists in Spanish philosophy in regards to its own [humanist] tradition.” And now I can foresee a reason of why Vico does not come up practically at all with modern Western thinkers – which I will explain later.
Another Italian scholar would bring Vico to the 20th century, and that was Ernesto Grassi. Vico’s Scienza Nuova is not an easy read, but Grassi masterfully distills his ideas and brings to context many of Vico’s humanist intellectual predecessors to sharp focus. Much of what I will be using regarding this subject comes from Grassi’s series of seminal essays published in Vico y el humanismo: ensayos sobre Vico, Heidegger y la retórica,[i] which is a translation from its English edition with the same name, one no longer available in print.
Though Humanism has been known to have generated Neoplatonic thought, Vico’s work cannot characterized as Neoplatonic. He actually dares to break the platonic grid inherited from antiquity by first reaching out to pre-Socratic thinkers predating Plato, and proposes a theory on the origins of language and the construction of cognitive reality from it. I do find this theory very possible from an anthropological and biological perspective, and also very useful in trying to reassess the existential issues in our days. Grassi would express Vico’s primal concern as:
“The starting point of Vico’s speculative thought is not the traditional problem of rational identification of being, whether these are objects or subjects, but the problem of the word, and specially the question of the ingenious and imaginative word… The epoch making character of Vico’s main theses resides in the notion that metaphysics should not depart from rational principles and neither from the problem of being, but from the word, which is the only element capable to reveal human historicity.” (pp. 174, 175)
The preceding words require some unpacking. See, from Plato’s time Western thinking has been preoccupied with the definition of being, a problematic that continues to be discussed in philosophic circles to this very day, and reverberates in the daily struggles of coming to grips on how to understand the world and each other. Being for Plato covers the crystallization of all objects and subjects into neatly pre-made packages; what this means is that all words that make up our cognitive reality represent an ideal form, but whose origin cannot be grasped. The ideal form is basically a box with nothing in the inside. These ideal boxes are what give way to what is called in philosophy aprioric thinking.
People who are trapped in aprioric thinking believe that all concepts are neatly defined and ought to be applied in the same way as they understand them to other similar things or situations found in their life experience or in other cultures, languages, politics, religions, etc. There are two consequences from this. One, it leads to what Vico calls the barbarism of reflection (barbarie della riflessione), and two, it leads to misunderstandings with the other as a result thereof.
For Vico, humanity’s development of language first arouse as a need to make sense of the world, in the daily-routine interaction with each other and to explain the nature of things. The first speech-making capable men, whom Vico calls bestioni, assigned sounds to things and actions, whose combinations gave way to words and sentences. They also made myths and fables to explain the natural phenomena, the origins of mankind, and give explanation to the unexplainable. Grassi compares this to the way a child begins to speak and the associations he makes with abstract concepts still out of his reach. For example, a child may not call the sound a dog makes “barking”, but may first relate it to a sound that most closely resembles it, like “arrf, arrf.” Likewise, he may first relate to the action of going to sleep as, “let’s go night, night,” before he knows the concept of the word “sleep.” This primal language and conceptual world created by the child can only be understood by the child himself and the parent who watches him develop it. Vico thus speculates that the bestioni used the act and leap of the imagination to first grasp the world around them. In trying to understand how those primal linguistic and mythical mechanisms first came to be, we come to appreciate how the bestioni contextualized their existence with the immediacy of the moment and the need. Overall, this is what Vico refers to as the logic of fantasy:
“[T]he spiritual activity in the logic of fantasy does not consist of a rational process, but expresses itself in a primal, double, experience of that of absence and the need to seek necessary connections on which bases men can and have to build their world.” (p. 33)
By “fantasy” Vico does not mean it “as ‘unreal’ activities that distance themselves from historic reality,” but he wants to put it to use in tight connection with daily activities for the humanization of nature. When we loose this ability to connect with historic and natural reality, humanity degenerates into logical barbarity:
“[B]arbarism always reappears when the original ingenious and fantastic contact is lost from reality. This is when human beings escape to pure rational considerations.” (p. 34)
Once created, ideas and concepts become mechanisms onto themselves, separated from historic and natural reality. For Hegel, philosophy ought to avoid empirical methods – the experience of the senses – and instead proceed purely with dialectical speculations in its most complete totalitarian-universal manner. “Knowledge” then becomes an independent object divorced from time and space, whose intention is not to convince through argument, but through its own self-sufficient “objective truth.” Mystics apply the same mechanism to “mystical truth.”
“Idealism [be this scientific or not] has a reason to search the origin of ideas in man, but it errs when it tries to derive the ideas from isolated beings, of beings onto themselves, of an I without a You provided by the senses.” (p. 50, my brackets)
Vico’s humanist thought attempts to break the grids of idealism first through the reassessment on the origins of language, and – in my opinion – displace the primacy of being central to philosophical speculation. By recalling what the first men might have done to create the cognitive world around them, Vico invites us to assess out daily activities in relation to the world around us, and not from pre-determined concepts divorced from current historic and natural reality.
So what applications do Vico’s thought can have in our days? First and foremost, it suggests us that we ought to understand each and everything for what they are, not what “we” think they are, but actually investigate how each and everything came to be. In the world of interpersonal relations, for example, the problem of aprioric judgment is a common occurrence, which often leads to creating misconceptions and alienation of other peoples. Anticipating Vico, the Rabbis, the moral leaders of the Jewish people, taught not to judge a person until you come to his/her situation. This precept warns people with judicious tendencies not to come predetermined conclusions without first considering the other’s circumstances. It’s more common equivalent would be, Do not judge the book by its cover, read it before you form an opinion!
In history, we have seen how the ubiquitous concept of “race” has led to the horrors of dehumanization, discrimination and genocide characteristic of Western civilization, one which still has dire repercussions today in income disparities, access to private and public services, and most of all the self-perceived worth of the individual. The result of the ancient peoples’ tendency to divide the world into different realms and each having their own unmovable station, the concept “race” is the devolution through the barbarie della riflessione, creator of the horrors known in history.
A more personal example of breaking the idealism grid happened to me just recently, a co-worker asked me why Jews were “Christ-killers.” I answered with a question, “does the New Testament say that Jews killed Jesus?” With a dead-silent look of shock in his face, this co-worker, who I take to be a believing Catholic, apparently never put attention to what the gospel narrative actually says and did not know what to answer me. The next day, perhaps after he checked that section of the gospel text maybe for the first time in his life, he again revisited the subject with me and retorted with a whiff of humor in his voice, “well, but the Jewish crowd rallied behind the Romans to kill Jesus.” With a humorless look and aware that the “Christ-killers” canard idea has been responsible for hundreds of thousands of murders of Jews at the hands of Christians across 2,000 years, I answered this individual, “that is not the same as killing Jesus.” Of course, he never questioned as to why the Roman authorities would want to kill Jesus. And upon further investigation about what Jews are all about, he would have discovered that Jews – then and now – are not in the habit of delivering a fellow Jew to non-Jewish authorities [because historically we have had our own courts to deal with our own trouble rousers], much less for a “crime” that does not merit the death penalty or even worth of any Jewish judicial attention, such as claiming to be messiah – among other things in the gospel narrative that do not hold water when one actually knows how historic Jewish and Roman authorities behaved. But I will leave that for later if the subject ever comes up again.
Which brings me back to an initial question I had brought earlier. Why is Vico ubiquitously absent in modern European philosophy, and German idealism from Hegel to Heiddegger being particularly against the humanist tradition? It must be brought to the readers’ attention that since the Enlightenment, Europe has suffered through several totalitarian regimes with their own list of repressive and deathly horrors. Invariably, all these regimes’ ideals can be traced back to the long lineage of aprioric philosophies going back to Plato. And Grassi’s short answer to its resistance to a philosophical Humanist approach is because deep down European idealism rejects introducing argumentation inside their geometric “perfections.” Such an invitation would mean its own dismantling.
Grassi noted that Vico had a better reception in U.S. universities. I think this predisposition is because the United States from its beginnings as a nation had to form a republic composed of individuals with different religious outlooks – albeit all being Christian denominations, but nonetheless holding their own separate differences; and therefore were impelled – primarily worried for their own security in the presence of European powers – to find a new rhetoric that would allow them all to live in relative harmony. They had to reassess their historic reality based on the challenges they were facing, and not continue the ways of the Old World. In fact, all too aware this had been the mother of all persecutions in European history, the founder’s adopted rhetoric was to reject unilaterally the marriage of Church and State. Though the founding fathers of this American union may have referred to God as the giver of basic rights to all men, they were careful not to couch their language on any specific creed. George Washington went to the explicit extreme to state, with the approval of the Senate: “The government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on Christian religion.”[ii] On this basis, future generations of religious and ethnic minorities would break the grid of racial and religious intolerance still lingering in the Protestant mind, and open their own spaces in society in their own terms.
And yet, we must be aware, these leaps of the imagination transcending a decayed humanity is not a given. As we distance ourselves from history, people tend to forget how things came to be and how our predecessors dealt with challenges that made this world a better place. In our times replete with nascent nationalisms, religious warfare, market crashes and ethnic hatred, we must realize that barbarism of reflection has taken hold of us in creating extremes once again. Vico’s thought offers us a remedy to counter such tendencies.
[i] Anthropos Editorial, 1999 (ISBN 84-7658-565-9). All translations from the Spanish edition are mine.
[ii] Treaties and other International Acts of the United States of America, Volume 2, Documents 1-40; 1776-1818, ed. Hunter Miller (United States Government Printing Office, Washington, 1931), pp. 364-366. Cited in José Faur’s Horizontal Society (Academic Studies Press: Boston, 2010), p. 210.