VI. The logic of fantasy

By Ernesto Grassi

Artist: Brandt Bogdanovich (August 29, 2011). Source:

Artist: Brandt Bogdanovich (August 29, 2011). Source:

Having these arguments present, now we must ask ourselves what does Vico mean when he asserts that in the beginning men thought via fantastic genres and fantastic universals more than through rational concepts. Within this context, one should argue yet another essential problem: is it possible (and if it is, in what sense and within what boundaries) to develop Vico’s theory towards “a logic of fantasy” that would give the sensus comunis a more profound dimension, and one different from rational logic?

The terms genres and universals form part of traditional logic, which has as its objective to classify and subdivide the objects into species and genres through a process of abstraction (revealing common properties) in order to capture the essence or the common factor that exists within different elements and which is a prerequisite to its definition.

Vico construes the theory of fantastic genres and fantastic universals not through abstraction, but through “ideal portraits,” “exemplary characters,” in other words, through symbols in the likes of fables or mythic figures (for example, Achilles or Hercules).

These poetic, fantastic, figures belong to a special form of thinking, and at the same time avoid traditional logic, because these are in no way whatsoever a poetic disguise of rational concepts. The concept of the fantastic (to “conceive” or “comprehend” which leads to a definition) captures and circumscribes within itself (in correspondence with the Greek term horos) a multiplicity through an image, in such a way that expresses the essence in universal terms (for example, the lion as the essence of strength, the head as the essence of height). While rational thinking determines the differences among the individuals to form the species and the genres via abstraction, in the “fantastic concept” the essence crystallizes through an ingenious act as a direct vision of a figurative-all. This vision represents at the same time the exemplary figure and the allegoric figure. The images of poetic logic are the expression of the fantastic act, one that becomes manifest through the relationship between “things that are far from each other” (according to Vico’s formulation). This is the realization of the logic of fantasy. Vico writes: “Therefore, poetic wisdom, which was the first truth to the world of Gentiles, must have begun through a metaphysic, not reasoned and abstracted way as it is today for learned people, but heart-felt and imagined as it must have been for the first men, since they lacked all rational process, and in its stead they possessed very robust senses and vigorous fantasies.”

The corresponding logic to this poetic wisdom and metaphysic utilizes a “fantastic manner of speech,” because it primarily uses metaphors “based on resemblances with bodies that signify made-up elaborations by abstract minds.” Therefore, the metaphor is the original form to elevate the particular to the universal through a figurative representation, so to reach an immediate revelation of the whole. One example: “In the same manner that tignum and culmen became with all probability beam and straw in the time when there were huts; afterwards, with the development of cities, these became to mean all material and finish of buildings.”

In the logic of fantasy, the “example” acts as a first form to the coordination of ideas, and this “example,” which (as Vico says) “is content with a similar thing” and belongs to the domain of the logic of fantasy, performs a similar function to that of induction in rational logic. Vico explicitly differentiates rational induction, “which needs various similar things,” from the “example,” which only needs one simile in order to convince. To clarify this thesis, he mentions (among other things) the fable of Menenio Agrippa.

The need to speak of a logic of fantasy springs forth from the following fact: If man does not make rational concepts from genres, he feels the need to create for himself “poetic characters”, in other words, concepts of genres or universals created by fantasy so to reduce the species to certain prototypes or ideal portraits, each one pegged to the genre to which it belongs.

The same way children follow the idea and names of men, women and things which the first come to know, and thereafter conceive and name in a corresponding manner to all men, women and things that are similar to the first, so too poetic truth is a metaphysic truth “in whose presence one has to consider false to the physical truth that is not conformed in the same manner. The following results from this important consideration in the subject of poetics: That the true captain of war is, for example, the Godfreid imagined by Torquato Tasso; and every other captain who are not the same as Godfreid are not true captains of war.”

From a purely factual point of view, we can point to a justification to speak of a logic of fantasy as contrary to rational logic, which resides in the following certainty: the name “logic” comes from the verb legein, which means “to select” and “to gather.” The rational process to establish relationships consists of combining or connecting all the things that are related and separating those which are not. Here, the explanation and the proof are the result of a derivation process on the basis of already given premises.

Therefore, in rational logic the universal (which represents that which is “common” to a class) is obtained through a process of abstraction in which we proceed from individual objects to the formed essence by species and genres. Furthermore, in this logic the “connection” is the result of a process of derivation. And in a similar manner, spiritual activity consists of a process of derivation.

On the other hand, in the logic of fantasy the act to make relations (legein) between “things that are far from one another” is the result of an immediate, originating, connection, which due to its immediacy it only can appear in the form of a sudden vision or, in other words, of an image.

In a corresponding manner, the fantastic universals are also the result of invention and, contrary to rational universals, these obtain an emotional response by virtue of its figurative character.

Lastly, spiritual activity within the logic of fantasy does not consist of a rational process, but it becomes expressed in a primary and double experience, that of absence and the need to seek necessary connections, on whose bases men can and have to construe their world.

Here I have to underline a very important point: It would be a mistake and it would lead to a fundamentally wrong understanding to interpret Vico as if the logic of fantasy were limited to a logic of symbolic forms, for example in the manner of Ernst Cassirer. The essence of the logic of fantasy of Vico does not consist of designing conceived images, symbols or analogies in an abstract manner, but in the constant need to establish – via the ingenious and fantastic activity (which conform the fundamental structure and root of the sensus communis, and which becomes manifest through labor) and through the use of fantastic concepts – the relationships between what man needs to realize himself and what his senses produce for him in constantly innovative situations. Using other words: One has to put the logic of fantasy in the most close possible connection with labor in the same measure as the humanization of nature; for the contrary, one would have to define fantasy and its products as “unreal” activities that become distanced from historic reality.

Consequently, the meaning that I attribute to the logic of fantasy should not be understood in the sense of a purely theoretic interest to criticize the primacy of rationalism. I have to stress that this emphasis on the logic of fantasy and my own interpretation of it spring forth from the certainty that this logic represents the pre-requisite for a language of everyday use, which might be the expression of the common sense, in such a way that prevails over a rational language. With this I demonstrate that the humanist tradition, reaching its peak with Vico, gives an essential answer to questions that are proposed today (for example in Marxism) in the field of language. What I am saying is the following: Through his criticism of idealism, his attack to the dialectic of ideas which develop in a purely rational sphere, and which provide the premises for an ulterior a priori  derivation of the dialectic of history, Marxism has pressed towards the recognition of the primacy and priority of a non-rational language, in other words, of a common language (ref. the theses of Antonio Gramsci), which results in the process of a concrete, historic, labor. This thesis only acquires theoretical legitimization through the logic of fantasy.

Lastly, one should not understand Vico’s theses of the fantastic capacity of the first human beings in a chronological sense, since ingeniosity and fantasy, the metaphorical and analogical thought, belong to the original nature of men and, as a result, to the labor of realization of the sensus communis. These provide the condition to “find” the premises from which all rational activity will proceed from in order to extract its conclusions to systemize that which is demonstrated by intuition.

Vico’s reference in regards to savagery confirms this interpretation. In his opinion, savagery always reappears when one looses the original ingenious and fantastic contact with reality. This is when human beings escape to purely rational considerations: “[ . . . ] after long centuries of being savages, the ill-born subtleties of the malicious ingeniousity become rusted, where savage reflections have turned them into the most inhumane beasts from what they were with the savagery of the senses. [. . .] Through this, populations possessed with such malicious reflections [ . . . ] no longer feel comforts, nor the delicacies, nor the pleasures or celebrations, but only those things needed for life; and, because of the small number of men that remain in the end of all, and given the abundance of the necessary things for life, they become moderate naturally.

From Vico y el humanismo: La prioridad del sentido común y la fantasía (Anthropos Research & Publications, 2001). My translation.


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