Sunday, May 31, 2015

Giambattista Vico, Philology, and the Cyclical Model of History (c. 1725)

“The true and the made are convertible.”

The inspiration for Giambattista Vico’s (1668 – 1744) philosophy of history was the work of Rene Descartes (1596 – 1650), who boldly declared that he would believe nothing that could not be demonstrated through reason alone. Descartes, like most philosophers before Newton, modeled his thought on geometry - which is to say, he assumed that every area of philosophy had its own set of axioms, and that every genuine principle of that philosophy could be derived from them through deductive logic (The Newtonian, or empirical, model, by contrast, works through induction, from observation to principles.) One consequence of this approach was that history had to be disqualified as a serious intellectual pursuit, for none of the axioms which Descartes’s system required could be found in it. Therefore, Descartes argued, no certain knowledge of the past was possible - the greatest historian of Rome knew no more about it than Cicero’s servant girl. Only mathematics, and activities modeled on it, was capable of establishing genuine knowledge.

Vico agreed with Descartes that knowledge of geometry was more genuine, and more certain, than any other kind, but he disagreed about the reason for this. In The New Science (1725), he argued that mathematics was a human product, and that is what gives it its certainty – for one can only truly know what one has made. According to this principle, knowledge can be divided into human and natural spheres, the former consisting of whatever human-kind had authored, and the latter of whatever it had not. The human sphere included language, culture, history, art, and mathematics, all of which could be known in an intuitive, inside-out fashion, because, being human products, humans could understand how and why they worked, and also the origins and intentions behind them. The natural sphere, on the other hand, contained physics, medicine, astronomy, and in general the sciences, which sought to understand the world as man finds it. Intuitive knowledge of this world, in the sense of origins and purpose as well as function, is impossible, for it was not created by humanity, but by God. All that humans could say of this sphere of knowledge was how it worked, but never why or to what end.

If this was true, it suggested that knowledge of the first kind was superior to that of the second, simply because that was the sphere in which the fullest understanding was possible. Vico affirmed that knowledge of history – which is to say, of the variety of human cultures – was preferable, but he went on to deny that all cultures were trying, as the Voltaire supposed, to answer the same question. On Voltaire’s model cultures could all be graded as more or less rational in proportion to their success in answering a single, cross-culturally valid set of questions, such as “how can we be happy” or “what is the best way to organize a state.” For Vico, human nature was fundamentally multiform, not unitary. There was no “human nature,” only “human natures” specific to particular cultures. These in turn did not aim at the solution to a universal set of questions, but rather at creative self-expression. Just as there is no one, true, best, most rational form of art or music, so there is no one, true, best, or most rational form of culture. Their diversity is not a regrettable aberration, to be corrected through the application of reason, but a manifestation of irreducible differences between the people who created them. The business of history, on this view, is to understand that diversity, not to deny it or to stamp it out.

Vico proposed that the history of language (philology) could be used as a window not simply into the history of words, but that of the concepts of which a culture is created. This is because words are not interchangeable and arbitrary markers for common concepts, but concepts in and of themselves. In other words, different words mean different concepts. Even when those concepts seem closely related, the shades of meaning make them distinct. Philology reveals that phonetically similar words share a common origin, which in turn suggests a common conceptual root. Put another way, words that sound alike must have at one time meant similar things as well. For instance “human,” and “humane” are phonetically and conceptually very close, but not identical – to say that someone is “humane” is to say that they have an abundance of that quality in virtue of which someone is human, i.e. human-feeling, but it is not to say that only a “humane” person is “human.” The phonetic and conceptual proximity of these words suggests a recent divergence. Over thousands of years, however, similar words can come to mean very different things – for instance the latin “lex,” meaning law, and “legume,” meaning bean, both have a common root in “ilex,” meaning oak tree. The key to understanding the connection between these words (and thus concepts) is to be found in the word “aquilex,” meaning “gathering of waters.” Thus the law is the decree of the “gathering of the people,” and vegetables (originally acorns, from oak trees) of the harvest. We can thus surmise that the Latin people were once forest dwellers, for their language suggests a common association between “assembly,” “vegetable,” “law,” “acorn,” and “oak tree” that is very difficult to explain otherwise.

Vico believed not only that each culture was distinct, but also that it was self-contained, in the sense that its concepts and languages were intelligible only through reference to each other, and not to the world “out there” or to the concepts and languages of other cultures. He further believed that each culture had a life-cycle of its own, passing from a “heroic age” (like that of Achilles and Hector) to an “oligarchic age” (like that of Solon and Lycurgus), and then into a “democratic age,” (like that of Socrates and Euripides.) In the first a rigid social code backed by supernatural terrors was necessary, for people were violent and unruly, and could not be disciplined by any other means. In the second, conflict between groups wielding different theological ideas became endemic as the fissures in society broadened. In the third, the “barbarism of reflection” defeated all attempts at common understanding and cooperation, for each person “live[d] like wild beasts in a deep solitude of spirit and will, scarcely any two being able to agree since each follow[ed] his own pleasure or caprice.” Having become “aliens in their own nations,” with their ability for coordination and common feeling seriously impaired, they became vulnerable, and some younger, stronger group could eventually shove them aside. 

This was, he thought, what had happened to the Greeks in the age of Alexander, when the half-barbarous Macedonians overran the over-civilized Greeks. But they in turn eventually were lost in “the barbarism of reflection” and were overrun by the Romans, who were overrun by the Germans, and so on throughout history.

In reviving a cyclical view of history which was common in the ancient world (but which we have not discussed because ancient philosophers tended to despise history, and hence were not, in my opinion, in a position to know much about it), Vico would in time have an immense influence on later philosophers such as R.G. Collingwood, Karl Marx, and Oswald Spengler (all of which we will eventually cover.) Isaiah Berlin acknowledged his genius, but consigned him to the “Counter-Enlightenment” which he thought had eventually spawned the darkest disasters of the twentieth century. In his own time he was unknown, either for good or for evil – an obscure and menial academic in backwards and isolated Naples, who had to provide for a large family on a very meagre salary, and who could find only fragments of time to work on his masterpiece. He was, indeed, so poor that he had to pawn his wedding ring to publish his work, and even then only after he had excised many portions (now lost) in order to bring down the cost of printing it. In light of these handicaps, his achievement and influence is all the more remarkable.

Isaiah Berlin, Vico, and “Counter-Enlightenment”:

Part of a series on the Enlightenment

Part of a series on Philosophy of History (XI of XXXV)

Additional Note: This article is largely based on Isaiah Berlin's discussion of Vico in "Three Critics of the Enlightenment: Vico, Hamann, Herder." Although Berlin is hostile to Vico, as near as I can tell from cross-checking with other authors, he describes Vico's ideas faithfully. In that essay the following particularly lucid passages appear:

[Vico says] ]“Men embody their feelings, attitudes and thoughts in symbols. These symbols are natural means of self-expression; they are not forged for the purpose of misleading or entertaining future generations. Consequently they are dependable evidence of the minds and outlooks of which they are the vehicles, if only we knew how to read it. Language is not a deliberate invention on the part of men who think thoughts, and then look around for means of articulating them. Ideas and the symbols in which they are expressed are not, even in thought, separable. We do not merely speak or write in symbols, we think and can think only in symbols, whether words or images, the two are one. From words and the way they are used we can infer the mental processes, the attitudes, and outlooks of their users, for “minds are formed by the character of language, not language by the minds of those who speak it.”

"Primitive men, Vico tells us, do not denote things each by its own natural name (as Adam did before the flood) but by “physical substances endowed with life” Fables and myths, or rather the characters who occur in them, are “imaginative universals” – attempts to refer to whole classes of entities without, as yet, the aid of proper general terms (for the capacity for abstraction is not, at this stage, sufficiently developed), and therefore by means of some magnificently conceived example of the class (not yet clearly conceived as a class) which stands both for itself and for the entire class. Thus “Jove” is at one and the same time the name of the sky, the father of the gods, and ruler of the universe, and of the source of thunder, terror, and duty – he is both the embodiment and the wielder of all the compulsive forces before which men must, at their peril, bow down. “Hercules” is the name of a heroic individual, the performer of vast and beneficent labors, but also of the class of all heroes of all the various mythologies: hence every people worships its own Hercules. … Such images may later come to seem logical monstrosities, yet Vico is convinced that this is not mere confusion; these are categories in which early men thought. He warns us that unless we make a gigantic effort to enter into this type of mentality, we shall never penetrate into the remote world of our ancestors, which alone holds the key to our own." 

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