"Man is his own History" leads to self-knowledge—Part 1

In 1976 A. Robert Caponigri of Notre Dame University published an essay in honor of the great Yale Dante and Vico scholar Thomas Bergin (in Italian Literature: Roots and Branches, Yale University Press) in which he stated that “In the ‘Scienza Nuova’ Vico anticipates by two centuries contemporary man’s most profound discovery concerning himself: the fact that he has a history, because by creating history man discovers and actualizes his own humanity.” That statement alerts us to the fact that Vico is well within the Italian humanistic tradition. He is, in fact, nothing short of its culmination. A tradition this which is interrupted by Descartes’ anti-humanistic stance and now waiting, like ambers under the ashes of a technocratic rationalistic society, for a new rebirth.

I am not suggesting that the concept of history is a special privilege of Western Man. Non Westerns too have a history. However, it is only in 18th century Europe that Man becomes aware of the far reaching implications of that fact. While Greeks, Romans, Chinese, Muslims had chronicles and archives, they were not intellectually conscious of the astonishing fact peculiar to Western Man, that the history that man makes expresses his freedom vis à vis events, nature and social life; which is to say, that when Man creates history out of nothing (as a sort of creation ex nihilo), he creates an eminently human factum, a sort of artifact, which is then knowable to the human mind that created it. In short, the awareness that Man has, is, and makes history is a paradigm, or a myth of reality if you will, which is unique to Western thinking and is intimately related to the idea of freedom.

Carl Marx for one utilized this paradigm of Man as his own history, but he was not its discoverer as some surmise. Its discoverer was Giambattista Vico who first proposed it to his contemporaries as a sort of antidote to the then rampant abstract, rationalistic philosophy of Renè Descartes. In fact, I suggest that to perceive Vico’s originality one needs to explore this peculiar Cartesian rationalistic background of our culture. Only in contrast to the thought of Descartes, which has shaped the modern mind-set, can we grasp the relevancy of Vico’s thought.

In the first place, it should be noted that a-historical thinking, a tendency to emphasize and privilege the universal and abstract aspects of thought, at the expense of the particular and the contingent, has been around in the West since Plato. But Descartes believed that he had reached the end of his epistemological ventures with what he considered the final solution to the problem of human knowledge. He accomplishes it by deemphasizing the humanities and claiming that the main criterion of truth for man is that the judgments asserting it must consist of “clear and distinct ideas.”

In his Principles of Philosophy Descartes states that “I term that clear which is present and apparent to an attentive mind, in the same way as we assert that we see objects clearly when, being present to the regarding eye, they operate upon it with sufficient strength. But the distinct is that which is so precise and different from all other objects that it contains within itself nothing but what is clear.” Obviously, within this kind of epistemology symbols related to seeing predominate over those related to hearing. The insistence throughout is on clarity and mathematical knowledge. Mathematics is in fact specifically mentioned in Descartes’ Discourse on Method where he states that “Most of all I was delighted with Mathematics because of the certainty of its demonstrations  and the evidence of its reasoning.”

And what exactly is Descartes’ true foundation for his theory of knowledge? His renowned “Cogito, ergo sum,” that is, thought in the act of thinking or reflecting upon itself. In other words, if I think, I exist or at least perceive myself as existing. This first certitude of one’s existence is characterized by the evidence thought has of itself with no other unclear elements. Therefore, Descartes concludes, the criterion of truth must be evidence accompanied by clarity and distinctness. What is dismissed out of hand are all “unclear” ideas upon which history rests: memories, inner psychic states, motives, images, symbols, myths, imaginative fairy tales, works of art with their ambiguous possibilities of meaning. In fact, the vast realm of personal and inter-personal knowledge, defined by Martin Buber as the realm of the “I-Thou,” is summarily rejected.

Now, it does not take much intellectual acumen to realize that since Descartes Western thought has been dominated by a rampant rationalism which, with the possible exception of Nietzschean romantic anti-rationalism culminating with existentialism, has a peculiar view of the relationship existing between a knowing experiencing subject (the self) and the objects and events around it (the observable world) which it perceives and knows. Since the seventeenth century this has been the almost exclusive domain within which the nature of reality has been considered in the West. It is a mode of thought wherein all of reality consists of “external” objects and events which are responsible for the perceptual experience of an observing subject. This is the realm of “I-it” as also defined by Buber; a realm concerned with the world of things and objectified events. It reaches its most restrictive form with modern science which, by its very nature, is exclusively concerned with observable objects and events.

Vico’s peculiar genius lies in the fact that he was the first thinker within Western culture to clearly perceive that Descartes left no room for history; that on this road Man would end up dehumanizing himself. In contrast, he proposed a theory of knowledge which emphasizes and demonstrates the importance and validity of historical thinking. His opus spanned fifteen years (1710-1725) and culminated with the publication of his New Science (the second edition appeared in 1730 and the third edition in 1744).

Vico’s initial attack on the Cartesian paradigm begins with his inaugural lecture at the University of Naples in 1710 titled De Antiquissima Italorum Sapientia.  There he inquires as to what it is that makes mathematical ideas, the prime example of Descartes’ “clear and distinct ideas,” so irrefutable? His answer is that such clarity and irrefutability derive from the fact that we ourselves have made them. In geometry we are able to demonstrate truth because we ourselves have created it. Vico employs a Latin formula to explain this idea: Verum et Factum convertuntur, which basically means that we can only fully create, and hence fully know, the things that we design and make out of nothing. In other words, the privileged position of mathematical propositions, as regards clarity and persuasiveness, rests upon the fact that they are arbitrary creations.

Vico then proceeds to qualify Descartes’ position before setting out the theoretical basis for historical knowledge proper. His basic insight is that truth is a dimension of the subject and it is a fallacy to think with Descartes that it can be conceived as a property of objects themselves. In other words, truth is the mode of presence of the subject to itself as mediated by the objects it observes. This circularity establishes the integrity of the mind as total presence to itself. Within it the dualism subject/object is mediated. To say it in even more simple terms Vico, as the consummate humanist that he is, proposes that besides metaphysics (rational intuition), mathematics (deductive knowledge), and natural science (empirical knowledge), there is a fourth, very important kind of knowledge: self-knowledge.  

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