"Man Is His Own History" leads to Self-knowledge -- Part III

With the above examined understanding of history Vico attempts to oppose Descartes’ claim that “clear and distinct ideas” constitute the highest form of knowledge. He perceived that Descartes’ claim inevitably leads to a concept of history as a clearly and distinctly apprehended “hard core of historical facts” known once and for all. Indeed, that “hard core” may have the simplicity of mathematical ideas but it is similar to them in the sense that it is an abstraction arbitrarily created out of the complex flow of history; an abstraction which can then be used as a counter in a game that we ourselves have invented. This appeal to thinking of history in terms of “hard core” facts can be better understood if we keep in mind that the moving of abstract counters in freely invented games gives one a great sense of control while calling for little commitment on the part of the player. For example, let the reader imagine, if you will, the computerized video games routinely played by generals in the Pentagon and other nations’ War Departments. In a few seconds these powerful Caesars are able to obliterate millions of enemy soldiers, not unlike the original Caesar who claimed more than a million lives in his Gallic War. In the video game, it happens from time to time that millions of one’s own soldiers are nuked by mistake. One general’s comment to this “friendly” mistake supposedly was “Holy cow!” The reader may retort that there is nothing wrong in playing a virtual war game if it ultimately prevents a real war. Fair enough. The problem however arises when those “hard core” facts are fallaciously assumed to exist objectively “out there” and made to constitute the substance of history. When millions of soldiers and whole cities come to be seen as mere counters in a dangerous game of “realpolitik,” then we end up with the “Evil Empire” engaging the world in an arms race costing the world a couple of million dollars a minute.

E.F.Schumacher in his A Guide to the Perplexed (Perennial Library, Harper and Row Publishers, New York, 1977) puts the matter thus:

“The change of Western man’s interest from ‘the slenderest knowledge that may be obtained of the highest things’ (Thomas Aquinas) to mathematically precise knowledge of lesser things—‘there being nothing in the world the knowledge of which would be more desirable or more useful’ (Christian Huygens, 1629-1695—marks a shift from what we might call ‘science for understanding’ to ‘science for manipulation.’ The purpose of the former was the enlightenment of the person and his ‘liberation;’ the purpose of the latter is power. ‘Knowledge itself is power,’ said Francis Bacon, and Descartes promised men they would become ‘masters and possessors of nature.’ In its more sophisticated development, ‘science for manipulation’ tends almost inevitably to advance from the manipulation of nature to that of people” (pp. 53-54).

Vico clearly perceives this fallacy more than two hundred years ahead of his times and insists on the conversion of the certum with the factum, i.e., that the study of history is a reinterpretation of those interpretative structures which Man has created. He shows that the formula he initially applied to mathematics, the true and the made are convertible, is applicable to history as well. However, when applied to history, a different kind of knowledge arises. While in mathematics the resulting knowledge is “clear and distinct,” albeit fictitious and arbitrary, in history it cannot be so since we have neither created ourselves nor the world of nature out of nothing.

History cannot yield clear and distinct ideas because it deals with tangled non fictitious matters of purposes, goals, motives, acts of the will, fears, hopes in effort to reach self-knowledge Even more simply put, history deals with the heritage of the past, understanding for the present and hope for the future. This truth of self-knowledge is convertible with what Man has accomplished in history because as Vico explains it: “…the world of civil society has certainly been made by men, and its principles are therefore to be found within the modifications of our own human mind” (SN, 331).

We are not accustomed of speaking of this matter in terms of verum and factum. And yet all we need to do is transpose “content” for verum, and “form” for factum, to understand that Vico is basically saying that the content of anything is but the form it assumed at the point in history at which it came into being. In other words, content comes into existence with or within form. Contrary to what Descartes thought he could do, content and form can be distinguished but cannot be separated from one another. To fully know one at its origins is to know the other. They are convertible because they arise together. There is no such thing as “the inner meaning of myths” or of fact separate from interpretation in the study of history. Once that is granted, then one has to also grant that history is equally knowable as mathematics. This is so because history is the result of the development of the human mind and of the universal principles it contains and by which it judges things and to which it tries to conform.

And here is how Vico himself expresses the unity of content and form:

“Our science therefore comes to describe at the same time and ideal eternal history traversed in time by the history of every nation in its rise, development, maturity, decline, and fall. Indeed, we made bold to affirm that he who meditates this Science narrates to himself this ideal eternal history so far as he himself makes it for himself by that proof 'it had, has, and will have to be.' For the first indubitable principle posited above is that this world of nations has certainly been made by men, and its guise must therefore be found within the modifications of our human mind. And history cannot be more certain when he who creates the things also narrates them. Now, as geometry, when it constructs the world of quantity out of its elements, or contemplates the world, is creating it for itself, just so does our Science create for itself the world of nations, but with a reality greater by just so much as the institutions having to do with human affairs are more real than points, lines, surfaces, and figures are. And this very fact is an argument, o reader, that these proofs are of a kind divine and should give thee a divine pleasure, since in God knowledge and creation are one and the same thing (SN, 349).”

The above quote makes it quite clear that the starting point of this unique approach to history cannot be the Cartesian thinking subject. Vico demonstrates that Descartes, whole intention was that of overcoming doubt and founding a sure system of reaching truth, ironically ends up with the position of Protagoras: “Man is the measure of all things.” However, given that Man is a partial being and not his own creator, given too that he doubts and his thought is a relative truth, the Cartesian criterion of truth proves to be inadequate. It is in effect a reduction of truth to the private, what Vico aptly calls “la boria dei dotti,” the arrogance of the learned, i.e., the production of truth in a closet independent of the real world out there. To the contrary, Vico insists that the above mentioned common ideal notions have become present in the human mind through the life of nations as “common sense of the people.” For him “common sense” is a consensus reached by a whole people without reflection and expressing itself in spontaneous wisdom or poetic wisdom. Homer’s poetry in the Iliad and the Odissey was reached that way for those epics could not have been written by the same man. It sprang from the common sense and the poetic wisdom of the ancient Greeks before the onset of philosophical reflection. Such a notion is fundamental to a critical approach to problems of history, be they in religion, law, art, language, for truth is not something private to be pondered in a closet or an ivory tower for that matter. It is rather a public patrimony finding its natural dimension in the social life of man.

To briefly summarize Vico’s theory of knowledge we can say that history becomes science when Man orders and understands his deeds according to those eternal notions that Man (through the mediating operation of the intellect) finds in himself. The truth of history does not consist in mere facts produced by men, but also in the possibility that men have to recover the facts of history to the structure of their mind and to the eternal order that God reveals to the mind of men. As we shall see more thoroughly further down, in Vico philosophy and philology are completely integrated. While the human mind generates institutions such as language, laws, religions, poetry, myths, the civil world of tribes and nations, this production is not wholly autonomous. It operates under what Vico terms “the force of truth” immanent in the eternal notions present in the mind of man. This is providence at work. Of everything that Man may know, this is most authentically scientific.

Unfortunately the modern Cartesian positivistic mind-set has not yet fully come to terms with this Vichian new paradigm. The delusion persists that questions of meaning in history and civilization can be adequately answered with the technological know-how. Until that fallacy can be overcome, the danger of dehumanization and loss of freedom will continue to persist.

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