The Nexus between Language and Vico's Historicism—Part 1

The study of language is the starting point of Vico’s historicism. For Vico, language is humanity’s primordial historicization. In fact, Vico’s professed academic discipline was neither history nor philosophy but rhetoric, i.e., the study of language in its creative aspects and as a literary phenomenon.

We have already discussed that the reason Vico rejects the Cartesian paradigm for the apprehension of reality is that, in its stress on rationalism, if fails to criticize itself in order to return to the springs of reason. Thus rationalism is unable to acknowledge that fantasia, which is to say, imagination, intuition and other non-rational factors play an important role in the creation of the human world. For Vico it it language, rather than “clear and distinct ideas,” that provides the most important documentation for the epistemological relationship between man and his world. This relationship of the mind with the external world is imaginative, sensuous and even emotional. It is there, within language that one may hope to discover the genesis (dubbed by Vico nascimento) of institutions and human development.

Vico informs us that most of his literary career has been devoted to pondering and researching how primitive man thought and spoke. From these reflections Vico derived his “poetic logic” defined as the master key of his New Science. That key is “…the fact that the early gentile people, by a demonstrated necessity of nature, were poets who spoke in poetic characters” (SN, 34).

Vico is able to recreate this primordial poetic phase of language by focusing on its dynamic, rather than its mere functional communicative aspects where the connection between signifier (form) and signified (content) remains an arbitrary one. For Vico verum factum convertuntur, i.e., content and form are convertible. As Edward Said explains it: “Vico…associates intelligence with a kind of escape-and-rescue operation, by which the mind gathers and holds on to something that does not fall under the senses, even though that ‘something’ could not come into being without the body and sense experience (From “Vico and the Discipline of Bodies and Texts” in Modern Language Notes, 1976, p.823).

For us modern men, the recapturing of this mode of thinking lies in the fact that for us a mediating reason necessarily alters it. Lucretius in his De Rerum Natura, intimates a pre-logical phase of language; a language originating naturally, within feelings. Vico however goes further and postulates three eras: the era of the gods, the era of the heroes, and the era of men (SN, 31). To these three eras (which may be phenomenological and epistemological as well as chronological) he assigns three specific phases of language: (1) a mute phase characterized by body or sign language, (2) a spoken phase characterized by heroic emblems, similes, comparisons, images, metaphors, (3) a human language characterized by words agreed upon by the people (SN, 32). In the first two eras the language is expressive and poetic; here acts and objects have a natural relation to the ideas they are meant to signify.

The primitive men who made these poetic signs were poets (in Greek the word “to create” is poein). Behind the linguistic sign there is a real image. In fact, at its very origins the sign and the image are one. This is not easy for us to imagine because our linguistic signs do not, as a rule, evoke an image. We abstract things and their qualities out of existence and create notions to which the linguistic sign then attributes existence. But at the origins of language, the image signifies and is assumed to signify universally what it is: the “poetic universal” objectifies a section of experience into permanent significance. This still obtain for us in art where the singularity of the object “signifies,” i.e., it has autonomous value by itself but it is also universal. But even here we need to return to cave painting to better understand how the bull is not a mere representation, or for that matter, and aesthetic thing of beauty, or an abstract essence, rather it is a sign, a gestalt, a presence of the life force incarnated in the bull. Here, much better than in our modern art, one can perceive the dynamic power and vitality of life in act, something that is not accessible to reflection and analysis.

We should however keep in mind that Vico is not excluding rational induction from the creation of language. The three phases of language are three aspects of human nature which converge in producing language as activity and form. Here the unity of human nature establishes the universality of language. As Vico puts it: “From these three languages is formed the mental dictionary by which to interpret properly all the various articulate languages” (SN, 35). This is similar to Noam Chomsky’s generative grammar, almost a genetic endowment of Man.


Indeed, the very possibility of Vico’s science is related to the existence of universals of human nature reflected in linguistic universals formed by the human mind. There is a diachronic and a synchronic unity in language which is based on the unity of human nature. The failure to correlate spoken and written language produces in turn the failure to understand the origins of language. Regarding this matter Vico says that “the difficulty as to the manner of their origins was created by the scholars themselves, all of whom regarded the origin of letters as a separate question from that of the origin of languages, whereas the two were by nature conjoined…scholars failed to understand how the first nations thought in poetic characters, spoke in fables, and wrote in hieroglyphs (SN 428). In other words, Vico is saying that spoken and written languages are two aspects of the same phenomenon.


Vico is searching within the linguistic sign for clues to that kind of creativity reflecting, almost unconsciously, the lived experience of things. The three moments in which this happens are: (1) the silent, (2) the sacerdotal heroic, (3) the conventional. In the first phase man, still without a spoken language, confronts the world which he experiences and within which he is submerged almost as integral part of nature. Here there is no dualism, no awareness of the mind that knows as distinct from the surrounding world. The particular event, lived or experienced, is expressed through gestures subsequently rendered graphically as a hieroglyph. In contemporary linguistics this is called “topical recognition” of an experience for the purpose of representation.


In the second phase, i.e., the heroic, a particular content of consciousness relates to sense data by becoming their symbol and signifying them. Here there is still a necessary natural connection between signifier and signified which becomes arbitrary with the sign of the third stage where the necessity is merely historical. Within the Vichian linguistic scheme, this is the most genuinely creative stage: the sacerdotal-heroic. Here language is poetry. The theological poets see the sky and the earth as majestic animated realities and personify every natural phenomenon. Every cosmic reality is captured in images. In Vico’s own words: “This is the way in which the theological poets apprehended Jove, Cybele or Berecynthia, and Neptune, for example, and, at first mutely pointing, explained them as substances of the sky, the earth, and the sea which they imagined to be animated divinities and were therefore true to their senses in believing them to be gods” (SN, 402).


An inverse process obtains in the more properly heroic language. Here the particular individuation of a figure (for example, Achilles) precedes the signified (the strength of heroes). The signifier is the myth or the allegory, as for instance the legend of the hero (Achilles); the signified is the logos or the meaning; the idea of valor or strength proper to heroes. This idea Vico calls an “imaginative universal,” or the expression of a truth. The two, the myth and the logos can be distinguished but cannot be separated. Like form and content, they are inseparable. The two phases preceding conventional language are mental processes through which intuitive knowledge finds its form. A form of knowledge this which has been contemptuously neglected within Western Cartesian rationalism.


By the time we get to the third stage, that of conventional language, we find reflected there, in a shortened form, the universal processes of the divine and heroic phases of language. To say it in Vico’s own words: “In this way the nations formed the poetic language, composed of divine and heroic characters, later expressed in vulgar speech, and finally written in vulgar characters. It was born entirely of poverty of language and need of expression. This is proved by the first lights of poetic style, which are vivid representations, images, similes, comparisons, metaphors, circumlocutions, phrases explaining things by their natural properties, descriptions gathered from their minuter or their more sensible effects, and, finally, emphatic and even superfluous adjuncts” (SN, 456).

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