Scientific Reality and the Complementarity of Vico's Historicism

The concrete without the universal becomes trivial. The universal without the concrete becomes irrelevant
—Alfred N. Whitehead

Within Vico’s historicism verum/factum, life/thought, form/content, subjective/objective are distinguishable but not separable. They are complementary to each other. Vico was acutely aware that to treat real concrete moments of Man’s history as mere moments of something higher is not to take them very seriously. Indeed, this was Hegel's flaw: By absorbing the concrete historical situation into a higher theoretical scheme, he in effect distorted the reality of their contingency.

Beginning with Kierkegaard, the existentialists also pointed out that by viewing contingent situations as “moments” of something else is to have them cease being themselves. This is also the flaw of scientists who consider the mytho-poetic mentality of primitive man as a mere “moment” of a superior reflexive-rational-scientific mentality. In so doing they lose sight of mytho-poetic mentality itself. Vico’s insight is that there is more than one pole to an historical event. One can claim that there is a providential pole, a higher scheme, a telos, and yet insist that the nearest I can come to understanding this providential reality is by careful attention to the concrete circumstances of the past or present. Which is to say that in Vico’s thought the particular and the universal are also complementary.

Vico’s problematic consisted in reconciling the concrete events of history with the universal and providential when the universal happens to be a concatenation of concrete instances exhibiting a providential design. He clearly saw the Hegelian pitfall: to know things one must see them in relation, but if I stress the relation more than the thing itself I will end up trivializing it and losing sight of its uniqueness. He perceived that to undermine either pole of reality (i.e., pole n. 1: the unique concrete particular event; pole n. 2: the relationships of such an event) is to repeat what he termed “the conceit of scholars” and thereby lose contact with reality. Vico had great respect for both poles and was unwilling to abandon either. He refused to reduce the phenomena to a mere rational theoretical scheme as Descartes had done. He insists that both complementary poles are made manifest in concreto.

What is astonishing is that nowadays science itself has discovered that reality operates on two complementary poles. I am referring to the findings of quantum mechanics as they apply to the nature of light. In his book, Change and Providence, William Pollard points out that quantum mechanics has introduced into physics not merely a different description of the structure of the external world but also a radical modification in the relationship between the real world and our knowledge of the world. This modification patterns the modifications proposed by Vico’s historicism making man both creature and creator of history.

In Vico's time, however, the rampant rationalistic Cartesian approach did not permit such a reorientation as described by Pollard. We know today that quantum mechanics rests on Heisenberg’s intermediary principle of complementarity from which derives in turn Bohr’s principle of complementarity. The latter applies to an essential characteristic of the way physical systems are described in quantum mechanics which prior to its discovery could only be regarded as paradoxical. A case in point is the behavior of light and electrons. The more precise the information about such behavior became the more paradoxical became the problem of its assimilation into a coherent picture of the atomic world. Bohr’s principle of complementarity asserts that light and electrons will have wave and particle properties as complementary aspects of a single reality. This paradox which seems to be inherent in the very structure of matter cannot be resolved by further scientific work but must be looked upon as reflecting an essential characteristic of reality, associated with the uncertainty principle, as a result of which physical systems present themselves to our observation in complementary aspects.

Let us now transpose this scientific discovery of the principle of complementarity to historical reality. Indeed Niels Bohr himself thought that the problem of complementarity went beyond the situation in atomic physics and was a fundamental characteristic of the human mind in search of comprehension. One of his favorite maxims was that there are two types of truths: trivial truths whose opposites are plainly absurd, and profound truths which can be recognized by the fact that the opposite is also a profound truth. It was part of the human condition to seek to embrace profound truths, such as the opposing demands of justice and love.

Bohr’s suggestion is obvious: the apprehension of reality is possible only in complementary terms. That this is still not fully accepted is due to the pervasive influence of the classical Newtonian mechanics as a model for ultimate achievement in scientific explanations. Nevertheless it is beginning to be recognized in both psychology and biology that Man’s body is as much a product of his mind, as his mind is a product of his body thus making moot the question of whether or not Man is mind or body.

The Vichian paradigm apprehends reality in terms of both/and. For Vico Man is both a creature and a creator of history. From a formal rational standpoint this appears as a logical paradox, yet both opposites are profound complementary truths which can be distinguished but not separated. The solution to such a paradox lies in a reorientation of our thinking about the relationship between human knowledge and understanding, that is to say, the way the human mind operates in search of comprehension, on one hand, and the reality which we seek to know on the other. Having made this reorientation we will understand how in a Vichian sense it is possible that in the very nature of things the reality light can present itself to our apprehension as both wave and particle; or for that matter, how the reality Man can be both mind and body, both creature and creator of history. The corollary to this seeming paradox is the paradox of human decisions which presents itself to our apprehension as both freedom and providence in complementary relationship, which leads to the seeming contradiction of immanence and transcendence in Vico’s concept of providence, something we shall examine later.

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