The Uniqueness of Giambattista Vico's Poetic Philosophy

GiambattistaGiambattista Vico’s New Science begins with an image, a frontispiece which Vico placed there so that the reader could recollect, at a glance, the whole opus. That image was not placed there for mere aestheticism. It informs the whole of Vico’s poetic philosophy. The art of memory and recalling is indeed fundamental for a proper understanding of Vico’s speculation, one free of distortions, misrepresentations, misreading or subsuming. Within this image, very familiar to those who know anything about Vico, one soon notices that the universe within time and space has been divided into three observed and perceived phenomena: the divine, the human, and the natural world. Observed by whom? By Providence represented as an all seeing eye, but most importantly by man who needs poetic wisdom (represented by Homer receiving the light of providence as reflected by metaphysics). Without these Man cannot ascend to Truth. That image holds all those elements together. Hence the first important observation of Vico’s thought is that it represents a philosophy of recollective universals generating philosophical understanding not from rational categories but from the image.

In other words, imagination becomes a new method, rather than mere subject matter for philosophical thought. A corollary to this observation is that were we to use the rationalistic method (that of the category) to understand Vico, we would ipso facto distort him and misunderstand him. Another way of putting it is this: Vico’s thought can only be understood from the inside. The human mind has to apply the same methodology that Vico uses to arrive at an understanding of itself. In his oration on “The Heroic Mind” (1732) Vico tells us that the heroic mind is the basis of a true education and in seeking the sublime has as its goal human wisdom oriented toward the common good of the human race. Not too dissimilar it would appear from Plato’s Republic. However, in his address of 1737 to the Academia degli Oziosi (The Academy of the Men of Leisure) Vico has recourse to Socrates as exemplary of someone who could reason about all parts of knowledge, human and divine.

What Vico deplores in modern education is the loss of the perspective of the whole. He always insists that the flower of wisdom is the grasping of the whole through the particular and the specific. What Vico is suggesting is that the reader of his work needs to be heroic too but in doing so he ought not consider The New Science something esoteric, reserved to a select few initiates into the mysteries, but rather exoteric in the sense that the human mind has certain common traits and can therefore narrate to itself The New Science and arrive at the same conclusions as Vico did; that is, discern within itself the ideal eternal history narrated by Vico and thus experience the same divine pleasure. For after all the story is the story of humankind (“storia” in Italian means both story and history) and Vico, as Virgil with Dante, is a mere guide for the reader to attain the “dilettoso monte.”

What are the ideas to which Vico guides the reader? Basically they are wisdom, heroism, tragedy, barbarism (of both sense and intellect), memory, providence, imagination, ingenuity. All ideas which the Western philosophical tradition considers superseded. And yet these ideas contain principles which are basic to the shaping of any modern humanistic thought.

The greatest danger to those who would correctly interpret Vico is that of placing his thought at the service of a position that is not his own by pigeon-holing him into a school of thought or a discipline. One such is the philosophy of history, another is cultural anthropology. Croce, for example, while attempting to promote Vico’s ideas tried to see Vico as an Italian Hegel. He went as far as devising an imaginary conversation between Hegel and a visiting Neapolitan scholar titled “An unknown page from the Last Months of Hegel’s Life” (The Personalist, 45 (1964), pp. 344-351). Thus Croce insured that for the first half of the 20th century Vico would be seen through the eyes of a philosophy of the idea, or Idealism. In turn, that inhibited an open reading of Vico’s own unique views.

Indeed Vico’s ship has been sailed under many banners: idealism, Catholicism, Marxism, historicism, modern methodologies galore, contemporary epistemology, emphasizing Vico as an influence, a mere precursor of more thorough philosophies; the most notable perhaps being Croce’s view of Vico as a precursor of Hegel. Thus Vico is robbed of his own originality. In his Autobiography Vico speaks of his hope to be an influential thinker but in Vici vindiciae he warns of the distortions of his thought already afoot (in the Acta Eruditorum where his book was reviewed). Later he writes to Abbè Esperti (1726) lamenting that the reception of his book was like that of an infant still born, then musing that indeed a book that displeases so many people cannot possibly have universal applause especially in a world dominated by the “chance” of Epicurus and the “necessity" of Descartes. Indeed, both are still alive and well in Europe. And how could Vico expect otherwise? His ideas were considered not modern enough, passé, anachronistic. His conception of “verum factum convertuntur” against which Croce argued could be traced back to St. Augustine’s doctrine that God creates by knowing or to Aquinas’ statement that “ens et verum convertuntur” (truth and reality are convertible), or the Renaissance Platonism of Marsilio Ficino, or the experimental method of Galileo (see Rodolfo Mondolfo’s Il verum factum prima di Vico (Naples, Guida, 1969).

To go from these antecedents to the principle of history made by humans, man who is his own history, was not an easy nut to crack within the prevalent Cartesian philosophical approach of the times. He was considered an anachronistic throw-back to the ancients, “the owl of Minerva of Renaissance humanistic culture” as Karl-Otto Apel defines Vico in his Die idée der Sparche in der Tradition des Humanismus von Dante bis Vico echoing Ernesto Grassi’s Macht des Bildes (Power of the Image. Cologne: 1970, p.194), where Grassi connects Vico’s thought to certain humanists: Salutati, Landino, Pico, Valla, Poliziano. But these men are usually regarded as mere literati and accorded little if any philosophical study.

Since Thomas Bergin’s translation of The New Science into English (1948, Cornell University), it has come to be regarded as a tool to confront the fragmentation of contemporary thought. But once again his ideas have been connected to seminal thinkers in semiotic, phenomenology, structuralism, genetic psychology, myth analysis, literary criticism, linguistics, and so on. In other words, there seems to be a post-modern concern to seek the foundations of knowledge through Vico’s thought. And here indeed Vico has been most helpful. In grasping what Vico calls “the barbarism of the intellect” as symptomatic of the deep solitude of spirit and will of modern man [“la somma solitudine d’animo e di voleri”] which Vico associates with the end of the third era of the ideal eternal history, the era of men where pure reason reigns uncontested; a sort of decadence when men “finally go mad and waste their substance” (N.S., 241 and 1106). This is what Vico defines as reflective thought devoid of what he calls “sapienza poetica.”(poetic wisdom). This is a thought that has forgotten its connection with the imagination of the whole, a loss of the human image of itself; the inability of the thinker to reflect its own wholeness into the products of his own thought. This barbarism of thought is a kind of human experience deprived of a cultural guide or center, without a perspective on the human mind. As Elio Gianturco used to comment in his magisterial lectures on Vico at New York University (1970): we live in a Cartesian world dominated by procedures, efficient ordering and technological know-how as fix-all for whatever ails us.

From what we have said above, it would appear that using Vico’s thought to seek the foundations of social humanistic knowledge fits quite well with Vico’s own concerns as stated in his orations: to connect knowledge with wisdom, heroism and eloquence. We should remember that Vico was for most of his academic career an Assistant Professor of Eloquence at the University of Naples. This is all well and good, but there is a caveat of which Vico himself warns us about; namely that the human mind has a propensity to reduce what is unfamiliar and distant to what is familiar and at hand. And Vico goes pretty far back into the origins of the human world. In other words, the propensity is to merge the meaning of Vico’s ideas to those developed more fully by later thinkers. Donald Phillip Verene calls this propensity “Vico’s Achilles’ heel” thus identifying the facility with which Vico’s thought has been transformed into viewpoints that are not his. This is astonishing indeed when one thinks that Vico himself takes pains in his oration De Antiquissima Italorum sapientia to declare that he belongs to no school of thought as such.

So the crucial question is this: How should the reader approach Vico? The simple answer is this: on his own merits, as the unique thinker he was and the originator of a new original orientation for philosophical thought. The originality of his philosophy consists in placing the image over the concept. For a tradition conceiving of its origins as Aristotle’s rationality this sounds topsy-turvy; for indeed “reason” continues to dominate it together with scientific thought. But let the reader pay attention to the title of Vico’s work: it is not a “New Philosophy” but a “New Science.” So Vico is far from abandoning reason and science as such.

In any case the tradition begins with the Platonic quarrel with poetic images (which some have misguidedly resurrected as the quarrel between ancients and moderns); although it must also be said that Plato’s language remains ambiguous because it uses the poetical and the mythological and images galore when it best suits it. In fairness to Plato one ought to keep in mind that he made a distinction between “good poetry” (that which spoke of the gods and the heroes) and "bad poetry," everything else. Aristotle reinforces the rationalistic tradition by defining man a rational animal; that definition gives no clue that integral to reason, even at its most developed stage, are feelings and emotions from which it originally sprang. But in reality, despite Croce's brave attempt at integration through Hegel, Vico stands outside the Western philosophical tradition.

Cassirer who like Croce had a great affinity for Vico, also attempted an integration by distinguishing the philosophy of spirit (Geist) and the philosophy of life (Leben). This is a distinction that may prove useful for understanding Vico’s position vis-à-vis modern philosophy without subsuming him under the ancient philosophies of Plato and Aristotle. However, the fundamental model of the symbol in Cassirer remains cognitive. It is a brave attempt to extend a cognitive model of thought to other form of experience: language, art, history, myth. Something that Plato would not have approved. Cassirer gives due credit to Vico by calling him “the true discoverer of the myth” [der eigentliche Entdecker des Mythos in Erkenntmisproblem inder Philosophie und Wissenschaft der neuern Zeit, 1973, IV, p. 300], as translated in The Problem of Knowledge by William H. Hoglam and Charles W. Hendel, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1950, p. 296), but he remains different from Vico because he discovers the myth through the rational concept and in so doing he has to necessarily identify Vico with the philosophy of Geist. As with Croce the attempt here is to try to incorporate Vico within the Western rationalistic tradition.

How so? In the sense that Cassirer sees philosophical idealism moving from Leibniz to Kant and Klaus Held within the philosophy of Geist all the way to his own conception of symbols (see his Introduction to The Symbolic Forms). He sees the role of the imagination in the outline of Kant’s Critique of Judgment as an important aspect of his thought. And indeed Kant has a great interest in the bond between intuition and the concept and the existence of the “unreflective judgment” (reflektierende Urteilshkraft) and organic form pointing in the direction of a concrete philosophy of all areas of human culture. Cassirer also appreciates Hegel’s effects within the philosophy of the concept as something abstracted from experience in order to create by means of the speculative proposition [speculative Satz] a new sense of the concept as “concrete universal” [begriff] within the Western tradition of reason. He transforms reason from simple understanding [Verstand] into reason as the inner form of experience [Verneuft] in his Phenomenology of Spirit. Cassirer himself point out that their transformation ends up as the reduction of the idea to the simple form of logic in Hegel’s Science of Logic.

On the other side of the spectrum of the Western philosophical tradition there is the philosophy of Leben, of life and existence and even the irrational which Cassirer sees as a reaction to Geist, an attempt to come to terms with the immediate. It is most apparent in the thought of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Scheler and Heidegger. Here one waits for the appearance of Being. Spirit (Geist) is seen not as a transformation of life but as alienation, an inauthentic relationship to Being. So, Western Philosophy presents us with a disjoint: either we pursue philosophical understanding in terms of the principles of evidence, the concept, the syllogism, the argument; or we think directly from the situation of life, we "transvaluate values" as Nietzsche suggests, or wait for Being, as Heidegger advices. Vico offers an alternative to both traditions because his thought begins outside this disjoint. It begins neither with Geist nor with Leben but with fantasia as an original and independent power of the human mind. Here images are manifestations of an original power of spirit which gives fundamental form to mind and life. Vico calls these images "universali fantastici" but they are not concepts in poetic cloaks as rationalists tend to assert. The image is not understood in relation to the concept but on its own terms.

By building his philosophy on fantasia Vico creates a position outside Western philosophy as traditionally understood. His is the kind of thought that teaches the art of memory and recovery. Unfortunately philosophers of memory have enjoyed no respectful standing in the general histories of philosophy. They are seen as literary, rhetorical, not philosophical in nature because they are not conceptual. What is not conceptual is simply denied philosophical standing. Within this rationalism imagination is at best conceived as the handmaiden of the concept, an element of the mind subject to investigation by a theory of knowledge (standing between perception and concept) or perhaps viewed as part of a theory of aesthetics. Within the latter imagination is seen as apart from the concerns of theory of knowledge; the image is free only apart from the concept seen as supreme achievement of reason fully developed ["ragione tutta spiegata," as Vico calls it].

In other words, imagination is considered a mere subject matter, never a mode of philosophical thought; at best the image and the metaphor become devices to illustrate conceptual philosophical meanings. Plato is exemplary here. In his dialogues, the image remains outside the form of philosophical thought to be used only when conceptual reasoning rises toward what he considers a view of the whole, or it is used as a simple instrument of communication to liven up the thought. Vico to the contrary insists that philosophy, astronomy, economics, morality, politics, history, even logic can be poetic (see book II of The New Science).

Paradoxically, without imagination, a view of the whole cannot be reached. See the image of the charioteer and the two winged horses in the Phaedrus and then read book X of the Republic where the rational idea is separated from the wisdom of Homer (a figure most prominently displayed in Vico's frontispiece). This contemptuous cavalier attitude toward the image considered inferior to the idea, has dogged Western philosophy for twenty four centuries. Vico proves that indeed there is no such thing as an individual called Homer: he is the representation of the oral poetical tradition of the Greeks and in that sense, despite Plato's esoteric opinion, Homer remains the exoteric "educator of Hellas."

In conclusion, I would like to propose that Vico's philosophy offers a fresh new starting point. It is not a question of siding with the poetic wisdom of Homer against the rational wisdom of Plato, but of interpreting wisdom (and therefore reason too) in a new way as "sapienza poetica," (poetical wisdom). It is a sort of synthesis, a novantiqua; a blending of the two to arrive at a new understanding of both image and idea. That is what Vico shows the reader: he works his way back to the world of original thought (the myth) since for him "verum factum convertuntur," the true and the made are convertible and Man can return to origins via what he himself has made: history, institutions, languages, artifacts, etc., in fact he can do that more surely than with science observing a nature that he has not made. Through his discovery of the imaginative universal, of fantasia as a way of thinking and acting, Vico finds a new origin for philosophical thought. Heidegger calls it "originative thinking," without however giving much credit to Vico for this insight, but then he did the same disservice to Kierkegaard’s powerful critique of Hegel’s philosophy of history.

In any case, it is Vico who with his conception of fantasia creates a novantiqua outside of the above mentioned disjoint between Geist and Leben and the ancient Platonic disjoint between idea and image. I suggest that Vico in the 21st century ought to be accorded a fair hearing on his own merits as a Herculean hero of philosophy. His message is urgently needed for a reassessment of the cultural identity of Western civilization in general and of the European Union in particular.

Join Metanexus Today

Metanexus fosters a growing international network of individuals and groups exploring the dynamic interface between cosmos, nature and culture. Membership is open to all. Join Now!