Vico's Hermeneutical "understanding" of our Humanity—Part 3

Vico’s most important hermeneutical insight is that human beings cannot be explained objectively, they can only be “understood.” The element of freedom in human nature resists the reduction to object of observation. Indeed, understanding is radically different from explaining. I can only understand and empathize with the personal life of another only because I have the same personal structure of being. Since I have a responsible relation to the meaning of my existence (i.e., to its logos), I am able to understand others in a similar relation. I can be affected by the boredom and emptiness, the failure or success of others and can understand that other beings are also called, like myself, to grasp their own destiny (in theological language, their salvation) with the same fear and risk of failure, the same hope of success.

This solidarity is underpinned by the same life-agenda, the same human journey from cradle to tomb. Moreover, the ability to understand rests on a relationship or analogy between those who understand and those who are understood. In more literary terms, this idea of congeniality is the psychological superstructure of the basic Vichian literary, anthropological insight that readers and/or commentators are in solidarity with an author. Simply put, this is the solidarity of a common humanity. Both reader and author are bearers of personal life and marked by the gift and fear of freedom.

The most basic Vichian principle that we can derive from this hermeneutics is that people, being intrinsically free, cannot be explained, they can only be understood. In turn this means that in practice I first need to understand myself if I am to understand others. How can I possibly speak seriously about the guilt of others if I loath to face my own? So the question becomes: how do I get to know myself? As per the above outlined Vichian hermeneutical principle, self-knowledge cannot be reached by mere self-analysis focusing obsessively and narcissistically on my self (as much self-help literature would suggest), rather I will begin to discover it in as much as I get to know the world in me and myself in the world.

Sadly, the me-generation of the seventies and eighties and beyond, so concerned with its “life-style,” has yet to discover that Christianity is psychologically much more sophisticated in its insistence that paradoxically one finds oneself when one loses oneself, and that narcissism inevitably leads to selfish egotism. As I encounter others, they become mirrors for me in which I may more clearly see myself. Medieval and Renaissance Man had no problem understanding that we know ourselves only in humanity, and life teaches us what that is. Action is needed to affect the world and in turn let the world affect us. In other words, we can never know ourselves directly by contemplating our navel in a lotus position. The process of self-knowledge begins with a detour, via and encounter with history. The basic reason for this detour is that we are never “objects” of knowledge, not even of self-knowledge.

Only free beings can understand other free beings. We understand ourselves only in as much as we attempt to understand others. Which is to say, the world is a macrocosmic reflection of me and I am a microcosmic reflection of the world; the inner and the outer are analogous. I receive self-awareness by encounter with the world. This is particularly true of the world of history which as the human sphere is my direct analogue. Even more simply expressed, my life-history reflects the history of human-kind. Only thus can the Bible or others’ autobiographies have anything to say to me personally. Vico for one wrote his autobiography with such an hermeneutical principle in mind.

It should be stressed here that this Vichian understanding of one’s humanity as grounded in historical reality is very important in the writing of a human history, i.e., in the writing of what Man has achieved in the world, be it the history of science, or of art, or of law, or of any other cultural artifact. In other words, when an author writes such a history he has to keep in mind that in relation to history Man cannot document himself as a mere object. As an historical being I am constantly included in my understanding of history.

We experience ourselves only by the detour of encounter with history, but the opposite is also true: we experience history only by the detour of self-understanding. That is the Vichian hermeneutical circle. As Vico himself aptly puts it: while it is true that Man makes history, it is also true that history makes Man. The way I see myself is influenced by the course of history. Such a course may produce a Hegel with the vision of Man as a spiritual being, or a Marx with the vision of Man as constituted by economics. These pre-judgments are practically inevitable for they are directed by Man’s understanding of himself.

The understanding of history can never be “presuppositionless.” When the historian claims that he has broken free from the presuppositions of his self-awareness, he is no longer viewing human history but a degenerated form of pseudo-nature. Only as a bearer of freedom can the historian understand history as the sphere of freedom. But that freedom ought not be understood as an abstract kind of “choice.” “Pro choice” by itself is a meaningless statement, for choice always implies commitment to something. Choice without responsibility and commitment transforms freedom into license. Confusion about this important distinction abounds in so called free democratic societies, but calling ourselves free ought to mean an ability to pursue a goal, to actualize ourselves by grasping our destiny as humans, for in the final analysis, what we know or don’t know of our nature and the goals of such a nature inevitably affects the way we view and interpret other people and even history as a whole.

As an historical being the author of a human history has to bring himself to the understanding of history. Many scientists find this kind of Vichian hermeneutics uncongenial. They shun it since their pride and joy is Cartesian rationalism in tandem with a condescending attitude toward what is alleged to be a “retrograde and primitive” mytho-poetic mentality steeped in magic (usually understood as mere superstition) and religion. They have no use for authors such as Nikolai Berdyaev who always keep in mind the non-objectifiable element of freedom in history and present myth as a deeper reconstruction of life; for indeed myth grasps a dimension of human life that is simply inaccessible to an objective scientific study.

An exclusively objective kind of history is inconceivable, for there will always be a need for mystification, a longing for worlds beyond that secretively direct things. That longing derives from the fact that the subjects are included in the history they seek to know and, unless they are mere robots with no feelings and emotions, they are bound to feel and disclose the historical in themselves. Berdyaev for one points out that penetrating the depths of the ages means to penetrate the depths of the self.

As Vico has well taught us, history presents itself from within by recollection of the origin, goal and meaning of our existence. He was the very first philosopher in the West to understand, way ahead of Cassirer, that myth forms an element in all historical interpretation, and that it a nefarious intellectual habit to pose the dichotomy of poetic myth and “objective” history. It is that false dichotomy that renders many modern history textbooks distasteful to most young students. They have intuited that those texts which present themselves as “scientific” fail to grasp the understanding subjects share non-objectively in historical understanding; that the author and the students of history too are integral part of history; that behind the illusion of complete unbiased documentation there is a human being who is also concerned at some level with actualizing meaning of some kind. The mere writing of a history text points to it. And meaning relates to the totality of being.

Indeed, in all historical understanding of details a preliminary attempt is made to grasp the whole of history and its meaning. Willy nilly, these subjects who choose what they deem important out of the millennial vortex of history, are involved in an “act of faith” which cannot be objectively explained as is the case in science. We will return to the exploration of this bottom rock “act of faith” on the part of science. For the moment we can confidently assert that since Vico’s speculation on history the investigation of human existence and its history in the sense of objective science is no longer feasible and that moreover human existence as a whole is subject to the Vichian hermeneutical law of understanding. In other words, from Vico on human existence has to be disclosed by way of understanding rather than by way of explanation. It is here that historicism touches the circle of science. Science, on the other hand, in touching the circle of history has to grasp that we can understand humanity and its history only in a venture. Individually, this courage for venturing on a journey of self-knowledge and actualization of meaning can be drawn from the basic realization that the secret of humanity is also our own secret.

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