The Journey Begins
After a preparatory preamble on Providenceand the historical consciousness, I’d like to begin the journey into Vico’s mind with a metaphor from my own intellectual life-experience: that of a long journey on a train and the reflections it engendered.
The train’s journey began from Ft.Lauderdale, Florida, bound for New Haven, Connecticut. It was the summer of 1991 and I was returning to YaleUniversityfor a visit and consultation with a dear friend of mine. My mother, visiting from Italy, was traveling with me. She was reading an Italian magazine titled Gente, a popular magazine similar to our People. Glancing over to the magazine I was struck by the title of the piece she was reading: “Let us discover the foundations of human knowledge.” The author was a scientist, a propagandizer of science in Italy, by the name of Antonino Zichichi.
My curiosity aroused I began to wonder how the author had simplifies to a single page the long arduous journey of mankind’s acquisition of knowledge. To accomplish that kind of simplification one has to be either a genius or by a charlatan. Which one was Zichichi? When my mother had finished her reading I borrowed the magazine and read the article which (as translated from the original Italian) began thus: “Our intellectual history is based on three pillars: language, logic, and science.” This bold statement further increased my curiosity. I kept reading. Zichichi explained that each one of these three pillars were discovered at a particular time of human history and was contingent on certain human needs: language on the need to communicate; philosophic logic on the need to think correctly and clearly; science, the last intellectual discovery, on the need to know whether or not nature derived from chaos or precise universal laws.
It was further elaborated that language naturally follows gesticulation and that it is very difficult for us to know when and how it originated. On the other hand, written languages are better preserved and therefore easier to trace. The beginning of logical thinking is traced back to ancient Greeceand one particular philosopher, Epemenides, the first to point out the ambiguity of language as such with his famous paradox: “I am a Cretan and must tell you that all Cretans are liars.” Subsequent to this rather rudimentary linguistic logic we reach the most rigorous of logic, mathematics, identified as such because there language is substituted by precise formulas yielding less ambiguity. The culmination of this mode of thinking is seen in Russell and Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica written at the beginning of the 20th century.
Finally Zichichi comes to the last great intellectual discovery, science. He traces its origins to Galileo who is the first to point out that our surrounding reality has its own rigorous logic, that there are out there fundamental natural laws discoverable by Man’s intellect. They apply to the individual atom as well as to the totality of the cosmos. The article’s bold conclusion is that Galileo’s old dream of explaining the universe by discovering its laws has almost come to pass thanks to the unified theory of theoretical physics. In other words, mankind is on the brink of proving that all scientific laws derive from one and only one fundamental cosmological force. The article final punch line is the following: “Were it not for science, language and philosophical logic would appear as intellectual tools outside of the grand design and therefore in the final analysis, useless.”
Wow! We should keep in mind that this is a popular article by a scientist for laymen; as such it reveals better than a technical scientific paper, a mind-set at work. The article took fifteen minutes to read but it kept me musing for several hours as the train made its way through Georgia, the Carolinas and Pennsylvania. It occurred to me that the train on which I found myself with my mother, could be an apt metaphor for humanity’s journey toward some kind of destination through space and time. Obviously man has not made the universe, yet modern physicists inform us that it is expanding at tremendous speed on a journey toward a not yet perceivable destination, to wit Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, and the effort to understand the origins of the universe by replicating the big bang with atom smashers.
In the second place, it dawned on me that this article exemplified the sheer hubris of the positivistic scientific mentality alive and well in modern and post-modern times. This mind-set, invariably, ends up assigning to science a privileged position within the world of human knowledge, for it sees science as the logical culmination of knowledge’s evolution in human history. At best, the humanities are seen as precursors by now superfluous.
What is at work in this paradigm of knowledge is the Cartesian scheme of reality. Science proper is made to begin with Galileo and Newton. In fact in the above described popular article the intellectual phenomena present at the very origins of mankind are all conspicuously absent. I mean phenomena such as: myth making, poetic wisdom, primitive art, ritual, drama, religion; all phenomena which for early Man were a valid way of knowing the surrounding reality. Most glaringly absent is intuitive knowledge, widely validated not only by poets and philosophers but also by scientists of the caliber of Pascal and Einstein; a kind of knowledge yielding the direct perception of truth without a logical reasoning process; in other words a pure gift consistently debunked in our rationalistic Western civilization since the Enlightenment. To my mind, the greatest omission of all is the concept of self-knowledge, so important for the ancient Greeks who considered it nothing less than the beginning of wisdom.
Indeed, what this “enlightened” mind-set seems unable to conceive is that language, logic, science are potentially present from the very beginning of a human culture once Man is conceived as the seeker, the discoverer, the maker of meaning in history; which is to say that Man is his own history. For that we need to turn to Vico who is none other than the father of modern historicism. It is astonishing that Zichichi does not as much as mention Vico’s concept of “poetic wisdom” or of imagination as integral part of the quest for knowledge. He cannot do so because he is exclusively interested in proving a geometric hierarchical progression from what is purported to be most primitive and particular to what is asserted to be most sophisticated, universal and valuable: science.