A Revolutionary New View of History and Humanity—Part 1
Vico’s New Science (1725) is a watershed to modern historicism. He was however too far ahead of his contemporaries to have any direct impact on them. They had already embarked on a Cartesian paradigm of reality which now pervades modern culture. We modern men can hear Vico’s wake up bell much more clearly in the wake of what rampant rationalism has wrought on us.
For all the modernity of his philosophy, Descartes shared with the ancient Greeks a bias against history which held that history is not the proper subject of science; that it represents a dimension of being in which the question of truth has neither purpose nor answer. Within this historical tradition searching for absolute certainty there is no place for any knowledge based on the particularity of sensory experience and contingent historical events. Tradition and the senses are seen as sources of permanent deception and truth is not found in them. Descartes was convinced that he had found the final basis of certainty in his thinking “I” (the famous “cogito ergo sum”) which is beyond history and all its contingencies and delusions. The only way this “I” and its related ideas can get back to the physical world is with the help of mathematical ideas that determine it. There the true language of nature is to be discovered. In other words, truth is to be found in nature, not in history.
This ancient Greek tradition was now living under the cover of the Christian West. Descartes was trapped within it. The Greek world could not, and in fact never produced any kind of philosophy of history. It could not since it held that the contingency of historical events did not yield truth and could not therefore be the content of authentic philosophical reflection. When truth was sought in the empirical world, it was derived from the calculability and rationality of nature. Moreover, this drive to see truth only in what is uniform and not in what is contingent and changing (well symbolized by Plato’s world of timeless unchanging ideas, the transcendent forms) led Greek historians to look for laws and continuities in history and to treat them as analogies to the uniformities of nature.
Herodotus finds in history the “law” that human hubris brings down divine punishment. This is analogous to the idea that there are limits within nature beyond which no man dare venture beyond. Thucydides, on the other hand, is even more radical in his pursuit of uniformity. He finds the historical process dominated not only by objective factors in politics and economics but also by impulses and passions driven by subjective psychological emotions. Thus the movement of history is subsumed to the movement of cosmic occurrences. The driving forces for both is the same. Here Plato’s remarks in Georgias is relevant. There he proclaims that a mathematical relation (based on timeless laws) governs the relation between gods and humans. Thus Thucydides also believed that regard for the timeless laws of historical movement gives a better view of what happens and what will happen, for it will always be in accord with human nature. In other words, to see the timeless in time makes prognosis possible and enables us humans to plan for our future.
The above, broadly outlined, was the classical view of history that greatly influenced Descartes. On one hand it holds that history is contingent, that it cannot be part of the orderly course of the cosmos and thus it is ultimately irrelevant to the question of truth. On the other hand, it also holds that history may be integrated into the cosmos but has to be seen in mere analogy to processes that are controlled by natural laws. Either way history per se is robbed of its driving force and is discredited scientifically.
The geniality of Vico’s conception of history is that he turns the above upside-down. He calls his philosophy of history a science since for him history is not only a possible, but also a privileged object of science. In fact, for a noetic standpoint, he sees the natural sciences as burdened by a lack of truth. At least in the West, this is indeed a reversal of the usual movement in the search for truth. It has taken us modern and post-modern men some three centuries to realize that it is truly revolutionary.
Not that Vico rejects everything that preceded him. He accepts much that is normative in tradition, borrows from what is universally acknowledged and then makes new unexpected inferences. His beginning point is an idea for which he can formally appeal to Aristotle. Simply put, the ideas is that real knowledge of something is present only when that something is understood to be caused and its causes and origins are known. From this idea Vico draws a revolutionary conclusion and it is this: if knowledge is knowledge of causes and we can speak of truth only in as much as we can establish those causes, then properly speaking we may know fully only what we ourselves have made. That is to say, we can only do justice to the Aristotelian equation of truth and knowledge of causes when we ourselves are the cause of something. Therefore, since history is the sphere of human achievements wherein we function as causes, we can attain there to true knowledge as in no other sphere.