Some Concluding Reflections at the End of the Journey into Vico’s Mind—Part 2
Way back in the seventeenth century, the Cartesian mind-set envisioned the machine as a tool to systematically order human experience through a rationalistic division and conversion into procedures of all the processes of the human world. Vico intuited that in that kind of technological world little room is left for works of humanistic imagination (e.g., literature, the arts, history, philosophy, ethics); i.e. the very modes of thought and sentiment through which Man may attempt to understand himself. It is this inability to associate humanistic thought with truth that lies at the root of contemporary technocratic mentality and its sheer inability to provide a unifying vision of the whole of human knowledge.
As Gilkey has pointed out, in that kind of world human beings become the servants rather than the masters of the very organizations they have created. The worth of an individual will not be conceived as intrinsic to his humanity any longer but as related to his contribution to an effective, efficient part of a social scheme. Any sort of transcendence over the social system, any inwardness and creativity are not only not appreciated but more often than not they are discouraged. The individual is seen as a mere cog in the system: a producing and consuming machine devoid of any inwardness. Robocop will be seen as a better law enforcement agent than a human being who has fears and emotions and more liable to make a mistake.
What is highly ironic is that this cultural disaster and impoverishment has come to pass in the “Christian” West which has always valued, at least in principle, the transcendent dignity of the individual. After all, the inalienable rights enshrined in the US Constitution were not invented by Thomas Jefferson one fine day. They were already intrinsic part of our Judeo-Christian heritage. Christianity has always conceived them as rights that inhere to the reality of the human spirit; what used to be called soul but is today called “software.” One cannot be too far from the truth in asserting that this degeneration of the concept of human spirit is directly related to our civilization’s present state of dehumanization. Indeed, to live by bread alone, for one’s belly, is to have sold one’s soul for a bowl of lentils, and ultimately to die spiritually.
Spiritual destitution lies at the root of our external problems such as the ecological devastation wrought on nature and threatening to swallow both nature and civilization. The prophetic warnings of 1984 and Brave New World ring even truer today. We live in a world preoccupied with economic issues and oblivious of social justice, integrity and compassion. As the world gets more efficiently orderly, it seems to become less free, less dynamic and innovative, even less affluent, at least for the majority given the widening gap between rich and poor. Presidents talk of a “gentler kinder nations” and “compassionate conservatism” but the sad reality is the sense of being at the threshold of a new Dark Age, when the “barbarians of the intellect” are already inside the citadel of civilization as we know it.
So the pressing question seems to be this: how could a culture issuing from a dynamic, creative civilization extolling Man’s dignity and grandeur such as the Italian Renaissance have stooped so low? How did we end with “thought police” inside the very citadel of thought and free speech? The answer cannot be given by science. Only speculative philosophy or theology can attempt one. Gilkey has already intimated one when he declared that “technology by itself, or technical-manipulative reason when made the exclusive form of reason and of creativity possesses a built-in element that leads to its own destruction and eventual destruction of all it manipulates.”
Now, if our very cleverness has brought us to this impasse, what hope is there left?
I would suggest that in order to recover hope, humanity needs to recover its sense of a transcendent power beyond reason (which is not to say irrational, far from it), able to temper this built-in evil which seems to be present in what we, who live in an “enlightened” culture, presently consider normal and even good. There is undoubtedly a vast gulf in our present civilization between that for which and toward which man is oriented and the wretched reality in which he finds himself. Dante, as well as the Bible call this gulf “sin.” This reality can hardly be understood in a society where sin and guilt are either excused as neurosis or exorcised by one’s analyst.
Indeed, modern man finds himself at the crossroads. He needs to make a choice between a dangerous delusion of being capable of his own redemption and salvation, that a few more technological wonders will do the trick, or to live in the apathy of a “quiet desperation,” or to muster the courage for a genuine concern for the meaning of his humanity. Only that concern can arrest the process of dehumanization. But in order to make this crucial choice he needs a concept of what it means to be human and how nature, history and humanity are part of a larger spiritual whole. In theological circles this goes by the name of “creation spirituality.” In more traditional and simpler words, Man must know himself.
We like to envision Jonathan Edwards and the Calvinists as men obsessed by the concept of original sin but a proper understanding of original sin would make Man conscious of the fact that he cannot justify and redeem himself through technology. But then, how does Man express this unity with nature in the light of the modern post-Kantian consciousness of human freedom and the autonomy of the human conscience? The German theologian Bonhoffer pointed out that modern scientific man has done away even with a working hypothesis of God because he is convinced that everything works just as well without Him. This seems to be modern man’s dilemma, how to avoid, on one hand, the pitfall of subjugation to nature, and on the other hand, that of abusing nature for his own “superior” goals. To overcome this dilemma man must be confident of being capable of transcending nature without destroying it.
At this juncture of mankind’s journey the rediscovery of Vico appears to me providential. It may be one of the best alternatives available within Western culture between two extremes: Cartesian technocratic man on one hand, and Nietzschean charismatic man on the other. As we have seen, Vico’s truth—while aiming for the transcendent— remains at all times open to existence and its contradictions. His historicism may be evolutionary but it is never deterministic as a Fontanelle’s or a Nietzsche’s. Vico insists throughout his speculation that the historian must not anticipate but rather interpret reality. He must always begin with the certum in order to understand the verum.
After Croce’s discovery and popularization of Vico in Italy in the 20th century, modern scholars began to understand, although confusedly at first, that (1) Vico is indeed very modern in his insistence on a pragmatic approach to thinking; in his insight that thought must be incarnate in life and experience and specifically the nature of history; (2) a mode of thinking that jettisons outright from the flux of reality the pole of the particular and concrete with its inherent contradictions, is a mere game of intellect and cannot possibly constitute thinking; (3) Vico’s merit is that of salvaging the particular from an abstract rationalism without falling into the trap, very common among positivists, of a purely materialistic dimension of reality; (4) Vico’s “ideal eternal history” is not idealistic; it is rather the conclusion of a long speculative process beginning with experience and the particular and always returning to origins; a far cry from Descartes’ scientism setting up the deductive demonstrations of geometry as the only criteria of certitude and reducing philosophical speculation to mere calculation, and the whole of experience to the observation of mere physical materialistic phenomena.
As an antidote for rampant Cartesian rationalism, Vico, way back in 1725, proposed his New Science. He correctly perceived that the whole of reality operates on two paradoxically related and complementary poles; for example, particular/universal, form/content, transcendence/immanence, free will/providence, barbarism/civilization, objective/subjective, passion/virtue, intuition/reason, spontaneity/reflection, matter/spirit, body/soul, poetic wisdom/reflective wisdom, tradition/progress, life/thought, and so on. This complementarity issues forth not from a rationalistic pseudo-unity of intellectual categories but rather from an organic unity derived from the phenomenon of its very origins.
Unfortunately, Vico was not accorded an attentive hearing in the 18th century. In philosophy textbooks he is usually relegated to a footnote, if even mentioned. Even in today’s courses on myth, language and history, academics at best accord Vico a passing nod or a tip of the hat. In his autobiography, Vico mentions that his own colleagues would cross the street so they would not have to acknowledge and/or discuss the publication of his book. Indeed, academics are a strange lot. Paul Ricoeur, who has offered us some brilliant insights into the relationship between history and language, in his Time and Narrative (University of Chicago Press, 1985) dedicates the whole of chapter 10 to the hermeneutics of historical consciousness but does not bother to as much as to mention its progenitor. Vico is found in a footnote (n. 33, p. 310), in passing, within the context of Hayden White’s Tropics of Discourse, and Kenneth Burke’s Grammar of Motives. Moreover, a brilliant philosopher of science such as E.A. Burtt, already mentioned above, former professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago and Cornell University, investigates in depth the scientific thinking of Copernicus, Galileo and Newton in his classical The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science (1924), points out the fallacies of modern scientific thinking, repeatedly mentions precursors from the Italian Renaissance who greatly influenced the development of scientific thinking (Tartaglia, Bruno, Campanella, Leonardo, Ficinus, Nicholas of Cusa, Patrizzi, Torricelli), and utterly ignores Vico’s New Science. Indeed, academics have never been overly kind to Vico’s scholarly fortunes. Various reasons have been proffered for this sad neglect, among which the fact that Vico was not a systematic thinker and could not therefore be easily pigeonholed. This intriguing phenomenon of Vico’s neglect in academic circles, which begins when he was still teaching at the University of Naples (where he never rose beyond the rank of Assistant Professor), and continues even today remains to be examined and studied carefully. I propose it as a challenging project for the Metanexus Institute and the Global Spiral.
Be that as it may, the cultural malaise took its tragic course in the 18th and 19th century, till Nietzsche proposes the abandonment of rationalism on rational grounds, pronounces God dead and the Enlightenment dead with Him, and in order to revitalize a sick civilization proposes the creation of immanent values as discoverable at the very core of human nature. Nietzsche correctly perceives that these values spring from a primordial religious impulse in Man. The cultural disaster seems to occur when the pole of transcendence is abandoned and the will to power replaces the classical Platonic-Aristotelian will to truth. Nowhere is this more apparent than in modern academia where truth is piously professed but power is cavalierly practiced.
The disaster need not have occurred had Vico’s alternative been given a more serious and attentive consideration. Today, Vico is much better known than in his own century, however, he continues to be subsumed under idealism or romanticism and even under the Nietzschean rediscovery of the sacred. That is a mistake and a disservice to Vico’s thought. Vico’s signal contribution and importance, to my mind, consists in the fact that he is still today the most valid alternative between Cartesian rationalism ushering in technocratic man ready to efficiently order the world, and Nietzschean anti-rationalism ushering in charismatic overman devoid of transcendence and ready to transvaluate values and impose them on a world locked in a deterministic eternal return.
The final question then is this: Will our over-rationalistic culture finally opt to change its current paradigm of reality and recover humanistic imaginative poetic modes of thinking as exemplified by the poetic philosophy of Vico? At this juncture of our historical journey our very humanity may be at the crossroads and Vico may be the guide we desperately need in order to choose wisely and continue the journey to its final destination. Dante needed a wise guide to begin his arduous imaginative inner journey to salvation. Can we afford to do any less?