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Words Matter: How Language Shapes the World

Giambattista Vico - Lucian of Samosata Wiki

by The Syncretic Aesthetic

A world created by the poets: this is a world rarely imagined in the history of ideas.

The world perceived by Friedrich Nietzsche and Giambattista Vico is a very different one, with vastly differing origins than the one most people know. This world is created by embodied humans (rather than objective minds) through metaphorical language. This world cannot be known objectively, because it has been created through non-referential language –this is to say that we can only know what we ourselves have created. Nietzsche and Vico understand themselves as “makers making meaning with poetic language,” and both thinkers construct histories that describe man as creative beings, understanding their world through language (Luft, 148). Their focus on language’s metaphorical power (over its rational nature) is but part of their strong affinity: there is their focus on subjectivity —both Vico and Nietzsche recognize that man is wholly body, and that our mind is our body. This is a huge deviation from popular philosophical theories. In fact, it is denying the most powerful philosophical notion since Plato’s forms: Cartesian mind-body-duality. Until the postmodernism movement, very few thinkers voiced doubt in the separateness of mind and body: even today, many speak of them as differing entities –mind trapped by body. Nietzsche’s and Vico’s works are precursory and necessary for a deeply grounded understanding of postmodernism’s focus on language and the denial of the subject, contributing to an understanding of narrative truth.

Giambattista Vico

Vico and Nietzsche see language as metaphorical and poetic, as opposed to referential and true/false. Enlightenment thinkers imagined language as rational and universal –hey, just like thinking! It was a view of a rational language based in ideas. Ideas, which are true or false, give us rational knowledge about the nature of our world –or so Rene Descartes and John Locke asserted.

Our thinkers vehemently disagreed: one cannot create a world that does not come from nature with a literal language! The language of the first humans is creative; it creates our human world: value, truth, all of society! Both Nietzsche and Vico utilize philology and philosophy to imagine histories where metaphorical language shapes the world though its imaginative, creative lens of language. Vico’s analysis of history focuses on fables, which he sees as the human process of anthropomorphizing that which one experiences.

Wherever it is lost in ignorance man makes himself the measure of all things. –Giambattista Vico

As Nietzsche extrapolates, there is no reason to speak of truth, since it is created by man. As he proclaims, “what you have called world, that shall be created only by you,” and cannot be described in terms of knowledge and truth (Nietzsche, 198). “Man becomes all things by not understanding them” and makes them meaningful by creating a language to describe them: metaphors, metonyms, synecdoche… these are hardly the bases of truth (Vico, 130); rather, they are the basis of understanding. Etymology and philosophy are inseparable for Nietzsche and Vico, who both see a history of ideas within the history of language. As Zarathustra proclaims, “a new speech comes to me! Like all creators of the old tongue,” he wishes to make meaning through the creative truth of language (Nietzsche, 196). Metaphor and imaginative language are the defining factors of a

Friedrich Nietzsche

Because we create the world so that we may understand it, the world is continually shaped by and shaping humanity. Nietzsche and Vico recognize man as a corporeal being who creates thinking through language. Poetry, which is “nothing but imitation” of the world, which is merely “physical truth” made sensible by bodily creatures (Vico, 74&5). In a world peopled by purposeless beings, truth and knowledge are manufactured far after the creation of language –these concepts, which are the beginnings of philosophy –give purpose and “mind” to meaning-making bodies. Nietzsche is famously clear on this point, stating in On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense that “linguistic legislation” not only shapes the very world through sense perception and meaning-making, but “also furnishes the first laws of truth” (Nietzsche, 44).

Truth, which is not something naturally part of the world, is created by man’s language, using what Vico calls ingenium. Ingenium is the imagination’s ability to connect vastly different things through metaphor (Luft 142). These metaphors spring from the experiences we as bodies perceive, and are “from the human body and its parts and from the human senses and passions” (Vico, 129). Vico holds beliefs precursory to Nietzsche: Vico reveres ignorance, the mother of wonder, and sees creation the progeny of wonder (Vico, 116). Language, creator of worlds and histories, creates through myth. It cannot be sufficiently stressed that the language of myth and metaphor is formed by creatures without rationality: while humans do reason creatively, this is not the same as thinking rationally. Reasoning need not be rational. Reasoning comes from the language of the body.

Just like the myth of left and right brainedness, the myth of objective truth and mind-versus-body pervades our social landscape.

A language, formed by the imaginative reasoning of mindless men of flesh and bile, is capable of so much more than rationality —it is through the abstraction of language that wo/man tricks himself into believing in the “mind”. Without being able to understand abstract ideas and concepts, the first men constructed meaning through “imaginative class concepts or universals” (Vico, 74). These universals gave way to the fallacious myth of the mind. Because “one designates only the relations of things to man” through language, there is no way to have a direct link to truth; our bodies and the language these bodies create are alienated from knowledge and referential understanding (Nietzsche, 44). The “truth” about truth is that it is an aurora that we can never touch, though its shimmering glow makes it tantalizing, at once necessary to our abstract “minds”.

Knowledge gives senses to the senseless —”when men are ignorant of the natural causes producing things … they attribute their own nature to them” (Vico, 70). After time and the refinement of language, wo/man forgets these origins and begins to believe that s/he knows and understands the True world; “every word immediately becomes a concept” that fits a myriad of unique, though simultaneously similar, cases (Nietzsche, 45). The concept of rationality and an objective/subjective split occurs when language has become abstract enough to foster these philosophical notions. Zarathustra reveals that bodies teach themselves the language of thought and mind.

“The self says to the ego, ‘Feel pain here!’ Then the ego suffers and thinks how it might suffer no more —and that is why it is made to think. –Friedrich Nietzsche

Despite an Occidental penchant for truth and rationality, Nietzsche and Vico anticipate the post-Modern denial of the subject by privileging creative language. Both thinkers assert that there is no direct, unmediated connection between wo/man and the world, and admit we are doomed believe that the world is rational and always was (Vico, 61). The “truth” has always been that men are all body, making sense of perceptions through a created language of approximations.

The roots of language are creative: the fruit is our “Truth”.

Postmodernist thought abandoned the belief that “order, meaning, and value were produced by reason” (Luft, 138). Modern thinkers could not accept the postmodern discovery that ”linguistic and social practices ultimately produced human subjectivity” in a way that made it seem naturally opposed to ethereal, idealized objectivity (Luft, 144). Modern philosophy was created from an unwillingness to accept “how wretched, how shadowy and flighty, how aimless and arbitrary, the human intellect appears in nature” (Nietzsche, 42). Rationality gives man a false sense of meaning, which links them to the world through knowledge. The point made by Vico, Nietzsche, and postmodern thought is that this “naturally objective” world is only as “true” as the people who have shaped it —through a language that stems from imaginative perception, not fact and truth.

A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms—in short, a sum of human relations which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins. –Friedrich Nietzsche

If frightened men who make sense of the insensible, creating God out of a language grounded in bodily meaning, then the Modern secularization of God (and origins) is the deification (and reification) of truth and knowledge through a rational, disembodied paradigm. This is the barbarie della reflessione: the barbarism of reflection, which heralds the fall of man. Post-Modern devaluation of the tired “objectivity as truth” paradigm and concomitant denial of subjectivity as less meaningful finds precursory momentum in Vichian and Nietzschean concepts of language –what’s more, it is the recurrence of the first stage of humanity, just as Vico’s philosophy anticipates. The transformative, creative language described by the thinkers of the Linguistic Turn could not have been imagined without reference to the philosophies of Vico and Nietzsche; indeed, a contemporary understanding of narrative truth finds its origins in their theories on the creative language of children –the childlike era of the first men.

Works Cited:

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Portable Nietzsche. Ed. Walter Kaufmann. New York, N.Y., U.S.A.: Penguin, 1982. Print.

Rudnick Luft, Sandra. “The Secularization of Origins in Vico and Nietzsche.” The Personalist Forum Fall 10.2 (1994): 133-48. Print.

Vico, Giambattista. The New Science of Giambattista Vico: Unabridged Translation of the Third Edition (1744) with the Addition of ‘Practic of the New Science’ Ed. Thomas Bergin and Max Fisch. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1984. Print.

The Syncretic Aesthetic. “Words Matter: How Language Shapes the World.” 05/24/2013. <>.

vico/how-language-shapes-the-world.txt · Last modified: 2014/01/14 23:20 (external edit)