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Imagination, Hermeneutics, and Historicism in Vico's New Science

by Dr. Emanuel Paparella

Giambattista Vico - Lucian of Samosata Wiki

“The principle of these origins both of languages and of letters lies in the fact that the first gentile peoples, by a demonstrated necessity of nature, were poets who spoke in poetic characters. This discovery … is the master key of this Science.”

  1. Giambattista Vico (NS, 338)

What follows is a distillation, so to speak, of my Ph.D. dissertation written at Yale University in the mid-eighties (Transcendence and Immanence In Vico’s Concept of Providence) followed by a book titled Hermeneutics in the Philosophy of Giambattista Vico (1993). The revisiting, especially as regards the issue of the origins of human thought vis a vis imagination, has been prompted by some unfortunate distortions and subsuming operation of Vico’s thought encountered since publishing the two above mentioned treatises.

In fact, another title for this piece could well be: how to read and interpret correctly Vico’s New Science. In this regard, the very first advice I would offer to any beginner in the field of Vico scholarship is to let Vico speak for himself before cavalierly proceeding to interpretation and especially refrain from subsuming him under another philosopher or a pet theoretical framework of one’s own. To my great surprise and perplexity, Vico has been at various times described as a classical Platonist, as an anti-modern traditionalist, as a cultural anthropologist whose philosophy rests on natural law; as an esoteric philosopher whose truth is purposefully hidden, discernible only to the few and the chosen, and so on. All these rather bizarre interpretations represent sheer distortions which, in my opinion, far from providing elucidation for a Vico initiate, render an overall disservice to Vico scholarship. The interpretation of “esoterism,” a la Leo Strauss, is particularly repugnant, given that Vico, far from purposefully rendering his philosophy obscure, elitist, and hidden, invites its readers, all its readers, to reconstruct it in his/her own life and experience it personally. Vico compressed the mystery of culture, and the difficulty of discovering that mystery, into a specification of what the reader must do. It is rare that an author leaves behind such an explicit indication of the way his work is to be interpreted. But, it is rarer still that this indication instructs the reader neither to understand nor comprehend but, rather, to divine the book’s meaning in the act of reading. All this will be discussed and explored further down.

But to proceed, if one reads carefully Vico’s Autobiography one soon realizes that Vico at some point began to understand that the problem of historical origins was inseparable from the problem of how the mind was able to have anything before it at all, and that both were questions of imagination (fantasia) and invention (ingegno). Under these common headings, Vico was able to supply a theory adequate to both the historical problem of human development and the phenomenological problem of perception and humanistic knowledge.

As Bergin and Fisch comment, it is not possible to trace the steps Vico took to resolve the conflict between his attraction to natural law theories and his Catholic religious views. Natural law theories and Christian doctrine were equally inadequate to the question of human origins, because both were essentially accounts of agencies external to the phenomenal human world. Vico sought an internal, intrinsic agency.

Another source of conflict came from the difficulty of assigning a status to the thought of primitive mankind. The natural law view tended to degrade primitive thought by contrasting it with the rational thought of moderns. According to the traditional opposition of sense and passion with thought proper, it was possible to arrange history in terms of the transition of body to mind. The alternative to this view situated itself in the increasingly popular thesis of prisca theologia, the idea that God or the gods had imparted certain primitive cultures with a wisdom in the form of signs. The Babylonians, Sumerians, Egyptians, and Chinese provided the best evidence for this theory. Emblematic truths could be divined from Egyptian hieroglyphs, and certain parallels with Christianity were claimed on behalf of the ancients. it is clear that Vico saw an ironic middle ground between these two positions, a ground he covered tentatively in his early work, the inaugural address of 1710, On the Most Ancient Wisdom of the Italians. Here, he defined primitive thought in terms of selected etymological relationships between Latin words. Two of these contributed to the idea that Vico was to develop later as a central principle of humanistic knowledge, the Latin terms for “the true” (verum) and “the made” (factum) and his principle of “verum factum convertuntur.”

Then there was the problematic relationship of modern thought to primitive thought. If the ancients were seen to be wise because they seemed to make connections that reason later found to be problematic, was not their wisdom simply “projected,” by a modern consciousness wishing to see genius where none existed? Or, was it a metaphoric insight, lost to modern mentality, whose recovery was in fact a sequel to rationality’s antinomies?

Vico’s genius consists in offering an original approach to the resolution of the above conundrums. His was in fact a novel approach to the study of culture. Bergin and Fisch (the translators of the Scienza Nuova in the US who greatly contributed to the discovery of Vico in the Anglo-Saxon academic philosophical world) have made this claim in the most definitive terms declaring that the science concerning “the common nature of nations” is new and uniquely Vico’s; which is to say, it is not a work of collaboration, not a synthesis of results previously attained by others and waiting only to be brought together, organized, and given the form of a science. It is a science in which not even the first steps could be taken until a certain discovery was made. Vico had himself made that discovery, and it was only when he was in possession of it that he was able to proceed to construct his opus.

Vico himself called attention to the singularity of this event thus: “The principle of these origins both of languages and of letters lies in the fact that the first gentile peoples, by a demonstrated necessity of nature, were poets who spoke in poetic characters. This discovery … is the master key of this Science.” (NS, 338) There are several approaches to this key. Vico provided a clue about the process that led to his discovery, by saying that his difficult labor had taken “a good twenty years.” (NS, 4) This gives us a rough chronology that begins in the first decade of the Eighteenth Century and concludes with the publication of the first New Science in 1725. This period covers the publication of two other important works, the Study Methods, published in 1709, and Ancient Wisdom, 1710. Both works addressed the issues that contributed to the “seething ferment” cited by Bergin and Fisch.

The easiest approach to this period of twenty years would be to arrange the works in a sequence determined by Vico’s interest in metaphor. The Study Methods treats metaphor as an alternative to Cartesian rationality under the rubric of “topical thinking.” Metaphor is given a radical and more decisive role in the mythic thought portrayed in Ancient Wisdom. Finally, The New Science makes the necessary associations between metaphor and the poetic mentality of primitives in a fully developed and comprehensive theory of culture. However, this sequential account gives the impression of a continuous, progressive sequence of discoveries. In fact, Vico’s discovery was as compact and singular as he, and Bergin and Fisch, characterize it. It permitted Vico to bridge between the modern interests of the Study Methods and the concern for mythic thought in the Ancient Wisdom with a developmental element, the “ideal eternal history” (storia ideale eterna), linking the first humans to the last in a universal sequence of institutions shared by cultures arising at different times and in different places. This discovery is none other than the single key unlocking the entire mystery of myth and, subsequently, all history. Vico describes it clearly, in terms that bear repeating: “The principle of these origins both of languages and of letters lies in the fact that the first gentile peoples, by a demonstrated necessity of nature, were poets who spoke in poetic characters. This discovery … is the master key of this Science” [NS, 338].

In other words, the key to The New Science lies in the idea of a form of thought characterized by metaphor. This can be studied best in terms of the unit of that thought, the imaginative universal, the universale fantastico. Vico’s paradigm-exemplar of imaginative universality is the sky-god Jove, whose thunder and lightning crystallized, in minds not yet human, the idea that the sky is a giant body. Humans escape the immediacy of their perceived world in a moment of fear. They are not, Vico said, afraid of something external in nature, but of their own human nature, unknowingly projected onto nature and focused clearly by the presence of Jove. The sky becomes the medium of signs by which humans interpret what Jove means to say to them. Agriculture develops in the first clearings made to gain a view of the sky, and culture grows up around the practice of divination. Institutions first originated in religion come to be extended; the “heroic” society of the city emerges, accompanied by a more representational use of language; finally, heroic society gives way to modern democracy and an abstract form of thought. Thus, a progression of social forms springs from a single, universal, perceptual act.

This composite public and private quality of the imaginative universal points it in two distinctly different directions. In the primary sense, imaginative universality is the phenomenological ground of the mythic world, and through extension the basis of all subsequent cultural development. In a secondary, or internal sense, imaginative universality is at its root a perceptual phenomenon retained by human consciousness as a primary act of mind, overlaid but not eradicated by later, more sophisticated forms of thought. In Vico’s view, the mental history of humans as cultural beings is contained in the “modifications” of the mind of the individual. By modifications, Vico suggests a capability, a principle of access of consciousness to things hidden within it.

Whether Vico can be credited with conceiving of the first modern version of the unconscious, or whether he means that conceptual sophistication logically embeds less rational, archaic features within it as implicit presuppositions, the result is a “paligenetic memory” available to a mentality that is, in real terms, simultaneously modern and ancient. In a sense, Vico applies the orator’s traditional art of memory (ars memoriæ, a technique for remembering that creates images to be stored within imagined spaces) to a spatialized idea of mind. Imaginative universality exists within the “modifications” of the human mind in the same way that a base, shaft, and capital constitute the Classical idea of the column. It is not the specific content but the form of the mind that affords the modern student of culture the experience of travel through time back to anthropological origins. As a study aid, Vico sets up the parallelism between the external and internal —the spatial and mental versions, so to speak — of the ideal eternal history. The scholar aware of the structural resemblance between the evolution of human institutions and the evolution of his/her own internal thought can experience a moment of philological and philosophical déjà vu, for through meditative acts, access is opened to everything human.

This theme and techniques of parallelism recur throughout The New Science. It guided Vico to certain commonplaces of his day, for example comparing primitives to children and idiots. It helped him organize a wealth of philological data. It directed his subsequent application of the imaginative universal to linguistics, psychology, history, and jurisprudence. But, most importantly, it became a means of spanning the distance between the first humans and the last. It did this by defining the space between the two as a positive distance representing not only history but the scholar’s means of understanding that history.

Method finds itself to be a part of the ideal eternal history, through which the scholar, as a maker of historiographic truths, can realize relationships between modern conceptualization, including writing about history, and the first making of the human world. Topical thinking comes to apply not only to the first humans, who thought with a mentality alien to our own but still human, but also to those who study those first humans, armed with logical concepts. The New Science is actualized by the mental and the physical reading of it. Imaginative universality is internalized within the reader who discovers the final proof in an extremely personal way, as a modification of his/her own mind. This doubly reflective event constitutes a catastrophe of contamination, where knowledge and biography mix in the modern reader, as they were for Vico writing in the Eighteenth Century. This complex situation is diagrammed by the interplay between The New Science and Vico’s Autobiography.

The premise that Vico’s science hinges on the discovery of a single, compact truth about the nature of primitive thought is supported by the evidence of the final two sections of Book One of The New Science, “Principles” and “Method.” In language unsurpassed and seldom equaled in the rest of his work, Vico summarized his axiomatic introductory material and marshaled his eloquence to focus the reader’s attention on a single problem: “To discover the way in which this first human thinking arose in the gentile world, we encountered exasperating difficulties which have cost us the research of a good twenty years. [We had] to descend from these human and refined natures of ours to those quite wild and savage natures, which we cannot at all imagine and can comprehend only with great effort” [NS, 338]. Vico the scholar became Vico Odysseus, journeying “in the night of thick darkness enveloping the earliest antiquities, so remote from ourselves, [where] shines the eternal and never failing light of a truth beyond question: that the world of civil society has certainly been made by men, and that its principles are therefore to be found within the modifications of our own human mind” [NS, 349].

Juxtaposing the historical odyssey from myth to modernity with the mental odyssey required of the modern thinker intending to explain this development, Vico faced the reader at this point, outside his work in a moment of romantic irony. The descent into the “night of thick darkness” had not yet occurred, and the author did not underplay the danger of the journey. Convinced as he was of the truth of his discovery, he was not confident about the outcome of the future narrative. To secure the moorings, Vico elaborated his vision of the work to come. The mental amalgam of these last two sections of Book One resembles the introductory “Idea of the Work,” where Vico enumerated the parts of his science in terms of a memory image. In “Principles” and “Method,” a real threshold appears, to serve as the entry to the work proper, Book Two, “Poetic Wisdom.” The reader is presented with virtually every facet of The New Science: its materials, its claims, its context. But, the real leitmotif of these sections is proof, and the way in which proof bears on the question of cause.

Vico proposes philosophical, philological, logical proofs, but finally rests his case on “divine” or “sublime” proofs. Modern usage places the word “divine” too close to theology to understand what Vico meant by divine providence. He did not mean the role of God in history in the usual Judeo-Christian sense. Rather, he defined providence as something hidden in appearance — particularly as that which signifies the future [NS, 342]. Vico identified providence with the practices of divination — the sciences of taking auspices — at the same time he carefully distanced it from Judaism, a religion which, Vico was careful to note, began precisely with the proscription of this ancient practice.

There are two very important consequences of this. First, it was absolutely essential for Vico, in order to accomplish the aims of The New Science, to distinguish between two kinds of cause. The cause of the human world had to be considered apart form the cause of the natural world, which Christianity considered to issue from God. By distinguishing Gentile from Hebrew humanity, Vico could discuss freely the anthropological status of natural law as a “false” causality, contrasted with the “true” causality of the Judeo-Christian God. There was a second and ultimately more important benefit of this secularized version of divine providence. For the commonplace to be a force binding ideas as well as speakers and audiences, it had also to gain a perceptual and phenomenal power. Verbal eloquence presumed the full-blown presence of language in a society already human. It was necessary to see the topic as working through things themselves, converting objects into signs made to humans, not coming from other humans but from gods imagined to dwell within the substances of the world. Like Aristotle’s use of sensus communis in the De Anima, common sense had also to apply to the unification of the sensible properties of the world, where touch, hearing, vision, and so on were bonded into a unity embodied by a common object. By making the Judeo-Christian God the master of reality, the pagan gods of Gentile mankind became the masters of appearances, a sensus communis capable of binding societies together through a metaphoric mentality. Poetic creation and cultural creation merged in the single idea of the cause of the Gentile world.

The hiddenness of providence generated a world of appearances by hiding the truth of human authorship from men. But, Vico noted that this providence, as a principle of authorship, was necessarily also hidden within consciousness. In this case, hiddenness is what had made the discovery and subsequent science of this world possible. The idea of providence put both the phenomenology and the epistemology of culture in the terms of the act of divination. An analogy of proportion was set in place. Just as the first humans saw the world as the presentation of divine signs through their institution of the sciences of augury, the last humans must invent their own scholarly divination, to see how history reveals the signs of human nature.

Dr. Emanuel Paparella. “Imagination, Hermeneutics, and Historicism in Vico's New Science.” 06/20/2012. <>.

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