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Philosophy: Past or Future? A Taste of Vico

In reading the Western canon of philosophy, I am struck by its view of the past and the future. In particular, it seems to valorize one at the expense of the other. On one side, there is Plato and many other thinkers down to Augustine and Rousseau who see the past in Eden-like terms; a place from which we should draw our lessons, our politics, our ethics. If only we would see the light and apply these past lessons to the present, all would be well. On the other side, there is Descartes, Kant and Marx amongst others. For them the past-into-present approach by Plato and others is precisely the problem. Better to dispense with the past, look to the future, and begin anew. All will be better tomorrow, if only people would see the light.

Seeing the light—herein lies the problem. Too often, I think, the valorization of the past or the future in philosophy leads to the debasement of the present moment. This is because the present moment encompasses both the past and the future in the tick-tock movement of time. Favour one over the other, and you’ve literally missed the boat: what is present is left in the dark. And because it remains untouched, the sense that the present is entrenched, that ‘things just are that way’, seeps its way into our brains to the point that, regardless of whether we favour the past or the future, nothing really changes. Because we don’t grapple with the complexity of what the present is, namely a dynamic mash-up of the past and future, the revolutions planned, whether by proponents of the past or the future, amount to the same thing: the light never comes and things remain exactly as they are. To paraphrase Hannah Arendt, the most radical of revolutionaries become the staunchest of conservatives the day after the revolution.

How do we change this state of affairs? This is no easy task. On the other hand, and not really ironically, it is the proponents of the past and future themselves who offer us a way to get to this more ‘present’ understanding. Simply put, they are all philosophers. Thus whatever they propose is ultimately full of holes. They grapple their way to the truth. And in so doing, their proposed ‘solutions’ are at the same time infused with doubt, uncertainty and ever more questions. In short, they all demand that their readers think. The task is not closed. And thus, if we read carefully, we learn from Plato and Marx alike that the present ever remains changeable so long as we keep on thinking. Even as we slip-slide around it and ‘erringly’ embrace the past or the future, there is a glimpse of the present, but only insofar as we keep slip-sliding.

And yet, it would be nice if at least one of these thinkers didn’t make us do all the work; if they would be a little more honest about their grappling to discover what is going on, rather than presenting their thought as if it were a closed book of truth. And herein I will at last speak about a thinker who I believe is more honest in this way: Giambattista Vico. In his New Science and various other works, I believe we get a sense of what it means to exist in a dynamic present. In short, Vico’s approach is to at once critique and see value in both the past and the future. As such, he is able to show us the importance of both in understanding the present, and more importantly, of showing us that the present is in fact changing all of the time. No need to wait for Eden or the dawn of a new age. A new world is born every day. No need to long for people to see the light, it is ever blaring in all of our faces. It is simply a matter of taking our mind away from the abstractions of ideal pasts and futures, of looking out into the world and of acting now.

To underline this point, I am only going to focus on one of Vico’s works, but I believe that this theme arises in all of his thought. I would thus strongly encourage all to read him for themselves.

In On the study methods of our time, Vico begins by describing the modern, and increasingly dominant, teaching method of the day: namely the new science of René Descartes. The Cartesian method, Vico explains, begins and ends with the proposition that the way things were taught in the past was wrong. Favourite subjects of antiquity like rhetoric and eloquence are to be eschewed because they incorrectly assume that we know enough to be able to speak to the public in a confident and truthful voice. But this, Descartes asserts, puts the cart before the horse. Where does this truthful voice come from? To answer this question, we must wipe the slate clean and start with the individual. In particular, we must focus all of our attention on what allows the individual to come to be. Only in this way, will we understand what makes a truthful voice possible in the first place. And thus we get the self-certainty principle in which Descartes teaches us to doubt everything all the way down to our individual existence. In doing so, he hopes we will finally be able to reach that precise individual standpoint from which we can then proceed to build everything from the ground up.

At this point, we would expect that Vico would now go on either to argue for the Cartesian method or defend that of antiquity. The funny thing is that he does neither. So what does he do? He simply argues that Descartes has got some things right and that antiquity has got some things right. But more than that, he points out that the Cartesian method actually requires that of antiquity to make it tick. To the point, Descartes eloquently makes his case for the self-certainty principle. And it is in this narrative and rhetorical voice, which touches on important tropes like truth and being, politics and philosophy, that Descartes presents his message to his students.

Thus, Vico points out, Descartes, almost in spite of himself, quite nicely marries the modern individualist approach to that of the ancient rhetorical approach to truth. At the same time, we are confronted with a huge problem. In telling his individualist story, Descartes too strongly dismisses the story itself and so, ironically, threatens to undermine his own philosophy. In short, if everyone is taught, rhetorically, that rhetoric is bad, they are left paralyzed: they are in possession of the truth, but are too distrustful of the ability to speak it publicly. Thus the truth is there and yet not there. It exists only in one’s own mind. There is no one left in the agora to whom to speak it.

And here, in my view, is Vico’s power. Sharp as a blade but harming no one, he suggests that distinctions, in this case between modern and ancient philosophy, are actually undermined by those who would draw that distinction too sharply. For Vico, the power of modernity is not that it rejects antiquity but that it spins ancient thought in a new way. In short, those who favour the future, a new way, are indebted to those who favour the past and vice versa.

This is an important and invaluable lesson that Vico teaches us. I believe it shows that every day is made possible thanks both to traditions of the past and to radical new ways dreamed of in the future. Even more importantly, this teaches us that if we forget this mashed up truth, and favour one approach over the other, the result can only be paralysis. Action for the sake of social justice or self interest, or indeed any action at all, is possible only when we stop dreaming of Edens of the past or Brave New Worlds of the future and bravely, normally, simply, be…and therefore, necessarily, act.

prairierhubarb. “Philosophy: Past or Future? A Taste of Vico.” <>. 07/04/11.

vico/philosophy-past-and-future.txt · Last modified: 2014/01/14 23:20 (external edit)