Historicism and Cultural Identity in the EU

I have repeatedly stated that one of the acutest cultural problems in the EU nowadays is that of a lack of cultural identity rooted in Christianity; this is largely due philosophically to a poor appreciation of historicism. To my mind, the philosopher who first alerted us to this problem was Giambattista Vico, widely considered the father of modern historicism. I’d like to offer a brief outline of his theory of history, trusting that interested readers will then pick up and read his masterpiece The New Science.

In 1976 A. Robert Caponigri of Notre Dame University published an essay in honor of the great Yale Dante and Vico scholar Thomas Bergin (in Italian Literature: Roots and Branches, Yale University Press) in which he stated that “In the ‘Scienza Nuova’ Vico anticipates by two centuries contemporary man’s most profound discovery concerning himself: the fact that he has a history, because by creating history man discovers and actualizes his own humanity.” That statement alerts us to the fact that Vico is well within the Italian humanistic tradition. He is, in fact, nothing short of its culmination. A tradition this which is interrupted by Descartes’ anti-humanistic stance and now waiting, like ambers under the ashes of a technocratic rationalistic society, for a new rebirth.

I am not suggesting that the concept of history is a special privilege of Western Man. Non Westerns too have a history. However, it is only in 18th century Europe that Man becomes aware of the far reaching implications of that fact. While Greeks, Romans, Chinese, Muslims had chronicles and archives, they were not intellectually conscious of the astonishing fact peculiar to Western Man, that the history that man makes expresses his freedom vis à vis events, nature and social life; which is to say, that when Man creates history out of nothing (as a sort of creation ex nihilo), he creates an eminently human factum, a sort of artifact, which is then knowable to the human mind that created it. In short, the awareness that Man has, is, and makes history is a paradigm, or a myth of reality if you will, which is unique to Western thinking and is intimately related to the idea of freedom.

Carl Marx for one utilized this paradigm of Man as his own history, but he was not its discoverer as some surmise. Its discoverer was Giambattista Vico who first proposed it to his contemporaries as a sort of antidote to the then rampant abstract, rationalistic philosophy of Renè Descartes. In fact, I suggest that to perceive Vico’s originality one needs to explore this peculiar Cartesian rationalistic background of our culture. Only in contrast to the thought of Descartes, which has shaped the modern mind-set, can we grasp the relevancy of Vico’s thought.

In the first place, it should be noted that a-historical thinking, a tendency to emphasize and privilege the universal and abstract aspects of thought, at the expense of the particular and the contingent, has been around in the West since Plato. But Descartes believed that he had reached the end of his epistemological ventures with what he considered the final solution to the problem of human knowledge. He accomplishes it by deemphasizing the humanities and claiming that the main criterion of truth for man is that the judgments asserting it must consist of “clear and distinct ideas.”

In his Principles of Philosophy Descartes states that “I term that clear which is present and apparent to an attentive mind, in the same way as we assert that we see objects clearly when, being present to the regarding eye, they operate upon it with sufficient strength. But the distinct is that which is so precise and different from all other objects that it contains within itself nothing but what is clear.” Obviously, within this kind of epistemology symbols related to seeing predominate over those related to hearing. The insistence throughout is on clarity and mathematical knowledge. Mathematics is in fact specifically mentioned in Descartes’ Discourse on Method where he states that “Most of all I was delighted with Mathematics because of the certainty of its demonstrations and the evidence of its reasoning.”

And what exactly is Descartes’ true foundation for his theory of knowledge? His renowned “Cogito, ergo sum,” that is, thought in the act of thinking or reflecting upon itself. In other words, if I think, I exist or at least perceive myself as existing. This first certitude of one’s existence is characterized by the evidence thought has of itself with no other unclear elements. Therefore, Descartes concludes, the criterion of truth must be evidence accompanied by clarity and distinctness. What is dismissed out of hand are all “unclear” ideas upon which history rests: memories, inner psychic states, motives, images, symbols, myths, imaginative fairy tales, works of art with their ambiguous possibilities of meaning. In fact, the vast realm of personal and inter-personal knowledge, defined by Martin Buber as the realm of the “I-Thou,” is summarily rejected.

Now, it does not take much intellectual acumen to realize that since Descartes Western thought has been dominated by a rampant rationalism which, with the possible exception of Nietzschean romantic anti-rationalism culminating with existentialism, has a peculiar view of the relationship existing between a knowing experiencing subject (the self) and the objects and events around it (the observable world) which it perceives and knows. Since the seventeenth century this has been the almost exclusive domain within which the nature of reality has been considered in the West. It is a mode of thought wherein all of reality consists of “external” objects and events which are responsible for the perceptual experience of an observing subject. This is the realm of “I-it” as also defined by Buber; a realm concerned with the world of things and objectified events. It reaches its most restrictive form with modern science which, by its very nature, is exclusively concerned with observable objects and events.

Vico’s peculiar genius lies in the fact that he was the first thinker within Western culture to clearly perceive that Descartes left no room for history; that on this road Man would end up dehumanizing himself. In contrast, he proposed a theory of knowledge which emphasizes and demonstrates the importance and validity of historical thinking. His opus spanned fifteen years (1710-1725) and culminated with the publication of his New Science (the first edition appeared in 1725, the second in 1730 and the third in 1744).

Vico’s initial attack on the Cartesian paradigm begins with his inaugural lecture at the University of Naples in 1710 titled De Antiquissima Italorum Sapientia. There he inquires as to what it is that makes mathematical ideas, the prime example of Descartes’ “clear and distinct ideas,” so irrefutable? His answer is that such clarity and irrefutability derive from the fact that we ourselves have made them. In geometry we are able to demonstrate truth because we ourselves have created it. Vico employs a Latin formula to explain this idea: Verum et Factum convertuntur, which basically means that we can only fully create, and hence fully know, the things that we design and make out of nothing. In other words, the privileged position of mathematical propositions, as regards clarity and persuasiveness, rests upon the fact that they are arbitrary creations.

Vico then proceeds to qualify Descartes’ position before setting out the theoretical basis for historical knowledge proper. His basic insight is that truth is a dimension of the subject and it is a fallacy to think with Descartes that it can be conceived as a property of objects themselves. In other words, truth is the mode of presence of the subject to itself as mediated by the objects it observes. This circularity establishes the integrity of the mind as total presence to itself. Within it the dualism subject/object is mediated. To say it in even more simple terms Vico, as the consummate humanist that he is, proposes that besides metaphysics (rational intuition), mathematics (deductive knowledge), and natural science (empirical knowledge), there is a fourth, very important kind of knowledge: self-knowledge.

Within self-knowledge we are more than mere passive onlookers. We are the protagonists of situations which we understand from the inside. In its broadest sense Vico is equating this kind of necessary knowledge, well known to the ancient Greeks, with historical knowledge proper. Moreover, he alerts us to the fact that since nobody has made himself, this self-knowledge will not have the “clear and distinct” quality of mathematics. On the other hand, neither will it have the game quality, the fictitiousness and arbitrariness of mathematics. It will be a superior kind of knowledge because it is not an observing of phenomena exterior to us, and therefore ultimately unknowable to us. In fact, it will be even superior to the empirical knowledge of the natural world. In this respect, Vico is the precursor of Martin Buber's basic insight that it is only in the world of I-Thou that true reality is to be found. The world of I-it is there to be analyzed, categorized, organized but it is not the total world. Vico had intuited that the world of Descartes’ cogito may be indubitable, but it also essentially limited and sterile. It cannot yield the essence of either thought or existence. From it we will never derive the causes and the nature of our being.

Vico has thus established that the Cartesian cogito, i.e., thinking thought, cannot be science but mere consciousness. In searching for a principle of truth one must begin from an absolute reality, namely that of God who has created all things and therefore knows them all. He is the Primus Factor, therefore in Him there is the first truth. In as much as all elements of things (both exterior and interior) are present in Him, complete truth resides in Him. This is so because verum factum convertuntur, he who causes a thing knows it.

This concept of causation in Vico shows the relative character of human knowledge. In as much as God contains all things, He can “read” all the elements of things. His mind is characterized by intelligentia. The human mind, on the other hand, is foreign to all, is foreign to all things that are different from itself and is therefore characterized by cogitatio by which it gathers elements external to itself. In other words, Vico is saying that we reason because we are imperfect. God does not reason, He intuits.

From this relative character of human thought issues a sort of metaphysics of humility, a new paradigm for perceiving reality; and it is this: the more external the object to the knowing mind, the more generic will be its knowledge. For example, nature had long been in existence when man arrives on the scene. The human mind, therefore, can never fully participate in its origins. Sciences are better or less knowable depending on how much human thought operates in building them: mathematics is surer than mechanics, mechanics surer than physics, physics surer than morality. Vico wisely suggests that the more congenial thing for man is to limit himself to the examination of what has been produced in history: the customs, the deeds, and above all, the language of Man. He refers to this as the certum, the cultural residue constituting the subject matter of the historian.

It is crucial that this certum, these records of history, be understood as that which man has made, the factum. Here again Vico’s insight is that the certum and the factum are convertible; which is to say, history leads to knowledge; more specifically it leads to self-knowledge when it approaches its own documents (the certum) with the understanding that these are what other selves have created in history. We are then within Vico’s hermeneutical circle: whenever Man creates in history, and above all when he creates language, he creates a structure that constitutes an interpretation of his experience. In turn that interpretation organizes the world around him. The study of history turns out to be an ongoing understanding and evaluation, in effect a constant reinterpretation, of these interpretative structures which men have created. There is no such thing as “objective” history, once, once and for all as some historians, in their eagerness to declare their discipline a “science” would contend.

A scientist with positivistic tendencies in describing the history of science, will reveal to the perceptive reader the Cartesian paradigm under which he labors. Inevitably, there is a tendency to see religion not at the very origins of science but as magic and superstition hostile to it; while science per se and its rational method of perceiving reality will be assigned preeminence over and above myth-making, poetry and poetic wisdom.

This rather cavalier intellectual stance would not be so repugnant were it stated as a premise at the outset. The sheer hubris of the Cartesian mind-set (what Vico calls “the barbarism of the intellect” and I call “hard-wired rationalism”) is exhibited by its insistence that it is the only valid and “objective” view of what constitutes reality, while other views or paradigms can only proceed out of ignorance and have therefore little, if any, intellectual value. A. Robert Caponigri puts it best when he writes that “The concrete processes of culture alone provide the context for the idea of man because only in that context are the conditions of total presence realized…In culture, the alienation latent in nature is overcome because all cultural structures are modes of the presence of man to himself as defined against nature.” (“The Timelessness of the Scienza Nuova of Giambattista Vico.” In Italian Literature: Roots and Branches, Ed. Jose Rimanelli, Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 1976, p. 310).

One of the most important Vichian principles is this: “The nature of institutions is nothing but their coming into being (nascimento) at certain times and in certain guises” (SN, 147). Vico’s stress upon the ongoing development of history is one in which the legacy of the past is taken with complete seriousness, but without obscuring the necessity of reprehending the past in ways appropriate to the present, or the necessity of leaving the future free to apprehend the past in ways which are perhaps as yet unthinkable. Indeed, the Columbus of 1992 is a differently perceived Columbus than the one of 1892.

With the above examined understanding of history Vico attempts to oppose Descartes’ claim that “clear and distinct ideas” constitute the highest form of knowledge. He perceived that Descartes’ claim inevitably leads to a concept of history as a clearly and distinctly apprehended “hard core of historical facts” known once and for all. Indeed, that “hard core” may have the simplicity of mathematical ideas but it is similar to them in the sense that it is an abstraction arbitrarily created out of the complex flow of history; an abstraction which can then be used as a counter in a game that we ourselves have invented. This appeal to thinking of history in terms of “hard core” facts can be better understood if we keep in mind that the moving of abstract counters in freely invented games gives one a great sense of control while calling for little commitment on the part of the player. For example, let the reader imagine, if you will, the computerized video games routinely played by generals in the Pentagon and other nations’ War Departments. In a few seconds these powerful Caesars are able to obliterate millions of enemy soldiers, not unlike the original Caesar who claimed more than a million lives in his Gallic War. In the video game, it happens from time to time that millions of one’s own soldiers are nuked by mistake. One general’s comment to this “friendly fire” mistake supposedly was “Holy cow!” The reader may retort that there is nothing wrong in playing a virtual war game if it ultimately prevents a real war. Fair enough. The problem however arises when those “hard core” facts are fallaciously assumed to exist objectively “out there” and made to constitute the substance of history. When millions of soldiers and whole cities come to be seen as mere counters in a dangerous chess game of “realpolitik,” then we end up with the “Evil Empire” engaging the world in an arms race costing the world a couple of million dollars a minute. Some already envision a new start of those games, called Cold War, in the 21st century, and they may be right.

E.F.Schumacher in his A Guide to the Perplexed (Perennial Library, Harper and Row Publishers, New York, 1977) puts the matter thus: “The change of Western man’s interest from ‘the slenderest knowledge that may be obtained of the highest things’ (Thomas Aquinas) to mathematically precise knowledge of lesser things—‘there being nothing in the world the knowledge of which would be more desirable or more useful’ (Christian Huygens, 1629-1695—marks a shift from what we might call ‘science for understanding’ to ‘science for manipulation.’ The purpose of the former was the enlightenment of the person and his ‘liberation;’ the purpose of the latter is power. ‘Knowledge itself is power,’ said Francis Bacon, and Descartes promised men they would become ‘masters and possessors of nature.’ In its more sophisticated development, ‘science for manipulation’ tends almost inevitably to advance from the manipulation of nature to that of people” (pp. 53-54).

Vico clearly perceives this fallacy more than two hundred years ahead of his times and insists on the conversion of the certum with the factum, i.e., that the study of history is a reinterpretation of those interpretative structures which Man has created. He shows that the formula he initially applied to mathematics, the true and the made are convertible, is applicable to history as well. However, when applied to history, a different kind of knowledge arises. While in mathematics the resulting knowledge is “clear and distinct,” albeit fictitious and arbitrary, in history it cannot be so since we have neither created ourselves nor the world of nature out of nothing.

History cannot yield clear and distinct ideas because it deals with tangled non fictitious matters of purposes, goals, motives, acts of the will, fears, hopes in effort to reach self-knowledge. Even more simply put, history deals with the heritage of the past, understanding for the present and hope for the future. This truth of self-knowledge is convertible with what Man has accomplished in history because as Vico explains it: “…the world of civil society has certainly been made by men, and its principles are therefore to be found within the modifications of our own human mind” (SN, 331).

We are not accustomed of speaking of this matter in terms of verum and factum. And yet all we need to do is transpose “content” for verum, and “form” for factum, to understand that Vico is basically saying that the content of anything is but the form it assumed at the point in history at which it came into being. In other words, content comes into existence with or within form. Contrary to what Descartes thought he could do, content and form can be distinguished but cannot be separated from one another. To fully know one at its origins is to know the other. They are convertible because they arise together. There is no such thing as “the inner meaning of myths” or of fact separate from interpretation in the study of history. Once that is granted, then one has to also grant that history is equally knowable as mathematics. This is so because history is the result of the development of the human mind and of the universal principles it contains and by which it judges things and to which it tries to conform.

And here is how Vico himself expresses the unity of content and form: “Our science therefore comes to describe at the same time and ideal eternal history traversed in time by the history of every nation in its rise, development, maturity, decline, and fall. Indeed, we made bold to affirm that he who meditates this Science narrates to himself this ideal eternal history so far as he himself makes it for himself by that proof 'it had, has, and will have to be.' For the first indubitable principle posited above is that this world of nations has certainly been made by men, and its guise must therefore be found within the modifications of our human mind. And history cannot be more certain when he who creates the things also narrates them. Now, as geometry, when it constructs the world of quantity out of its elements, or contemplates the world, is creating it for itself, just so does our Science create for itself the world of nations, but with a reality greater by just so much as the institutions having to do with human affairs are more real than points, lines, surfaces, and figures are. And this very fact is an argument, o reader, that these proofs are of a kind divine and should give thee a divine pleasure, since in God knowledge and creation are one and the same thing (SN, 349).”

The above quote makes it quite clear that the starting point of this unique approach to history cannot be the Cartesian thinking subject. Vico demonstrates that Descartes, whole intention was that of overcoming doubt and founding a sure system of reaching truth, ironically ends up with the position of Protagoras: “Man is the measure of all things.” However, given that Man is a partial being and not his own creator, given too that he doubts and his thought is a relative truth, the Cartesian criterion of truth proves to be inadequate. It is in effect a reduction of truth to the private, what Vico aptly calls “la boria dei dotti,” the arrogance of the learned, i.e., the production of truth in a closet independent of the real world out there. To the contrary, Vico insists that the above mentioned common ideal notions have become present in the human mind through the life of nations as “common sense of the people.” For him “common sense” is a consensus reached by a whole people without reflection and expressing itself in spontaneous wisdom or poetic wisdom. Homer’s poetry in the Iliad and the Odyssey was reached that way for those epics could not have been written by the same man. It sprang from the common sense and the poetic wisdom of the ancient Greeks before the onset of philosophical reflection. Such a notion is fundamental to a critical approach to problems of history, be they in religion, law, art, language, for truth is not something private to be pondered in a closet or an ivory tower for that matter. It is rather a public patrimony finding its natural dimension in the social life of man.

To briefly summarize Vico’s theory of knowledge we can say that history becomes science when Man orders and understands his deeds according to those eternal notions that Man (through the mediating operation of the intellect) finds in himself. The truth of history does not consist in mere facts produced by men, but also in the possibility that men have to recover the facts of history to the structure of their mind and to the eternal order that God reveals to the mind of men. As we shall see more thoroughly further down, in Vico philosophy and philology are completely integrated. While the human mind generates institutions such as language, laws, religions, poetry, myths, the civil world of tribes and nations, this production is not wholly autonomous. It operates under what Vico terms “the force of truth” immanent in the eternal notions present in the mind of man. This is providence at work. Of everything that Man may know, this is most authentically scientific.

Unfortunately the modern Cartesian positivistic mind-set has not yet fully come to terms with this Vichian new paradigm. The delusion persists that questions of meaning in history and civilization can be adequately answered with the technological know-how. Until that fallacy can be overcome, the danger of dehumanization and loss of freedom will continue to persist.

Emanuel L. Paparella, Ph.D.

Professor Paparella has earned a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism, with a dissertation on the philosopher of history Giambattista Vico, from Yale University. He is a scholar interested in current relevant philosophical, political and cultural issues; the author of numerous essays and books on the EU cultural identity among which A New Europe in search of its Soul, and Europa: An Idea and a Journey. Presently he teaches philosophy and humanities at Barry University, Miami, Florida. He is a prolific writer and has written hundreds of essays for both traditional academic and on-line magazines among which Metanexus and Ovi. One of his current works in progress is a book dealing with the issue of cultural identity within the phenomenon of “the neo-immigrant” exhibited by an international global economy strong on positivism and utilitarianism and weak on humanism and ideals.


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