Vico's Historicism and Modern Positivism Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) Author of The New Science

The concrete without the universal becomes trivial. The universal without the concrete becomes irrelevant”—Alfred N. Whitehead
Mathematics would certainly have not come into existence if one had known from the beginning that there was in nature no exactly straight line, no actual circle, no absolute magnitude.- Friedrich Nietzsche

n the land that gave us Vico and Croce, two fathers of the historicist approach to reality, one still hears today, as we speak, rather peculiar distinctions between the historical and the geo-political. They are presented as crucial distinctions.

The former, it is argued, is concerned with the past, history as a guide, and the latter is concerned with the future, how to bring about desired political results in the present from the past lessons of history. This approach either ignores or loses sight of the veritable revolution that Vico’s philosophy of history represents for any modern political analysis.

After 300 years of Vico scholarship and commentaries on his New Science (1725), it can be safely asserted that Vico did not think of history as a mere exemplary teacher from which to learn the wisdom of the past (although it does that too), or as a political tool, as a Machiavelli certainly did in his geo-political considerations on how to grab and hold on to power (see his The Prince).

The fact is that if one gets history wrong, such as the provenience of all Italians from the Romans (a myth accepted and propagated later by none other than Mussolini), one ends up with a disastrous geo-political analysis. Guicciardini got it more on target when he duly noted that to compare the present Italians to the ancient Romans is like comparing a donkey to a noble horse. The Italians were and are quite different, in some way superior to the Romans when it comes to the field of artistic achievements.

And this is not to speak of the disaster that may occur if one begins with the wrong ethical political premise, such as “the end justifies any means.” That’s how a Holocaust was justified and executed in the 20th century, just to mention one such nefarious disaster.

Within Vico’s historicism, on the other hand, verum/factum, life/thought, form/content, subjective/objective are distinguishable but not separable. They are complementary to each other. Vico was acutely aware that to treat real concrete moments of Man’s history as mere moments of something higher is not to take them very seriously. Indeed, this was Hegel's subsequent flaw: By absorbing the concrete historical situation into a higher theoretical scheme, he in effect distorted the reality of their contingency. It is a dangerous thing to separate theory form praxis as some modern philosophers have indeed done thus never regretting some of their more misguided practical actions. Somehow they felt that their theories absolved them of their unwise praxis.

Beginning with Kierkegaard, the existentialists also pointed out that by viewing contingent situations as “moments” of something else is to have them cease being themselves. This is also the flaw of modern scientists and logical positivists who consider the mytho-poetic mentality of primitive man as a mere “moment” of a superior reflexive-rational-scientific mentality. In so doing they lose sight of mytho-poetic mentality itself.

Vico’s insight is that there is more than one pole to an historical event. One can claim that there is a providential pole, a higher scheme, a telos, and yet insist that the nearest I can come to understanding this providential reality is by careful attention to the concrete circumstances of the past or present. Which is to say that in Vico’s thought the particular and the universal are also complementary poles.

Vico’s problematic consisted in reconciling the concrete events of history with the universal and providential when the universal happens to be a concatenation of concrete instances exhibiting a providential design. He clearly saw the Hegelian pitfall: to know things one must see them in relation, but if I stress the relation more than the thing itself I will end up trivializing it and losing sight of its uniqueness. He perceived that to undermine either pole of reality (i.e., pole n. 1: the unique concrete particular event; pole n. 2: the relationships of such an event) is to repeat what he termed “the conceit of scholars” (read university professors and pundits) and thereby lose contact with reality. Vico had great respect for both poles and was unwilling to abandon either. He did not see them as mutually exclusive and he refused to reduce the phenomena to a mere rational theoretical scheme a la Descartes. He insists that both complementary poles are made manifest in concreto.

What is astonishing nowadays is that science itself has discovered that reality operates on two complementary poles. I am referring to the findings of quantum mechanics, the new physics, so called, as they apply to the nature of light. In his book, Change and Providence, William Pollard points out that quantum mechanics has introduced into physics not merely a different description of the structure of the external world but also a radical modification in the relationship between the real world and our knowledge of the world. This modification patterns the modifications proposed by Vico’s historicism making man both creature and creator of history.

In Vico's time, however, the rampant rationalistic Cartesian approach did not permit such a reorientation as described by Pollard in modern times. We know today that quantum mechanics rests on Heisenberg’s intermediary principle of complementarity from which derives in turn Bohr’s principle of complementarity. The latter applies to an essential characteristic of the way physical systems are described in quantum mechanics which prior to its discovery could only be regarded as paradoxical or contradictory.

A case in point is the behavior of light and electrons. The more precise the information about such behavior became the more paradoxical became the problem of its assimilation into a coherent picture of the atomic world. Bohr’s principle of complementarity asserts that light and electrons will have wave and particle properties as complementary aspects of a single reality. This paradox, which seems to be inherent in the very structure of matter, cannot be resolved by further scientific work but must be looked upon as reflecting an essential characteristic of reality, associated with the uncertainty principle, as a result of which physical systems present themselves to our observation in complementary aspects.

Let us now transpose this scientific discovery of the principle of complementarity to historical reality. Indeed Niels Bohr himself thought that the problem of complementarity went beyond the situation in atomic physics and was a fundamental characteristic of the human mind in search of comprehension. One of his favorite maxims was that “there are two types of truths: trivial truths whose opposites are plainly absurd, and profound truths which can be recognized by the fact that the opposite is also a profound truth.” It was part of the human condition to seek to embrace profound truths, such as the opposing demands of justice and love.

Bohr’s suggestion is obvious: the apprehension of reality is possible only in complementary terms. That this is still not fully accepted is due to the pervasive influence of the classical Newtonian mechanics as a model for ultimate achievement in scientific explanations. Nevertheless it is beginning to be recognized in both psychology and biology that, despite Descartes’ cogito ergo sum, Man’s body is as much a product of his mind, as his mind is a product of his body thus rendering moot the question of whether or not Man is essentially mind or body. The dichotomy history/geo-politics is another example.

The Vichian paradigm apprehends reality in terms of both/and. For Vico Man is both a creature and a creator of history. From a formal rational standpoint this appears as a logical paradox, yet both opposites are profound complementary truths which can be distinguished but not separated. The solution to such a paradox lies in a reorientation of our thinking about the relationship between human knowledge and understanding, that is to say, the way the human mind operates in search of comprehension, on one hand, and the reality which we seek to know on the other.

Having made this reorientation we will understand how in a Vichian sense it is possible that in the very nature of things the reality light can present itself to our apprehension as both wave and particle; or for that matter, how the reality Man can be both mind and body, both creature and creator of history. The corollary to this seeming paradox is the paradox of human decisions which presents itself to our apprehension as both freedom and providence in complementary relationship, which leads to the seeming contradiction of immanence and transcendence in Vico’s concept of providence. Transcendence/Immanence in such a concept are not mutually exclusive either but are complementary to each other, both poles to be held together in tension, idem for universal/particular.

What I have always found intriguing in Vico is the fact that he did not call his magnum opus a new humanism but a new science. Like Croce later on, he accepts science as a useful pragmatic tool but at the same time he does not reject humanistic modes of thought, hence his proposal of a “new science.” His is a science which does not resort to reductionism: reducing man to a mere cog in a gigantic impersonal machine called the universe.

I’d like to suggest that this “new science” was at the time at least 300 years ahead of the modes of thinking of the current assorted Heideggerians, Derridarian deconstructionists, existentialists, nihilists, Straussians, real-politik historians in love with Machiavelli’s approach to history, all battling each other and sure that only they have the key to reality. Croce certainly had to deal with some of them, especially the positivists, to even begin to enunciate and disseminate his philosophy of aesthetics in an attempt to find a dialectical middle ground between the two extremes of deconstructionism and Straussianism.

Had Vico been accorded a more attentive and respectful reading refraining from subsuming him too readily under other philosophies, there would not be such typically modern conundrums to resolve today. Three modern eminent philosophers who fully understood the implications of Vico’s thought and the implications of its disregard in modern historiography were Croce, who wrote a whole book on Vico to explain his thought, Cassirer, known for his symbolic philosophy, and Gadamer (known for his philosophy of hermeneutics, also embraced by his disciple Gianni Vattimo). Others unfortunately continue to ignore Vico’s, or perhaps do not know him at all. That is too bad because Vico arguably is the greatest philosopher of history that Italy has given to the world. Alas, that kind of neglect ‘s result has been that they have unknowingly ended-up re-inventing the wheel on the meaning of history in the modern world.

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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