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Vico’s Historicism and Modern Positivism

Emanuel L. Paparella, Ph.D.

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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

In 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.

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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New Social Compact

Why Education? How education changed my life

Shariful Islam

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I have a story to tell the world about the importance of education. I was born in a remote village in Madhupurupazilla, under Tangail district, Bangladesh. My parents were illiterate. Unfortunately due to some maternal related complexities, my mother died in 1988 when I was one and half or two hears old. I don’t know exactly. Even, I don’t know my actual birth of date and year. And that’s a common picture for us who born in an illiterate family. Since my mother died at an early age, I had to see the pains of hunger, poverty, malnutrition, health challenges and so forth. I still remember that almost every night, I had to sleep without any food. Sometimes, whole day, I had no food. I still remember that, one day, I and my sister were begging for some food to eat in 1993 or 94. So, that was my life story.

I had no shelter to go except my grandmother’s house. And they were also poor. So, it was really a tragic life for me. I never thought that I will ever have the privilege to have access to education. Who even do not know about from where his next meal will come, where he will go for shelter, access to education is really a dream to him. So, education was a luxury to me. After moving here and there for food and shelter almost five or six years, at last, my grandmother’s house became my shelter. I started to going to school. My life started changing because of the touch of education. I started to teach when I was in Grade five student. My first salary was BDT 20. I continued teaching as house tutor till 2012.

In October 2000, another tragic incident happened in my life. My father committed suicide. I became a full orphan. I was in Grade IX then, was studying in science group at Pakutia Public High School, Ghatail. My father’s suicide shocked me very much. I did not continue study that year. Then, I dropped one year. Next year, in 2001, I changed my school, and got admitted in Class Nine at Madhupur Shahid Smrity High School to have better education. Since the school was far away from my grandmother’s house, I had to shift to Madhupur. But where will I go? Fortunately, I got a lodging opportunity there. I had to teach two children of my lodging master, I had to go for bazar regularly, and to do other household chores on a regular basis. In return, they provided me a room to stay and three time meals. In addition, to pay my tuition fees, I had to go for other tuitions. Life goes on.

In fact, at any cost, I wanted to continue study. But, I don’t know, why? Indeed, I had no guardian who can realize me the importance of education. From my inner side, education touched me and I wanted to study at anyhow. Sometimes, I worked as a day labourer to continue my studies. Even, I remember, in 2004, after appearing my S.S.C. exam, I went to pull rickshaw in Dhaka city because I had extreme zeal to continue my education. And for the grace of Almighty ALLAH, I continued my studies.

In 2006, after appearing HSC exam, I came Dhaka with BDT 1000. When, I was not able to pay my food charge at mess, I decided to sell one of my kidneys. Then, I found tuition at Shahbagh. I was residing in Dhaka Sukrabad. Very often, I went for tuition by walking since I had no bus fare. I still remember those days.

Then, for the grace of ALLAH, I got admitted in Dhaka University in International Relations Department in 2006-2007 academic sessions. Since it’s a public university, I had to pay very poor fees to continue my studies at University. I passed honour’s in 2011 and Masters in 2012 in International Relations from the University of Dhaka. I am sincerely grateful to the people of my country who bearded my all educational expenses. I am deeply thankful to all of my teachers who taught me to shape myself. Especially, I am sincerely grateful to Professor Dr.Delwar Hossain at the Department of International Relations at Dhaka University who extended his generous hand during my difficulties, who showed me new ways to life, facilitated to increase my thirst for knowledge through showing the path of knowledge.

After appearing my Masters exam, I secured the first position from Bangladesh in the MA admission entrance test examination of South Asian University, New Delhi in 2012. Then, I moved to Delhi in 14 August in 2012 to pursue my second Master’s in International Relations at South Asian University. I continued my search for knowledge. The SAARC-India Silver Jubilee Scholarship was imperative to continue my education at SAU. My teachers at SAU helped me to create a new horizon of knowledge. After successfully completing second Masters in 2014, I joined at the University of Rajshahi in 30 November, 2014 as a founder lecturer in International Relations. That opened a new chapter in my life. I learned lots of things from the founder chairman of the Department, Professor Dr. Md. Abul Kashem and from my colleagues and students.

During teaching at Rajshahi University, I was selected as one of the 18 scholars around the world at Study of the US Institute for Scholars on US Foreign Policy Program, funded by the US State Department, hosted by the Bard College, New York for 44 days. It was a great learning opportunity for me. It provided me an international exposure and opened my eyes for the vast world of knowledge.

I continued to read, teach, and write. I even taught 8 courses at undergraduate level in 2017. Then, I moved to Delhi again at SAU, my intellectual home to pursue PhD in International Relations in July 2018. Since my childhood, I just wanted to study irrespective of challenges, and my ALLAH has fulfilled my dream. Now, I am a doctoral student. Sometimes, I even, cannot believe myself that I am a PhD scholar today.

Why am I telling all of these? The point is that it’s all about education. Education changed my life. But still coming in this 21st century, tens of thousands are out of access to education. It is quite ironic that the states of the world spend billions of dollars or armaments than education. This world politics do not work for the tens of thousands voiceless, marginal people in the world. Thus, it’s time to change the world politics for the benefits of people in the world than the state.

In fact, to change the world, we need education. To interpret the world, we need education. So, access to education is a basic human right which needs to be ensured. In this case, only our state cannot do that. Today, non-state actors’ play important role in every dimension in our society from politics to economics. Thus, alongside the government, individuals, groups, academics, scholars, writers, organizations, all need to come forward to ensure access to quality education to everyone to make a better, peaceful world. Can’t we make it?

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New Social Compact

Hunger and obesity in Latin America and the Caribbean compounded by inequality

MD Staff

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For the third consecutive year, the number of those chronically hungry has increased in Latin America and the Caribbean, while 250 million – 60 percent of the regional population – are obese or overweight, representing the biggest  threat to nutritional health, said the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) on Wednesday.

Speaking at the launch of the 2018  Panorama of Food and Nutrition Security report in Santiago, Chile, FAO’s Regional Representative, Julio Berdegue said it was an “appalling” threat to health overall, affecting women and indigenous groups the most.

The Panorama, published annually by FAO, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and the World Food Programme (WFP), explores strategies to halt the health threats posed by hunger and malnutrition in Latin America and the Caribbean.

According to the report, hunger, malnutrition, lack of micronutrients, and obesity largely affect lower income families, women, indigenous communities, Afro-descendants and rural families.

Principle causes of malnutrition amongst the most vulnerable, can be traced back to changes the food systems have experienced in the region, from production to consumption. With a greater strain on the demand for nutrient-rich food like milk and meats, many resort to less costly options which are often higher in fat, sugar and salt.

“Obesity is growing uncontrollably,” Mr. Berdegue said.

Maria Cristina Perceval, who serves at the regional director for UNICEF in the region, said stunting correlates closely to inequality and poverty levels, and being chronically overweight “is also increasingly affecting the poorest children,” highlighting that lower income families have unequal access to healthy diets.

Obesity has become the greatest threat to Latin America and the Caribbean when it comes to nutritional health conditions. Nearly one in four adults are obese and more than seven percent of children below the age of five are overweight—higher than the global average of 5.6 percent.

To address the exacerbation of hunger and obesity, a “multispectoral approach is needed,” Director of PAHO/WHO, Carissa Etienne said, adding that the solution requires addressing social factors just as well as water quality and access to health services.

In response to growing malnutrition, partner authors on the report call on countries to implement public policies that combat inequality while promoting health and sustainable food systems.

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New Social Compact

Mind-Reading, Mood Manipulation: Grounds for Caution and Optimism at the Frontiers of Science

MD Staff

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Eight areas of scientific research with the potential to have the greatest impact on life on earth are today highlighted with the publication of the World Economic Forum’s inaugural Future Frontiers 2018 survey.

The list is an attempt to show how the simultaneous coming of age of a range of technologies is already affecting our future in ways beyond their original premise. By focusing on frontiers with negative as well as positive implications for life on earth, the survey’s findings are also an attempt to galvanize efforts to put in place safeguards to prevent future misuse.

The inspiration for the list comes from a survey of 660 global experts from the Forum’s Global Future Councils and Young Scientists community as well as users of its Transformation Maps. Tellingly, many of the technologies that caused respondents most concern stem from breakthroughs designed to solve problems. The question of how to regulate the “dual use” of technology without stifling research that could lead to sizeable societal benefits is becoming one of the greatest challenges for leaders in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

“The frontiers of science should not be seen as barriers, but rather opportunities to enable collective action in pursuit of solutions to the challenges facing our world today,” said Lee Howell, Head of Global Programming at the World Economic Forum.

The Future Frontiers of 2018 are:

Cause for hope

  • Quantum biology: Birds’ ability to navigate thousands of miles or DNA’s propensity to mutate are examples of how biology has evolved to take advantage of quantum behaviours. Nascent research into the role quantum physics plays in the human brain could unlock some of science’s greatest mysteries.
  • Machine learning through small data:Artificial intelligence (AI) currently requires huge amounts of data to make relatively small advances in functionality. Conversely, the human brain can typically achieve excellent outcomes through its ability to generalize using very little data. Machines gaining the agility of the human mind would be a game changer.
  • Room temperature conductivity:The ability to transmit and store electricity without loss or degradation could herald a clean energy revolution and enable new technologies. Currently, superconductivity is difficult to achieve and prohibitively expensive, a situation that scientists are working to change.
  • Venomics: If only the medicines we use today were as effective as natural toxins and venom in binding themselves to specific targets in the human body. With more than 220,000 individual species producing nature’s perfect “super drugs”, the race is on to harness this potential for good.

Cause for concern

  • Lethal autonomous weapons (LAWS): Drones and robots have a huge role to play in building prosperous, peaceful societies. Unfortunately, they can also be used in warfare. More worrying still, once deployed they could make their own decisions about the use of lethal force.
  • Digital phenotyping: The ability to use technology to predict illness or ailments that are invisible to the human eye is rapidly becoming a reality. The implications for privacy and digital rights are profound if government, companies or third parties discovered a means by which to use the same techniques to secretly capture changes in our mental health.
  • Non-invasive neuromodulation: The ability to stimulate the brain using electrical currents is opening up a world of new treatment for conditions such as Parkinson’s disease or depression. Without clear regulation, the same techniques could be used to deliver unfair advantages, reinforcing inequalities. Worse still, there is the potential for government to use it to manipulate the mental states of specific groups, such as soldiers.
  • Predictive Justice: AI, neuroimaging and big data has opened up a world of possibilities when it comes to identifying individuals and scenarios where a crime is likely to occur. The downside is the risk that the same techniques are used to produce fake evidence and protect the guilty.

Discussion about how to optimize the positive aspects of these future frontiers while mitigating their negative effects will be the focus of a number of workshops and action-oriented sessions at the Annual Meeting of the Global Future Councils which will take place in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, 11-12 November.

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