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Vico's beginnings and ends: variations on the theme of the origin of language.

E comincio da un principio troppo sciapito--dall'acqua--forse perche aveva osservato con l'acqua crescere le zucche [...]--

Giambattista Vico, Scienza Nuova

1. A Tale of Two Cities

In 1690, when Giambattista Vico returned to Naples from Vatolla, he found himself a stranger in his hometown. In the one year he had spent in the bucolic and secluded timelessness of the province, tutoring the children of the marquis Rocca and leisurely reading gli antichi, the city had not remained the same. Vico, not unaccustomed to change, had certainly anticipated the possibility of finding a transformed Naples upon his return. He knew, for instance, as his third-person autobiography reports, that "nel tempo nel quale egli parti da Napoli, si era cominciata a coltivare la filosofia d'Epicuro sopra Pier Gassendi" (Opere 13). He knew, too, that "una fisica meccanica, una metafisica tutta del senso" (Opere 13) had been spread in the city by gassendisti, galileiani, and novatori alike. All this Vico could anticipate.

That is why, before returning to Naples, this future professor of rhetoric had equipped himself with all possible topica to counter the rhetoric of Epicureans, Gassendists, and Lockeans alike. He had read, to begin with, the thesaurus of Plato. He felt ready, therewith, to face the "ciurma dannata" with the principle that "le verita eterne, che non sono da noi e non hanno dipendenza dal nostro corpo, dobbiamo intendere essere Principio delle cose tutte" (Opere 15). Put differently, at the beginning, Vico could argue, there is neither a sensation of the thing, nor a thing-in-itself. The beginning is truth--a formal abstraction, a Platonic idea--whence representations of aletheia can issue forth as sensations or things. There you have it! So Vico could have answered "alla setta di Epicuro"!

Alas, so much preparation was in the end for naught. A true intellectual metamorphosis had taken place in Naples, and, in the new context, all the precautions and prepared arguments were to no avail. Surpassing Vico's most radical expectations, Epicureans had almost disappeared, (1) and the dark vicoli of Naples were now crossed by a new rush for experimental physics, "per cui si gridava da per tutto Roberto Boyle" (Opere 15). Descartes was the new hero in town, and natural philosophy the new dogma. Not sensations but objective facts of nature were at the core of the new intellectual fashion. Not things-in-themselves but things, as represented by the cogito and its scientific method, were its beginning.

Vico, displaced a bit by the unexpected situation, frantically started reading the new best-seller; it was Rene Descartes's Fundamenta Physicae, 1646. He read it carefully, as circumstances exacted. Yet he could hardly see any substantial difference between Epicurean atomism and "i corpiciattoli del Renato"! Both led, not altogether differently, to a world reduced to mechanical fatalism and absolute matter. The Fundamenta Physicae was in truth, as Descartes had already lamented in the Preface to the French edition of his Principia Philosophiae of 1647, the work of an impostor. A false Descartes born Hendrijk Van Roy, otherwise known as Regio, was already disseminating, in that self-assured age of certainties, the first symptoms of a malaise of both the Ego and the autorita del vero. This, too, Vico could not know. However, Descartes or not-Descartes, the fact was that a new doxa reigned in town. If it could have been somewhat easy to argue against Epicurus that sensations must come from something other than pure materiality, the problem with the new doxa was that this something other was, on the one hand, apodictically admitted, but, on the other, quickly bracketed away.

On the one hand, Descartes was explicitly maintaining an albeit unknowable--in fact, irrelevant for the cogito ? metaphysical order, "un agente sopra la materia, che materia non sia" (Opere 18-19). Malebranche and Pascal, in France, had already tried the way of the enthymeme: If Cartesian method produces knowledge of nature, then an agent other than the cogito has to produce nature itself, the object of knowledge. Not only does God exist; moreover, science cannot take the place of metaphysics, but merely supplement it with physics. On the other hand, a use of Descartes to give some "objective" foundations to Christian ethics had, simply, failed: "Ne anche il padre Malebranche vi seppe lavorare sopra [il Cartesianesimo] un sistema di morale Cristiana, ed il pensiero di Pascale [e] per lumi sparsi" (Opere 19). It had failed because neither Malebranche nor Pascal had been able to answer the most radical problem posed by Cartesianism. As Gassendi had claimed in Animadversione, 1675, the physical world (with its own intelligible laws) and the metaphysical one (unknowable to human intellect) were, to put it simply, independent. (2) Cartesianism, in other words, had imposed a "radical separation" (Brunyeat 247-49) between (physical) knowledge and (metaphysical) ethics, or, in Vico's own terms, between factum and verum. As Spinoza put it," [...] we may draw the absolute conclusion that the Bible must not be accommodated to reason, nor reason to the Bible" (195).

What this sort of "absolute conclusions" entailed was the possibility of achieving truth independently from divine revelation, ergo, of rendering Truth fundamentally independent from the sacred. More radically, it made the existence of "amazing" societies and cultures developed apart from God's revelation thinkable. The Jesuits coming back from China, Egypt, and the New World had already witnessed the reality of such societies, which allegedly preceded even the beginning of the cosmos as attested by the Scriptures. Older than the three thousand years proposed by the Bible as the age of post-Flood civilizations, preAdamitic civilizations, extraneous to the grace of God, had left incredible traces of their existence for the explorers of the new age to find. Societies and cultures, in other words, had prospered well without the help of Providence.

All this showed not only the plurality of Fontanelle's human worlds, but also the perfect superfluity of Christianity for the wealth of nations. The refutation of an Adamitic origin, coinciding de facto with a refutation of the auctoritas of the Testaments, led to the conclusion that the world itself had no "origin." There could have been no God capable of creating the amazing diversity of the world. The universe, as Tyssot de Patot wrote in his Journal Litteraire of 1722, existed by itself, uncreated, and "d'une anciennete inexprimable" (Rossi 142).

Even writing, the scrittura which Vico interestingly values as the privileged and first vehicle for accessing Truth--"tutte le nazioni prima parlarono scrivendo" (Principj [section]36) (3)--was said to have begun before God's writing of the tablets on Mount Sinai. So it could happen, for instance, that

il padre Michel de Ruggiero, gesuita, affermi d'aver esso letto libri stampati innanzi la venuta di Gesu Cristo; e [che] [...] il padre Martini, pur gesuita [...] narri una grandissima antichita di Confucio, la qual ha indotti molti nell'ateismo [...] [e] onde Isacco Pereyro [...] forse percio abbandono la fede cattolica, e quindi scrisse che 'l diluvio si sparse sopra la terra de' soli ebrei.

(Principj [section]50)

Sure enough, Vico could claim in the Scienza Nuova that such incredible antiquities were mere inventions, just the fruit of the boria delle nazioni, that is to say, the "vana oppenione ch'avevano della lor antichita queste gentili nazioni, e sopra tutte gli egizi" (Principj [section]51). He could also oppose to Ruggiero, Martini, and Pereyre "Niccolo Trigailzio, [che] meglio del Rugieri e del Martini informato [...] scrive la stampa appo i chinesi essersi truovata non piu che cinquecento anni innanzi di Gesu Cristo" (Principj [section]50). Yet reducing the antiquity of ideograms and hieroglyphs to "five hundred years before Christ" to remain within the limits of Biblical chronology, and to place them chronologically after the revealed writing of Hebrew (1500 B. C.), could only partially solve the epistemological challenge thrown at Vico by the new Cartesian method. Even the separation of gentile history from the Hebrew one (Principj [section]51), probably maintained just to please the Catholic orders (Bedani), fell short of the mark. The challenge, the problem, could not be solved on any factual ground. It was more profoundly and insidiously an epistemological one: if science and logic could achieve truth, then the sacred, which revealed itself through the Word and language (Principj [section]38), and was imprinted in writing, was no longer a necessity, but rather a supplement societies could easily dispense with.

It is in this context that Vico's interest in the querelle des anciens et des modernes can be situated (Campaila). What had originally been a mere quarrel between literary factions had now grown into a more general epistemological problem. The humanistic culture of the ancients, founded on the authority of tradition and based on the written text, was by now not simply opposed by a modern culture celebrating the new, but rendered superfluous. A divide had been created (Preti) between two cultures--one based on words, the other on logic.

More dramatically for Vico, the "ancient" culture had retrenched, under the aesthetic influence of mannerism and the rhetoric of the precettistica, into "artifice, insincerity, decadence" (Marrou 82). It had thus abandoned any claim to Truth. In this context, it is certainly true that Vico, the institutional preceptor of rhetoric, needed to restore to his discipline a "fondazione metodologica di dignita pari a quella matematica" (Barilli, Retorica 104). Yet, such re-legitimization of rhetoric is at the same time more problematic and more radical than is often assumed. Appealing to the much abused concept of corsi e ricorsi, Barilli, for instance, sees in Vico's rhetoric a "Providential" instrument of knowledge that is subsequently substituted, in some sort of corso, by the newer instrument of logic:

[la retorica per Vico] diventa lo strumento "provvidenziale" attraverso cui Dio insegna all'umanita, nelle sua fasi primordiali [...] certe verita che questa non sarebbe in grado di comprendere in versione nuda. Bisogna quindi presentarle avvolte nella fabula e nell'esempio, condite con linguaggio immaginoso. Ma successivamente, avvenuta l'evoluzione psicologica, subentrata l'eta adulta, sara possibile accogliere il linguaggio diretto della logica.

(Retorica 104)

Yet Barilli's argument, framing itself in the expository, analytic, and logical language proper to the academic treatise, seems constitutionally blind to the very rhetorical--and allegorical--construction of Vico's own argument. It might be, in fact, the desire to stress the allegorical dimension of the Scienza Nuova that convinces Vico of the necessity to append a dipintura allegorica (Garulli) to the second edition of the Scienza Nuova. And it might be the same desire that makes Vico abandon "l'andamento puramente raziocinativo della prima Scienza nuova" and adopt instead, in his revision, a "rhetorical" and "poetical" style allegorically apt to comprehend "lo spirito dell'antica epopea" (Fubini 19). Barilli's idea of rhetoric as a "first" and "indirect" apperception of a Truth that returns then in the "direct" formulation of logic builds itself a linear logic--a teleology--that is neither the one of rhetoric nor that of Vico.

These sorts of readings leave unresolved the main problem that Vico tries to face: that of a radical separation of rhetoric from logic, and the superfluity of the former when the latter is available. Implicitly, Barilli suggests that truth can be "directly" and fully reached by logic only, whereas rhetoric, as likeness to truth, is brought back to the Aristotelian category of verisimilitude (which is then the ultimate meter to measure the validity of rhetoric). Interestingly enough, Barilli does recognize that Vico's is "l'estrema difesa di una cultura integrata" against the epistemological fracture of rhetoric and logic (Poetica 164), and the attempt to reach a new "combinazione unitaria" (Botturi 37). Yet he seems convinced that the solution to such a fracture is for Vico not a synchronic, but a diachronic one. In the beginning, it was rhetoric; in the end, logic will tell us the truth (Poetica 182-95). However, why would Vico try to give legitimacy to rhetoric only to declare it dead and superfluous in nostri temporis, until its rebirth in a next ricorso?

A "diachronic" reading of Vico, it seems to me, has become some sort of doxa in contemporary discourse. More than historicizing Vico, scholarship seems determined to put Vico in a place that should be strictly defined in terms of either beginnings or ends. If, on the one hand, Barilli situates him at the end of a rhetorical tradition, others like Verene see him as the beginning of an anti-Cartesian modernism of sorts. This sort of polarity does, in a curious way, entail yet another "tale of two cities," which takes its institutional weight in a little querelle between the Italian scholarship, centered in Centro di Studi Vichiani, and the North-American one, connected to the New Vico Studies. Whereas Italians see Vico defending the virtues of Christianity from all that is modern (Rossi), Anglo-Americans see him impiously undermining Christianity itself (Vaughan). If the former handle a conservative humanist, the latter face a revolutionary that breaks away from an anthropomorphic idea of humanism (Tagliacozzo). Giambattista Vico, the prophet of a "beginning" understood as "transgressive intention" against all "origins" (Said) in New York, becomes the priestly and myth-oriented arch-enemy of secular reason (Asor Rosa 141-42) in Rome.

It is possible to see, in the polarity of these positions, a divide between a "traditional" all-too-Italian reading of Vico, on the one hand, and the "relative independence from tradition" of Anglo-American scholarship on the other (Tagliacozzo 174). To rephrase the same concept from an Italian perspective: there is an Anglo-American Vico "diventato una sorta di passe-partout con cui svolgere un discorso multidisciplinare, reso possibile attraverso ardite trasposizioni attualizzanti [...] della Scienza nuova" (Battistini 28); and there is an Italian Vico, lost in the philological effort to "reconstruct" his Scienza nuova. One might hardly resist the temptation to read this--albeit gracious--quarrelling as the epiphany of both some boria and some anxiety of the nations, to speak in Harold Bloom's Vichian terms. But my own intention for recalling all this is not so much to reconcile positions, or to defend one against the other. Rather, my aim is to propose a leap out of these corsi and ricorsi of beginnings and ends, and to take a look instead at the Scienza nuova from the point of view of "origins."

"Origin," as Said has argued, is not exactly the same thing as "beginning." Whereas the latter has a "more active meaning," the former has a "more passive one: thus, 'X is the origin of Y,' while 'The beginning A leads to B'" (6). "Origin," in other words, is for Said the sign of metaphysics and the sacred, whereas "beginning" is a secular intention, a "praxis," in a way, that Said makes coincide (problematically, in my opinion) with Vico's poiesis, or etymologically--and idealistically! (4)--with "making."

Yet, "origins" may have meant something different for Vico than a mere symptom of the sacred. In a rather more banal way, the kind of origin Vico aims at discussing--namely, the origin of language, and thus the origin of society--is, put simply, some sort of rhetorical exercise, a topical exertion. From Leibniz to Mersenne, and from Locke to Wilkins--to whom Gino Bedani (42-51) adds Bacon, and the catholic hermeneusis of the Babel episode from Genesis--was a central theme in Vico's age (Aarsleff, "Vico"). Moreover, the origin of language was not only a dominant theme, but also one apt to show the very limit of science. The latter, dependent on facts and certainties, could hardly grasp origins. For those, a new science was needed.

The logic of science, one might briefly observe, needs to bracket away the discourse on origins in order to claim its own legitimacy. Science cannot lose itself in a discourse that is, by its very nature, infinitely regressive (Derrida; McDonald). The search for origins is "an endeavor condemned to endless repetition because the 'origin' is 'always already' inhabited by the search for itself" (Gans ix). But can science ever evade this moment of regression? Is not there, in the famous doubt that originates Descartes's science, a prior "search" for the doubt itself? "Renato delle Carte certamente l'avrebbe riconosciuto, se l'avesse avvertito dentro la stessa dubitazione che fa del suo essere" (Vico, "Riprensione" 713)! Can then science ever escape its own origin in language, in the question, rhetorical or not, that originates it?

Science--Cartesian linguistics and Port-Royalist grammar--had dismissed the question of the origin of language as irrelevant for the purpose of "natural philosophy" (Chovillet). However, the fact remained that science had to use that very language to whose origin it remained blind. The definition of a scientific law or the very demonstration of a mathematical theorem are as much a matter of syllogisms and enthymemes as they are of algebra (Goetsch 49-87). And while that same science aimed at the purity of a formal logic that could eliminate the imprecision of language, was not language still re-entering formal logic from the back door of its questions and answers? Was not Descartes's cogito a metaphor that transported, as the Dignita LXIII has it, "da' corpi e dalle proprieta dei corpi a significare le cose della mente" and of the mathematical method? Was not Galileo Galilei's Dialogo sopra i due massimi sistemi del mondo of 1632, after all, a dialogue in the most classical of rhetorical traditions?

Vico's raising of the question of the origin of language thus seems to me central in forming the spirit and anxiety of the Scienza nuova. My stress on origin rather than on beginnings and endings does not claim, however, any originality by itself. Vico's handling of the question of origin has its own scholarly tradition (Bedani, Fano, Tagliacozzo). The same can be said of my focus on rhetoric (Giuliani), which, as Apel has argued, places Vico in a humanistic tradition which equates civilization and humanity with nothing else than eloquence. The specific question of the origin of language, however, has scarcely been discussed from the point of view of rhetoric. If, on the one hand, Benedetto Croce dismissed the whole problem as badly proposed, imaginary, and insoluble, Anglo-American scholarship, though interested in the topic, is driven more by a psycholinguistic interest than by a rhetorical one (Danesi). However, Vico's "discovery" of origins coincides, quite directly, with his intuition of a rhetorical nature of language--or, put differently, with the idea that language originates as/through rhetorical figures: metaphor (Principj, [section]404-05), metonymy and synecdoche ([section]406-07), and, finally, irony ([section]408). More interestingly for us, this origin of language is for Vico not a fact that science can study and analyze, but a theme--what Rousseau will later call a "hypothesis"--that only rhetoric itself can articulate.

Through the theme of origins, a theme which leads to probabilities more than to objective facts, Vico then tries to imagine his own nouvelle rhetorique (Giuliani). While refusing an idea of rhetoric as pure ornament, or as mere formalism (Crifo xxiv), not only does Vico restitute to rhetoric its access to Truth (Grassi 5). Moreover, he gives to the "probable" that rhetoric is able to articulate the task of founding the "certain" (Grassi 12-14) on which science can grow.

We might need to open, at this point, a brief parenthesis on the question of Vico's new rhetoric. Verene (1981) and Goetsch read Vico as a moment of recuperation of the Aristotelian rhetoric of the topica and the enthymeme. However, I am not quite sure that a return to Aristotle (even the "Aristotle" that Vico might have constructed for himself) could lend Vico the needed answer that Plato, after the return from Vatolla to Naples, had ceased to offer. What interested Aristotle (and Plato himself) about rhetoric was its ability, through dialectics, syllogism, and enthymeme, to achieve exactitude. As Hegel noticed, it is precisely with Aristotle that the "poetry" of existence (Vico's heroic age) turns into a "prose" of the world, namely, logic. And as Heidegger added, it is with Aristotle that rhetoric stops being the attribute of the virtuous man and becomes exactitude, precision, and certainty: orthotes. The return to the origin--or its "divination"--which marks the entire Scienza nuova might then be more properly imagined as a return to the origin of philosophy, which is neither Plato (unable, as we have seen, to answer the Cartesianism that sweeps the "new" Naples) nor Aristotle. This origin is, rather, Socrates himself, that pre-Platonic Socrates, to whom recent scholarship is turning again (Sini 35ff.), and for whom the ethical justice of discourse and rhetoric, not its certitude, was of determining importance.

For Socrates, what is important is to know myself, not the apodeictic certainty that I am because I think. It is not important for him to know within which category I can be defined, but who I am as an ethical being. What is important, to put it differently, is to learn what virtue and wisdom are, not to come to a definition of such terms, but to be virtuous and wise. It might not be irrelevant, in this context, to remind my reader that the very end of the Scienza nuova closes exactly on the hope that the book will teach its own reader not how to define things, but how to become pious and wise:

Insomma, da tutto cio che si e in quest'opera ragionato, e da finalmente conchiudersi che questa Scienza porta indivisibilmente seco lo studio della pieta, e che, se non siesi pio, non si puo davvero essere saggio.

(Principj [section]1112)

Vico, like Socrates, talks about being "good," not methodically exact. He does that at a moment in which the entire encyclopedic project of the West founds itself on the exactitude of the proposition, measured against the thing.

Whereas Descartes, taking his cue from Aristotle, sees rhetoric and language as some subjective accident on the way to the certain and clear definition of the thing, Vico's irony (Goetsch), like Socrates's, hypothesizes the "origin" of all knowledge, concepts, categories, and ideas in a rhetorical language. If human passions are the same for everybody, but different are the words from one people to another, then language is convention, and not nature. If language is convention, it is therefore superfluous to the understanding and definition of the natural thing. But this is Aristotle, or, if you will, Descartes. The following is instead Vico:

Delle lingue volgari egli e stato ricevuto con troppo di buona fede da tutti i filologi ch'elleno significasser a placito. [...] i grammatici, abbattutisi in gran numero di vocaboli che danno idee confuse e indistinte delle cose, non sappiendone le origini [...] per dar pace alla loro ignoranza, stabilirono universalmente la massima che le voci umane articolate significano a placito, e vi trassero Aristotile con Galeno ed altri filosofi [...]. (Principj [section]444)

Yet, how is conventionalism (a placito) credible at all? Is not it, in Vico's ironic and Socratic terminology, just the fruit of an essential ignorance? If one has conventions, one must already have societies. And if one has societies, one must already have the laws that keep societies together. But how does one have laws without a language? "Come le nazioni, senza le leggi, possono trovarsi diggia fondate?" (Principj [section]67).

The ignorance of logic and scientific method has, therefore, to be denounced. Its own laws exist because a language pre-exists them. Its own logic is a language, a meta-physics that one cannot hypothesize if not as "Providence." Vico, like Socrates, but differently from Descartes, knows that he does not know; his science is "incerta, informe, oscura" (Principj [section]41). He does not want to "dar pace alla [sua] ignoranza" with some axiomatic certainty. He makes his ignorance, instead, his own strength, because it is ignorance that "partorisce la scienza" (Principj [section]189), because it is only by knowing the impossibility to know what originates a science that the latter does not become dogma. Yet, a (Cartesian) science that lives in the optimism of certain knowledge can never grasp this fundamental aporia. A different science, a new science, is needed for that. It is a rhetorical science, which sharpens its weapons by rehearsing on the beautiful theme of the origin of (its own) language.

2. The Heyday of a Question

Although the problem of the origin of language had been raised before the eighteenth century, it is only in the years around the publications of Giambattista Vico's three editions of the Scienza Nuova (1725, 1730, and 1744) that the question acquires unprecedented relevance. The discovery of new linguistic systems made by the Jesuits in their voyages to America and China, the academic institutionalization of Egyptology, which begun about 1715 with Tuki and Wilkins's dissertations on hieroglyphs, and the renewed interest in etymologies launched by Leibniz, had increased both the interest in the study of specific languages, and the concern for the universal foundation and original cause of language in general (Aarsleff 84-100; Iversen 88-123; Kristeva 172). Whereas the biblical dogma of the common origins of both humankind and language had sustained Renaissance theories of language (Aarsleff 178-98; Dubois 17-92), Egyptology and the Jesuits' reports from the new world were now challenging the very foundation of such certitudes. Isaac de la Peyrere, for instance, had debated in 1655 the thesis that the biblical Flood had been but localized in specific areas of Palestine. He could also conclude that the existence of black (African), red (American), and yellow (Asiatic) races proved, beyond any reasonable doubt, that there was no "original" race to inhabit the world before the Flood. Discoveries such as these meant, among other things, that it was wrong to convert to Christianity peoples that were not, in origin, Christian at all (Rossi 153). The world was becoming a coexistence of relative differences, a multiculturalism of sorts.

It is not surprising, in this view, that the notion of an original language started to be raised, for instance, by Leibniz, in order to reconstitute or defend a challenged theocentric, metaphysical system. His Brevis designatio meditationem de originibus dictus potissimus ex iudicium linguarum, published in 1710, attempted a first reconciliation of religion with the contemporary rationalistic fashion (Diels). An original language, a lingua adamitica, was for Leibniz at the root of all languages, and the original state of linguistic grace could be found again by creating a purely rational, clear language. The origin of language was, then, a topos through which one could articulate the truthfulness of one doctrine, and its reconcilability with another one.

The Catholic Church was quick to capitalize on Leibniz's theses, and canonized its own interpretation of the Tower of Babel myth by restricting, however, the limits of orthodoxy (Bedani). In the meantime, the rise of so-called "Cartesian linguistics" (Chomsky; Chovillet; Hildebrandt) was trying to dismiss the question of the origin of language as irrelevant for the purposes of a "natural philosophy" of language. Yet, once again, the theme of original language, even when deprived of "scientific" importance, was handled as a topos to prove or disprove something--in this case, the superiority of a science dealing with observable facts rather than with origins.

For eighteenth-century writers, fascinated with the wider world open by conquest and explorations, the question of the origin of language was eminently useful to discuss the origin and essence of society, culture, and its institutions (Cornelius). Already John Locke, though fundamentally disinterested in the question of the origin of language, promoted, in the Essay Concerning Human Understanding of 1690, the thesis of a contractual origin of speech. Interestingly enough, an allegedly uninteresting question turned out to be a useful topos to discuss and claim the contractual origin of society. The categorization of "man" as an animal with speech, still valid in texts as varied as Rousseau's Essai sur l'origine des langues and Buffon's Histoire naturelle, becomes doxa by midcentury (Auroux 1973, 1979; Wells). It serves in turn to convince audiences of opposing theses such as, on the one hand, the goodness of nature, or, on the other, the perfection of society.

However we classify the various eighteenth-century treatments of the theme of the origin of language, we soon discover that each approach is a matter of rhetoric. Locke could certainly not demonstrate the contractual origin of language--a dogmatic assumption indeed--but he did not hesitate to denounce the "fantasies" of the "naturalists" who could have questioned such an assumption. Rousseau's attack on academies and learned societies constructs his discourse with deep irony about the possibility of a literal belief in the theses that Rousseau himself puts forward (Nicolini). And when Herder (Piovani) discussed the Sturm und Drang of the original language, he engaged an aesthetic sense of style and a rhetoric immediately opposed to any French classical or Cartesian norm.

It is in this intellectual climate that Vico gives a new twist to the debate concerning the origin of language. If some of his conclusions are rather in tune with his age (for instance, the fact that institutions and languages are intimately related), others are radically new. Theses such as the beginning of language as a written expression, or its originally metaphorical and poetical essence, were, for instance, nothing less than original. However, more than what Vico says about the origin of language, what is striking for its originality is the way Vico says it. The tone of ironic sprezzatura with which Vico demolishes the theses of his adversaries is indeed original in its own right. Some examples: John Marsham "vuol provare" the plain absurdity (for Vico) that the Egyptians preceded the Israelites in knowledge and civilization (Principj [section]44)! Hermann Wits "si tacque" of anything that contradicted his theses ([section]44)! The whole literature on hieroglyphs and ideograms is a "libraria dell'impostura" ([section]84)! The histories of so many nations are "boria delle nazioni," and the thinking of antiquity is often a "boria de' dotti" ([section]127-28)!

Execratio, concessio, dubitatio are the rhetorical procedures that Vico adopts when facing contrary opinion. To these one can add the rather impertinent use of antonomasia: "Gli uomini che non sanno il vero delle cose procurano d'attenersi al certo" ([section]137). His method, Socratic rather than Cartesian, is that of irony. Vico the eiron, "that who interrogates" the dotti (pretending he does not know), flips the adversarial thesis into its opposite: "Questa stessa degnita rovescia tutte l'idee che si son finora avute" ([section]146)--permutatio ex contrario ducta. The form of this irony is, more often than not, that of antiphrasis: "Quindi veda Bayle se possan esser di fatto nazioni nel mondo senza veruna cognizione di Dio!" ([section]1110).

Vico, in other words, recognizes in the question of the origin of language the latency of a rhetorical topos--or the topos of the latency of rhetoric tout court--that cannot be avoided, and that must be faced, instead, with all the instruments of a figural language. In this lies his originality. It is not enough to claim the rhetorical origin of language. What is necessary, in the Age of Science, is to flaunt the inescapable rhetorical nature of all logic, including one's own:

"Logica" viene detta dalla voce logos, che prima e propriamente significo "favola", che si trasporto in italiano "favella"--e la favola de' greci si disse anco mythos, onde vien a' latini "mutus" [...] onde mythos significa e "idea" e "parola" [...] per lo che logos o "verbum" significo anche "fatto" agli ebrei, ed a' greci significo anche "cosa" [...].


It is not only that Cartesian "logic" has its origin in "myth" and "fable"; even its "facts" and "things" are, in the last analysis, "ideas" and "words." To say, as formal logic does, that if A=B and B=C, then A=C is true--but only within a mythos that can accept the paradox that A may be equal to C. Outside of this mythos one could only say, as Parmanides claimed, that A=A, which amounts to saying nothing. What is "true" and "a fact" is true and factual only within the mythos, the word, that articulates it. Or, to put it in Vico's own words, geometry constructs its own objects through its own mythos made of measures. It does know, in the end, its reality. Yet, the reality does not have, in itself, "punti, linee, superficie e figure" (Principj [section]349).

The Scienza nuova thus presents itself as a science, above all, of limits. It is reason itself--the very deus of Descartes--that must be limited. This limit, in turn, is nothing less than rhetoric, understood here in a twofold sense: as that which articulates words into a coherent mythos, and as that which can convincingly communicate its truths to the "senso comune" (Principj [section]141-42) of humankind: "questi deon esser i confini dell'umana ragione. E chiunque se ne voglia trar fuori, egli veda di non trarsi fuori da tutta l'umanita" (Principj [section]360).

At any rate, this science of limits is a descent into the origin of philosophical reflection itself. It begins and ends with a "know thyself" which is now addressed not only to the individual, but to the science itself. To know means here to think the limits of any science. But can science think its limit? Can logic think its language? If logic is the ground of knowledge, with what knowledge did Aristotle articulate his logic? Where do we start reading Aristotle, from the Organon, or from the Topica? Are logical categories the forms in which things are? Or are they the forms of the language that utter and define things? Can there be a meta-discourse or meta-science--a science, that is, "che medita questa Scienza" and tells it "a se stess[a]" (Principj [section]349)? The questions are insoluble for a science--Descartes's--that uses the instruments of language without knowing it. No doubt, they may remain insoluble for the new science as well. Yet, one advantage for the new science is obvious: "[...] questa Scienza [...] dell'umane idee, sulla quale sembra dover procedere la metafisica della mente umana" (Principj [section]347) is conscious of its own ignorance. It does know that an aporetic "metaphysics" of the human mind must precede its investigation of the human mind. It is, in this sense, an "arte critica" which leads itself, in an infinite regression, to yet another critical science "pur metafisica" (Principj [section]348).

Whether this "metaphysic" is language (Frankel), mythopoiesis (Stam), thinking (Gentile), or the truly divine (yet, whether "Jove" or "God," the numen is still a nomen) is of a lesser importance here. What matters is that science and logic have not--cannot--break away from rhetoric and language. A "radical separation" (Brunyeat) of the two is impossible. Because it is not simply that in the beginning was the word, and now, diachronically in the end, it is logic. The word "rhetoric" is not a beginning, but an origin; it is an ethical and eternal ideal, what "dovette, deve, dovra" (Principj [section]349). In the origin, beginning and end are the same. So that, at the origin, humankind begins by its end: "da 'humando', 'seppellire', prima e piu propriamente vien detta [dai latini] 'humanitas'" (Principj [section]12).

Duke University

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(1) Fausto Nicolini (1955) gives Vico's anti-Epicurist polemic a political significance. Vico's privileging of the verum (a moral Ideal) against the Epicurist (and Cartesian) factum (an objectivity established in accord to the constant repetition of phenomena that, qua repetition, becomes "law") is seen as a bourgeois reaction against the dynastic imperium of the aristocratic elites following the restoration of 1647-48. For Vico, trained in jurisprudence, the authority of a law based on the moral imperative of the verum was preferable to an oligarchic law based on the repetition of the factum (Petruzzelli).

(2) Of course, one can read Vico's famous distinction between the knowable--"questo mondo delle nazioni, o sia mondo civile, del quale, perche l'avevano fatto gli uomini, ne potevano conseguire la scienza gli uomini"--and the unknowable--"questo mondo naturale, del quale, perche Iddio egli il fece, esso solo ne ha la scienza" (Principj [section]332) as a marginal acceptance of Descartes. The problem with Cartesianism, however, is that he thinks it knows physics at the moment in which it only knows its own laws of physics.

(3) Following a standard practice of quoting the Scienza nuova, I give reference to paragraph rather than page numbers. Paragraph numbers can also help the reader to find in Bergin and Fisch's standard English translation each passage cited.

(4) See for instance Giovanni Gentile: "[Vico] denies the pre-existence of the object to the mind that knows it, and attributes to this mind an activity which creates this world. [...] Truth is thought, as Descartes maintained; yet, thought is not the spectator of what is represented, but its creator. One can debate whether we construct and create abstract geometries only, or something more tangible and real--how much, that is, our power resembles the one we attribute to God. For now, it is enough to say that the way is open. And Vico guides us in it" (Gentile 383-84).
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Title Annotation:Giambattista Vico
Author:Dainotto, Roberto Maria
Publication:Annali d'Italianistica
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2000
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