Vico and Language

Giambattista Vico
Giambattista Vico; drawing by David Levine

Anyone who reads Vico has at his first reading been amazed. It seems impossible that any European philosophy should be so wildly imaginative and undisciplined, and should be a mixture of the most accurate prescience and quaint nonsense: flashes of clear light in a picturesque lumber room of antique learning. After the first edition of the Scienza Nuova appeared in 1725 nearly a hundred years had to pass before Vico could be taken seriously. Living in a city, Naples, that was still a provincial corner of Europe, a visionary trained in ancient rhetoric and entangled in theology, still writing in a baroque style, he was first understood, and put to use, by Michelet. He is almost unique among European philosophers in having had no predecessors and no immediate progeny.

Even now he is usually approached, in America and in Britain, through Croce and Collingwood, and therefore selectively, only as a philosopher of history; and some of the visionary madness and prescience is left out of account. The most careful review in English of his entire thought is an essay by Isaiah Berlin.*

I read Vico originally for the sake of his philosophy of the unconscious mind, manifested in language, which had provided Joyce with a scaffolding for Finnegans Wake. Vico believed that the primary processes of thought, in the imagination, are still verbal, and that they compose a poetry of puns, a dream-like network of associations and analogies. The forms of civilized language preserve the condensations and displacements of this primitive thinking. True history is a kind of philosophy, in which we retrace the steps that lead us back to the root metaphors of a childish vision of the social world. As an individual comes to understand his adult vision of personal relations by returning to the childhood fantasies that formed it, and are still operative, so also civilized societies can preserve their energies only if they are ready to recapture by a controlled regression the primitive poetry with which they began. So Vico provides a defense of the humanities, and of imaginative social anthropology, in competition with the claims of modern philosophy and of the physical sciences. In any living literature the past of the race returns, as in a dream that is compounded of history and poetic myth. The manifest content of history, the literal record of the foundation of cities and law, calls for an interpretation which will reveal the prelogical fantasies of power and parentage that have formed our civil consciousness. And the starting point is the study of the original metaphors and images which have formed our conceptual scheme.

For those contemporary philosophers in the English-speaking countries who have tried to develop the insights of G. E. Moore, Wittgenstein, and J. L. Austin, the study of language is also the larger part of that whole inquiry which has traditionally been called philosophy; and for some…

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