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Cyclical Repetition of Birth to Humanity and Barbarism

The nature of this self-reflection is to be self-engendering—but also oriented to a creative power or “providence” that transcends it, one that is the Other working in and through its own activity. Self-reflection in the late age of “men” invents representations that model and enact the structure of human reality by recapturing originary speech. Such speech does not describe given phenomena, but first enables phenomena to be distinctly perceived. What speech accesses is always only the reality that humans create. Once self-reflection becomes cognizant of this, it places humans in mind of the larger, circumambient reality that they do not create and therefore cannot know. The natural world, of which humans are a part, remains to them an inscrutable mystery that they call “divine.” Thence arises the sense of “piety” that Vico builds into his new science all the way through to its last sentence (1112).

This self-reflexive (un)knowing with which humanity is born takes place according to a logic of opposites and is founded on recognition of what absolutely transcends the human. In history at large, the opposite of what human beings aim at is produced over time. Yet this result is understood from the “ideal eternal” perspective as a kind of ironic working of a higher Mind than the human, one that providentially “guides” human actions—as in the “esso guida” or “it guides” of Paradiso XVIII.109-111—and rectifies their waywardness.

Reflection here has to surpass and annul its status as reflection. What is envisaged and reached through this self-critical, self-negating process is the “common sense” that is “judgment without reflection” (“giudizio senz’alcuna riflessione,” Scienza nuova, 142) in the original poet-creators of humankind. As purely performative creation, such common sense founds nations as particular historical enactments or microcosms of a universal ideal history. Self-reflective retrieval of such primordial thought transcends reflection itself. Such creative intuition founds Vico’s “new science” as an encyclopedic understanding of the world capable of being universally shared and verified.

Verene prefers not to speak of “self-reflection” for Vico’s method in the new science. In contrast with Leon Pompa, Verene explains that this science is not a matter of cognition and philosophical argument, but rather of rhetoric and images produced by “fantasia.”[1] Certainly, self-reflection as entailing identity with a fixed conceptual content is exploded. More deeply, however, self-reflection is a dynamic process of searching for and forging origins by fantasy or imagination through which the human mind enters into the primordial world of its own birth (Scienza nuova, 349). Such self-reflection is exactly what Vico offers in the rationally reflective age of men subsequent to the heroic creations of Dante and Homer, which are self-reflective foundings in a more radically imaginative sense.

Why should we care to know these origins otherwise than out of antiquarian interest? The modern tendency is to forget about how people, especially archaic people, thought in order to concentrate simply on what is useful to us. This, however, is symptomatic of our modern alienation from authentic knowledge of ourselves. For Vico, we can know not things themselves but only ourselves and the world that we have made in making ourselves what we are. This inextricable self-referentiality defines the scope and nature of human knowing. Such knowing is in its essence self-reflective—like Kant’s critical philosophy, yet based on history rather than on the science of nature. This wisdom gives not only exact knowledge of human affairs. It also opens our minds to awareness of all that we have not made.

The laws of providence work against and neutralize our own eventually self-destructive acts. They thereby express the mystery of being that lies altogether beyond our capacity for understanding—namely, the mystery of divinity (339). Being open and connected to this supra-human dimension is what essentially humanizes us in Vico’s and in Dante’s visions alike. This dimension of mystery alone can stand against and resist our cyclical return to the barbarism from which human culture emerges, by which it remains conditioned, and to which, according to Vico’s cycles, it is tragically doomed to return.

Crucial for Vico, in sum, is that our knowledge of truth is self-reflective. We know ourselves, our own activity, in the knowledge of the historical world that is accessible to us because it is of our own making. We know ourselves through what is ostensibly other than us—other times, other peoples. In this respect, Vico is the true forerunner of Hegel, as many have pointed out and variously demonstrated.11 However, Vico also has a strong, tragic sense of the limits of self-reflection and of how it becomes perverse in the third phase of the historical corsi, the age of men, when it

leads no longer to wholeness of vision by heroic striving to surpass one’s limits through seeking a sublime otherness, but rather to fragmentation of knowledge among isolated individuals.[2] Humans return to a state of barbarism. Yet it is not the first state of barbarism of the senses (“le barbarie della riflessione che non era stata la prima barbarie del senso”). Instead, it is a barbarism of reflection based on “malicious ingeniousness” (“degl’ingegni maliziosi”) and “reflexive malice” (“riflessiva malizia,” Scienza nuova 1106).

Scienza nuova 241 describes the cycle passing from the necessary to the commodious to the luxurious and finally to madness. This is the normal course of evolution of ever-increasing rationality. Imaginative thinking, in contrast, creates an image that metaphorically reflects the wholeness of one’s relation within the world rather than conceptually circumscribing an object cut off from the subject that conceives it. Thought that begins with the creation of images can reflect the self in its unlimited relations striving heroically to surpass its present capacities of comprehension through reaching out imaginatively toward the Unknown by which it is circumscribed and contextualized. This quest of the heroic mind aims at truth as an ungraspable whole rather than at analytic certainty (like Descartes). It entails the ideal of humanistic education, which pivots on self-knowledge embracing all disciplines without limit and reaching toward the transcendent divinity active in the aspiring heroic mind of each student, as Vico expounds it in his inaugural orations at the University of Naples.

  • [1] Vico’s Science of Imagination, 155. Leon Pompa, Vico: A Study of the “New Science” (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975). 2 For example, Jong-Seok Na, Praktische Vemunft und Geschicbte bei Vico und Hegel (Wurzburg: Konigshausen & Neumann, 2002).
  • [2] Vico dwells on this historical destiny in his orations on education given at the University of Naples from 1699 to 1707, beginning with the theme: “On Self-Knowledge.” Le orazioni inaugurali, trans. Giorgio A. Pinton and Arthur W. Shippe as On Humanistic Education: Six Inaugural Orations 1699-1707 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993). 2 G. Vico, On the Heroic Mind (De mente eroica, 1732), paragraph 7. www.ispf-lab. Accessed 8/17/ 2020. 3 Compare Silvia Ruffo Fiore, “Giambattista Vico and the Pedagogy of the ‘Heroic Mind’ in the Liberal Arts,” Accessed 8/ 17/2020.
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