An Invitation to the Hermeneutics of the Self

Vico’s New Science has often been identified as “a science of humanity.” As such it leads its readers to an exploration of what it means to be human, that is to say, to a journey into the self. We shall see that Vico considered self-knowledge essential for the road to wisdom, even more so than knowledge of mathematics, metaphysics, and natural science. He conceived of wisdom in classical terms, as the summation of an authentic holistic life, able to harmonize the material, the intellectual and the spiritual components of one’s humanity. A life, in other words, that is neither one of Dionysian excess nor one of mere Apollonian clarity; one that while accepting and integrating man’s imaginative and rational spheres, remains at all times capable of transcending both; hence the importance of his concept of providence already alluded to.

A Vichian intellectual journey requires, at a minimum, a willingness to dialogue with Vico and then among ourselves. What makes the dialogue possible is the common humanity we share and we bring to the conversation. As a guide of sort into Vico’s complex  thought I need to be the first one to bring my own humanity and life experience to the hermeneutical process which a Vico reading inevitably engender, or my invitation will be moot.

So, how did I come to this hermeneutical process? During graduate studies at various institutions of higher learning (New York University, Middlebury College, The University of Perugia, Yale University), I of course came in contact with various theories of literature. A new one seems to appear on the academic scene every five or six years. It has even been suggested that “theory” stands for “politics” in reified academic circles. Be that as it may, a theory of which I am particularly fond is that of Hermeneutics: a theory of interpretation claiming that in the reading of literature the reader’s own self-understanding necessarily comes into play. In other words, either a particular text addresses me, the reader, as a person, or there is no encounter with it. Far from being mere conceptual knowledge, literature is, properly speaking, life experience. A literature which is incapable of relating to me standing in the present with an historical horizon, is dead. I may of course play academic games of literary pathology with it, dissect the cadaver and maybe even re-construct it again; but those games will not bring the text to life. On the other hand, if a text is capable of producing a dynamic personal meaning, the reader’s self-knowledge will inevitably be enhanced. With self-knowledge acquired via history understood as a narration of man’s journey, (in Italian the word for history and story are one and the same) one may more confidently project a future. Such was my own personal experience, a sort of epiphany, when I first read Vico’s Scienza Nuova some thirty seven years ago.

There is much more to this theory, but what I initially wish to convey to the reader is this: meaning and meaningfulness are contextual in nature. The interpretation of any of man’s artifacts, especially linguistic artifacts, always stands in the situation in which the interpreter himself stands. Meaning is immanent within the very texture of life and is a perception with a nexus which is priori to the subject/object separation in thought. In the absence of a dialogue with literary texts, much of what passes for literary humanistic studies in our academies ends up assuming a dehumanizing mode. By objectifying the work of literature one fails to bring one’s own humanity to the conversation and the hermeneutical circle cannot be closed. Literature becomes mere conceptual knowledge with which to make a living and build an academic career.

Objective knowledge needs to be brought back to the sphere of life and human experience from which it originally sprung. Had Dante wished to write his Commedia for the exclusive monopoly of scholars and university professors, he would in the first place have written it in Latin which he was perfectly capable of doing. Similarly, Vico did not write his New Science for the mere furtherance of his academic career at the University of Naples (where indeed he remained largely unappreciated), but rather “per insegnar il volgo a virtuosamente operare,” i.e., “to teach ordinary people how to live well.”

As we proceed on our journey, we shall endeavor to explain how this ethical mission is at the core of the New Science, deeply interested in human origins and identity. Like the ancients of antiquity, Vico insists that without self-knowledge there is no acquisition of wisdom. His was the question of the ancients re-discovered by the high medieval and Renaissance humanists: what does it mean to be human; how does one live humanly? And the question is addressed to each one of us.

Vico, as the ultimate Italian Humanist, endeavors to answer those ethical questions. For the moment let me simply mention that, from my own standpoint in space and time, and given the predicaments of our technological rationalistic civilization which threatens to swallow up our freedom and our very humanity, I remain as convinced as I was thirty three years ago that Vico’s concerns are more relevant and urgent than ever. It is indeed crucial that the average non-academic layman who is well informed on the cultural currents and cross-currents of our time, become better acquainted with Vico’s speculation. To that end I shall eschew a too cumbersome academic form replete with technical jargon, footnotes and bibliographical overkill, while adopting a simple colloquial style. This is not an apology for superficiality. On the contrary, Vico resists oversimplification. He needs to be pondered and taken in slowly. He is indeed a hard nut to crack but once cracked the rewards are plentiful; a personal epiphany of sort may ensue. Therefore, initially I ask of the readers four things: 1) to imaginatively supply their own erudition wherever mine falls short as we journey and explore with Vico various interrelated disciplines and fields of study; 2) some initial forbearance with what may remain obscure despite my efforts; 3) an initial open mind which reserves judgment for the end of the journey; 4) to bring their own humanity to the historical horizon, for as Vico will reveal to us, man is his own history. If we venture on this journey across disciplinary boundaries the results may indeed astonish us; for it is at the edge of boundaries that life and knowledge meet most fruitfully.

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