The Nexus between Language and Vico’s Historicism—Part 2

The Nexus between Language and Vico’s Historicism—Part 2

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Many of the elements of the conventional language (the third stage) can be traced back to that poetical or creative moment when the nexus between the sign and the thing is still necessary.

Finally, we must emphasize here that in his attempt to discover through language the documents of primordial human history, Vico’s conception of rhetoric is not one of rhetoric as a purely literary instrument, but rather one of rhetoric as a poetics informing the different forms of the linguistic act and consequently the different forms of human participation to things in time. These forms are primary creations, not artifacts of oratory. In fact, Vico associates his three stages of language with three major rhetorical figures of speech: the silent divine stage is associated with metonymy; the heroic with synecdoche; the conventional with metaphor. Irony emerges last as the product of pure reasoning and cannot therefore be a pure form of that imaginative creativity from which issued the other three tropes. The most important of these is metaphor. It is the most important tool for the development of poetic language. It is, in fact, the tool with which “the first poets attributed to bodies the being of inanimate substances, with capacities measured by their own, namely sense and passion, and in this way made fables of them. Thus every metaphor so formed is a fable in brief” (SN, 304).

This is consonant with the Vichian principle that the original creativity of man is based primarily on the senses, passions and imagination rather than on reason. Ernesto Grassi (in his Rhetoric and Philosophy, The Pennsylvania University Press, 1980) says that “No theory, no abstract philosophy is the origin of the human world, and every time that man loses contact with the original needs and the questions that arise of them, he falls into the barbarism of ratio”(p.25). Indeed that describes our technocratic Cartesian civilization. The origins of human history are to be found not so much in the discovery of primitive technology (tools, fire making, etc.) but in that mytho-poetic clearing of the primeval forest for the preparation of a human habitat. Metaphorically, that is one of the acts of Hercules. Every genuine metaphor is Herculean work. And it is this Herculean act, according to Vico and Heidegger, that needs to be re-created in order to rediscover human origins.

What are the hermeneutical implications of Vico’s linguistic speculation? Vico is the first linguist to point out that language is performatory in nature, i.e., at its most fundamental level it is intrinsically related to what it signifies. The specifically historical way in which he understands this performatory function of language is seen in this fundamental principle of the New Science: “The nature of institutions is nothing but their coming into being (nascimento) at certain times and in certain guises” (SN, 147). For Vico the nature of things is the verum or the content; the guise or mode of being is the certum or the form. And of course, one of the first things that comes into being in a special mode at a particular time is language.

In his De Antiquissima Italorum Sapientia,Vico points out that in primordial times there is a kind of incarnation of a particular language to a particular people. Here too a principle of complementarity obtains: minds are fashioned by languages just as languages are fashioned by minds. The two poles (language/mind) are inseparable. It is absurd to think that there are “clear and distinct ideas” standing behind language which then language strains to express adequately, as Descartes thought. Rather, historical reality arises with the language that testifies to it. In turn that particular language has a “natural” or intrinsic relation to the historical reality. That is what the term “Latin people” intimates. The process remains complementary.

Vico is usually accorded little credit for the above described hermeneutics: the idea that understanding comes through language, that is, through the form of a literary or philosophical or even scientific work. The form pointing to a subject matter (the content) is already in itself an initial interpretation of the subject matter. Therefore, in order to understand the nature of language, one does not try to penetrate to the thought which Descartes assumed standing behind language. Rather, as Martin Buber aptly puts it: “The encounter with any of man’s works, especially those done through language, remains intrinsically historical.” The link of language to history is “poetic wisdom” proper, transcending the dichotomy subject/object.

On the other hand, the Cartesian objectivity ends up reducing a “work” to a mere “object.” With such an operation, the language event cannot possibly seize and transform the reader. Being preoccupied with analysis, one will invariably neglect to listen to what is being spoken in the words and, most importantly, what is being left unsaid. In short, the work will not speak. How can it, since it has been reduced to an object, an it preventing any kind of I-Thou relationship with the reader.

Meaning can only arise in relationship. A wrong relationship will produce a distorted message. In order to have a proper relationship Man has to discern that since understanding is by its very nature linguistic, language is equally as primordial as understanding. Only through language can a world arise for Man. This world is a shared world only in as much as we share understanding through language. With the passage of time this shared understanding (of history in and through language) may of course change. That in effect means that the hermeneutical experience is a language event. Consequently the encounter with the being of a work of art or a text cannot be Cartesian, i.e., static and ideational outside of time. It is rather a truth that happens and emerges, always eluding efforts to reduce it to concepts and objectivity, to those alluring “clear and distinct ideas.”

Indeed, the being that happens in language is not the product of a reflective activity of the mind. Man’s relationship to language and history cannot be one of “using” them but rather, one of “participating” in them. In the presentation of contemporary histories, the reader rarely gets an invitation to participate actively in language as another man standing within a world made by language. What he ends up getting nowadays, especially from academic experts, is literary and “distinct” explanations of events looked upon as objects. A whole semester may be spent on literary analysis while the text itself will go unread and thus the student rarely discerns that a great literary work is truly an historical experience in the sense that understanding stands in a specific place in time and space.