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This review appeared in Volume 7 (2) of the Semiotic Review of Books.

Shades of Vico

Aubrey Rosenberg

Giambattista Vico and Anglo-America Science: Philosophy and Writing. Edited by Marcel Danesi. Berlin, New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 1994. (Approaches to Semiotics, 119). Pp. viii - 275. ISBN 3-11-013665-1.

Although Vico has been known and studied in Italy since the publication of La scienza nuova (1725, partially revised in 1730 and definitively in 1744), it is only in the latter part of the twentieth century that his ideas have begun to be made available to the English-speaking world. This has been due principally to the 1948 translation of his work (Bergin and Fisch, 1948, second edition 1984) of which the introduction constitutes the point de départ for all subsequent Vico studies. On the basis of this translation, there have appeared a series of landmark studies of Vico's thought (Pompa, 1975, second edition 1990; Berlin, 1976) of which Vico's Science of the Imagination (Verene, 1981) is generally considered to be the most crucial for the application of Vico's theories to a variety of disciplines. In 1974, Giorgio Tagliacozzo founded an Institute for Vico Studies which, in 1983, moved from New York to Atlanta where the journal, New Vico Studies, was initiated under the direction of Tagliacozzo and Verene. The latter, in 1985, also established the Emory Vico Studies. Since 1969, there have been a number of international conferences on Vico of which the book under review constitutes one of the most recent. 0rganized by Marcel Danesi, and held in 1990 at Victoria College, University of Toronto, it consists of a long editorial introduction, sixteen short articles, and a selected bibliography of recent Anglo-American Vico scholarship (1970-1991) in the behavioral, social and cognitive sciences.

The most important aspect of this book is its undoubted usefulness not only to those who have only a vague awareness of Vico and would like to know more, but particularly to those Anglo-American behavioral, social and cognitive scientists, to whom the work is mainly addressed, who are still, as the editor has it, mired in traditional, empirical approaches to the study of the mind, and who would like to pursue new methods of investigation based on the workings of the imagination. To this end, Danesi provides, in the introduction, a clear and concise account of Vico's basic ideas as expounded in the New Science, a brief summary of each of the sixteen papers, and an appendix containing the Table of Contents of the 1744 edition. In addition to the selected bibliography, other important bibliographical information is contained in a review of "Vico and Current Work in Cognitive Linguistics", centred on the work of George Lakoff (Frank Nuessel, 127-145 ), a study of the evolution of ideas "From Vico to Cassirer to Langer" (Thomas A. Sebeok, 159-170), an article on "The Study of Vico Worldwide and the Future of Vico Studies" (Giorgio Tagliacozzo, 171-188), and "An Overview of Recent Anglo-American Vico Scholarship for the Contemporary Behavioral, Social, and Cognitive Sciences" (Anthony Verna and Marcel Danesi, 213-235). Therefore, for anyone who wants to begin the study of Vico, or wishes to increase his or her knowledge of Vico's place in modern Anglo-American theory and practice, there is enough material here to satisfy all but the specialist in the field.

In any colloquium of this kind, there is bound to be a certain amount of repetition since several of the papers take, either as their starting point or as their core, the same fundamental ideas of Vico. What these ideas are is enunciated in the introduction and, in various forms, throughout the presentations. Principal among his theories are that human beings, their cultures and institutions, are endlessly governed by a cyclical and varied rhythm, evolving, through a three-stage process, from barbarism to civil society and back again to barbarism. Vico identified these three stages as the Age of the Gods, i.e. primitive society; the Age of Heroes, i.e government by the powerful; the Age of Humans, i.e. democracy, decline and fall. In his attempt to explain the origins of language, culture, and the workings of the mind, Vico turned to an examination of myths and symbols, as well as to philology, especially etymology. He believed that knowledge of the world, and history, are creations of the human mind (verum ipsum factum), that the primitive mind constructed the world in a poetic, metaphorical or mythic way, that the second, heroic stage saw itself in legendary terms, and that the third stage was founded on rationalism. One cannot help recalling Rousseau's later and strikingly similar reflections on the mind and language as enunciated in the Essai sur l'origine des langues, probably written in the 1750's, and his comparison, in the Contrat social (1762), between the birth, maturity and death of civilisations and parallel processes in the individual. There is no evidence that Rousseau knew of Vico and, in any case, theories about different stages of humanity date at least as far back as Hesiod, not to mention the Bible.

Vico's assertion that the mind works fundamentally in a poetic or imaginative fashion, and constructs its environment and itself (the two are inseparable) according to non-rational, that is to say, non-Cartesian principles, has, according to Danesi ("Cognitive Science: Toward a Vichian Perspective", 63-85), opened up a wholly new field of cognitive studies that reject the characterisation of the mind as a kind of highly sophisticated computer, and deny that consciousness can be inherent in a "machine". It is this theory of the primordial role of the imagination that preoccupies most of the non-bibliographical articles. For example, in the papers that attempt to apply Vichian principles to language education (Aldo D'Alfonso, "Metaphor and Language Learning: a Vichian Perspective", 51-61; Robert J. Di Pietro, "Vico and Second Language Acquisition", 87-98; Renzo Titone, "From Images to Words: Language Education in a Vichian Perspective", 189-199;), it is the fundamental importance of metaphor as a key to the acquisition and transmission of knowledge that forms the basis of these discussions, as indeed it does in the attempt to interpret the work of Northrop Frye in Vichian terms (Nella Cotrupi, "Vico, Burke, and Frye's Flirtation with the Sublime", 35-49), an attempt that seems to be more fruitful than a similar one to link the method of thinking of McLuhan with that of Vico (Francesco Guardiani, "Probing the Natural Law: McLuhan's Reading of Vico", 99-111), and certainly not as impressive as the argument for looking at James Joyce's experiments with language in a Vichian context (Lorraine Weir, "Imagination and Memory in Vico and Joyce", 243-247). In the two articles devoted mainly to linguistics (Adam Makkai, "Logic in Modern Linguistic Theorizing: a Vichian Perspective", 113-119; Jana Vizmuller-Zocco, "Vico and Theories of Change in Language", 237-242), the former opposes Vico's interpretation of the seeming "illogicality" and flexibility of natural languages to the views of modern linguists who treat languages as if they were invariably susceptible to fundamentally logical analysis. Chomsky is held here to be largely responsible for this state of affairs, as he is in the latter article that, once again, emphasizes the primacy of imagination and metaphor in the construction of language. Of the three other papers in the collection, one draws a parallel between Vico's three Ages and his notion of poetic wisdom with Peirce's theory of the "Threeness" of semiosis. Vico's sapienza poetica is regarded as equivalent to Peirce's sign ((Anna Makolkin, "Vico's Firstness, Secondness, and Thirdness: the Common Essence of Nations as a Sign", 121-126). Another contributor takes up Vico's discussion of myth in order to analyse the human condition that is likened to the labours of Hercules as an image of the unending tensions that exist in civil society (John 0'Neill, "The Origins of Myth: Promethean or Orphic?", 147-157). Although I have no desire to make invidious comparisons, the article by Verene (Donald Phillip Verene, "Imaginative Universals", 201-212) seemed to this reviewer to offer insights into Vichian complexities not so clearly enunciated in other contributions. What is most interesting in Verene's discussion is his detailed analysis of the etymology of the word fantasia (and related words) that he sees as the key to Vico's claim that the "imaginative universal" (il universale fantastico) is the basis of the New Science. Fantasia or, less satisfactorily, imagination, turns out to be "a primordial power of mind that makes cognition itself possible ...[a power] upon which the human world or the world of civil things depends both for its origin and its continued existence ... Fantasia is the power to make something true through the shape of the metaphor". Verene points out that Vico's understanding of metaphor, differing from the Aristotelian notion of similarity, considers it as springing from identity. Thus for Vico, the myth of Jove, the primary imaginative universal, is not a traditional metaphor about origin and existence, but is the first act of consciousness from which flow all subsequent physical and metaphysical constructions and experiences throughout the history of mankind. Verene concludes that the New Science, in characterizing all civilizations as having a beginning, a middle, and an end, isunique in the history of philosophy, "a totality in which all the roles of the history of nations are played out and remembered within an overall structure or 'theater'".

It has to be said that this collection of articles exudes a kind of missionary or evangelizing aroma. The stated justification for its publication is twofold (1) to examine Vico's ideas from "different but complementary perspectives", (2) to use the "discovery" of Vico as a "blueprint for the study of humanity" and for the construction of "sciences and philosophies of human nature" (14). But there seems to be an underlying anxiety that detracts from the claim that Vico's ideas are now so well established that it is time to move on to their application. However, since Vico is not taught in university philosophy departments, is accorded only passing references in the history of ideas, figures not at all in courses on linguistics, psychology, anthropology, and the like, it is not entirely clear how widely, or with what certainty, the knowledge of his theories may be taken for granted Danesi's introduction is anxious to reassure us about the credentials of the participants as though we might think that these disciples of Vico are not to be trusted. Hence, we are told, for example, that the late Di Pietro "was one of the truly great language-teaching methodologists of our time", that Sebeok is "one of the greatest semioticians of this century", that Titone is "one of the great educational psychologists of our times", and so on. This sort of advertising may be appropriate in a colloquium when the speakers are introduced, but is not at all suitable when the proceedings are published, and when the reader should be in a position to judge the merit and the relevance of the contributions.

On the question of relevance, there seems to be, in several of the papers, a good deal of straining to relate the topic, however tangentially, to Vico. Thus, for example, in "McLuhan's Reading of Vico", where great importance is attached to McLuhan's doctoral dissertation, we discover that, in his dissertation, "the name of Vico never occurs" (101). In "Vico and Current Work in Cognitive Linguistics", devoted mainly to the work of George Lakoff, it is observed that "there is no indication ... that Lakoff was in any way influenced by Vico in the development of his own linguistic model" (130), and it is concluded that he "unknowingly, developed a theoretical model of language and thought that is truly Vichian in its basic premises" (140). Similarly, Titone's paper speaks of "coincidences between Vico and Piaget" (191), while Sebeok's contribution is "less about Vico, more about Cassirer and Langer" (161). The speakers at this colloquium strive, sometimes with little pretext or necessity, to bring Vico into every discussion, not to mention the occasional reinterpretation of eighteenth-century concepts in twentieth-century terms, and the blurring of differences between sources, influences, similarities and coincidences, all in the cause of enlarging the general awareness of Vico. This is by no means an unjustifiable cause, but the crusading spirit in which it is conducted does not bode well for wide academic acceptance.

However, the main objection to this celebration of Vico's ideas has to do with our continuing ignorance about the human brain, about its workings and what is meant by intelligence, consciousness, imagination, intuition, and so on. Despite the studies of such scholars as Searle (1984) and Penrose (1989), the question of the nature of the mind and its operations remains unresolved, as evidenced by the seemingly endless and sometimes vitriolic discussions of the topic. And if the recent output of one Dutch publisher is anything to go by (Ellis, 1996; Gennaro, 1996, Globus, 1996; Hardcastle, 1996; Jibu and Yasue, 1996), it will be a long time before the matter is settled, if ever. It is not surprising, then, that although Vico's notions of mental activity differ, in original and fascinating ways from those of Descartes and Locke, for example, his theories offer no more demonstrably valid foundations on which to build a new Jerusalem than do those of his predecessors and followers. The recent chess match in which a computer almost held its own against the world's best player, and "promised" to do even better next time, offers an interesting demonstration of the supposed difference between the human mind and the workings of machines. The game itself is essentially not one of chance or probability. Its outcome is determined by moves that, in hindsight, are seen to be grounded in logic. The difference lies in the two approaches whereby the computer is able to calculate, very rapidly, the consequences of an almost infinite number of possible combinations, while the human mind is restricted by time and capacity to a series of limited choices based on experience and memory. In short, according to some, the human thinks whereas the machine calculates. Pascal had already made this observation in the seventeenth century when he made a distinction between the mechanical "esprit de géométrie" and the intuitive "esprit de finesse". But even if there were some satisfactory way, which at present there is not, of showing that imagination, intuition, or instinct play a role in the human strategies involved in playing chess at the highest level, it must be remembered that the machine was programmed by humans, who are also chess masters, and that the process leading to the result of the game is still analyzable only in logical terms.

It may be true that the Vichian system offers more scope for the study of humanity than the Cartesian, that imagination, whatever it may be, is a more fruitful and truer guide than logic but, as I write this review, universities are being increasingly funded by commercial and technological interests, and support for imaginative activities is at an all time low. So it is likely that, even with the best efforts of publications such as this, Vico's spirit is destined to wander incommunicado or, at least, unrecognized, in the corridors of digital communication.


Bergin, Thomas G. and Max H. Fisch. 1984. The New Science of Giambattista Vico. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Berlin, Isaiah. 1976. Vico and Herder: Two Studies in the History of Ideas. New York: Viking.

Ellis, Ralph D. 1996. Questioning Consciousness. The Interplay of Imagery, Cognition, and Emotion in the Human Brain. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Gennaro, Rocco J. 1996. Consciousness and Self-Consciousness. A Defense of the Higher-Order Thought Theory of Consciousness. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Globus, Gordon G. 1996. The Postmodern Brain. An Introduction. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Hardcastle, Valerie Gray. 1996. Locating Consciousness. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Jibu, Mari and Kunio Yasue. 1996. Quantum Brain Dynamics and Consciousness. An Introduction. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Penrose, Roger. 1989. The Emperor's New Mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pompa, Leon. 1990. Vico: A Study of the 'New Science'. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Searle, John. 1984. Minds, Brain and Science. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Verene, Donald P. 1981. Vico's Science of the Imagination. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

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