Giambattista Vico and the Conceit of “History”

Giambattista Vico was a 17th and 18th century Italian lawyer and philosopher. He produced the work The New Science in 1725, one of the most influential and important works of philosophy in the modern Western tradition. In his work, Vico lays out a comprehensive rebuke of Enlightenment philosophy and historicism, and his commentary on psychological, linguistic, conscious and class struggle came to influence the ideas of Hegel, Marx (who directly cited and commented on Vico), Nietzsche, and Freud. Vico argues that “History” is a human invention, offers up a defense of cultural pluralism against what he calls “the conceit of scholars” (and also the “conceit of nations”), and that all human life follows a simple cycle: the conceit of nations and scholars inaugurates this process of trying to master reality—to control nature (in the Baconian sense)—but that every attempt is a failure (so we have the birth of history, the death of history, and the rebirth of history, etc.); so for Vico, History is a human attempt to capture human action and life as an artifact of universal reason in pursuit of its manifestation though this is doomed to fail and when the paradigm of the scholars which becomes the paradigm of the nations disintegrates the cycle renews itself with a new paradigm (Vico effectively produced the thesis of Thomas Kuhn’s Structures of Scientific Revolutions two and a half centuries before Kuhn).

VERUM FACTUM

Vico’s most famous idea is the Verum Factum, the idea that “what is made is true.” For Vico, humans dream up of ideas in their mind, and then attempt to construct that idea in the world. Everything stems from the idea and imaginations of early man that develops from their to complexity, codification, and imposition. This attempt to construct the idea of the mind is “what is real.” We see, then, in Vico, a novel critique of progressivism. He is critiquing the attempt to reorganize, reconstruct, and remake humanity and nature into the idea of one’s mind.

This is what he calls “the conceit of the Scholars.” That is, scholars think of an idea in the mind, believe it to be universally true, and then attempt to actualize this idea in reality through socially constructing this reality stemming from their thought image or conception. The attempt to actualize this idea in reality is what Vico calls “History.” That is, history itself is a human invention in that the drive to create the actualization of an idea is what leads to what we call “history.”

The idea of the conceit of scholars is related to what Vico also calls “the conceit of Nations” wherein nations universalize their ideas and think that their ideas are the central axiom to all reality. We see this, Vico tells us, in the Greeks. Greek civilization is the center of the world. There is Greek civilization, and everything outside of Greek civilization is “barbarism” or “the Barbarians.” That is, the Greek way is the best way, and ought to be imposed over all other peoples. This was marked by the period of “Hellenization” which was the attempt to make the rest of the world Greek. From Vico’s perspective the conceit of scholars and the conceit of nations are closely interlinked as the scholars conceptualize the notion which is subsequently actualized in construction by the nation or body politic.

In the conceit of nations a nation believes itself to the be prime example of the pinnacle of human development and civilization. The nation subsequently categorizes all others in relation to itself (in a negative manner). My nation is superior to the other nations and vice-versa and that nations attempts to universalize itself over the world. Hellenization, Romanization, Sinicization, Russofication, Americanization, and Europeanization would be all examples of the conceit of nations attempting to project their universal idea of itself onto all others.

Conversely, in the conceit of the scholars, the intellectual believes his idea(s) to be universally true and valid. His idea is what is real, and ought to be made a reality in the present. Therefore, everyone should think and act like the Scholar, and therefore you would actualize that idea in reality. This is the attempt to establish a universal worldview, or Weltanschauung. The conceit of scholars is to be found in the promulgation of what David Hume later called “false philosophy” in his Treatise of Human Nature. In other words, the rise of ideology is the conceit of Scholars. In Greek, the roots of the word Ideology: Ide and Logia mean “To See” (ide) and “To Speak” (logia). Ideology, then, is to speak of one’s vision or idea. Ideology manifests itself as the attempt to universalize the conceit of the scholar onto all others.

In both cases, Vico calls the conceit of nations and the conceit of scholars as “the imaginative Universal.”

History, then, for Vico is nothing but a poetic myth. It is the attempt to actualize one’s idea into reality—the principle of Verum Factum—that way one can definitely “prove” that his or her’s ideas were real. History is the universalization of an idea in people’s thoughts that ought to be made universally true and then consummated in reality. But this does occur in history, just not the way the Nations and Scholars anticipate it will lead to.

VICO’S UNDERSTANDING (OR CRITIQUE) OF “HISTORY”

Vico is among the first modern era philosophers to break with the triumphalist social contract and linear philosophies of progress that came to characterize the so-called Enlightenment and became the foundational disposition for liberalism and progressivism. He argues that the attempt to make History real in the world leads to a cycle that attends to all cultures and persons that lead to the rise, pinnacle, decline, fall, and rebirth of “History.” Vico also argues that all persons and cultures are at different stages in this cycle, and it is imprudent and wrong for other nations and persons to criticize other nations and peoples for where they might be in this cycle. Here, Vico is widely considered to have shared influence from St. Augustine’s City of God concerning how he read the events of human actions and that of nations. Augustine’s analysis of nations seeking libido dominandi (lust for domination) is what Vico calls the “conceit of nations” at the state level, and also the “conceit of scholars” at the individual level.

How does History unfold?

First, all cultures attempt to master reality through the actualization of whatever idea they have conjured up “By its nature, the human mind is indeterminate; hence, whenever man is sunk in ignorance he makes himself the measure of the universe” (NS, 32.181). So history is the attempt to chase after and make real whatever humans have conjured up in their mind from ignorance.

This begins the cycle: 1) The Age of Gods; 2) The Age of Heroes; 3) The Age of Men. In each stage, Vico argues, we can see a linguistic, psychological, legal, jurisprudential, and political-economy shift that occurs as man measures himself to be “measure of all things.” Each age, then, has its own linguistic, psychological, legal, jurisprudential, and political-economical manifestations that reflects the rise of a society’s ideas about itself and how it goes about attempting to make manifest these ideas in the world. This also represents Vico’s analysis of what Nietzsche later called “the will to power” (Wille zur Macht).

The Age of the Gods is the starting point for all cultures. What Vico means by this is that people gravitate to a universal idea of myth that unites people in common belief. This is the first attempt to actualize whatever idea people have imagined. In this era the writer or poet establishes the idea to which all people are working to make manifest. Early civilization’s language and psyche is dominated by mythopoetic grammar and stories. Institutions and laws also are established to enforce these views, and there begins the emergence of a proto-political economy to facilitate economic and commercial interactivity between persons of the society. This is also the primordial formation of consciousness according to Vico, that slowly consummates itself through the epochs of history.

The Age of the Gods disintegrates into the Age of Heroes. In the Age of Heroes, we see the rise of education, literacy, and “the Heroes” offer their novel interpretation of the mythopoetic and claim that they “truly understand” what was actually meant all that time ago when the Age of the Gods first emerged. People subsequently follow their Heroes who promise to make manifest the “truth” of what was originally proclaimed by the poet, writer, or scholar. The Hero leads a mass of people “out of the cave” and into the new light so to speak. Language and psyche changes from the past, which we can detect in writing and speech says Vico. Institutions and Laws are also reformed to “better reflect our original ideals” and we begin to see the crystallization of political economy that reflects all these changes too. (We may use Adam Smith and David Ricardo as examples of the “Heroes” who establish the economic system of free trade and global commerce in interpreting the meaning of Francis Bacon and, alternatively, Karl Marx offering up his interpretation of Smith and Ricardo, etc.)

The Age of the Heroes therefore establishes what we call “civil society” and a further construction of all the structural systems which emerge from this process of verum factum. In the Age of Men, the social cohesion and unity offered in the Age of Gods and Age of Heroes slowly breaks down. It breaks down according to Vico because the process of the Age of Heroes itself was a breakdown of the original integrity offered in the Age of Gods. In other words, in the Age of Heroes the Heroes who guided people into the new light showed, to their eventual demise, that the idea conjured up in the human psyche is not actually permanent. Therefore, each man can render his own interpretation or even come to a rejection of that idea in favor of a new. The latter will become very important for Vico in how this cycle of History perpetuates itself.

In the Age of Men, the emergence of the “new class” (e.g. the “bourgeoisie” or the “revolutionaries” etc.) emerges and overthrows the heroes and establishes itself as the controller of institutions, laws, and political-economy in pursuit of their interpretation of the old ideal. These people claim to be acting in the interests of the masses. To expand freedom, equality, and liberty to all. This results in the mobilization of society to master nature and reality.

This also leads to conflict with neighbors in which the mobilized society is attempting to project its will over the culture of another. (The conceit of the nations writ large in conflict.) In response, the threatened nation must either rapidly reform itself to the Age of Men where it can also mass mobilize its forces to protect itself, or it will ultimately suffer conquest from the superior nation in its epochal stage. For Vico, a nation that has cycled to the Age of Men will always defeat and crush a nation that is in the stage of the Age of Gods or the Age of Heroes because of their technological and material superiority. To use Oswald Spengler’s example, the Age of Men is the age of total war and the end of all moral laws and codes—the only thing that matters is the destruction of the enemy and the realization of the universal ideal in the world.

However, according to Vico, this mass mobilization of society to fundamentally restructure society and nature fails. In its failure, the various parties that make up society fragment off into splinter groups and gives rise to “democracy” (here, Vico shares with Aristotle the view that democracy represents the breakdown of constitutional order) with each group fighting with each other to seize what is left in the political-economy which has cracked in the failure to restructure nature and society. This constitutes Vico’s class struggle (long before Rousseau or Marx) in which each group within society are struggling with each other to either maintain, or advance, themselves in a disintegrating society. Each group is effectively claiming an aspect of the idea but only for themselves. This eventually continues until society is so destabilized that the cycle begins to form anew.

At the end of this cycle re-emergences the “Age of the Gods” where a new writer, poet, or intellectual claims to have a vision of a new idea that unites people once again in the push to actualize that idea in history. And thus, we return to the Age of the Gods and repeat the same process: unifying idea, heroic explanation of the idea that reforms institutions and laws, revolution of the new order and the claim to be working on behalf of the masses that leads to the mobilization of society to finally bring forth the formal and total consummation of the idea, which fails and leads to class conflict and division.

NO PROGRESS, NO UTOPIA, NO HISTORY?

For Vico, the conceit of both nations and scholars rest in their ignorant belief that their visions are universally valid and ought to be pursued en masse by the complete mobilization of society to make manifest this higher ideal. This is what leads to the pursuit of the Verum Factum, but people forget that the Verum Factum already exists. We see throughout history the formation of ideology, the establishment of institutions and laws that reflect such ideas, and we equally see their breakdown and collapse and the emergence of new ideas to which the cycle of human life re-inaugurates itself.

For Vico, History is a human invention for this reason. Humans give meaning to meaningless events and call it “History.” Again, this is what the language of “the right side of history” “the wrong side of history” “history teaches us a lesson” all entail. Our language and psyche also reveal to the extent to which such ideas have permeated and ingratiated themselves into society. Words like “progress” betray the extent to which such ideas have ingratiated themselves into our language. Likewise, certain outlooks—often subconscious—also inform us to the extent such ideas have found themselves entrenched in a society. Equally true, is whether a society has been eclipsed and is on the downward cycle with the disintegration of society. Literature of despair, apocalypse, and so forth would reflect this, whereas literature of optimism, progress, and rally reflect the upward swing into the Age of Men and so forth.

For Vico, human history is but the playing out of what Augustine commented on in the City of God. But unlike Augustine, Vico has in his target the emergent and triumphant Enlightenment views of universalism and the ability to master nature and reality to reconstruct it all in the image of one’s own idea—or as he claims, the conceit of the nation or the conceit of the scholar. The attempt to actualize one’s idea is what perpetuates “history” which is why Vico considers it an invention of humanity. We are rendering justification for violence, oppression, and destruction in the pursuit of whatever we have conjured up in our mind.

At the same time, however, there is a cyclical progression to Vico’s outlook. History and complexity develop from basic mythology and emotions, visuals, and yearnings. While the cycles repeat, great complexity is what results from the newest iterations of each cycle. Thus, there is an organic development to greater and greater complexity through the Age of Gods, Heroes, and Men. We can ask, however, whether there can come a time when this mytho-organic development can be severed and what the consequences would be for culture, society, and man?

Vico’s ideas would reemerge in the 19th century in people like Hegel, Marx, and Freud among others. He has proven to be a major influence on contemporary literary criticism too for reasons I’ve alluded to, especially with how literature and language reflect a society’s ideas and beliefs. One of the enduring ironies of Vico is that while he confronted the early formations of the Whig idea of progress, he ended up producing one of the richest, most in depth, and substantial, philosophies of history in confronting materialist rationalism.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s