Vico and Berlin

Hans Aarsleff

Sir Isaiah Berlin’s wide range of interests and achievements illustrates the pluralism he admires: music critic, philosopher, writer, professor, civil servant, administrator, college president, fund-raiser, committee man, a lecturer with the rare ability to hold audiences entranced with his enthusiastic display of the living word in crowded lecture halls, on the radio and on television. On both sides of the Atlantic he has brought the world of academia to a large public for whom he has come to embody the excitement, mystery and relevance of that world. The professorial air, the stumbling speed of his delivery, the sense he gives of the importance of ideas and the past in a time that has not found the solutions it seeks – all these contribute to the impression. It is a sign of the esteem he enjoys that his major writings and essays have been collected and reissued under titles that reflect their variety. There are engaging brief essays on the famous and the less famous, philosophical papers, lively explorations of Russian thought, and essays in the history of ideas, which in the case of the studies of Vico and of Herder run to monograph length. The essays appear in their original form or something close to it, but many of them have seen a succession of forms as they travelled from journal to journal, from French into English, and from lecture transcripts into print. The spoken form often shows clearly behind the text, but this is a true reflection of Berlin’s essential style, which is speech, conversation. The voice is often more compelling than the text.

Berlin made his entry into academic subjects with philosophical essays somewhat in the manner of the Oxford philosophy of the time, though with a sense of growing disaffection. In the preface to one of the volumes he explains that he left philosophy for the history of ideas, which had long been his most absorbing interest. The essay on historical inevitability from the early 1950s may be seen as the turning-point. Here Vico makes a brief appearance for the first time, and since then his writings have all belonged to his new field: they are gathered together in the volumes Against the Current, Russian Thinkers and Vico and Herder. The emphasis falls almost wholly on the 19th century, even in the essays on Vico and Herder. It is the Counter-Enlightenment rather than the 18th century that Berlin finds congenial. One may wonder why, but perhaps there is a clue in his preference for prophetic figures like Vico, Herder, de Maistre and Marx who all produced vast historical schemes, saw themselves as prophets and often spoke the language of prophets. Even in this respect they are congenial with Berlin’s own style and living word. The admission that Vico was not a clear and coherent thinker, that he often spoke in language that is dark and confused, is no hindrance to repeated claims for the originality and importance of his thought. Goethe is taken severely to task for finding Vico’s New Science a sibylline vision, and others who hold similarly disrespectful views are also sent on their way. Since it is for work in his chosen field, the history of ideas, that Berlin is best-known, it seems fair to take a closer look at it, and to concentrate on Vico, who stands taller than any other figure in the select company.

Berlin’s often repeated view of Vico is summed up in the belief that his originality was one of kind and not of degree. He is said, for instance, to be the ‘true founder of the German historical school’ and to have ‘virtually invented the concept of understanding’ in Dilthey’s sense. To make such claims stick in the history of ideas it would seem necessary to make sure that there is nothing behind Vico that can imperil them. This, however, is precisely what Berlin and the Vichians have failed to show. Berlin even finds such exploration of the potential background ‘less important than the central discoveries themselves’. But how can we know they are discoveries without looking into the background – even if we grant that there are discoveries in the human sciences, an admission somewhat at variance with Berlin’s own sharp disjunction of those two sciences, and also seemingly at odds with the views for which Vico is admired? The difficulties would seem to become insuperable if we decide that all that Vico is said to have discovered concerning languages, societies, cultures, mythology, and man’s making of his history, came about without any debt to Vico. This is the dilemma of Vico studies.

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Russian Thinkers, edited by Henry Hardy and Aileen Kelly. Hogarth and Penguin, 336 pp., £8.95 and £1.95. 1978, 0701204389 Concepts and Categories: Philosophical Essays. edited by Henry Hardy. Hogarth and Oxford. 224 pp., £8.50 and £2.95, 1978, 070120440 0 Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas, edited by Henry Hardy. Hogarth and Oxford. 394 pp., £10.50 and £3.95, 1979, 0701204397 Personal Impressions, edited by Henry Hardy. Hogarth, 219 pp., £9.SO, 1979, 0701205105 Vico and Herder: Two Studies in the History of Ideas, Hogarth and Chatto, 256 pp., £7.95 and £3.95. 1976, 0701203625