Isaiah Berlin, 5 November 1981
Professor Aarsleff kindly sent me a copy of his article before publication; his courtesy enables me to provide an immediate rejoinder. I read it with mounting astonishment. Since I know Professor Aarsleff to be an erudite and scrupulous scholar, I find it difficult to understand what moved him to protest so vehemently that Vico’s view of language, which lies at the heart of his system, is wholly lacking in originality. I can only surmise that, irritated by the sudden appearance in the main path of the Enlightenment of this unwelcome intruder, with his unscientific etymological theories and the value put on them by his admirers, Professor Aarsleff simply wants him out of the way. The claims (which Professor Aarsleff regards as totally hollow) advanced by most students of Vico’s ideas, and indeed by himself, for regarding him as a boldly original thinker, spring from the belief that no one before him had said that it was only the study of the evolution of language, myth, ritual and other social institutions that made it possible to reconstruct in some degree of concrete detail the mentalities and outlooks of primitive societies and to trace the patterns of their development, stage by stage. This could, in Vico’s view, be achieved by examining men’s attitudes to God, nature, one another, and in particular their self-images as these are embodied in social institutions, especially in forms of language and of religious and artistic self-expression, connected in his mind with class conflict and social tension: these institutions provided the most vivid and accessible evidence of cultural growth. Vico stressed that his method of imaginative insight into what the world must have looked like to men, especially in early times, who wrote, spoke, worshipped, fought, dispensed justice, created works of art in specific ways, differed in principle from the methods commonly employed by natural scientists and those influenced by them in his own time.