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.

At least in the English-speaking world, the fountainhead of these claims is Professor Fisch’s introduction to the translation of Vico’s autobiography first published in 1944. Berlin relies heavily on it, finding it ‘most valuable’ and ‘an example of philosophical scholarship at its most illuminating’. Fisch found the requisite answers to the dilemma. Being only at their beginning, Vico studies had not yet been able to give a satisfactory account of his influence, but it was assumed that they would. Today, more than thirty years later and with a wealth of publication behind us, including several fat volumes of papers devoted to Vico, we still have only the most tenuous evidence that Vico was known in Western Europe in the 18th century. Fisch finds a clue in Addison’s adverse remarks on Italian culture, which, he thinks, effectively relieved borrowers from acknowledging their debts: a desperate solution, for other Italian scholars were, in fact, freely cited, and there are enough examples for us to know that such disparagement did not have the effect which is here raised into general principle. Fisch has another answer. As soon as ‘Vichian ideas’ appear, they are quickly turned into presumed debts, as in the case of Rousseau, who is said to repeat Vico’s theory of language. But Rousseau credited Condillac, for whom there is no evidence that he even knew Vico’s name. Citing the names of no less than 15 prominent English and Scottish writers, Fisch finds it ‘scarcely credible’ that their Vichian ideas can be a case of mere coincidence. It is all a question of faith rather than evidence.

In an early review, René Wellek showed that Fisch’s suggestion of Vichian influence on British writers was unfounded, adding the expectation that efforts at substantiation and revision would be forthcoming. Twenty years later Wellek published an expanded version that is one of the very few dissenting and critical essays in the big Vico volumes. He noted that Fisch had changed a ‘doubtless’ to a ‘perhaps’, and found this an ‘extremely slim’ probability. Showing that the Vichian ideas attributed to British writers on aesthetics, poetics, language and historiography could readily have come from other sources known to have been available, he drew the obvious conclusion that the Vichian ideas that spread all over Europe in the 18th century were developed from sources that may have formed part of Vico’s own background. But Vico studies have not made anything of this suggestion. Both Fisch and Berlin leave a sense that Vico must have been the most plagiarised figure in history, particularly in the 18th century, which, however, is also said to have been like a tide that flowed strongly against his views. It is all very mysterious.

It is admitted that linguistics and philology occupy the central position in Vico’s scheme. If man can truly know only what he has himself made, and if each nation has made its own language, it follows that the pursuit of linguistic origins and etymology becomes the chief instrument for our knowledge and understanding of history, cultural diversity, mythology, institutions, and of everything else that pertains to the history of thought. Berlin finds it evident that Vico was ‘the first to grasp the seminal and revolutionary truth that linguistic forms are one of the keys to the minds of those who use words, and indeed to the entire mental, social and cultural life of societies.’ His linguistics presented ‘ideas of exceptional originality and fertility’. But not a single one of these ideas originated with Vico. The 17th century, a century of profound erudition combined with brilliant insight, put as much effort into the study of linguistic forms, and of the origins of language, as it did into science.

Leibniz made such a study one of his chief and most successful interests and encouraged other scholars to follow suit. The nearly one-thousand-page volume on etymological subjects and language published the year after his death is sufficient evidence, though there is much more that has long been in print. There is, in fact, a good deal of overlap between Leibniz and Vico. Vico cited a treatise by an Englishman on the kinship of languages that was one of Leibniz’s favourite works. Both Leibniz and Vico rejected the Swedish doctrine that languages and mankind had their origin in that country, Leibniz with incomparably greater insight, etymological expertise and fruitfulness. Vico makes several rather specific observations on the German language which were current in German writings in Latin of the time: these writings Leibniz knew better than anyone. Not least, both Leibniz’s and Vico’s profession was jurisprudence.

Berlin finds that it was a momentous step for Vico to say that our knowledge of the physical world cannot achieve the certainty we have in mathematics, whose truths are within our grasp because we have made it. Only God who has made the world can understand nature as we do mathematics. But this was a commonplace in the 17th century, stressed by Descartes’s correspondent Marin Mersenne (a noted mechanist philosopher and musicologist), by the chief architect of the Royal Society, John Wilkins, and by John Locke. For Mersenne certainty is possible only in mathematics because it is ‘a science of the imagination or of pure intellect’. But since we cannot penetrate the nature of bodies and what occurs inside them, ‘we shall never arrive at the point of making our intellect equal to the nature of things.’ Wilkins argued that we cannot achieve certainty in physics because ‘we do not know the true reason of the effects we clearly see.’ Locke often emphatically stated that certainty and demonstration are utterly beyond our capacities in the things that pertain to outward experience – a conviction that expresses the core of his philosophy. Mathematics was not, as Berlin says, ‘almost universally considered to be a form of factual knowledge about nature’. There may have been people who thought so, and especially people in the 19th century who said they did, but I assume that we are not talking about such errors, and it would be bad news about Vico if he was himself mistaken on this point. Vico’s awareness of the gap between the modes of knowledge in mathematics and in the natural sciences was a commonplace. It was a fundamental aspect of the epistemology of science.

For Vico, the principle that holds for mathematics operates in history as well because it also is of our making, and we can gain insight into its processes through the words we have ourselves made. The application of this principle to history Berlin calls ‘indefeasibly’ Vico’s own. It is possible that the formulation is his, but surely not the grounds and the application that underlie what can at large, to spare a string of terms, be called historical anthropology – the study that so intensely occupied the 17th century, as Leibniz illustrates. Mersenne, Wilkins and Locke (along with many others) even believed that demonstration was possible in morality and ethics. Precisely because the terms of these subjects are put together by the mind of its own choice, we can truly know them. Here also Vico was not original.

Berlin attributes great originality to Vico’s view that languages, being made by men, are pre-logical and bear no relation to the true constitution of things. They are, in other words, not Adamic: they do not form a philosophically true nomenclature to the inventory of the world, to species and essences. The principle of the man-made nature of language produces a host of important consequences that can best be summed up in the concept of linguistic relativism: that is, the view that languages are culture-bound. Since they stand in a functional relationship to cultures, they express each culture, so that languages become our avenue to the understanding of cultures, past and present. Thus it follows, for instance, that translation in the strict sense is never possible. This principle came to be entirely dominant in the 17th century as a consequence of the dismissal of the Adamic language that was made necessary by the epistemology of the new science. It is an admission of the gap between mathematical and natural knowledge, a gap that did not exist in the Adamic language. Historical anthropology was made possible by the opening of this gap, by the schism which Berlin attributes to Vico. The rise of the new science and of historical anthropology in the 17th century are closely related events. Locke’s Essay located this understanding in a philosophical context that came to dominate the 18th century.

It was Locke’s basic doctrine that ‘languages in all countries have been established long before sciences. So that they have not been philosophers, or logicians, or such who have troubled themselves about forms and essences, that have made the general names that are in use amongst the several nations of men’ – a passage in which Locke carefully uses the plurals ‘languages’ and ‘nations’. Each nation has its own language as it has its own culture. But if languages were made by illiterate men, they bear no testimony to the truth of things, but only to the minds of those who made the words. It was the philosophers who created linguistic and epistemological trouble when they postulated that words spoke truths about things and essences. Like Vico, Locke held that words refer to ideas in the mind, not directly to things. And since ideas are private, there is an irremovable subjective element in language which precludes that one speaker can ever truly know what another meant to say. So far as possible, this subjectivity is overcome only by the essentially social nature of language. There is, as it were, a translation problem among individuals that is repeated on another level among nations. A nation’s mind, its Volksgeist, resides in its language. The inherent subjectivity of language, its ultimate inadequacy, was what Wordsworth called ‘the sad incompetence of human speech.’

Locke knew well that his linguistic views pointed to the rich knowledge to be gained from the study of origins and etymology. Vico has been admired for seeing that we can gain insight into the origin of institutions – the law, for instance – by observing the etymologies of the terms that pertain to them. This was a commonplace in the 17th century, and on this matter Locke came to be cited as the basic text. Among the most quoted passages in the Essay was the observation that words that ‘stand for actions and notions far removed from sense have their first rise from thence, and from obvious sensible ideas are transferred to more abstruse significations’. He immediately drew the consequence for historical anthropology, for this metaphorical nature of terms ‘may give us some kind of guess what kind of notions they were and whence derived, which filled their minds who were the first beginners of languages’. The names of things may ‘direct our thoughts towards the originals of men’s ideas’, and we can gain insight into ‘the different state and growth of languages’. The metaphorical nature of speech, whether early or late, was a commonplace. Equally familiar was another consequence – namely, that translation will always remain much less than adequate. Locke said so often with emphasis. These were not Vico’s discoveries.

Seventeenth-century thought on language, origins and historical anthropology became immensely productive during the 18th century, chiefly in the version Locke had created. The most prominent and influential figure was Condillac, who based his philosophy of language and origins on Locke. Condillac held that ‘each language expresses the character of the people who speak it’ – that is, the principle of linguistic relativism. He also believed that ‘of all writers, it is in the poets that the genius of languages finds most vivid expression.’ In the beginning, languages were a union of expression in song and music. For his contemporaries and followers, Condillac more than anyone provided the linguistic and philosophical foundation for the concept of the Volksgeist and the expression of culture in language. Herder’s famous prize-essay on the origin of language was so deeply indebted to him that Hamann was shocked. Berlin often says that Hamann was Herder’s teacher: it is an opinion which one will find in the older literature but which would clearly seem to be unfounded. In Vico’s call for the study of origins, Berlin sees the ‘whole doctrine of historicism in embryo’. But Vico was a late-comer to the illumination that streamed from genetic understanding. The 17th century had already done the work for him.

For Berlin, Vico’s thought arose in a European intellectual and philosophical setting that had no room for origins, historical anthropology and linguistic relativism. This setting was ruled by a version of Cartesianism which, as presented by Berlin, is so simple and dry that even Descartes would not have acknowledged it. Berlin sees linguistic thought as having been wholly dominated by commitment to the idea of a logically perfect or philosophical language of the sort Vico is said to have rejected as an impossibility. Berlin even says that the French philosophers aimed to institute such a language in place of the existing natural languages. Nothing could be further from the truth. When Wilkins late in life proposed a vast scheme for such a language, the scientists met it with silence and embarrassment. Locke rejected it as a chimera because it violated his philosophy. The French philosophers took no interest in it, and when, late in the 18th century, such schemes were mentioned, they were firmly rejected on the same grounds by Condillac’s followers – and later still by Saussure. Leibniz’s conception of such a language never reached even reasonably clear statement, and it never interfered with his more intense study of natural languages and the cultural diversity they record. In fact, Descartes also rejected it out of hand. Still, the idea of a logically perfect and universal language is the only linguistic context Berlin offers for Vico. Its dominance in Vico’s time and earlier is a 19th-century myth.

During the 1790s the French National Assembly sent out questionnaires to all parts of France with questions about the relationship between dialects and culture, thus truly working within the spirit of linguistic thought which the Enlightenment had fostered. The answers that came back read as if the respondents knew Vico or Herder, which of course they did not. But they had read their philosophers. In the year 1800, one of Condillac’s prominent followers delivered a report on considerations to be followed in the study of primitive nations before the Society for the Observation of Man, which was preparing a scientific voyage. The report places the greatest emphasis on the study of primitive languages, on really knowing them from the inside. Historians of anthropology have high praise for it as an unusual document. The philosophical background of this report lies in the centuries in which Berlin finds all linguistic thought to have been dominated by the chimera of the perfect language. Vico alone had understood that the world of primitive societies is different from ours in a radical way, and that languages are not translatable without residue because they categorise in different ways. But the 17th century and Locke already knew that. Berlin concludes that ‘these ideas, which broke with the tradition that began with the Greeks and ended with the Enlightenment, have profoundly altered men’s outlook.’ But the break had occurred before Vico wrote about it, and the alteration was in full swing throughout the 18th century without the least assistance from Vico.

Berlin’s Vico essays are exciting and carry great persuasive power, but I think they are fundamentally mistaken. They are too heavily burdened by 19th-century views of the course of intellectual history. That is a pity, for it would be useful to know how we can locate Vico in his time, so that we can gain an understanding of his true originality.

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

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 3 No. 24 · 17 December 1981

SIR: You are very considerate to your readers in the provision of bibliographical information about the books reviewed and discussed by your contributors. You supply ISBNs and up-to-date prices, and, unlike too many journals, recognise the existence of paperbacks. The time and trouble it must take to gather this information are well justified.

But the box of data that accompanies Hans Aarsleff’s contentious article on Isaiah Berlin’s assessment of Vico (LRB, 5 November) makes me wonder about the principles and method of compilation of such data. You give price and publisher for both hardback and paperback editions, but ISBNs only for the hardbacks (the missing numbers are: Russian Thinkers, 0 14 02 2260 X; Concepts and Categories, 0 19 283027 9; Against the Current, 0 19 283028 7; Vico and Herder, 0 7011 2512 8). You (rightly) intend, it seems, to include preliminary pages in your calculations of extent, but in two cases you omit them (Against the Current is not 394, but 448 pages long, Personal Impressions 250 rather than 219). Concepts and Categories (220 pages, not 224) is out of print in hardback, which makes the hardback data of historical interest only. Personal Impressions was published not in 1979 but in 1980 – which makes it less anomalous that there is as yet no paperback edition (due from Oxford in October 1982). Finally, in his second paragraph Professor Aarsleff alludes to Four Essays on Liberty, the only collection of Isaiah Berlin’s work you do not list, and it may be worth adding its details for the sake of completeness: Oxford, 278 pp., £5.50 and £2.95, 1969, 0 19 215861 9 and 0 19 281034 0.

These remarks are made in the hope than an already excellent service can be further improved. The errors may only reveal inaccuracy in your source (British Books in Print?). If so, it seems there is no substitute for getting the data from the physical books themselves. It is a pity to geld the lily.

Henry Hardy
Oxford University Press

We take our figure for the number of pages from the last numbered page of the book.

Editor, ‘London Review’

Vol. 4 No. 2 · 4 February 1982

SIR: In the rather curious exchange between Professor Aarsleff and Sir Isaiah Berlin (LRB, 5 November 1981), in the course of a good deal of pedanticism on both sides, it seems to me that essential issues got lost sight of. The question to be asked is: what purpose lay behind the study of language in the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries? Neither Locke nor his contemporaries studied language as an object of pure intellectualising. Locke had a most important practical purpose – to reform the evils of the ‘understanding’ and its misuse, which, he believed, had terribly afflicted the world during its whole history. He thought that words should reflect clear and distinct ‘ideas’, the perceptions of actual, existing things. The relations between these simple ideas constitute our notions of values, of laws, and everything else. When Professor Aarsleff says that, in Locke’s opinion, ‘if languages were made by illiterate men, they bear no testimony to the truth of things, but only to the minds of those who made the words,’ Locke would say that, unfortunately, this is correct: but – and here is where Locke momentously leaves the company of such modern writers as Saussure – he emphasises that this state of affairs need and should not be.

The mind, Locke stressed, has an innate power of seeing the true relationships between the simple ideas, which are universal, and universally true. ‘These simple ideas, when offered to the mind, the understanding can no more refuse to have, nor alter, when they are imprinted, nor blot them out, and make new ones itself, than a mirror can refuse, alter or obliterate the images or ideas which the objects set before it do therein produce.’ Professor Aarsleff, it seems to me, is clearly inaccurate in attributing to Locke the notion that ‘since ideas [simple ideas] are private, there is an irremovable subjective element in language which precludes that one speaker can ever truly know what another meant to say.’

Professor Aarsleff is also wrong in saying that ‘languages, being made by men, are pre-logical and bear no relation to the true constitution of things.’ Insofar as this statement is applied to the age of Locke, it is clearly wrong. Languages most certainly do have a relationship, even though imperfect, to the order of reality which exists, immutable and clearly perceptible, outside us. In his Manifesto, ‘The Conduct of the Understanding’, Locke set forward, with great enthusiasm and urgency, a programme for vast and sweeping reform, which would produce a correct way of thinking. If he had had any such notion as the one given above, he would have given up in despair before starting to write. What we need to do, he says, is to ‘reflect’ – to observe, impartially and calmly, the relations between the simple ideas in our minds. Then we are guaranteed success. But, because of passion, ignorance, absorption in our own thinking, associations of ideas, etc, we all too seldom do regard the clear and obvious connections between the ideas printed on our mental retinas.

As to Vico, it seems to me he expresses another view of the human mentality. In short, he expresses something like the romantic idea of the Volk – the notion that each people has developed, from a deep, mysterious source, peculiar to itself, a unique sense of the universe, expressed in folk art, the early epic etc. He is partially anticipated – in his attitude towards the pre-literate ‘age of poets’ – by Blackwell and others: but I am inclined to agree with Sir Isaiah that Vico is more an ‘anticipator’ than an influencer. He expresses, early, attitudes that were to become commonplace in the age of high Romanticism.

Ernest Tuveson
University of California, Berkeley

Vol. 4 No. 10 · 3 June 1982

SIR: Sir Isaiah’s response to my article (LRB, 5 November 1981) casts fresh light on the background and nature of his opinions. The issue is not whether Vico is original, but that Berlin’s knowledge and arguments do not show in what this originality consists. The issue is Berlin. Criticism of his work is taken to minimise Vico’s originality, a position that for Berlin can only be rooted in ‘lack of understanding’, ‘national pride’, ‘ideological antipathy’, or ‘jealous concern for the reputation of some other thinker’. Since Berlin believes that I am an erudite and scrupulous scholar, he surmises that I am irritated by Vico’s intrusion into the Enlightenment and by ‘his unscientific etymological theories and the value put upon them by his admirers’. I have now for twenty years repeatedly argued the reverse in print; my aim has always been to understand past language study as an aspect of intellectual history without the least prior regard for current opinion of its soundness. It is sad to find Berlin so eager for an ad hominem argument that even an uninformed one will do.

But since this puts me in the company of Goethe, I do not feel bad about it. Of Goethe’s account of Vico, Berlin wrote that ‘as anyone can tell who has the smallest acquaintance with the doctrines of the New Science, Goethe’s remarks bear little relation to the text: he evidently did not bother to read him.’ On this basis I said that Berlin took Goethe ‘severely to task’, but now Berlin answers that ‘this is not so. I did suggest that Goethe wrote about him but never troubled to read him.’ Are we asked to believe that Berlin’s original words merely made a suggestion? I mention this only to ask, if Berlin has such difficulty reading himself himself, how in fact he reads Vico, and how we in turn are to read Berlin on Vico with any hope of understanding. My present response is addressed to those who still hope that Vico and Herder studies can become fruitful and informed.

In what Berlin calls my ‘peculiar article’, I said the belief that Hamann was Herder’s teacher would clearly seem to be unfounded. That I should choose ‘to deny this, or at least doubt it, puzzles [Berlin] almost more than anything else’, a problem that would easily have been resolved, he suggests, if I had read Herder’s letters to Hamann ‘with the same attention that [I have] devoted to Leibniz and Wilkins’. I have indeed read those letters, but I do not take the expression of veneration and friendship to mean discipleship. I have also read Herder’s letters to other correspondents, and they offer even less reason to accept what Berlin finds it ‘eccentric’ not to see. Early in 1769, Herder wrote to Hamann: ‘Soon we shall no longer understand each other.’ Then followed three years of silence, during which time Herder wrote the famous essay on the origin of language. Of this essay Hamann wrote a review that Herder called ‘a spiteful lampoon.’ Herder eagerly read Diderot, considered him the greatest French philosopher, and at one time joined him with Plato and Shaftesbury in the triumvirate of the deepest philosophers he knew. In his study Herder kept Lessing’s, Luther’s and Hamann’s portraits along with those of the ducal grandees he served, but in his letters to Hamann he avoided all mention of his high regard for Spinoza. Years before Hamann died, Herder paid tribute to his knowledge and wisdom, but added that ‘it is unfortunately not for our time.’

Berlin’s belief in Herder’s discipleship might have been interesting if it were new, but it is old and familiar; some three generations ago it could even have been considered obvious. Berlin calls Robert Clark’s work (1955) on Herder ‘a magnificent biography’. Has it escaped Berlin that Clark’s main thesis, forcefully stated in the Introduction and argued throughout the work, is a rejection of Berlin’s old thesis ‘as degrading to Herder … and as ignoring the real set of problems that engaged Herder’s active and individual mind’? Yet Berlin supposes that a mere reading of letters he thinks I haven’t read will be enough to set me free from my eccentricity. More than twenty years ago the late Wilhelm Dobbek (who knew Herder’s works, correspondence and unpublished manuscripts better than anyone) wrote that after 1770 the two men from Königsberg no longer understood each other and that Hamann in the end for Herder was no more than a fond link to his early years and native city. Berlin’s opinion has for much more than a generation belonged to the realm of academic folklore, yet he does not hesitate to make it the basis for declaring a suspicion about lacunae in my reading.

Vico’s and Herder’s conceptions of the nature and origin of language are the foundations of their philosophies. These doctrines therefore have a crucial place in Berlin’s argument, and his claims for originality rest on the knowledge he adduces to support them. In his response Berlin cites the doctrines of Herder, Condillac and Süssmilch, all of whom are among the most important writers on the subject. In a short passage Berlin manages to betray ignorance of the writings and arguments of every one of them. Süssmilch, Berlin says,‘maintained that language was a gift conferred upon Adam by a special act of the creator.’ No, the brilliant demographer did not say that. He argued that since language must be either divine or human, a demonstration of the impossibility of human origin would leave only divine origin. His argument was, as he stated, strictly philosophical and set out to show the insufficiency of all known arguments in favour of human origin. Süssmilch’s essay may well be the most profound contribution to the subject ever written. Berlin’s ignorance is old and goes back to Herder’s misrepresentation of Süssmilch – which Herder scholars have found it convenient to trust right down to Berlin more than two hundred years later, though published correspondence has long shown that what especially disturbed Herder when his essay went into print was his treatment of Süssmilch. Berlin is again relying on 19th-century opinion. In an exemplary article (Germanic Review, 1978), Professor Bruce Kieffer has shown how thoroughly Herder distorted Süssmilch’s argument and how scholars have trusted those distortions.

Berlin is equally ignorant about Condillac, who thought, he says, that language ‘was a natural development from the cries of animals’. No, the cries of animals have a crucial role in Herder’s account, but have no place in Condillac’s. To say that language was in any sense ‘a natural development’ begs the entire question, but since Berlin thinks Herder did not hold that view, he presumably believes that language for Condillac was somehow a materialist, automatic, passive, unthinking product, the result of instinct much like a spider’s web. Having cited Herder’s false account of Condillac as his authority, Berlin concludes that ‘according to Herder, there is no continuity between animals and human beings, but a clean break.’ This is also Condillac’s position: animals do not speak because they have only instinct, while man does because he has reason. For Condillac, the break is as clean as for Herder, and both held that ‘nature made man for language,’ to use the words of Herder, who, like Condillac, placed the difference in man’s organic being. ‘It is not surprising,’ said Condillac, ‘that only man, who is as superior in regard to organic being as by the nature of the spirit that animates him, has the gift of speech.’

Herder’s linguistic thought and his contribution to Romantic aesthetics and historicism are held to find expression in such statements as these: ‘Everything confirms that each language expresses the character of the people who speak it. Of all writers, it is in the poets that the genius of language finds its most vivid expression. For anyone who knows languages well, they become like a portrait of the character and genius of each nation.’ These words are in fact Condillac’s, published in 1746 in a text that Herder certainly knew when he first began to write on language, poetry etc in the 1760s. At that time Herder wrote a short essay which is rightly judged a key to his linguistic thought. In his well-known monograph on the idea of language from Dante to Vico, Apel observes that this essay comes so close to Vico that it is ‘hardly believable’ that there is not a ‘real dependence’ on Vico. But when Herder read Condillac ‘with delight’, it seemed to him that Condillac cast light on his own essay. As long ago as 1945, René Wellek stated emphatically that Vico and Condillac expound ‘a strikingly similar theory of the evolution of language and poetry’. This evident fact has been treated in detail in the secondary literature. In his response Berlin twice asserts that Herder owed Condillac nothing, and he speaks with equal confidence on another point. In ‘Vico and Berlin’ I wrote what I have argued elsewhere, that Condillac ‘more than anyone provided the linguistic and philosophical foundation for the concept of the Volksgeist and the expression of culture in language’. Berlin condescendingly responds that I ‘quaintly trace’ this concept to Condillac. In view of the questions I have raised here, can any reader trust Berlin’s sense of what makes an opinion worthwhile on these subjects?

As with Süssmilch, so with Condillac, Berlin’s failure stems from trust in Herder and in the folklore based on Herder, which to this day is the conventional wisdom on the subject. But Berlin’s confidence extends to the linguistic thought of the 17th and 18th centuries at large.

Berlin sums up Vico’s important principle in these words: ‘We think and can think only in symbols, whether words or images; the two are one.’ This claim, says Berlin, was ‘still novel enough when it was made a hundred years later’ in de Maistre’s ‘thought and language are two magnificent synonyms,’ a conception Berlin also credits to Hamann and Herder. Berlin and his old authorities do not know that this principle was firmly established before 1700 as a consequence of the doctrine (stated, for example, by Bacon and often repeated) that languages were not made either by Adam or by philosophers but ‘were framed and applied according to the conceit and capacities’ of ordinary people. It was advocated by Mersenne and his followers both in France and England, not least in the popular and often-printed conferences of Renaudot (in half a dozen volumes in French which were in large part also issued in English). In the early 1630s, the conferences report that ‘all things made by the institution of man, such as language, are as diverse as are the opinions of men’ (i.e. Weltanschauung), and in the first days of 1638 they discussed the very same question about the origin of language that Herder answered some one hundred and forty years later. This same principle was fundamental doctrine with John Wilkins and the Royal Society until, enforced by Locke, it became central to 18th-century linguistic thought. In 1703 an often quoted French treatise on languages said that ‘speech is the mirror of the soul, man paints for himself in language. It is with entire nations as with an individual. Their language is the living expression of their customs, of their genius, of the entire thinking of their soul and all the passions of their heart.’ Condillac was not saying anything new when he wrote that ‘the art of speaking, the art of writing, the art of reasoning and the art of thinking are fundamentally one and the same.’

Thus etymology became the avenue to the history of thought and philosophical understanding. Vico was not the first to understand the importance of ‘genetic etymology and philology’. Yet Berlin is convinced that Vico was, ‘so far as I know, the first to grasp the seminal and revolutionary truth that linguistic forms are one of the keys to the minds of those who use words, and indeed to the entire mental, social and cultural life of societies.’ Leibniz is only one represenstative 17th-century figure who has grasped this truth much better than Vico – Berlin for some reason prefers to believe that Leibniz’s linguistic interests were all devoted to the Characteristica Universalis. In 1748 Maupertuis (who knew Condillac and his work well) wrote that ‘in the construction of languages we can discover the vestiges of the first steps taken by the human mind,’ a principle he based on the conviction that ‘the signs by which men have designated their first ideas have so much influence on all our knowledge that I believe that researches into the origin of languages, and on the manner in which they have been formed, deserve as much attention and can be as useful in the study of philosophy as other methods that build systems on words with meanings that have not been thoroughly examined.’ During the 18th century, these principles were stated again and again by the very figures Berlin thinks were the opponents of what he calls ‘one of Vico’s most revolutionary discoveries’. For d’Alembert, the philosophy of language is ‘the march of the human spirit in the generation of its ideas’; for Turgot, citing the authority of Locke and Condillac, etymology is empirical metaphysics which studies words like grains of sand the human mind has left in its path as our guide to origins, so that ‘those who study the march of the human mind in the history of thought must never fail to march with the torch of etymology in hand.’ By the time Monboddo wrote, it had long been familiar doctrine ‘that, from the study of language, if it be properly conducted, the history of the human mind is best learned.’ They all agreed with Vico, of whom none of them had heard, that ‘our science is a history of human ideas, on which it seems the metaphysics of the human mind must proceed.’

Language and thought are indeed synonymous, etymology is the torch that illuminates the history of thought: these are basic conceptions of Enlightenment thought tout court. They were fully articulated before Vico, as Berlin says, ‘expounded an anthropological doctrine according to which the evolution of successive Weltanschauungen of primitive … societies is accurately reflected in changes in the forms of language, the study of which is therefore an indispensable instrument in determining the path of this evolution’. They were not as Berlin would have it ‘isolated antecedent elements’. If Berlin has ‘yet to learn this’, it is because he does not know the literature and trusts authorities that say nothing about it. Berlin’s knowledge is not equal to the extent of truth.

In his response Berlin again insists on Vico’s originality ‘in declaring that mathematics, as a man-made set of rules, was not a body of objective knowledge…but a set of arbitrary rules, applicable to, but not derived from, the observation of the world.’ With a nice piece of essentialist history and question-begging, Berlin declares that ‘clearly no 17th-century rationalist could possibily have held’ this view – such history is a great saver of the pains of reading and learning. But it is enough to read Descartes’s familiar writings against the objections to his Meditations to know that this view was indeed held in the 17th century. Descartes saw the threat it posed and argued strenuously against it as ‘the objection of objections’. For these excellent minds, he wrote, ‘all things that we can understand and conceive are only imaginations and fictions of our mind and bear no relation to reality.’ Berlin admits that Nicholas of Cusa held this view, but he apparently rules out that anyone could have held it in the 17th century: ‘Two hundred years before our time [Vico] conceived of mathematics as the invention of fictions.’ This view of the nature of mathematics is prominent in Gassendi and Mersenne.

Since the primary texts are well-known and have been amply treated in the distinguished secondary literature, there is no need to pursue the matter further. Berlin saves the day for Vico by passing over a text as important as Lenoble’s great work on Mersenne (now nearly forty years old), to say nothing of the readily available writings of Popkin and Rochot. Here Berlin could have learnt not only about mathematics but also about Mersenne’s empiricism, his views of the nature of language, customs and institutions, and his argument against natural law. He could also have received enlightenment about the sociological nature of Mersenne’s thought, and, finally, been reminded that the natural science that took shape in the 17th century followed Mersenne and not Descartes, helped by the popularity of Renaudot’s conferences and by John Wilkins’s commitment to Mersenne’s principles. Descartes’s physics was a disaster, but Mersenne’s mechanistic philosophy was not. Berlin’s singular fixation on Descartes supports his opinion that ‘mathematics was almost universally considered to be a form of factual knowledge,’ so that it could become ‘a momentous step’ for Vico to assert that ‘mathematical propositions are true only because we ourselves have made them.’ Descartes’s opponents were not, as Berlin would have it, merely making the familiar distinction between a priori and a posteriori knowledge. Mathematics was indeed Menschenwerk.

Berlin is spellbound by the idea of a logically perfect language. This is the only historical context he offers for what he sees as Vico’s revolutionary linguistic thought, and Vico’s rejection of the possibility of such a language becomes the test of his originality. But Berlin’s is not the view of well-informed scholars. On the contrary: Tullio de Mauro has cogently argued both that Vico’s belief in the universal validity of a ‘mental dictionary’ contains the same conception as Leibniz’s project for a Characteristica Universalis and that this conception also sustains the historicity of languages with all the lessons genetic etymology has to offer. Albert Heinekamp has independently advanced a similar argument, showing that Leibniz saw no conflict between his historical and philosophical linguistic interests. That such a conflict exists is a myth which has allowed the 19th century to believe that the true historical nature of language was its own discovery. Berlin believes I said that there was no active interest in the philosophical language, but what I said was that this interest was not dominant in Vico’s time or later (as if Vico alone grasped the historical dimension); nor did the French philosophers wish to put such a language in place of the existing natural languages. Berlin now says he ‘did not, of course’, say the latter, but he did in fact say it in a passage where he embroidered on Joseph de Maistre, and never until now had he made clear that such a language was to be used only in scientific analysis – as Condorcet, for instance, repeatedly stressed. But if a logically perfect language was never intended to replace the existing natural ones, to what does the perfect language pose a threat? Are chemical nomenclature, Linnean terminology, symbolic logic, mathematical notation etc the enemies of poetry and of efforts to understand history and human nature? In the 19th century many thought so, including de Maistre (to whom contempt for Locke was the beginning of wisdom in philosophy), but they were partisan and misinformed.

Finally, three brief points. Berlin is fond of citing the authority of Erich Auerbach, who had written extensively on Vico and on Herder before Berlin. But he completely ignores the strong critique Auerbach had advanced against what became Berlin’s enterprise. Auerbach does not think that Vico anticipates German historicism and rejects as ‘foolish’ the efforts of some late 19th-century scholars to claim him as their forerunner. He sees no common ground between Vico’s thought and the romantic conception of the Volksgeist, he sees ‘an unscalable wall’ between the mental worlds of Vico and Herder, and he argues that it is no wonder that Vico was not known in late 18th-century Germany: the similarity is not at all as great as it appears to be ‘when modern terminology is introduced for what the authors originally said’. Given Berlin’s respect for Auerbach, would it not have been natural to acknowledge and discuss these fundamental differences? Auerbach’s criticism was directed against the 19th-century views Berlin cherishes.

In ‘Vico and Berlin’ I referred to the answers to Grégoire’s questionnaire in the early 1790s and to Degérando’s ‘Considerations on the methods to be followed in the observations of primitive nations’. The former shows that local officials all over France held views of the interrelations between language and culture which Berlin sees as the great Counter-Enlightenment creation of his favourites, and that they in fact cited their own French philosophers, including Voltaire and the 1703 passage I have quoted above. I referred to Degérando’s famous program because it reveals how powerfully French thought (and especially Condillac) determined the principles of linguistic anthropology in an exemplary manner that still commands admiration. It is characteristic that Berlin, apparently ignorant of these documents, meets them with a bit of guesswork that can be dismissed as quite beyond the realm of reality. He even surmises that recent knowledge of little-known languages would have sufficed to produce those views – surely a piece of excessive positivism, as if a new body of facts would automatically produce and explain the theory applied to them.

When pressed, Berlin is ever ready with guesses. He surmises that ‘if Professor Aarsleff can believe that Michelet [who admired Vico] would have caught fire from the obiter dicta or the linguistic theories of Leibniz, Locke, Condillac, or their followers, he is capable of believing anything.’ In other words, Berlin invents a hypothetical absurdity and attributes its acceptance to me on a matter I have said nothing about.

A closer look at what can be known shows something interesting. The great project that occupied Michelet in his youth was a work ‘on the genius and history of nations revealed in their language’, as he called it. First mentioned in 1819, it continued to occupy him under slightly different titles that all abundantly reveal the debt to 18th-century thought. Here Michelet had been set afire with enthusiasm for a project of Vichian dimensions. Michelet planned his reading in philosophy with special care. What did he read during these years of gestation? He read Locke, Condillac, Degérando’s important work on signs, Blair’s Rhetoric (a special favourite of the idèologues, who brought out a French translation in 1797), Destutt de Tracy, Dugald Stewart, Voltaire, Montesquieu and Gibbon. In Gibbon, Michelet found a note that fanned his interest: ‘There is room for a very interesting work, which should lay open the connection between the languages and manners of nations.’ Vico, Herder and de Maistre do not appear in this context until December of 1823, when they show up in a reading-list that accompanies a sketch of the great project. The sketch itself shows that Degérando’s work on signs was uppermost in Michelet’s mind.

On the basis of such evidence (which has been readily available for more than twenty years), I can indeed believe that Michelet ‘caught fire’ from what Berlin condescendingly calls ‘the obiter dicta or the linguistic theories of Leibniz, Locke, Condillac, or their followers’. Berlin’s absurdity was not only hypothetical: it was also deeply uninformed. Vico and his train entered Michelet’s world when the project had occupied his mind and directed his reading for more than four years. These years were among the most repressive and reactionary in French history. An ambitious young scholar would not have gotten far if he had proclaimed his allegiance to Condillac and French 18th-century philosophy. But with Vico one was safe.

Hans Aarsleff
Department of English, Princeton University

Isaiah Berlin writes: I see nothing in Professor Aarsleff’s latest reproof that requires me to retreat on any issue raised in it, whether of substance or of detail: but then his ideas and those of others whom he cites, both about the degree and the kinds of influence of earlier on later thinkers, seem to me wholly implausible (his account of the influence of Hamann on Herder, or of Vico on Michelet, seems to me particularly perverse). I will not continue to bandy texts with my opponent, if only out of regard for your own and your readers’ time and patience; indeed, it is polemics of this kind that brought much Medieval erudition first into contempt and then into justified oblivion. Professor Aarsleff says that my knowledge is inadequate to the task I set myself. This may be so, although nothing he has said so far seems to me to bear it out. What it does call to mind is Whitehead’s pertinent observation about scholars ‘who know so much and understand so little’. Professor Aarsleff’s two philippics seem to me to be excellent illustrations of this sad truth.

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences