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Vol. 4 No. 10 · 3 June 1982

Search by issue:

Vico and Berlin

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.


SIR: I do not disagree with Geoffrey Hartman (Letters, 15 April) when he points out the debt of both Derrida and the Tel Quel group to Georges Bataille. But I am concerned at what seems to me the excessive burden of demonstration which he places on Derrida’s shoulders. To be a modern master of explication de texte is one thing. To be the living incarnation of Nietzsche’s antithetical no-saying is another. And it seems to me as dubious to move from one to the other as it is to defend Derrida’s claim to intellectual pre-eminence in France by ignoring the opposition. There are limits to anyone’s capacity for reprosuction!

I wrote in my review of Dissemination (LRB, 4 March) about the connections and divergences between Derrida and Tel Quel because they seem to me to be mutually illuminating. As a group which undertakes a wide range of written modes from the poetic to the polemical, Tel Quel makes explicit, and opens for debate, issues which the Derridean text assimilates and veils.

To take the example on which Professor Hartman seems to differ from me, most of the numbers of Tel Quel over the past few years testify to the fact that it is not simply Bataille’s Return of the Sacred but a return of Judaic and Christian theology that is in question. I repeat my point that Lacan is, in the main, responsible for this, and that he remains Derrida’s real antagonist.

Stephen Bann
Bellagio, Como

Falklands History

SIR: Readers of Tam Dalyell’s article on the Falklands (LRB, 20 May) may be interested to know that the book to which he refers by Julius Goebel entitled The Struggle for the Falkland Islands, which was first published by the Yale University Press in 1927, will be reissued by us in cloth and paper next month. This controversial but fundamental study of the history of the Falklands, from their discovery to their re-occupation by the British in 1833, is the only detailed and serious book that has ever been published on the subject in English. The reissue will include a preface and an Introduction by Professor J.C.J. Metford which both brings the historical narrative up to date and draws attention to some weaknesses in Goebel’s argument and to some possible alternative interpretations of the evidence.

John Nicoll
Yale University Press, London WC1

Tony Harrison

SIR: In a letter about the virtues or otherwise of Tony Harrison’s Oresteia translation, I remarked on the ‘alliterative overkill’ of the verse. This appeared in your columns (Letters, 6 May) as ‘illiterate overkill’, which is going too far.

Blake Morrison
London EC2

It appeared in Mr Morrison’s typescript, incidentally, as ‘alliterate’. He seems to have been a little torn in the matter.

Editor, London Review

Translation Prize

SIR: May I draw your readers’ attention to the first annual Translation Prize competition recently announced by the British Comparative Literature Association? First and second prizes of £100 and £50 are being offered for English translations of poetry, fiction, drama or literary prose from any language, entries (maximum 25 pages of typescript) to be submitted by 1 October 1982. The judges will be Daniel Weissbort, Peter France, Elinor Shaffer and myself, and the winners will be included in Comparative Criticism, the Yearbook published for the BCLA by the Cambridge University Press. Anyone interested in further details should write to me, c/o Department of Literature, University of Essex, Wivenhoe Park, Colchester CO4 3SQ.

Arthur Terry
University of Essex

King’s College Library

SIR: Internal alterations will be made to King’s College Library this summer and autumn, in order to improve facilities for readers of the Research Collections. As a result we shall have temporarily to close the Library to scholars wishing to consult Medieval or modern manuscripts or certain classes of printed books. We regret very much any inconvenience that this may cause. This closure will begin on 1 July 1982, and it is hoped that we shall be able to reopen on 6 December 1982. This closure will be in addition to our annual closure during the undergraduate examination period, which will run this year from 3 May to 11 June. Readers wishing to consult these Collections outside the closed periods are, of course, always welcome to do so, and should write, as usual, giving at least one week’s notice of their intended visit.

P.J. Croft
King’s College Library, Cambridge

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