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.

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