Isaiah Berlin responds to the foregoing criticisms of his work

Isaiah Berlin

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

Most students of Vico believe that his method of investigation entailed a novel approach in many fields – the theory of knowledge, aesthetics, jurisprudence, education, the study of antiquities, and, of course, anthropology and linguistics: but above all, that it was this shift in perspective that led to the idea of a culture as the expression of a developing and all-pervading Volksgeist (Aarsleff quaintly traces the origin of this concept to Condillac), for which the methods of the Cartesians and Lockeans of Vico’s time did not seem to him adequate. Professor Aarsleff maintains that this approach, so far from being original, consists of ideas widespread in the 17th century, and commonplaces at that; that so far from being an innovator’s, Vico’s central ideas are a mere echo of the utterances of far greater thinkers – Leibniz, Locke, Mersenne and so on. It follows that only crass ignorance of the thought of the 17th century – after all, one of the most intensively studied periods in the history of Western philosophy – could have misled us all so grossly, from Croce and Dilthey and Collingwood (writers not generally thought of as ignorant of this field of knowledge) to the ever-growing number of students of the Neapolitan thinker, especially in Italy, whose work fills the Vico bibliographies as well as the ‘fat volumes of papers’ on him, of which Professor Aarsleff speaks with such evident annoyance. Professor Harold Fisch, the doyen of Vichian scholarship in English-speaking countries, whom Professor Aarsleff holds particularly responsible for inflating Vico’s transatlantic reputation, is well able to stand up for himself: but it is against myself, by my own confession his respectful follower, that the main attack is made. On this, I have the following comments.

Even if Professor Aarsleff’s principal arguments were valid, this would still not prove Vico’s lack of originality. It could be said of Marx that every one of his central ideas can be found in earlier writings – indeed, Elie Halévy went so far as to call him somewhere (I do not know how seriously) ‘a gifted pupil of Hodgskin’. All Marx’s ideas may indeed have been anticipated – all, that is, save the whole, the transforming synthesis. A contemporary scholar, no less learned than Professor Aarsleff, is reported to have remarked, ‘We do not need Hume,’ because all Hume’s notions could be compounded out of the ideas of earlier sceptics. Originality is a contestable concept; most theorists have forerunners. A great deal of work has been done on Vico’s antecedents, especially by Italian scholars – Croce, Badaloni, Corsano, Cantelli, and many others; indeed, I have myself attempted to contribute to this topic, and suggested that some of the most important influences on Vico (apart from those he cites himself) are to be found among the French Protestant jurists of the 16th century, of whom Professor Aarsleff says nothing. But, be that as it may, the notion that a thinker, or a vision of nature or of human society, can be dissolved into a collection of isolated antecedent elements, and is therefore ‘not needed’, is obviously absurd. Few among the great thinkers after the Greeks would survive this test. ‘Change for a Napoleon’ – a 19th-century gold coin – ‘is not a Napoleon.’

However, Vico does not require this defence, sufficient as it is. The doctrines of Leibniz, or Locke, or Mersenne (not, curiously enough, Hobbes, whose influence Vico does acknowledge), cited by Professor Aarsleff as evidence that Vico was a mere copyist, do not, it seems to me, sustain any part of his conclusion. Let me come to his detailed charges more or less in his own order.

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