Filosofia e Historia da Biologia Giambattista Vico
Luca Tateo | Foto: TPGC |

SCOTT The common wind 2 Giambattista VicoAlthough scholarship on Giambattista Vico’s New Science includes a wide range of approaches, it has never experienced a paradigm shift so radical that it cannot be understood within the epistemic assumptions of the Western intellectual tradition. The publication of Giambattista Vico and the New Psychological Science, edited by Luca Tateo, promises to do just that. The volume is a collection of seven essays, and it belongs to the History and Theory of Psychology series, which is edited by Jaan Valsiner. The ambitious aims of this book are elaborated in Valsiner’s fore- word, Waldomiro Silva Filho’s introduction, and Tateo’s preface and conclusion. For Valsiner, the series responds to the question, “how is psychology a science?” (vii). According to Silva Filho, this question is problematized by contemporary conflicts between “radical physicalist reductionism and the most liberal cultural relativism”—the former is the “tendency to reduce psychological processes to . . . the biochemistry of the brain” and the latter is postmodern criticism (xviii). The book’s contributors look to Vico to counter these dangers.

Tateo became interested in Vico as an ancestor of cultural psychology and as the first to challenge the dominant Cartesian epistemology. According to Tateo, Vico provided an “alternate epistemology,” one that was “anthropocentric in the sense that we know human nature as we share it and through the historical genesis of its products” (xii). Indeed, Vico replaced the “myth of the given” in “psychological epistemology” with poiesis, an imaginative activity that creates human meaning (211). Tateo says that Vico’s emphasis on the imagination pro- vided “a way to intersubjectively access the mental and emotional processes that are behind the products of human activity,” representing a shift in focus, episte- mology, and methodology in psychological science (xiii). Imaginative universals gave Vico a qualitative methodology through which to understand the sensuous construction of meaning; indeed, they “embody” meaning and start with the “uni- versality of human body” and the “universality of imaginative construction[s]” of cultural forms (viii). But do imaginative universals allow us to “intersubjectively access mental and emotional processes” (xiii) or, as Valsinor says in the fore- word, is “the sensuality of the body—relating with environment—the guarantee of generalization” (viii)? Does the “‘hermetically constructed unity’ (as John Shotter points out in this book) transcend our usual classificatory tendencies of contrasting ‘verbal’ and ‘nonverbal’ meaning-making means” (viii-ix)?

The contributors to this volume are correct about Vico’s emphasis on imagina- tion, poiesis, and the “sensuality of the body.” However, the incongruities inher- ent in their contributions are troubling, particularly insofar as they concern these authors’ understandings of the radical nature of what Vico meant by imagination, imaginative universals, poiesis, and embodiment. These incongruities ultimately undermine this book’s potentially transformative reinterpretation of Vico’s writings and psychology. Although Tateo says that “adopting the ‘principle of poesis’ in the study of the psyche leads to a shift in the focus, epistemology, and methodology of psychological sciences,” this volume has not yet completed that shift (214). To do so, it must ask more fundamental questions that go beyond humanism’s idealist conception of knowledge—indeed, beyond modernity’s epistemological perspective. Any reinterpretation of Vico’s New Science that retains the subjectivism that grounds all humanist epistemologies brings with it metaphysical assumptions that, since Plato, have been used to justify belief in an epistemic knowledge of reality—that is, the beliefs that reality is inherently intel- ligible, yielding universal and eternally true knowledge, the paradigm of which is mathematics, and that humans can know reality only insofar as they possess a rational subjectivity that is ontologically like reality, which is the claim of dualis- tic anthropology. Though Descartes’s critique undermined belief in the inherent rationality of reality and the ontological identity of subject and object, dualism was retained and science provided the methodological grounds for belief in the likeness of subject and object, which is the assumption that Vico’s master key and verum factum principle implicitly reject.

Since Vico called his work a “new science,” scholars engaging with that claim must consider what kind of new science a psychological science is when it is called “poetic.” Are imaginative universals that have been made with a poetic language “subjective” at all, or are they the result of a different meaning-making process, one that is embedded in the social and physical world? What is the dif- ference between an anthropology that supports traditional subjectivist assump- tions and one that supports the knowing of products of an imaginative linguistic social activity? Failure to raise such meta-level questions as these risks repeating the same misinterpretations that have kept the radical nature of Vico’s work from being appreciated.

Tateo suggests a new direction in saying that Vico provided a way of thinking that was anthropocentric and that identified our ability to know human nature because we share it and because it is the genesis of human making. Indeed, Vico raised an anthropological question that philosophy had never asked. Those who believe that the quest for knowledge is essential to humans accept the dualistic metaphysical assumptions of philosophical humanism that were formalized by Plato. Since Vico first published New Science, readers have displayed an inability to comprehend the embodied anthropology he developed against that dualism.[1] Such readers are the moderns whom Vico characterized as fixated on Descartes’s subjectivist justification of certain knowledge of natural science.

When Vico rejected Descartes’s turn to subjectivist anthropology, he rejected the possibility of epistemology at all as understood by humanism and raised a more significant anthropological question: what if what we call “knowledge” is limited to what humans make as wholly embodied beings—that is, the languages, gods, religions, customs, laws, institutions, sciences, artifactual things (cosi) of our ontologically real, meaningful historical world? What if making was due to the power of embodied poetic language, which was the very language that phi- losophers, in their conflict with rhetoricians and poets, devalued as opinion and fantasy? [2]

Vico posed these questions with his insight into what he called his “master key”: the “fathers” of the human world were embodied prehuman beings who, “by a demonstrated necessity of nature, were poets”; they were creators who spoke the poetic language of preconscious peoples.[3] That such primitive beings created human existence was an idea so strange that Vico claimed it “cost us the persistent research of almost all our literary life, because with our civilized natures we [moderns] cannot at all imagine and can understand only by great toil the poetic nature of these first men.” [4] The radical nature of Vico’s verum factum principle cannot be appreciated unless we understand that the giganti were not human. Scholars traditionally consider Vico’s poets primitives or sinners, but this does not do justice to the strangeness of Vico’s master key or the twenty years it took him to understand it. The giganti were not only devoid of minds or the abil- ity to form abstractions; they were not even social beings in any existential sense. They existed solely as solitary beasts who possessed no relation to one another except instinctually. Without the capacity to feel a need for relations with other beings, they were incapable of human existence. Only with an originary potency that was ontologically creative of that existence could they be so.

That poets made meaning not with consciousness but with poetic language was a strange enough claim. Even stranger was Vico’s genetic principle that “the nature of institutions is nothing but their coming into being (nascimento) at cer- tain times and in certain guises,” and “things do not settle or endure out of their natural state.” [5] That principle condemns knowers, even of the third age, to remain embodied poets throughout human history, constructing what humans know with a language that is forever figural. Such knowers must give up the “conceit of scholars, who will have it that whatever they know is as old as the world,” or the notion that abstract ideas correspond to reality.[6] Given Vico’s embodied anthropology, the verum factum principle can no longer be considered epistemic. Elsewhere I have interpreted the unity of making and knowing as an ontological assertion that humans are makers of what they know, an alternative appropriate to Vico’s humanistic concern with knowing not the objective world of modern science but the historical world made by languages, literatures, religions, institu- tions, customs, and artifacts. These are the very cosi (things) that Descartes’s delimitation of knowing to the natural world made knowledge about obsolete.[7] Given that latter radical alternative, poetic knowing becomes the self-reflexive hermeneutic understanding that humans are the creators of what they know.

If the key to the anthropology of Vico’s embodied humanism lies in his claim that poetic beings create human existence ontologically, then we must go beyond the limits of Hellenism’s metaphysical frame to understand it. Other than the biblical world, which similarly identified creativity with originary language, the ancient world offered no way to conceive of a radical creative process that brought what did not exist into the world. In Ancient Wisdom, Vico raised ques- tions about divine causal agency that suggested a way to attribute creativity to humans.[8] Those questions culminated in the myth of origins that Vico developed in The New Science to support his insights about his master key.

Making his myth compatible with scripture, Vico distinguished between the offspring of Noah’s chosen and accursed sons. He identified the latter as the progenitors of the gentiles: fleeing into the forests, copulating with and living as animals, they lost language, their social world, the ability to think—their very human existence.[9] Those grossi bestioni created the human world, and they did so with imagination. In traditional humanism, the imagination is subjective, whereas those impoverished beings literally had no conceptual space. The ability to imagine occurred only when terror of the unknown forced them to make sense of what terrified them, and they could do so only with the physical skills of their bodies, the most rudimentary of which was perception.

According to Vico, the terror that animated these early humans’ creative imag- ination was first roused by the thunder that occurred when the earth dried after the flood. The sensations bombarding these beastly bodies—sounds of thunder, sight of stormy skies, terror shaking their bodies—were meaningless until they were brought together and forcibly projected onto the sky, leading these poets to see the image of “a great animated body.” [10] The guttural sound Pa forced from their lips named that image. As a metaphor, Pa had no literal meaning, but it called into existence a being in the sky who was angry with their behavior. With that poetic word, which named a metaphoric image, the poets created the human meaning that in turn transformed their animal behavior. Running to caves for protection, they created social practices—marriage, burial, language, their very social existence—and thus established the beginnings of humanity’s ontologi- cally real historical world.

Pa was the first certum made: imagination was not subjective but was instead comprised of solely contingent perceptions that were bought together into images of what did not exist before being reified with a name.[11] “Jove,” Vico claimed, “was born naturally in poetry as a divine character or imaginative universal.” [12] The linguistic creation of Jove was the first experience that was common to soli- tary beasts and elicited common responses, including flights to caves, abandon- ment of a solitary existence for a social one, and shared understandings of the need to do so in order to avoid that fearsome being. Pa had no epistemological significance, but daily experience now had meaning: behavior was governed by social practices that established bonds, in turn creating a sensus communis. Jove was a topos, a place of memory, not as a subjective fantasia but as an immanent part of the lived historical experience of social beings.

When the need to form linguistic generalizations that established laws arose, abstract language was created from the poetic, and with it emerged the silent dialogue that we call thinking.[13] Vico even related the emergence of “subjectiv- ity” to the ontological potency of bodily skills; indeed, after describing the events that elicited Pa, he argued that “Jove” was “the first human thought in the gentile world.” [14] Made by metaphors and images that were generated by bodily skills, language was not only imaginative but also immanent and temporal, a lived pro- cess of concrete making.

Vico was quite explicit about his analogy between divine and human ontologi- cal creativity. “Our Science,” he said, “create[s] for itself the world of nations” but does so “with a reality greater by just so much as the institutions having to do with human affairs are more real than points, lines, surfaces, and figures. And this very fact is an argument, O reader, that these proofs are of a kind divine and should give thee a divine pleasure, since in God knowledge and creation are one and the same thing.” [15] Vico was equally explicit about the differences between them, adding that philosophers and philologists should have gone back to the “senses and imaginations” of first fathers in order to study the origins of poetic wisdom.[16] He claimed that

the first men of gentile nations . . . created things according to their own ideas. But this cre- ation was infinitely different from that of God. For God, in his purest intelligence, knows things, and, by knowing them, creates them; but they, in their robust ignorance, did it by virtue of wholly corporeal imagination. And because it was quite corporeal, they did it with a marvelous sublimity; a sublimity such and so great that it excessively perturbed the very persons for who by imagining did the creating, for which they were called “poets,” which is Greek for “creators.” [17]

The poets created an artifactual reality that, like the natural world created with divine poiesis, was no less real for being so. Just as the embodied anthropology presupposed by verum factum deprives philosophy of epistemology’s subjective grounding, it also provides a conception of humans that is more appropriate for the humanist psychology that Tateo’s authors hope to achieve. The topos made from a sound generated by fear was inseparable from real social practices and physical labor producing the certa, and eventually the vera, of the concrete his- torical world.[18] Knowing can only be the self-referential truth identifying humans as ontological makers of their true things. That would seem to run counter to Vico’s insistence on the role of providence, but Vico’s providence was never a transcendent force but only a functional one, ensuring that choices made for private interests achieved social goals.

Philo Judaeus had given philosophic expression to the unity of the Hebraic god’s knowing and creating with the principle verum et factum convertuntur— that is, the notion that only the creator could know what he created, though he could grant knowledge to those acknowledging him as creator. Fortuitously, the verum factum principle had become commonplace by Vico’s writings. First for- mulated as an epistemological principle in Ancient Wisdom, it was only Vico’s insight into his master key that brought out the ontological significance of his claim that humans are genetically poets—that is, creators rather than subjective knowers.[19]

That knowledge of objects is limited to their makers reveals the skeptical aspect of Vico’s verum factum. [20] The made is known only by its maker because it is not inherently intelligible, and knowing is only the makers’ reflexive under- standing that they are makers. Vico’s delimitation of human knowing to what humans make strengthened his claim that humans could not know God’s creation; that humans can know their own creations is what, with Vico’s help, the authors of Giambattista Vico and the New Psychological Science claim for their new poetic humanistic psychology.

Although all of the essays in this volume are valuable additions to scholar- ship on Vico, few contribute specifically to an embodied poetic interpretation of Vico’s new science. The volume does not contain a discussion of language that adequately captures Vico’s claim of originary creativity, for example, and few of the contributions stress human agency. Moreover, most of the authors inter- pret Vico within modernity’s dualistic frame, as revealed by their pervasive use of subjectivist language. They have not yet realized how radical the shift from Cartesian humanism to Vico’s embodied anthropology is. Perhaps the starkest question they need to answer is, in what way is psychology possible without the metaphysical belief in a psyche?

Sven Hroar Klempe’s and Gordana Jovanovic’s contributions to this volume are responsible for placing Vico in particular histotheoretical contexts. Klempe situates Vico’s work in the history of psychology that emerged from metaphysics; meanwhile, Jovanovic traces Vico’s reception beginning in the eighteenth cen- tury. Both authors question whether Vico is an Enlightenment figure or a critic of the Enlightenment. Klempe distinguishes psychology from metaphysics by emphasizing its increasing concern with perception and sensation. He claims that the relation of sensation to intellect distinguishes divine language, a unity of mak- ing and knowing, from the ideality/generality of human language deriving from abstractions. Thus, there is a “mismatch and a tension . . . between our thinking of the world and the world as it appears to us” (54). “In our efforts to mitigate the tension and the gap between our abstract conceptions and the world,” he notes, “we try to unite those two extremes by means of thinking” (55): man “creates abstractions . . . and abstractions are given through language, and this is the real- ity man is able to grasp. This is the core of the verum factum principle” (60). He explains: “For human beings, truth is provided by language” (68).

Whereas Klempe discusses themes that are relevant to Vico’s turn to the role of sensation in language and thinking in creating knowledge and truth, he distin- guishes thinking, abstract language, and “inner life” from sensation and the body. It is “the spirit that represents the connection between the mind and the body,” Klempe says, though for Vico it is embodied poetic language, not thinking, that creates abstract language (56). For Klempe, Vico is a modernist not only because “we recognize the contours of a psychology by the role he gives the aspects of sensation and subjectivity, which form the basis for how language and meaning making are to be understood” (62), but also because he “is definitely . . . pointing forward by emphasizing the role of the human mind in the verum factum prin- ciple” (50). Vico, Klempe claims, “did not belong to the protestant church, but he adopted the focus on subjectivity” (67).

Jovanovic’s essay examines diverse interpretations of Vico from the eigh- teenth century. On the basis of Vico’s critique of reason and his emphasis on verum factum as epistemological, she explains, his readers consider him to be a modernist rather than an Enlightenment figure. Quoting Benedetto Croce, she explains: “with the new form of his theory of knowledge Vico himself joined the ranks of modern subjectivism, initiated by Descartes” (93). Yet Croce “left out many important aspects of Vico’s thought,” Jovanovic notes: “Thus, it was necessary to overcome Croce’s idealist perspectivism in order to open new vistas for reading Vico” (82).

Jovanovic elaborates on the possibility of “open[ing] new vistas for reading Vico” by proposing that the “perspectives of doing and knowing are hermeneuti- cally united” and that “it is within this conceptual framework that Vico’s human- istic agenda is formulated” (79). She does not specify the nature of those herme- neutic relations but stresses the importance of language in shaping communities. She also emphasizes Vico’s privileging of topics over critique, so it is striking, given the volume’s emphasis on poiesis, that she does not mention the creativity of language, especially since poetic metaphors create a social world before they create the semiological views that emerge in the third age.

Despite her limited discussion of language, Jovanovic clearly understands the significance of its embodied nature and relation to human activity. For instance, she notes that “Vico’s anthropology is naturalistically founded, as it starts with capabilities of corporeal individuals, but it is not reductionist as it includes trans- formation and cultivation of corporeal capabilities and existing physical condi- tions, as well as symbolic products and social practice and institutions” (105).

Her strong emphasis on agency is also promising. Because of the importance of rhetoric, “Vico was a reflective theorist of human activity, but an activity of humans as social beings” rather than “of mechanical, subjectless, and communi- cationless processes” (95). She continues:

Given . . . the importance of . . . verum idem factum, and that not only as an epistemo- logical principle but as a principle constitutive of human history, . . . [it] is justified to see Vico as a modern thinker. . . . I would claim . . . this principle supersedes Vico’s critique of rationality on which most interpretations of Vico as an antimodern or counter- Enlightenment thinker rely. (97)

Jovanovic asserts strongly that Vico “should have been protected from pitfalls of subjectivism and idealism of the raising new epoch” (98, emphasis added). Though stressing the importance of the verum factum principle as “constitutive of human history,” Jovanovic does not appreciate the nature of that constitutive power and instead associates it with modernism’s Homo Faber (97). The activ- ity of the latter is, however, the technological application of knowledge that has been derived from science’s mastery of nature, the very knowledge that the verum factum principle prevents humans from possessing. Vico’s conception of human activity is empowered by the originary nature of poiesis that creates the human world.

Despite the richness of Jovanovic’s and Klempe’s contributions to this volume, and though they move away from identifying humans with the primacy of mental activity, it is striking that neither steps enough outside of the Cartesian frame to recognize the incompatibility between their insights and Cartesian modernism. Despite Klempe’s emphasis on the roles of sensation and language and Jovanovic’s verum factum as epistemological, she explains, his readers consider him to be a modernist rather than an Enlightenment figure. Quoting Benedetto Croce, she explains: “with the new form of his theory of knowledge Vico himself joined the ranks of modern subjectivism, initiated by Descartes” (93). Yet Croce “left out many important aspects of Vico’s thought,” Jovanovic notes: “Thus, it was necessary to overcome Croce’s idealist perspectivism in order to open new vistas for reading Vico” (82).

The contributions to this volume that are most focused on the role of poetic language and sense-making in Vico’s anthropology are by Marcel Danesi, Augusto Ponzio, and John Shotter. Danesi’s contribution offers the most in-depth discussion of Vico’s philosophy out of all the pieces in the volume, yet Shotter, by stepping outside the tradition’s metaphysical frame, does the best job of transcending subjectivism and grasping Vico’s embodied creative humanism. Still, Danesi displays a strong understanding of Vico’s philosophy, saying: “The idea that cognition is an extension of bodily experience, a kind of abstracted sensoriality . . . is, as a matter of fact, the unifying principle that Vico utilized to tie together all the thematic strands that he interlaced throughout the NS [New Science]” (27). “For Vico,” Danesi explains,

the appearance of the metaphorical capacity on the evolutionary timetable of humanity made possible the passage from instinctual responses to the flux of events, where images literally floated around randomly in mental space, to a more abstract and organized form of thinking that helped to guide the mind’s primordial efforts to transform the world of sensorial inputs into cognitively usable models of experience. (44)According to Danesi, “the nature of the connections between things, universal and particular, is not available to discursive cognition. But they are neither merely fanciful nor principally subjective. They are real connections made in imaginative form” (34).

Despite this, Danesi ultimately encloses Vico’s poetic insights within modernity’s dualism and obscures Vico’s master key. Though emphasizing fantasia’s relation to sense and perception, Danesi accepts Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf’s claim that “language classifies, not ‘creates,’ experience” (15) and reduces language to “mind-space” (18). Danesi notes: “language and thought are interdependent features of human consciousness—that is, we use language to carry the main load of our everyday thinking. It is only when we need to create new thoughts that we must resort to our fantasia to help us out and start the concept-formation process anew” (15). Fantasia is a “mental faculty that generated consciousness, language, and, ultimately, culture.” “The most important feature of the poetic mind is that it seeks expression into models of the world in terms of metaphor and myth,” as Danesi explains: “From this ‘poetic’ state of mind the first human cultures took shape, developing the first institutions.” According to Danesi, “the fantasia can thus ‘create’ new realities totally within confines of mental space—hence the meaning of imagination as a creative faculty” (16).

Danesi identifies the ingegno as “the faculty that organizes poetic forms produced by the fantasia into stable structures.” Accordingly, “‘making sense’ is a product of ingegno as it imposes pattern onto the images that the fantasia creates in mind-space,” which explains how the first myths were made. Arguing that “agency is governed by ingenuity, not by some biological schema or imprint,” Danesi protects Vico from being reduced to neuroscience but keeps him in metaphysic’s “mind-space” (18). He associates Vico’s conception of language with Thomas Sebeok’s semiotics: “Language, for Sebeok, is an effective cognitive means for modeling the world. . . . ‘Speech,’ or articulated language, is a deriva- tive of this modeling capacity” (33). He argues that Vico can be studied in the context of semiotics since “his concept of metaphor as imprinting human experi- ence in the form of language… is the basis of modern cognitive linguistics” (24). Danesi explains: “The crucial lesson that cognitive science has come to learn is that the imagination and metaphor are the essence of mind” (29).

Even though he identifies the fantasia as “the fundamental feature of mind that allows us to transform and make bodily experience meaningful” (46), Danesi obscures that centrality by saying that “rhetorical figures, which abound in ancient fables, did not emerge to increase the imaginative enjoyment of myths” (44); they “make it possible for humans not only to represent immediate reality, but also to frame an indefinite number of possible worlds” (43). Yet Vico’s poetic language does not represent human reality; rather, it creates an artifactual one. Mind, though an artifact of the fantasia and the ingegno, is continually referred to by Danesi as a subjective agent of making that “operat[es] totally within mental space as it configures and creates models of world events” (18). Most strikingly, Danesi argues that metaphor is the “product of the fantasia—. . . a feature of the mind, not just of language” (19). “Metaphor is a ‘tool’ that the mind con- stantly enlists,” Danesi explains (35): “it expresses the reality in the mind of the speaker” (19). “The human mind is ‘programmed’ to think metaphorically most of the time,” which Danesi claims thus makes metaphor an object of conceptual thought (34).

Ultimately, Danesi’s appeal to cognitive science cannot explain the poetic capacity of the fantasia. Imaginative universals are not cognitive: Vico’s master key emphasizes randomness, the contingency of perceptions, and the insight that perceptions do not represent reality but are brought together to alleviate terror filling beastly bodies. And when brought together, it is language that fixes that image with a name. As noted above, Danesi draws on Sapir and Whorf’s claim that “language classifies, not ‘creates,’ experience.” Yet language produced by cognitive processes cannot explain the fantasia’s poetic ability since cognition does not include emotional interactions between bodily processes and the experi- ences in which they are embedded.

Ponzio similarly discusses Vico in the context of the emergence of semiotics and cognitive linguistics. Much in his explication of semiotics is relevant only to the rational minds of Vico’s third age. However, Ponzio concludes his contribu- tion by articulating a valuable reservation: when discussing Vico’s contribution “to the theoretical framework of current research in cognitive linguistics,” Ponzio asks whether or not “we may speak of a ‘Vichian linguistics,’ as Danesi would seem to be suggesting” (169). Acknowledging that there may be Vichian influ- ences on semiotics and other sign sciences, Ponzio expresses doubts: “Vico’s critique of Descartes is formulated in a context entirely different from Pierce’s” (170). Ponzio notes “that there is a great historical-contextual and motivational gap between Vichian inquiry . . . and current philosophical-linguistic research . . . to the extent that it cannot be classified as ‘Vichian linguistics’” (171). Ponzio’s doubts represent an effective critique of semiotic interpretations of Vico’s conception of language. Indeed, what is clear from Danesi’s and Ponzio’s essays is that focusing on semiotics and cognitive linguistics in an attempt to account for Vico’s poetic conception of language obscures more meaningful explorations of the embodied poetic understandings of language that are suggested by Vico’s anthropology.

Vico was writing before developments in biological science, but even if he had understood how necessary biological processes were to human existence, he would not have considered them adequate for creating human meaning. Identifying the body with neuroscientific activities has obscured a more funda-mental kind of embodied experience, one focused on the necessary interaction of bodily skills with the physical/social world and in turn emphasizing conditions that philosophers would consider sufficient—that is, experiences in the external world to which bodily skills respond not only to satisfy needs and utilities but also to produce imagistic language and social practices that create meaning, thus accounting for human agency. Those experiences in the external world, rather than either neuroscientific or cognitive activity, add sensory and emotional interaction between bodily and experiential processes, thus allowing for the poetic ability that Vico refers to as fantasia.

Shotter’s essay best captures the immediacy of that relation: the embodied, embedded, and emotional nature of making and knowing and its appropriateness for a poetic science of psychology. Shotter begins by discussing the issue that is central to Vico’s writing and cultural psychology: the meaning of human meaning. Meanings made in temporal developmental processes begin in mute times, bodily feelings, fearful responses to unknowns, bodily shaking, guttural sounds, and gestures before becoming images projected onto the sky, metaphoric language, and more complex linguistic and social activities that satisfy needs and utilities necessary for survival. Shotter characterizes those processes as “shared expressions, spontaneously occurring in shared circumstances, to which people spontaneously attribute a shared significance” (121). In elaborating on beginnings, Shotter provides what has been missing in existing Vichian scholarship: an experiential account of the transformative processes that lead from bodily feelings to creative linguistic and social activities. He omits purely necessary biological processes, since by themselves they do not capture interactions with the phenomena that stimulate them or the social activities to which they lead. He similarly omits linguistic theories that do not acknowledge bodily feelings, which are the immediate sources of metaphoric relations. For Shotter, only bodily feelings, external phenomena, and social responses to them—what he calls “shared significance[s]” in the external world—create poetic language and human existence.

Shotter elaborates on Vico’s account of the transition from bodily feelings to imagistic language that makes meaning from sensations like thunder: “the development of social processes is based, he claims, not upon anything preestablished either in people or in their surroundings, but in socially shared identities of feeling [they] themselves create in the flow of activity between them,” or what Shotter says Vico “calls ‘sensory topics,’ . . . because they give rise to ‘commonplaces,’ that is, to shared moments of common reference in a continuous flow of social activity” (124). A sensory topic leads to “an ‘imaginative universal,’ the image of a particular something, a real presence . . . , that is first expressed by everyone acting, bodily, in the same way in the same circumstance, but which is expressed later, metaphorically, in the fable of Jove” (133). Thus, according to Shotter, meanings are created “before the emergence of consciousness or awareness . . . occurs” (122). One implication of this is the fact that “language begins, not with people speaking, but with them listening, not with a performative speech act, but with a hermeneutical invention” (132). Shotter explains: “This suggests a quite different account of consciousness—of con-scientia, of witnessable knowing along with others—than that bequeathed to us currently from within our Cartesian heritage” (121-22). This is because “their meaning [that is, the meanings that emerge from socially shared identities of feeling] is in how bodily we are ‘moved’ to respond to them, in how precisely we are going to incorporate them into our yet-to-be-achieved activities” (122). Shotter makes clearer than others in this volume that what Vico means by “mind” is not only prior to rational content but other than subjective or cognitive processes.

Shotter, in explaining his indifference to biological conditions, says that Vico turned him from a “search for ideal realities (forms or shapes) ‘hidden behind appearance’” (120) that was bequeathed to social science by philosophy and psychology’s concern with “inner workings of . . . subjectivities.” Like Vico, Shotter desires a “direct focus on the unique concrete details of our living, bodily . . . participations . . . in the world around us” (142). He explains:

we have become concerned both with what goes on within the different “inner worlds of meaning” we create in our different meetings with the others and othernesses around us, along with paying more and more attention to our embedding within the ever present, larger background flow of spontaneously unfolding, reciprocally responsive inter-activity between us and our surroundings. It is as “participant parts” within this flow, considered as a dynamically developing complex whole, that we all have our being as members of a common culture, as members of a social group with a shared history of development between us. (142)

In focusing on “inter-activit[ies]” between bodily skills, external stimuli, and the linguistic and social activities to which they lead, Shotter reveals sensory and emotional responses to experiences and links biological conditions that neuro- scientists consider determinate to external physical linguistic and social activities that biologists ignore, enabling us to avoid the reductionisms that are inherent in focusing on biological, mental, or external sociolinguistic activities alone. With Vico’s understanding of wholly corporeal imagination, Shotter argues,

meanings are already present in people’s bodily activities long before awareness or con- sciousness of meaning emergences. For, although such bodily thought lacks an abstract or intellectual content, it does not lack a meaning. If nothing more its function is merely a figurative or metaphorical one: that of linking, or “carrying across” a shared feeling to a shared circumstance, thus to create a sense of “we,” of us all being in this together, a sense of solidarity. (134)

This “flow of social activity” similarly touches on what Vico means when he talks about providence. Rather than being “something external,” Shotter explains, providence is the “natural provision of the resources required for their own fur- ther evolution or transformation (or dissolution). . . . [P]eople construct in their own past activities an organized setting that makes provision for their current activities” (136). “What the ‘inner mechanisms’ might be which make such a realization possible are not Vico’s concern here,” Shotter says: “his concern is a poetic concern with what the ‘outer’ social conditions giving rise to a shared bodily experience in a shared circumstance might be like” (122).

Shotter enables us to move outside of traditional cultural frames. He credits his move to developments in psychology that turned the field away from tradi- tional scientific perspectives; he then found in Vico the emergent embodiment of humans, of which, he says, Vico himself may not have been aware. He claims that Vico must have acquired the ability to be “responsive at every moment to one’s changing circumstances . . . to a distinctive, imaginative sense of what it is like to experience and to make sense of events occurring” bodily (130). Thus, he claims, “the agent of inquiry” becomes prominent (119); or as Shotter says when he describes agency, humans develop a skill of “coming to feel ‘at home’ within a particular sphere of activity” (145). Shotter calls that skill “ontological,” for in knowing “how to be, say, a musician, painter, mathematician, company director, or regional developer, one must acquire certain sensibilities and attunements” and “come to know one’s ‘way about’ . . . inside the requisite, conversationally sustained ‘reality’ or ‘inner world’” (146).

This volume’s sharpest response to challenges from biology, and particularly what Tateo calls its “tendency to reduce psychological processes to the most basic events that can be explained through the biochemistry of the brain,” come in the form of Shotter’s focus on concrete details of embodied participation in the world (xviii). Biochemical events and evolutionary processes are necessary for human existence, but they cannot account for it without also addressing social, historical, and cultural activities. Those conditions, which are similarly necessary and, more importantly, sufficient, are the very activities that Vico highlighted and that have not been given sufficient weight by neuroscientists. Failure to appreci- ate the linguistic, social, and physical activities that do the actual creative labor of bodies leads to reductionism.

Whereas Shotter’s account of the way meaning inheres in bodily feelings and allows for “a sense of ‘we’” accounts for sensus communis, Ivana Markova’s essay provides context for that notion before and after Vico (134). The basis of Vico’s sensus communis is ingenium and imagination. “Diverse things,” accord- ing to Markova, “are brought together on the basis of immediate and momentary vision, that is, on the basis of the logic that enables creating images,” particularly imaginative universals that are rooted in common sense (179). Markova empha- sizes the relation of common sense to sensation and, because of the role of “needs or utilities,” to action (178). She stresses metaphoric language’s primary role in this creative process.

The final essay, which is by Carlos Cornejo, compares Vico and Nicholas of Cusa, whom Cornejo claims both adopted a “knowing by not-knowing” approach that Cusa calls “docta ignorantia” (197). Cornjeo claims that Vico’s fantasia continues that tendency of nonrational certainty, though he notes that Vico’s rejection of Cartesian rationalism and the constraints of the body “lies on a dif- fering anthropology.” According to Cornejo, “Vico’s proposal for ascribing more epistemic power to the human sciences than to natural sciences is based on a deep reconsideration of the nonrational capacities in the knowing process” (192). Vico’s relation to the medieval tradition “embodies both novelty and continuity” (196).

If the field of psychology hopes to use Vico’s new science to move from sci- entism toward a more embodied and culturally embedded psychology, it must accept his belief in a closer relationship between rhetoric’s conception of linguis- tic agency and philosophy, thus producing not epistemic knowledge but poetic meaning. Giambattista Vico and the New Psychological Science does not con- tain a conception of language that captures its connectedness to the body rather than to cognitive processes and to the hermeneutic ways it makes sense of and establishes relations with the experiential physical and social worlds. This is an originary power that creates meanings that are not given in nature. The volume’s authors also have not transcended the traditional belief in a dualism between body and some version of intentional cognitive agency. These inadequacies make it difficult to grasp a conception of human agency that interacts with and transforms the physical world, creating a concrete, real, and meaningful human world. Only Shotter appreciates the ontological importance of embodied skills, or the agency that he describes as shared happenings in the external world, “socially shared identities of feeling [beings] themselves create in the flow of activity between them,” “shared moments of common reference in a continuous flow of social activity” (124). This is the way human meanings emerge providentially before consciousness of meaning emerges. Shotter makes clear that what Vico referred to when he talked about the “mind” was something that not only existed prior to cognition but also contained dimensions that were not subjective processes. The developmental processes derived from the common social processes that Vico traced in the historical world do not constitute modernity’s progressive course. Rather, they constitute a cyclical course that produces a regularity that is more supportive of a humanistic (rather than a scientific) new poetic psychology.

It is my hope that the authors of this volume are open to nontraditional readings of Vico that are as strange to contemporary audiences as Vico’s poetic insights were to his original readers, who were embedded in Cartesianism. Only such a reading can free the imaginative and poetic nature of the New Science from mis- understandings that have plagued modern readers since the book’s publication.


  1. Giambattista Vico, The Autobiography of Giambattista Vico, transl. Max Harold Fisch and Thomas Goddard Bergin (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1944), 128-32.
  2. Bergin and Fisch translate cose as “institution.” Elsewhere I translate cose as “thing” to cap- ture the concreteness of the world humans create, and I adopt that usage here. For more on this, see Sandra Rudnick Luft, Vico’s Uncanny Humanism: Reading the New Science between Modern and Postmodern (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003), 130n37.
  3. Giambattista Vico, The New Science, transl. Thomas Goddard Bergin and Max Harold Fisch (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1948), para. 34.
  4. Ibid. 5. Ibid., para. 147, 134.
  5. Ibid., para. 59.
  6. Luft, Vico’s Uncanny Humanism, 24-26.
  7. Giambattista Vico, On the Most Ancient Wisdom of the Italians: Unearthed from the Origins of the Latin Language, transl. L. M. Palmer (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988), 105-7.
  8. Vico, The New Science, para. 172, 192-95, 369, 377.
  9. Ibid., para. 377.
  10. The word certum (certain) refers to the first things created. 12. Ibid., para. 381.
  11. Ibid., para. 1040.
  12. Ibid., para. 447.
  13. Ibid., para. 349.
  14. Ibid., para. 375.
  15. Ibid., para. 376.
  16. Certa become vera (the true) for the knowers. 19. Vico, On the Most Ancient Wisdom, 45-47.
  17. When secularized, the principle’s status as epistemological or ontological depends on the divinity whose creativity humans appropriate. It either reproduces ideal rational truths or the volun- tarist power of an omnipotent deity. In the context of Cartesianism, the principle understood by the moderns has remained resolutely epistemological.

Sandra Rudnick Luft – San Francisco State University, Emerita.

TATEO, Luca (ed.). Giambattista Vico and the new Psychological Science. New Brunswick and London: Transaction Publishers, 2017. 242.p. Resenha de: LUFT, Sandra Rudnick. Vico’s new science and new poetic Psychological Science. History and Theory, v.60, n.1, p.163-176, mar. 2021. Acessar publicação original [IF].




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