In the view of many scholars, Leon Pompa has played a crucial role in reviving the study of Vico in the English-speaking world. The first edition of his book Vico: A Study of the New Science in 1975 was the first major work in English on Vico in nearly four decades.1 His place and importance in this field are matters worthy of examination in their own right, but a number of larger philosophical issues make this task still more desirable. Let me begin by making clear to the reader what these issues are.
Ernst Cassirer called Vico “the real discoverer of myth,” 2 and Cassirer holds Vico to be the first modern philosopher of history and the first European thinker to understand fully the problem of historical knowledge. Cassirer writes:
This essay is a critical assessment of Pompa’s most recent contributions to the study of Vico. I will concentrate primarily upon what is new in Pompa’s second edition of Vico: A Study of the New Science,4 and the section on Vico from his Human Nature and Historical Knowledge.5These are best understood in conjunction with the other items Pompa has published on Vico in the last ten years (cited below), and since no comprehensive treatment of the first edition of Vico: A Study of the New Science has ever appeared in this journal,6 it is only fair to say something about Pompa’s full interpretation. The reason such an assessment is now called for is that Pompa has, it appears, changed his view—or so I will argue. Pompa himself does not say that his view has changed, and a change of view would not, in and of itself, warrant a full treatment such as I attempt in this essay. In my view, however, Pompa’s arabesque is detrimental to Vico studies and to any attempt to employ Vico’s thought in service of a value-centered historicism. If those trying to read Vico for the first time use Pompa as their guide, the results could be unfortunate. Of course, it is hardly enough simply to assert this; it must be demonstrated.
A word of caution Pompa addressed to his readers in one of his older publications is also applicable here: “It is only proper to warn the reader that the view I propound below is itself contentious, being based upon the supposition that Vico meant something fairly rigorous by the term‘science’.” 7 This states the primary issue to be treated in this study, as well as the manner in which I will treat it. Pompa develops his interpretation very aggressively, but always as a gentleman and scholar, without petty hostility.
Although I have concentrated upon the points of disagreement between my understanding of Vico and Pompa’s, there are many unstated points of agreement. Still, my own disagreements with Pompa’s interpretation run deep, and my criticism is at times quite severe. For Pompa contends directly against both Vico and the group of interpreters with whom I most closely identify. Thus, in the course of reviewing Pompa’s work of the past decade, I hope to answer his complaints against the proponents of the primacy of imagination in Vico’s philosophy and of the view that Vico’s account of historical knowledge is, precisely on account of its reliance upon imagination, reconcilable with an evolutionary view of human nature. My criticism of Pompa should be viewed as a step toward articulating a positive alternative to his interpretation of Vico. For if Pompa has interpreted Vico correctly, then Vico (as Pompa himself concludes) is very wrong about the things that were most important to him. In short, a defense of Vico must show that Pompa has not understood him rightly.
Pompa’s first new chapter (XVII, entitled “Law, Providence and the Barbarism of Reflection”) attempts to answer his critics by showing how his original positive interpretation can accommodate the findings of more recent studies. The second new chapter (XVIII, entitled “Appendix: Humanist Interpretations”) endeavors to find flaws in the alternative accounts which have been put forward as competitors with Pompa’s interpretation. Pompa has also rewritten the preface to the book, and it now contains more criticism of his “humanist” counterparts. Before I discuss these two chapters, however, it is necessary to summarize the objections which I believe have given rise to the new edition. In what follows I have synthesized criticisms from many different sources into a single, sustained critique.12 Pompa’s interpretation of Vico is quite systematic, and thus, when one objects to a small feature of his view (such as his emphasis on “reflection”), the shock waves run through the whole of it.
Indeed, much of the controversy centers on the notion of rational “reflection,” and the extent to which Vico endorses it as the instrument of knowing par excellence. There can be little dispute that in Vico’s “third age,” the age of reflection and of the philosophers, what can be known is generally known in this way. Where Pompa differs with some other interpreters (such as Isaiah Berlin,13 Donald PhillipVerene,14 Benedetto Croce,15 Ernesto Grassi,16 and Ernst Cassirer17) is in his identification of philosophical reflection with knowledge itself. On Pompa’s account, there is nothing beyond what is obtained through rational “reflection” upon the “modifications of our own human minds” (SNS, 42-43, 45, 113-115, 145, 154-159, 161-165, etc.) that would count as “knowledge” for Vico.18 Pompa says that “the logic of the concepts of imagination and knowledge is entirely different. It is internal to the concept of knowledge that, when claims of knowledge are made, it is always in order to ask how the claim has been arrived at and what reasons there are for accepting it. This is not so, however, with regard to the concept of imagination” (SNS, 234). Whatever the logic of imagination (or “phantasy,” as Cassirer is wont to call it) produces, it cannot be “knowledge” according to Pompa. Yet, he claims that earlier forms of consciousness (imaginative, sensuous) necessarily evolve into rational reflection, almost in spite of their inferiority to reflective thought (SNS, 197).
To put this in a more familiar idiom, we can say (without injustice to Pompa) that this arrangement would commit Vico to the view that the mind is more easily known than the body (let alone the social world), for it is rational reflection upon the present (or “timeless”) state of the individual ego that permits human beings to know everything they do know. Historians, for instance, can have knowledge (according to Pompa’s Vico) only because they can assume that the makers of history had minds like their own:
Pompa acknowledges the following:
(1) the primacy of imagination for Vico, both tacitly and explicitly (SNS, 44, 102-103, 114, 129, 134, 162, 165, 184, 214-215, 230);20
(2) the unity of the first age is constituted by the imagination (SNS, 117, 134, 183-184, 230; HNHK, 139);
(3) the imaginatively created customs and institutions of the first age give rise to and condition all subsequent institutions and forms of thought (SNS, 114, 162, 164, 184, 193, 214, 228; HNHK, 139-140, 146-147);
(4) the historical unity of institutions in the three ages is not rational (SNS, 117; HNHK, 137, 139), but is rather the product of “absolute common sense” imaginatively created by the first human beings and common to all subsequent ages (SNS, 30-34, 179-183); and that
(5) “all knowledge requires the use of imagination” (SNS,228).21
Still, Pompa denies that what counts as “knowledge” from the standpoint of reflection must presuppose a broader sort of knowledge or wisdom which pervades the whole development of human history (especially the first two ages).22
It seems to me that insofar as reflection is the characteristic form of conscious knowing in the third age, it cannot be the case that reflection is the sole instrument of knowing in history—unless it also is claimed that human beings had neither knowledge nor wisdom before the third age. This is not Vico’s view, given that he thought poetry to be a kind of wisdom (SN, Book II). In short, Pompa seems to have forgotten that while primitive, imaginative human beings do not reflect (at least not in the way that modernsdo),23 reflective human beings doimagine.24Reflection does not appear until the third age, but for Vico poetry is a sort of wisdom, and the idea of a wisdom completely devoid of knowledge is absurd.25 The first human beings have knowledge (of a sort) without reflection (SN, 365, 381, 391),26 and thus, metaphysical knowledge cannot be equivalent to “reflection on the modifications of our minds,” as Pompa says.27
The move into Cartesian reflection which Pompa undertakes is related to his willingness to say that providence is not of central importance to Vico’s philosophy. According to Pompa, providence does no more than Vico’s notion of the sensus communus can do by itself (SNS, 58, 60, 198-199).28 Even Gino Bedani, an admirer of Pompa’s interpretation, has aptly called this “neutralization of the concept” of providence in Vico’s philosophy “the most profoundly mistaken of all” the moves Pompa has made.29 The reader gets the sense that in 1975 Pompa wished to protect Vico from off-handed dismissal by twentieth-century philosophers by pointing out that Vico really does not have all that much invested in his conception of God and the workings of God in human history.
Such a defense may well make Vico appear respectable to some epistemologists who reflect upon such things, but it distorts Vico’s philosophy. It never occurs to Pompa to ask whether Vico’s conception of God might be different from or even richer than the traditional Christian conception. Certainly Vico’s amazing capacity to understand how the idea of God functions in diverse cultures is an argument for the idea that he is not to be thought of as a narrow or dogmatic eighteenth-century Christian. It makes one doubt whether twentieth-century respectability purchased at such a price is worth having, and whether the approbation of the reflective thinker in the third age is not, in the end, a serious condemnation of the philosopher so approved. That Vico “believed in God” in some sense is something I cannot doubt, but what that meant to him is a very tangled question. Whether belief in God should cost a thinker his twentieth-century respectability surely depends upon what sort of God he believed in and whether the twentieth century supplies a standard to which we owe philosophical allegiance.
That Descartes (or his philosophical progeny, like Pompa) should at length have found a way to read Vico such that he (and they) could make sense of this philosophy as a product of reflection cannot be a result Vico would find agreeable. Insofar as Pompa has assumed the superiority of philosophy without God (a post-Nietzschean phenomenon), is he not guilty of the error Vico warned against: the conceit of scholars and nations? Vico says:
On a related issue, one may wonder whether Pompa has not also acted from scholarly conceit in introducing twentieth-century distinctions into Vico’s thought—such as the distinction between the “historico-sociological” and metaphysical levels of Vico’s philosophy upon which Pompa organizes the entire “system” of Vico’s thought (cf. SNS, especially 15, 176-177).30Thus, when a commentator remarks that Pompa “has reconstructed Vico’s arguments with a precision not to be found in Vico himself,” 31 we can see that this may not be praise. The two conceits may lie at the bottom of such reconstructions.32 Max Fisch has rightly pointed out that “Pompa likes to avoid the technicalities of Vico’s time and substitute technicalities of our own.”33
Finally, it is perhaps the two conceits, together with Pompa’s neutralization of the role of providence in Vico’s thought, which account for his failure to recognize the meaning and importance of Vico’s recurrent analogy of God’s knowledge of the natural world to human knowledge of the historicalworld.34 The fact that human knowledge is finite, and limited to what human beings have made, does not indicate that “knowledge of nature” is of an inferior grade compared to “knowledge of the historical world” as Pompa claims (cf. SNS, 167-168, 170).35 Nor does this indicate that the natural world is less intelligible than the historical world from the standpoint of metaphysics (although it is certainly less knowable empirically speaking). Rather, what is indicated by the analogy is that the impoverished act of rational knowing (to which human beings are relegated after sufficient historical decline) is inadequate to its own task if it aims to know the natural world directly (as if human beings had made it).36
If, on the contrary, human beings approach the natural world as something to be known analogically, the false pride of the natural scientists is avoided, and the relationship between human institutions and the natural world is seen to be providential. For Vico, the work of providence makes nature intelligible to us by manifesting itself within our own historical development. That is, since God is involved in creation as we are ourselves, the intelligible order of the natural world—birth, growth, and decay—is seen to be at work in the human world of institutions just as it is innature.37
This point cannot be put any better than Friedrich Ueberweg put it well over a hundred years ago. Ueberweg said that, for Vico, “Providence, acting in no mysterious way, but through the spontaneous development of human activity, is the basis of all history, which reveals itself in the evolution of language, mythology, religion, law and government.” 38 On Pompa’s interpretation, nature must remain an adorable mystery, for he thinks of human consciousness and creativity as entities which stand over against nature and which take the measure of nature by reflecting upon the mind (as in Descartes), rather than as entities which unfold within nature in accordance with providence (as in Vico).39
Regarding the charge of Cartesianism, which can be rephrased in a number of different ways, Pompa chooses to defend his reading by acknowledging that Vico’s science is indeed “a highly unusual sort of science” (SNS, 186). Pompa does not mean to reduce it to analytical post-Cartesian science, for “unlike many natural sciences, it is, in the last analysis, based upon insights about human nature” (SNS, 186). Pompa explicitly says that Vico’s science involves and requires interpretation.
He then tries to show that his account of Vico is indeed compatible with giving rhetoric and topics (in the Aristotelian sense of those terms42) a “constitutive role” in Vico’s science. In the end, Pompa holds that rhetoric and topics are subsumable under Vico’s account of common sense, where “reflection upon the modifications of our human minds” tells us what we ultimately are (see SNS, 195). It is unfortunate that Pompa did not take into account John Schaeffer’s arguments on this matter.43 Pompa effects this reduction of rhetoric and topics by arguing that law, where rhetoric and topics are most clearly operable, provides an example of exactly the sort of institutional evolution he has shown in the broader case of common sense (SNS, 196-197), and law thus becomes a special case of sensus communus. Nevertheless, Pompa acknowledges Vico’s “general distrust of purely abstract reasoning and of rigid adherence to abstract rules” (SNS, 194).
One would think that this acknowledgment alone allows “the humanists” to carry the day, but since Pompa does not consider whether the sort of “reflection” to which his account is committed is an instance of “purely abstract reasoning,” he does not draw this conclusion. While he readily admits that as laws become more abstract through the three ages, interpretation and judgment as to their applicability in particular situations become increasingly necessary (SNS, 194)—a process which calls for rhetorical prowess and topical acuity—still, he holds that such interpretation and judgment arise from what we know of human nature, and our knowledge of human nature arises from an act of reflection upon the modifications of our minds.44 In brief, the entire process is an example of Cartesian method applied to the problem of the relation between law and human nature.
Thus, Pompa does not change his view of the dispensable role of providence in Vico’s philosophy, but stands by his reduction of providence to common sense, as the latter works in conjunction with individual desire over time (SNS, 198-199). The workings of providence through human desire can be known, he claims, only by way of reflection, and only by rational human beings. Pompa thinks that for Vico human development can be described as the “rise from a state of bestiality to one of the highest intellectual refinement” (SNS, 199). Yet, I would point out that such “refinement,” wherever and whenever it appears, is, for Vico, clear evidence of a civilization in its death throes (according to Vico’s “ideal eternal history”). This fact places the onus upon Pompa to explain his own delight in the act of reflection—a delight which Vico evidently did not wholeheartedly share (SN, 1106, among other places).
Thus, Pompa is aware that in order to make his interpretation of Vico seem viable, Vico’s concept of “the barbarism of reflection” must also be “neutralized” (alongside providence) so as to vindicate Pompa’s own questionable emphasis upon reflection as the most basic kind of knowing in Vico’s “system.” After examining some alternative explanations for Vico’s lamentations regarding the barbarism of the third age (SN, 1106), Pompa finally declares that “it is not . . . clear that Vico believed that social disintegration is absolutely inevitable in the fully rational age” (SNS, 204).45 Pompa offers no text in direct support of this claim, and although there are some passages that might be interpreted this way, it is hard to be sure what Pompa has in mind. In my view, Pompa’s contention amounts to saying that Vico did not think death is inevitable, since Vico holds “absolute common sense” (i.e., the most indispensable facts of human culture which identify it as human) to require funereal rituals (at least the burying of the dead, pace Antigone’s dilemma). The historical course that the nations run is a macrocosm of this “absolute common sense” (which I will discuss in a moment). In other words, the course of history, as seen from the level of the development of nations, must be analogous to the facts of human experience in the microcosm, which includes (as it indeed must) death and the appropriate rituals that accompany death. If nations are not subject to birth, growth and death, then the analogy between individual life and the development of human history dissolves. That would be a problem for Vico because we are obliged to understand the nature of the social and historical through the nature of individual desire and experience, and vice-versa. Nations and their histories would become unintelligible to us unless they decline and die, in Vico’s view.
This makes Pompa’s contention that the third age need not entail a disintegration of culture very questionable, since it strikes not only at the heart of Vico’s ideal eternal history, but undermines Vico’s entire epistemological position with regard to the relation between individual and social experience. While it is true that Vico held the belief in immortality to be one of the three principles upon which civilizations rise (SN, 360), this hardly amounts to the same thing as saying that earthly death can be indefinitely forestalled (regardless of whether one is speaking of an individual or a civilization). It is also quite obvious that without earthly death, “immortality” would not be a matter of belief, but of fact. Death is a necessary prerequisite to the belief in immortality, and thus a necessary condition of the progression through the three ages—if one wishes to reason about this matter abstractly. Hence, for Vico, there would be no civilization at all if humans did not realize they must die. Both logically and empirically, the cathedral is erected upon the potter’s field.
But the problem of asserting that the third age need not entail a disintegration of culture runs still deeper. It undermines not only Vico’s epistemological stance with regard to the relation between individual and social experience; it also undermines the crucial link between human nature as historical and human nature as natural. In this regard, we begin by noting that Pompa claims Vico thought the proper use of his own new science could prevent or forestall the decline of civilization (SNS, 205 ff.). This contention is not entirely without textual support. Yet, for Vico, birth, growth and decay are the manifestations of providential order within both human institutions and nature more generally. As I mentioned above, the evolution of human institutions is predicated upon “absolute common sense,” that is, that there must be social rituals which mark all three of these basic stages in the lives of individuals (SN, 360). Removal of one of these (i.e., “death” at the level of the individual, institution, or civilization) presents more than a mere disanalogy between the natural and the historical. It undermines the condition for the possibility of human historical development, for “absolute common sense” is thereby rendered a fiction. The intelligibility of history is lost without “absolute common sense.” Why? Pompa apparently does not see that birth, growth and decay is both a natural and a historical cycle—the intelligible link between humanity and the natural world (rendering the latter intelligible to the former in some degree). For Vico, the link is comprehended analogically, its workings attributed to providence, and then revered (or recollected, since worship is an institutionalized act of memory) in the public practice of religion—the human institution within which absolute common sense finds expression in all three ages.
Yet, Pompa’s “triumph of reason” (SNS, 204) is the decline of religious belief.46 He is willing to neutralize providence, though he tacitly admits Vico would not (SNS, 58-59, 208-209, 213-214).47 Through Pompa’s reason-colored glasses providence, natural humanity and nature itself are all equally spurious fictions for Vico. This is simply a bad reading of Vico. When reason finds itself through reflection, it thinks it needs nothing more, but this is truer of Pompa than of Vico. The truth of the matter is that reason alone “only constructs meaningless networks of artificial and pedantic distinctions,” as Collingwood puts it.48 Perhaps in an ironic way Pompa has the story right after all, but fails to recognize his own place in the picture he paints. He does agree that there can be no salvation for the human race once it has fallen into the barbarism of reflection, but he does not think this necessarily happens in connection with the rise of reason and rational philosophy (SNS, 211; HNHK, 165), if indeed it happens at all. But what would the barbarian of reflection say? Would it not be something very like this? Pompa does not tell us how the inevitable return to the forest does come about. Nor are we told what this alleged “stage” between the advent of reason and the descent into the barbarism of reflection might be called (for Vico has certainly not given it a name). This limbo in which Pompa thinks we live seems to be an historical “holding pattern” which is unnatural at best, impious at worst, and, at all events, not in Vico.
Thus, Pompa makes Vico’s “science” the cultural equivalent of an iron lung—a technological device which merely prolongs the agony of what must inevitably happen in any case—the death of civilization (SNS, 205 ff.)—and he asserts that Vico’s pessimism about the inevitability of decline was unwarranted and mistaken (SNS, 215-217; HNHK, 165 ff.). Instead, Pompa holds, a consistent application of Vico’s method would really end in a social utopia (SNS, 217). This conclusion substitutes a linear view of history for Vico’s cyclical view, and Pompa makes it explicit that he does intend to depart from Vico on this matter (SNS, 221). At this juncture, however, he has (in my opinion) departed so thoroughly from Vico’s worldview as to render the similarities between his account and Vico’s superficial. One cannot dispense with providence and the cyclical view of history and still claim to speak for or interpret Vico. Rather, Pompa speaks for himself, a matter which becomes perfectly clear as Pompa begins to construct his own philosophy of history in HNHK, chapter four.
Pompa finishes his study of law, providence and the barbarism of reflection by saying that Vico was terribly mistaken in his understanding of his ownphilosophy,49 and that the “barbarism of reflection” is not a necessary stage or feature of the ideal eternal history (SNS, 220; HNHK, 165 ff.). He then outlines and enumerates a number of basic mistakes in Vico’s philosophy that, if Pompa were correct, would surely render the reading of Vico a questionable investment of time (SNS, 219-221).
While he acknowledges that the imagination permits us to enter into the life of previous ages, he does not think it allows us to see the workings of providence in human history, and this, he says, “provides a strong reason for rejecting Verene’s account of the role of imagination in knowledge” (SNS, 235). Similar conclusions are applied to Berlin and Haddock.
Without knowledge of providence, Pompa asserts, we have no way of knowing the ideal eternal history, and, thus, no science (SNS, 235-236). I call this odd because, if it is a criticism, it also applies to Pompa’s own account. He thinks knowledge of providence is not necessary to Vico’s system and that Vico was mistaken in thinking that it was necessary (as I have already pointed out; cf. also HNHK, 165 ff.). I do not think Pompa would claim that reason/reflection is more adequate to the task of “knowing the mind of God” than is the imagination. In this case, it seems that knowledge of the ideal eternal history is problematic for all four accounts equally, given the way Pompa has set things up. The question of the adequacy of the imagination to what is eventually “known” in Vico’s science remains open, of course. I am not claiming that Verene, Berlin and Haddock have solved this problem by looking to the imagination. I have my doubts about whether the imagination is adequate to discerning the workings of providence, but that it is more adequate to that task than “reflection upon the modifications of our minds” I do not doubt. I have suggested earlier that exploring the analogy between what God knows and what humans know may hold the answer, but this would require considerable development.51
Before moving to a brief discussion of Pompa’s work on Hume’s, Hegel’s and Vico’s respective historical metaphysics, it should be mentioned that Pompa is not at all opposed to emphasizing the influence of “humanism” upon Vico’s philosophy,52 in spite of the fact that he labels the interpreters with whom he disagrees “humanists.” His main complaint against the “humanists” is really more that they are “so impressed by Vico’s rejection of Cartesianism as to think it carried with it a rejection of any notion of necessity in human history and, therefore, of the possibility of producing a science with some, at least, of the necessity involved in a natural science” (SNS, 239).53 This is hard to understand for three reasons: first, Pompa himself has characterized Vico’s rejection of “Cartesian rationalism” as “total,” precisely because of its inadequacies in knowledge of nature (SNS, 75-76); second, given the “epistemological superiority of the human sciences” (SNS, 168, 185), as asserted by Pompa, it is hard to see why Pompa should wish to draw upon any of the methodological features of the natural sciences; third, Vico’s rejection of necessity in history and his rejection of Cartesianism are quite different issues, since the former is worked out by Vico more in terms of the failures of Stoicism and Spinozism while the latter involves more method than metaphysics. I would suggest that perhaps Pompa has neither fully understood nor taken seriously enough Vico’s rejection of Descartes, although it must be admitted on all sides that Vico’s relation to Descartes is one of the cloudiest areas in Vico studies.
Pompa’s central contention in HNHK is that Hume and Hegel have so much invested, methodologically, in the permanence of human nature that their philosophies of history cannot sufficiently allow for the very genuine possibility that human nature changes, develops and grows (cf. HNHK, 1-3). These claims mean quite different things in the two cases, for on Pompa’s reading, while Hume posits the constancy of human nature, Hegel decries theories that rely upon such an assumption (HNHK, 8-11). Yet, in the end, Pompa believes that Hegel is committed to an a priori set of determinations which constrain the possibilities for change in human nature; and while Hegel’s view is preferable to Hume’s, it cannot withstand a genuinely evolutionary critique (HNHK, 8, 11-12, 69 ff., 73-74, 142-143). I will not give a detailed explication of Pompa’s arguments here, except to say that, if one is persuaded by the accounts of human nature in Hume and Hegel given by Pompa, then one will be persuaded by his conclusion.55
The question of Vico is another matter. Regarding the rise of reason in human history, Pompa says that Vico presents it
In SNS, Pompa argues that Vico’s account of the concrete events in history answers both to the formal constraints of the ideal eternal history and to all empirical, factual historical data which could ever emerge in historical researches. His conclusion is that all alternative accounts would be inferior; they would necessarily fail to be truly human histories “in any intelligible sense of that word” (SNS, 167, 169) because human nature cannot be just anything at all, but must have certain generic traits (e.g., absolute common sense). Human nature presents the historian with certain constraints, which Vico has adequately met (according to Pompa’s earlier book), even if human nature and its corresponding constraints change over time. In SNS, Pompa is quite satisfied with the adequacy of Vico’s response to the possibility of alteration in human nature, as he interprets it, and he is content with Vico’s response to the supposition that alternative accounts of human development, ones quite different from Vico’s, could be given. They could be given, but they could not be confirmed as Vico’s account can be.
In HNHK, however, Pompa argues that Vico’s inadequacies in this same regard render his view sufficiently “ahistorical” to necessitate a genuinely “historical” account such as Pompa outlines in his final chapter (HNHK, 192 ff.). This is a post-Darwinian view which generalizes biological evolution into a philosophical principle. In so doing, Pompa is now simply ignoring Vico’s warnings about the inferiority of knowledge gained in natural science due to the fact that all such knowledge is mediated by the primacy of the historical human world. We would today say that the critique of scientific communities provided by sociologists of knowledge undermines the claims of natural science to objectivity. Pompa seems unconcerned about this, although Vico was.
This is really all that needs to be said regarding this later study (HNHK), for it is sufficient to indicate clearly the drift of Pompa’s most recent work. There has been a marked change between the work published by Pompa in the 1970s and early ’80s and that which appeared in the early ’90s. Recently he is much more eager to bring out what he takes to be Vico’s shortcomings and errors of self-understanding. Where he once thought Vico’s views were adequate or even superior, he now thinks them inadequate or inferior. Undoubtedly, this indicates personal philosophical growth on Pompa’s part, best evidenced by the positive theory he begins to propound at the close of HNHK. It would have been a boon to the reader if Pompa had plainly said that he has changed his mind about Vico, but he has made no such acknowledgment.
Whether the Vico Pompa has “outgrown” is the true Vico may be questioned, however. I think he has possibly outgrown a Cartesian straw-man he believed to be Vico, and I have argued accordingly. Yet, what is good for Pompa may be bad for Vico studies. Hume scholars and Hegel scholars who read HNHK may mistakenly trust Pompa’s judgment regarding Vico, although they are unlikely to be satisfied with his grasp of their own heroes. With these new books, then, Pompa invites what may be called “the Rorty Effect”—the tendency to trust a scholar’s judgment of thinkers except for the ones we know first-hand that he has misrepresented. Thus, for example, Rorty’s interpretation of Dewey satisfies no Deweyans, but is good enough for Heideggerians, while his interpretation of Heidegger satisfies Deweyans but not Heideggerians. At some point it begins to dawn on us that Rorty misrepresents everyone, but only after considerable confusion has been generated. Pompa has accomplished essentially the same thing with respect to Vico, Hume and Hegel. This is most unfortunate, for it clouds the already cloudy waters surrounding the all-important question of historical knowledge.57
- This is not to neglect such works as Richard Manson’s The Theory of Knowledge of Giambattista Vico (Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1969), but one must often measure the importance of a book by its impact upon the public and the scholarly community, and Pompa’s book is the notable event in this respect.
- Cassirer, The Problem of Knowledge, vol. 4, trans. W. H. Woglom and C. W. Hendel (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1950), 296.
- Ernst Cassirer, The Logic of the Humanities, trans. C. S. Howe (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960), 52.
- Leon Pompa, Vico: A Study of the New Science, 2nd edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990). Henceforth this work will be referred to as “SNS” and cited parenthetically in the main text.
- Leon Pompa, Human Nature and Historical Knowledge: Hume, Hegel and Vico (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990). Henceforth this work will be referred to as “HNHK” and cited parenthetically in the main text.
- An historical discussion of the book, and summary of the immediate scholarly response, by G. Tagliacozzo has been published in New Vico Studies, vol. III (1985), 7-14. My own essay does not duplicate anything that has been discussed there.
- Leon Pompa, “Introduction,” in Vico: Selected Writings, ed. and trans. Leon Pompa (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 13n. The sentiments regarding the “rigorousness” of Vico’s science are repeated with greater detail given at SNS, xii-xiv.
- Giambattista Vico, The New Science of Giambattista Vico, trans. Bergin and Fisch (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1968). Henceforth all references to this work will be abbreviated “SN” and cited parenthetically by paragraph number.
- Ernst Cassirer, The Philosophy of the Enlightenment (Boston: Beacon Press, 1955), 209. Cassirer treats this same topic in more detail in “Descartes, Leibniz and Vico,” in Symbol, Myth and Culture, ed. Donald Phillip Verene (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), especially pp. 102-105. For a full treatment of the extent of Vico’s anti-Cartesianism cf. also Robert Crease, “Vico and the ‘Cogito,’ ” in Vico Past and Present, ed. G. Tagliacozzo (Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press, 1981), 171 ff; and, for a very different approach, cf. Yvon Belaval, “Vico and Anti-Cartesianism,” in Giambattista Vico: An International Symposium, ed. G. Tagliacozzo and H. White (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1969).
- Pompa has acknowledged Vico’s departure from Descartes explicitly in, among other places, his essay “Imagination in Vico,” in Vico Past and Present, ed. G. Tagliacozzo (cited above), 163-170. Still, he believes that other interpreters “over-dramatize Vico’s reaction against Cartesianism” (165). He also gives an account of Vico’s departure from Cartesianism in the “Introduction” to Vico: Selected Writings, 8-9. Cf. also SNS, 237.
- These continuities, and Pompa’s willingness to draw heavily upon the first and second editions of the Scienza Nuova, emerge in his evidence in spite of his own claim elsewhere (in the “Introduction” to Vico: Selected Writings, cited above, pp. 12-13) that, in Vico’s view, the second edition “entirely superseded” the first, and that “there is no reason to believe that he [Vico] did not consider this [third edition] to be the definitive edition of the New Science.” It is also worth noting that throughout this essay, I have called Pompa’s emphasis upon reflection “Cartesian,” which I believe it to be. Pompa would reject this label (cf. SNS xiv, 76, etc.), but I do not believe he is acknowledging the weight of his own debt to Descartes. Hayden White has preceded me in choosing just this epithet for Pompa’s interpretation. See History and Theory, 1976, no. 2, 188; reprinted in part in New Vico Studies, vol. III (1985), 11.
- Cf. Giorgio Tagliacozzo, “Toward a History of Recent Anglo-American Vico Scholarship, Part III,” in New Vico Studies, vol. III, 7-14. This essay contains a wealth of responses to Pompa’s Vico interpretation, and this is my primary source for claims about “where the criticism is centered,” etc.
- Isaiah Berlin, Vico and Herder: Two Studies in the History of Ideas (London: Hogarth Press, 1976). Cf. also “The Philosophical Ideas of Giambattista Vico,” in Art and Ideas in Eighteenth Century Italy (Roma: Edizione Di Storia E Letteratura, 1960).
- Donald Phillip Verene, Vico’s Science of the Imagination (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981); and The New Art of Autobiography: An Essay on ‘The Life of Giambattista Vico Written By Himself’ (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991).
- Benedetto Croce, The Philosophy of Giambattista Vico, trans. R. G. Collingwood (London: Howard Latimer, 1913). Croce would not identify knowledge with the act of reflection (which is subjective), but with objective reason. This is where he differs from Pompa. Cf. HNHK, 133 ff.
- Grassi has written on Vico in more places than one can list, but representative essays are “Vico as Epochal Thinker,” trans. Roberta Piazza, and “The Priority of Common Sense and Imagination: Vico’s Philosophical Relevance Today,” trans. Azizeh Azodi. Both essays are in Vico and Humanism: Essays on Vico, Heidegger and Rhetoric, ed. Donald Phillip Verene (New York: Peter Lang, 1990), 179-199, 19-40, 44-46.
- Cf. especially “Descartes, Leibniz and Vico,” in Symbol, Myth and Culture (cited above), 95-107. Cassirer discussed Vico in numerous other places (some of which are cited below) and throughout his career.
- Cf. also “Imagination in Vico,” 165.
- This passage is difficult to square with Pompa’s account in the “Introduction” to Vico: Selected Writings in which he explicitly argues in detail that the historian and historical agent must be different, and he accuses Vico of equivocating about which is the real maker/knower of history (25-26, 29). As in all such cases, I have taken SNS to express Pompa’s definitive view of the matter, since it is his latest statement.
- Cf. also “Imagination in Vico,” 163.
- It is difficult to understand why Pompa would say: “all knowledge requires the use of the imagination, at least in the sense that it requires the creation and application of methods, hypotheses and theories” (SNS, 228) when he claims only a few pages later (SNS, 234) that the logic of imagination and that of knowledge are entirely different (quoted above). One would think that whatever the imagination “creates” would thereby be rendered useless for “knowing” anything, and that “reason” would be obliged to create its own methods, hypotheses and theories if it expects to gain any “knowledge” from them (although how analytic reflection or reason could “create” anything escapes me).
- Cf. Pompa’s “Imagination in Vico,” 168; and also New Vico Studies, vol. III (1985), 10. This denial is, however, difficult to square with Pompa’s statement elsewhere that “imagination is both historically and ontologically prior to reason, or, to put it in Vico’s language, that reason is a modification of imagination” (“Introduction” to Vico: Selected Writings, 24). This makes it rather unclear just what Pompa’s position on imagination and reason really is, but again I have taken the later statement to be definitive of his position.
- Pompa thinks Vico is mistaken to claim this, but he does acknowledge that Vico holds this view (SNS, 221).
- Pompa says that the imagination, which is both the original source of religion and of its later forms in history, is either absent in the fully rational age or is so etiolated as to be incapable of creating the world of belief found in the early history of the nation. This is certainly Vico’s view. For a primary assumption, throughout the whole of his writings, is that the imagination grows weaker as reason grows stronger (SNS, 214-215).
It is not easy to see how we can rely upon something which is either absent or extremely etiolated to create our “methods, hypotheses and theories” as Pompa says a few pages later (SNS, 228), unless we wish to have very bad methods, hypotheses and theories. Fortunately there is no evidence (in Vico or elsewhere) that imagination disappears entirely from every individual in the third age (and Pompa offers none, later admitting this is not the case at SNS, 218). No one would deny the atrophy of imagination in the third age, but this presents no problem for the “humanists” (Berlin, Croce, Cassirer, Grassi, Verene, B.A. Haddock), so long as some individuals (although they be few in number) are still capable of the art of memory (cf. Verene, Vico’s Science of Imagination, 96-101, for the inversely proportional relation of imagination and reason). Pompa also softens his claim about the “etiolation” of the imagination in the third age only a few pages later, and it seems to me that the passage cited is pure polemics aimed at the proponents of imagination in Vico.
- In “Imagination in Vico,” Pompa also claims, in effect, that imagination yields no knowledge at all, and cannot, therefore, be the basis of Vico’s theory of knowledge. He says that no evidence for making imagination the basis is to be found, and that “the logic of the concepts of imagination and reason are so diverse that there seems no possibility of substituting one for the other as a constituent in a theory of knowledge” (165), a theme echoed at SNS, 228. Regarding the first claim, evidence that Vico did think imagination begets knowledge is to be had at SN, 365, 381, 391 (cf. Verene, Vico’s Science of Imagination, 97-98). Regarding the second, it should be noted that Pompa’s stark disjunction of imagination and reason (repeated in the “Introduction” to Vico: Selected Writings, 19), and his attempt to “substitute” the logic of imagination for the logic of reflection begs the question. It uses the standards set by reason (disjunction, excluded middle, truth-preserving substitutivity) to take the measure of whether imagination can be the foundation of a theory of knowledge. To address this question adequately, Pompa would have to respond to Verene’s and Grassi’s contentions regarding the “imaginative universal” as the ground floor of Vico’s theory of knowledge (cf. Grassi, “Vico as Epochal Thinker,” 184 ff.; and Verene, Vico’s Science of Imagination, 65 ff.).Still, Pompa’s “argument” here can tell us little, since it has already been acknowledged on all hands that the logic of reason and imagination are different. Pompa’s reduction of imagination to the standards of reflection is made total later in “Imagination in Vico,” 168-169. Yet, he softens this considerably at SNS, 218 ff., admitting that reason and imagination can and do exist in co-ordination (if not harmony) in all human beings in the third age. Since this last passage is written later, we should probably conclude Pompa has changed his mind on this question.
- Max Fisch also shares the view that imagination begets a kind of knowledge. Cf. the passage in his introduction to SN at K4.
- Verene has suggested that “recollective fantasia” is the best candidate for the means whereby knowledge of the other two ages is gained by those in the third. He has sharply contrasted this with Pompa’s emphasis on “reflection.” Cf. Vico’s Science of Imagination, 155. For Berlin, it is the “reconstructive imagination” which fulfills this function (cf. Vico and Herder, 107, 113-114).
- It should be noted that Pompa gives a completely different, though perhaps compatible, account of providence in HNHK, 163 ff. In HNHK, providence is merely the greater wisdom that is gained through reflecting upon the growth and change of historical institutions, which had to change due to their failure to be adequate to their very own ideals. Providence is thus something like “rational hindsight” which yields historical explanations. It seems to be a concept similar to Dilthey’s account of the emergence of historical consciousness, but there is no text to support the claim that this is how Vico understands providence. Also, how this is consistent with the role of “absolute common sense” in Pompa’s SNS is not obvious to me, but perhaps a story could be given. In both cases, however, Pompa has dispensed with God as the agent behind providence, and providence becomes immanent rather then transcendent. This claim is simply not in Vico’s text. Pompa’s identification of providence and sensus communusis far too fast and easy. For a worked-out and viable account of this relationship, cf. John Schaeffer, Sensus Communus: Vico, Rhetoric and the Limits of Relativism (Durham: Duke University Press, 1990).
- Gino Bedani, Vico Revisited: Orthodoxy, Naturalism and Science in the ‘Scienza Nuova’(Oxford: Berg Publishers Ltd., 1989), 216-217. In the “Introduction” to Vico: Selected Writings, Pompa seems to acknowledge the centrality and indispensability of providence to Vico’s philosophy (13-14, 21-22), but this is more implied than explicit, and thus insufficient as evidence that Pompa has had second thoughts about this move. A third incompatible view is also expressed by Pompa in HNHK, where he argues that although providence can be dispensed with in the New Science, Vico fails to do so and ends up being inconsistent with himself as a result (HNHK, 159 ff.). This acknowledges the centrality of providence to Vico’s philosophy, but holds it to be a mistake. I do believe someone is being inconsistent with himself in all this, but it does not seem to me to be Vico.
- Cassirer points out thatVico is perfectly aware of the fact that human culture has to be studied and explained according to sociological principles and methods. He does not strive after a sociological explanation in the modern sense. He regards civilization as an organic whole, as a teleological order (“Descartes, Leibniz and Vico,” 105).
Cassirer’s method of avoiding the conceits is to see the way in which both final and efficient historical causation are combined in Vico’s view (the former through the workings of providence). Pompa retains only the efficient level of causation in distinguishing the “historico-sociological level” of Vico’s philosophy of history from the “metaphysical level” (SNS, 15).To sharpen this basic difference of interpretation, Pompa says in the “Introduction” to Vico: Selected Writings that “Vico is presenting a causal ontology in teleological robes” (23), which suggests again that providence and final cause need not be taken seriously. Nevertheless, in HNHK, Pompa changes his view again, acknowledging that providence and teleology are both crucial enough to Vico’s account to undermine it in the end (HNHK, 159 ff.).
- Donald Phillip Verene, “Review of Pompa’s Vico: A Study of the ‘New Science,’ ” in Philosophy and Rhetoric, vol. IX, No. 1, 1976, 59-61.
- It becomes rather clear in Pompa’s SNS chapter XVI that he is interested in using “Vico’s” philosophy of history as a tool for criticizing contemporary philosophers of history (i.e., Toynbee and Spengler, SNS, 174-176), and also ahistorical, inductive, statistical methods in the social sciences (cf. SNS, 178). Having such axes as these to grind leaves one somewhat vulnerable to the two conceits, although the desire for seeing Vico’s contemporary relevance is praiseworthy enough. Cf. Verene’s discussion of the risks involved in the task of interpreting Vico in The New Art of Autobiography, 126 f., and Collingwood’s illuminating discussion of the conceits in The Idea of History, ed. T. M. Knox (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1946), 68-71.
- Max Fisch, “Comment on Professor Pompa’s Paper,” in Vico and Contemporary Thought, ed. G. Tagliacozzo, M. Mooney and D. P. Verene (Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press, 1976), 56.
- Pompa clearly recognizes that the analogy is important (cf. SNS, 168n-169n, 183), but he does not, in my view, see what its importance is. A fine example of Pompa in the process of missing the meaning of the analogy is at HNHK, 167-168, where he fails to see the significance of the fact that birth, growth and decay are operative in all phenomena in both the human and natural worlds.
- Pompa calls this the “epistemological superiority of the human sciences” at SNS, 168, and again on p. 185. The inferiority of natural knowledge is also discussed in “Imagination in Vico,” 169-170, and HNHK, 136. In the latter place Pompa even suggests that Vico believes the study of natural science “should be disregarded because it is, at best, only relatively intelligible.” This is too extreme in my view.
- This is an interesting anticipation of Kant’s limitation of human knowledge of the natural world some forty-five years later in the Kritik der reinen Vernunft.
- The most poignant intertwining of providence, nature and human history in the Scienza Nuova is probably in paragraphs 629-633. Cf. also SN, 241-245, 915.
- Friedrich Ueberweg, A History of Philosophy, Volume 2, trans. George S. Morris (New York: Scribner, Armstrong & Co., 1874), 474.
- Cf. Cassirer’s fine account of the relation between convention and nature in Vico which brings out Vico’s analogical naturalism. Cassirer, Philosophy of Symbolic Forms Volume 1: Language, trans. Ralph Manheim (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1953), 149 ff. Pompa has given a more naturalistic account of the relation between human knowledge and nature in the “Introduction” of Vico: Selected Writings (28-29), but since this does not fit straight-forwardly with the account in SNS, I can only mention it and pass on, assuming the later statement to be definitive. He has most recently spoken directly against a naturalistic interpretation of Vico at HNHK, 167-168. In light of so many changes it is difficult to discern what Pompa’s view of Vico is. What is clear is that Vico is neither wholly naturalistic nor wholly transcendental in his account of providence. Like the Christian God, Vico’s providence is in this world but not of this world. I do not claim to understand how this should be understood, but I am quite sure that Pompa does not grasp it either.
- Cf. Cecelia Miller’s Giambattista Vico: Imagination and Historical Knowledge (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993) for an account of Vico’s development in context, an argument about the relative value of the various editions of the New Science.
- A very cursory account of Vico’s development is offered at SNS, 75-84. There is also the hint of one in Pompa’s “Introduction” to Vico: Selected Writings (1-29), but it is not detailed enough to support Pompa’s nearly unrestricted use of evidence from Vico’s early writings to make philosophical points about his mature views. If anything, this introduction is often inconsistent with such a practice and with the account in SNS more generally (other instances have been indicated previously).
- See the discussion of the role of rhetoric and topics in Vico’s philosophy in James R. Goetsch, Vico’s Axioms: The Geometry of the Human World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), 53-68. Also the recent translation into English of Vico’s Institutiones Oratoriaemakes accessible for the first time to the English-speaking world Vico’s most important statements about rhetoric and topics. See Vico, The Art of Rhetoric, trans. and ed. G. A. Pinton and A. W. Shipee (Amsterdam and Atlanta: Rodopi Editions, 1996).
- Schaeffer’s book (cited above) would not have been available to Pompa in time to take account of it, but Schaeffer’s important article “Sensus Communus in Vico and Gadamer,” New Vico Studies, vol. 5 (1987), 117-130, was available in plenty of time for the new edition of SNS.
- This progression is quite clearly stated by Pompa in “Response by the Author” to Fisch’s commentary, in Vico and Contemporary Thought, 59
- Although Pompa does not cite him, this is a view shared by Cassirer. Cf. “Descartes, Leibniz and Vico,” 105-106. One possibility that Pompa overlooks, but which Collingwood brings out, is that the cycle of history does not entail that history repeats itself exactly (cf. The Idea of History, 67-68). Thus, the barbarism of reflection is not a return to the original state of barbarism as Pompa claims (HNHK, 166-167), but to a very different sort of “forest.”
- Pompa does not himself recognize that the rise of reason is coeval with the advent of the “barbarism of reflection” (cf. SNS, 211), and he believes Vico himself to have been unclear on this point (cf. SNS, 204). Yet, insofar as he acknowledges that reason dispels religion (SNS, 213-215) and disrupts social cohesion by robbing humanity of its three principles (providence, moderation and immortality), one would expect him also to acknowledge that the ascendancy of proud reason obliges providence to intervene and relieve humanity of its hubris in order to restore its piety (SN, 1106). In a very real sense, the death of God is the defining moment and problem of the third age, and Vico is seen to have anticipated Nietzsche’s declaration by 150 years. The age of the gods returns precisely because the humans in their forgetfulness have come to ignore the gods. There is nothing unclear about this in Vico’s text. Yet, Pompa thinks there might still be a place for rational religion, or religion aided by the certification of reason (SNS, 214).
- Pompa explicitly admits this in the “Introduction” to Vico: Selected Writings, 9; and in HNHK, 165.
- Collingwood, The Idea of History, 67. Collingwood is speaking of Vico’s “barbarism of reflection” in this passage.
- Cf. also HNHK, 167, where Pompa makes a similar charge. Verene has devoted a lengthy chapter to the question of the extent of Vico’s own understanding of what he was doing in the Scienza Nuova, which directly opposes Pompa on this matter. Cf. The New Art of Autobiography, 126-160, especially 158-160.
- Bruce A. Haddock, An Introduction to Historical Thought (London: Edward Arnold, 1980), and Vico’s Political Thought (Swansea: Mortlake Press, 1986).
- Collingwood has taken notice of the fact that analogy was also Vico’s manner of arguing from one age to another, and this could be a further suggestion for solving the problem of historical knowledge in Vico. Cf. Collingwood, The Idea of History, 67.
- Cf. SNS, 19, 222; “Introduction” to Vico: Selected Writings, 10.
- A similar complaint about overreactions to Vico’s rejection of Descartes is to be found in “Imagination in Vico,” 165. To gauge accurately the extent of Vico’s rejection of Descartes, and of rationalistic metaphysics, it is probably best to consult “Reprehension of the Metaphysics of René Descartes, Benedict Spinoza, and John Locke,” trans. Donald Phillip Verene, New Vico Studies, vol. VIII (1990), 2-18.
- Benedetto Croce, History as the Story of Liberty, trans. Sylvia Sprigge (New York: Meridian Books, 1955), 135.
- It does warrant mentioning that, in the case of Hume, Donald Livingston has given a comprehensive account of Hume’s theory of knowledge and human nature which does allow for such an evolution of human nature (indeed, mandates it), and this, if correct, would undermine Pompa’s account of Hume. Livingston’s interpretation of Hume also squares fairly well with Vico. Pompa acknowledges this, but takes no trouble to answer Livingston (cf. HNHK, 14), leaving it rather to the reader to decide who is correct. Cf. Livingston, Hume’s Philosophy of Common Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984). In the case of Hegel, Pompa’s entire explication of Hegel’s theory of historical knowledge derives almost exclusively from the “Introduction” to the Philosophy of History, trans. J. Sibree (New York: Dover Books, 1956). Pompa points out that this work is not often treated by Hegel scholars in developing their accounts of Hegel’s theory of historical knowledge (HNHK, 67-68), but he seems unaware that this is due to the fact that it is not considered as authoritative as some of Hegel’s other writings which propound the same general theories. These lectures were not intended for publication, and were pieced together (albeit carefully) from ten years’ worth of scattered notes written by Hegel and his students.
- All of this material is reprinted without alteration in the new second edition, and I take that to mean that Pompa still holds this view.
- If the reader is curious as to my recommendation regarding which secondary sources are reliable introductions to and interpretations of Vico, I would name Verene’s Vico’s Science of Imagination and Goetsch’s Vico’s Axioms (both cited above) as the best guides. I would like to thank both of these authors for their reading and helpful suggestions on this article, as well as Edmund Jacobitti, Cecelia Miller, Claes Ryn and Joseph Baldacchino.