Reflecting to the Origins of Thinking

By his method of “recollective memory,” Vico attempts the nearly impossible task of reproducing in his own mind the pre-rational thought processes of the first humans, those who crossed the threshold to symbolic thinking. Vico reads history as the record of humanity’s unwitting self-reflection by projection of itself onto the world. Human thought begins among the humanoid “giants” by their first distinguishing between heaven or the sky above and the earth beneath. They do so under the shock of terror induced by the experience of thunder and lightning as expressing the “anger” of an immense body, the sky, which is apprehended as such for the first time through this assignment of a meaning. The sky for them initially is not an object, nor even a phenomenon. It can first be discerned at all only analogically as a wildly agitated body—like the giants’ own bodies when they are angry. Vico elucidates the Latin word “Jove,” originally “lous,” and in Greek “Zeus,” as imitating the fracas of thunder. These names embody onomatopoetic reminiscences of the clash of thunder or the hissing sound of lightning (“Ed esso Giove fu da’ latini, dal fragor del tuono, detto dapprima 'Ions’-, dal fischio del fulmine da’ greci fu detto Zsvt;,” Scienza nuova, 447).

The terrifying violence of storms had, of course, been experienced by primates repeatedly since time immemorial. But only once this violence is retained through the invention of an image such as that of an overwhelmingly powerful body—the sky, “Zeus” in anger—does human thought begin. Thought begins, in Vico’s understanding, with such a “theological” imagination impressing itself on memory through fear of some divinity (“spaventoso pensiero d’una qualche divinita,” 338). This first human thought reaches momentously beyond mere sensation, which is forgotten the moment it ceases. Such a thought enables an objective world to emerge from the sheer immediacy of sensation in the first place. Imagining such a thought takes us back to the pre-reflexive origin of all reflection.

Reflection in philosophy typically deems itself to begin from given objects, but Vico explains (by repeating and enacting) how the mind can first begin to give itself anything as an object. He underlines its doing so on the basis of, and in continuity with, sensation and imagination, its only resources at this stage. Subsequently, the mind can reconstruct and self-reflectively simulate its own emergence through such sensorial imagining.

This simulating does not consist in just a formal exercise performed on alien material given to the mind from outside. It is rather a self-knowing by the mind of its own thought-processes. Nevertheless, the origin of


Donald Phillip Verene, Vico’s Science of Imagination (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981), 99ff.

thought is “known” in this case principally as an ««knowing—as a limit of knowing. Something in itself unfathomable is figured anthropomorph-ically in terms of oneself, which makes it seem understandable. Such knowing runs up against “ignorance,” out of which the first words— names for God—are invented as “imaginative universals,” namely “Zeus,” followed by “Cybele” and “Poseidon” and then the pantheon of twelve further divinities, producing a world order beginning from differentiations between Sky and Earth and Sea.

Vico’s theories suggest how all possibility of reflective thinking is grounded on an immediacy that is imagined mythologically and theologically and that is understood as engendering the earliest possibility of thought. “God” (not yet one or many) is the figure of the absolutely Other experienced first in undifferentiated sensation, but then made thinkable by being figured in terms of oneself, of “one’s own” being—of the body and emotions, which are most immediately present in experience. Thought is reflexive, but still a relation to the unknown.

In order to comprehend Vico’s new science, one has to imagine one’s way back into the mind of the first humans, those who cross the threshold from sensation to thought. One has to recreate by one’s own reflection the experience of making a world ordered into objects, starting from the distinction (where none previously existed) between heaven and earth. This undertaking involves the immense difficulties that Vico says cost him twenty years of research (338)—of applying self-reflection in order to envisage the immediacy (or otherness-to-reflection) that precedes and exceeds all thought. This odyssey to discover the first operation of the human mind (“prima operazion della mente umana,” 699) has to be carried out by the imagination reflecting back to the source of its own thinking. Critical employment of imagination is required to work against the natural (Narcissistic) tendency of thought always to assimilate everything to the already familiar (120-28). Instead, the mind must be made to confront its ignorance. This beginning from ignorance is the first prerequisite for reenacting through imagination the origin of human thought and culture.

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