Self-Reflective Imagining of the Unknowable: From Vico to Dante

Vico’s new science reflectively reconstructs the mind’s knowledge of itself through the principles of its own modifications (“i principi dentro le modificazioni della nostra medesima mente umana,” 331). In this science, philosophy and philology coincide (138-40), since facts and ideas alike are forged by the imagination. It requires our becoming ignorant of what we think we know, as if there were no books in the world (330), in order to free ourselves of the conceit—or the ignorance turning to arrogance— of philosophers and scholars alike, as well as of “nations” (120-28, first four axioms). All are imprisoned within their own language, as if it were

Self-Reflection and Vico’s New Science 259 the true and standard one, and do not discern or suspect its origin beyond them in the common and “providential” nature of humanity.

Instead of taking our own world of objects as the true one that other cultures have fantastically described in their variously deviant and erroneous ways, we ought to see our ignorance of the real beyond our ken. For out of this ignorance, all articulate knowledge arises. Self-reflection on this ignorance at the origin of our own and of all knowledge is the key to a true science, to a veritable knowing of ourselves. We must know— by entering into and repeating in recollective imagination—the human mind’s propensity to invent gods through its ineluctable predicament of absolute «»knowing.

Poetic theology is rooted in ignorance and is creative of humanity in its essence—according to an “eternal ideal history” (storia ideale eterna). We do not understand the providential causes or reasons of this history, since we do not make them. The invention of a whole civil world, such as that of the Latin Middle Ages as it is construed in Dante’s Commedia, is understood aright only as expressing this original ignorance of our ultimate Cause. In light of its primordial expression as the language of the gods, this is a “theological” ignorance.

Vico devoted Book III of his Scienza nuova to “discovering the true Homer” as crucial to his archeology of human knowledge, and he considered Dante to be the new Homer of the modern vernacular languages. As poetic creator, Dante combines the original operation of poetic invention of a world of objects with reflective, recollective memory and imagination. Vico’s new science similarly aims to recover this “original” mental process by repeating it—by experiencing it from within and thereby knowing the world as our own making. This original invention of thought and language is imagined as happening particularly in the experience of fear in relation to the gods, with which specifically human consciousness, as Vico excavates it, begins.

Vico employs self-reflection as a method of repeating in his own thought the thought process of humanity in its emerging and its development according to “the eternal ideal history.” As its name suggests, this “history” is not inferred from empirical facts but serves rather as a kind of template for reconstructing facts. The storia ideale eterna is the immediate image of human events as understood by the recollective imagination that is operative in Vico’s own philosophical thinking.

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