The Unknown and One’s Own Limits

Through recollective imagination, Vico discovers the destiny of human knowing to be oriented to the wholly unknown and Other in the guise


G. Vico, “Discoverta del vero Dante, ovvero nuovi principi di critica dantesca,” Scritti Vari e pagine sparse, ed. Fausto Nicolini (Bari: Laterza, 1940), 79-82.

of the divine. He unveils the theological premises inscribed into human self-understanding from the earliest inception of human culture and its myths. In his transmission of the tradition of Italian humanism, Vico crystalizes a type of self-reflection that is not performed introspectively simply by the subject upon its own immanent consciousness as cogito (a la Descartes), but rather passes externally through reflection on history. He discovers history, nevertheless, by reconstructing its essential conditions self-reflectively from the workings of his own mind. He thus knows it internally. However, Vico thinks history through self-reflectively as the manifestation of divine providence precisely in human self-contradiction and failing. The providential ends of history are achieved paradoxically by frustrating the conscious ambitions of human individuals and peoples.

Vico’s “new” science reflects historically on humanity’s role in “making” the historical world it inhabits. He thus contemplates the only truth that is humanly knowable. Self-reflection is plied not to circumscribe and ground knowledge in itself, but rather to relate to what surpasses the finite knowing self. This internally invented and elaborated mythical “knowing” is a wholly different quality of self-reflection from that of the modern science that arises in the seventeenth century as a narrative of gaining progressive mastery over nature. The latter strives after the ideal of a purely objective, analytical knowledge. Vico’s self-reflection focuses, instead, on humanity’s creative ignorance and so remains engaged with the Other as beyond the self’s ken and as uncontainable within its own sphere of knowing. Vico stands in continuity with Cusanus and the latter’s use of “conjecture” to imaginatively construct in our inner experience what is, properly speaking, unknowable to us. Vico thereby bends and points self-reflection beyond discrete facts and entities.

Despite the “certainty” of its archeological and philological artifacts, the world emerges for Vico not only as a compact, circumscribed ensemble of elements lending itself to be known by decomposition into parts. The finite order is rather invaded and illuminated by an ungraspable whole beyond it. Finitude reflects a light that is not its own—as in the emblematic frontispiece that epitomizes the overall idea of the Scienza nuova. It features “Metaphyics” reflecting a beam of light from the eye of divine providence down to the poet—Homer, surrounded by artifacts of divination and the arts. The concrete specifics of history and culture are illuminated against a background of the open and unfathomable—the infinite—to which they give form and articulation. The historical world consists thereby not just of hard and opaque facts. Instead, it becomes translucent to another order of the real—Vico calls it an “ideal eternal history”—that is not empirically manifest and that can only be imagined. History, however secularized it has become in modern times, has for Vico a “theological” dimension and ground.

This constitutive relating of human knowing to an inhuman Unknown is a work of self-reflection that inverts the purely rational science of selfreflection, which aims to found itself on grounds exclusively of its own

Self-Reflection and Vico’s New Science 261 determination. Self-reflection in the Cartesian tradition is a purely formal enterprise that fabricates self-identity and avoids the task of radical, critical reflection on the self in its uncontrolled, unlimited relation with others. The latter is too upsetting for the Cartesian foundations project of human self-assertion and mastery of nature, but that is precisely what Vico’s “science” exacts.

Cartesian reflection, right from the Discours de la methode (1637), neutralizes any exteriority facing humanity as an incomprehensible Other in order to erect se//-grounding, self-authenticating foundations for science. Vico’s historical-critical approach, in contrast, takes up its task under the sign of Socrates, the archetype of critical and especially self-critical reason. Socrates was recognized by Cusanus as the philosophical father of negative theology (De docta ignorantia 1.1.4). Concordantly, Vico designates Socrates as the first to “call down philosophy from heaven” (“primus philosophiam de cáelo revocasse”), emphasizing his orientation to a higher-order reality unyielding to rational reduction. Circumscribing humanity’s knowledge as the sphere of its own selfrelation is for Vico a way not of grounding humanity in itself, but rather of relating it to the non-human and the natural as an infinite Unknown. This entails a far-reaching redistribution and realignment of tasks within the constitutive disciplines of this “science.”

From early on, modern empirical science was driven by application of principles of mathematicization to nature. However, for Vico, since mathematics is humanly made, nature is not known in its true otherness by such means. It is problematic in Cartesian natural science that humanity utterly fails to truly know itself. By examining things only objectively and ignoring its own subjective shaping hand—alias the imagination— in forging everything, such science treats itself as just another object, as something that conceptual reason can fully grasp. The parceled-up nature that it recognizes has been produced as an object for a subject, but the mind’s own operation in this production has been occulted behind a myth treating objectivity as purely given.

Self-reflection in Vico, in contrast, turns out to be a method not of focusing on the self as ultimate object, or on the cogito as foundational ground of knowledge and consciousness, as postulated by Descartes, but rather the opposite. By self-reflection, as Vico practices it, with his method of recollective imagination employed to conjecture or surmise the origins of human thought and language, the self-conscious and purely introspective self loses all fixed identity. It becomes a mobile locus for imagining its own relation to an unknowable immediacy at the origin of all mediations and reflections of selfhood. Imagination reaching to the


Cited from G. Vico, Il De Mente Heroica e gli scritti latini ntinori, ed. Gian Galeazzo Visconti (Naples: Alfredo Guida Editore, 1996), 15. Electronic edition by L. Pica Ciatnarra and A. Sansone, in “Laboratorio dell’ISPF,”, V, 2008, 1: article/Testi_Ed_Critica_DeMenteHeroicaDef_Rev. Accessed 10/2/2017.

origin of objectivity as such opens the dimension in which everything is related to everything else. This is the dimension that I call “theological” in a sense continuous with Vico’s own unorthodox use of the term. This kind of reflective, and especially self-reflective, meditation by thought on its origins in its own creative activity is what Verene calls Vico’s “science of imagination.” Rather than simply examining, through technical, objective, scientific means and instruments, the artifacts of history as purely positive givens, Vico constructs his knowledge of them internally through imagining and reenacting a primordial mentality capable of forging them. Vico’s new science is not just an empirical anthropology: it is more deeply a philosophical or self-reflective philology.

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