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Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

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Friday, August 20, 2010

Vico and the failure of the revolution of 1799





The Gnostic historian, like the universal historian, has a strong sense of epochs – which, as Bossuet pointed out in his essay on universal history, are stopping points, still moments that frame a sequence. They are in history and not in history. They are signaled by royal deaths, falls of empires, the rising of the son of god from the clutches of death, etc. Instead of the grand events that punctuate the march of universal history, however, the gnostic’s epochs happen in corner conversations, or in a glance at a sign in a window, or in the lyrics of a popular song. Herzen had a nose for these things – in his writing, one finds moments in which suddenly, the forces at dialectical play, usually disguised in a thousand blind intentions, suddenly become naked and twofold, under a harsh and unforgiving stage light. In his beautiful essay on Owen, the proto-socialist English radical, Herzen reports on a conversation Owen had with Gentz, in Herzen’s words, “the literary sycophant of Metternich”, who said to him, about his scheme for a socialist utopia at New Lanark:

“Suppose you had been successful, what would have been the outcome of it?”
“It’s very simple,’ Owen answered. ‘The outcome would have been that every man would have had enough to eat, would have been properly clothed, and would have been given a sensible education.”
“But that’s just what we don’t want,’ observed the Cicero of the Congress of Vienna. Gentz was frank, if nothing else.”

In one sense, this has a satisfying Voltarian sound – in the struggle of the ancients and the moderns, the ancients – representing the ancien regime – want to impose poverty and ignorance on the masses to uphold their hierarchy, and the moderns want to burst through these tired integuments, made of superstition and irrationality, to produce dignity and culture for every man – plus dinner.

In another sense, though, dinner and high culture are not really correlates. Herzen, in his letters to Turgenev, emphasized this point. Raymond Williams, in contrasting Burke and Cobbett in Culture and Society, makes the point that judging our usual political dualities (left or right, ancien regime or modernity) under the Enlightenment program is a more difficult game than it seems when we approach the matter simply by letting certain books talk. The books talk and talk, a cartoon bubble forms, and it fills with theory. Meanwhile, cartoon bubbles were everywhere coming out of the mouths of speculators in drained Fenland and alehouse keepers, lazzaroni and dairy maids. The moderns were of course busy imposing the benefits of a beneficient system on the people, and tearing up the texture of popular belief, for good and ill. This is really a post about Vico and his consideration of the competition between the ancients and the moderns, or rather, as is the way of LI, a flirtation with a topic that always seems to recede from out of the clumsy grasp of my paragraphs, but I want to get to him via these nineteenth century anecdotes – and, for instance, via his radical/conservative reader, Vincenzo Cuoco, who, in exile from the collapse of the revolutionary Parthenopean Republic of Naples, looked back at the mistakes of the Jacobins of 1799 and stressed their disconnect from the people. Cuoco’s history – about which I will have more to say later – has often been linked to the reaction in Europe – to Burke, or to Gentz. About the leader of the Jacobins, the Neapolitan radical Pagano, for instance, Cucio writes:

You wouldn’t say that the families of the Serras, the Colonnes, and of the Pignatellis were obscure, or that Pagano, Cirillo, Conforti were men without a name, but they had a name among the wise who do not make revolutions, and they were unknown to the people, without whom they are not made, because they were too superior. Paggio, the head of the Lazzaroni of the market, was without doubt a contemptible man in all respects, yet however it was Paggio and not Pagano who was loved by the people – the people who always insult those who are above their intelligence.”

But what looks like a standard, Gentzian account of the mob is, in fact, a more subtle critique of the men of theory who do not come out of the crowd – and who, out of an ignorance deriving from that part of knowledge that William James named acquaintance, are all the more ready to reduce all knowledge to what is demonstrable and can be driven to the sole standard of the true or the false. A standard that requires the atomization of culture to a vast mass of independent decision pairs.

But I’ll leave Cuoco and start with Vico – in the next post.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Vico and l'esprit geometrique

In the preface to his translation of Vico’s Le Méthode des études de notre temps, Alain Pons notices that Vico, in contrast to his opponent Descartes, recognizes the distinct cognitive and cultural and philosophical status of childhood and youth.

“. It is doubtlessly in their respective attitude to childhood that best reveals the depths that separate Vico from Descartes. Descartes could not console himself from the fact that “we have all been children before being men, from which it is almost impossible that our judgments are as pure and solid as they could have been, if we had had the entire use of our reason from the instant of our birth and had never been led but by it. The Research of the Truth is even more explicit: “One of the principle causes why we have so much pain in knowing” is that, with the child, “the best comes last, which is understanding”, and that before this, for years, we remain given to the senses, “which see nothing beyond the most vulgar and common of things,” to our natural inclination, which is “completely corrupted”, and to “impertinent nurses”. Vico, on the contrary, could be defined as the philosopher of childhood, of the world of the child as the childhood of the world. From his first inaugural discourse, he declares to the students, “Quivis vestrum puer maximo praelusit philosopho” – every child is the prelude to a great philosopher, because in him is spontaneously amassed a treasury of theoretical and practical wisdom that the speculative knowledge would have to “explain”, to deploy rationally. The child is not infans, he speaks, one must know how to listen to him. Vico reports, in the De Constantia philologiae, the phrase of one of his sons: My heart is always talking to me, and what a lot of things it tells me!” “

Pons is right to elevate the child – that evidence that maturity is, itself, but a phase – to the emblem of what Vico saw as the cultural decadence spread by the geometric spirit. He wrote his small tract on method at almost the same time Fontenelle was writing his on the utility of mathematics. It is a good contrast, since Fontenelle was resolutely on the side of the moderns, and Vico wanted to have his say about this quarrel. LI sees him as one of the primogenitive advocates of the imagination – leading the power of ingenium against a fundamental shift in the human limit. A shift that leads us, in the 19th century, into the building of the artificial paradise.

Pons quotes a letter Vico wrote to a friend concerning the education of the young man of his time: “It [Cartesianism] has filled their heads, Vico will say in a letter of 1729, “with such great words as ‘demonstrations’, ‘evidences’, ‘demonstrated truths’, thus preparing them to enter in a world of men who are composed of lines, of numbers, and of algebraic signs.”

That is our world now, of course, and we are ruled by those men.