On Giambattista Vico’s ‘The New Science’​ : Part Six — Thanks eversore much, Pointcarried!

David Proud
35 min readNov 6, 2022







Thanks eversore much, Pointcarried! I can’t say if it’s the weight you strike me to the quick or that red mass I was looking at but at the present momentum, potential as I am, I’m seeing rayingbogeys rings round me. Honours to you and may you be commended for our exhibitiveness! I’d love to take you for a bugaboo ride and play funfer all if you’d only sit and be the ballasted bottle in the porker barrel. You will deserve a rolypoly as long as from here to tomorrow. And to hell with them driftbombs and bottom trailers! If my maily was bag enough I’d send you a toxis. By Saxon Chromaticus, you done that lovely for me! Didn’t he now, Nubilina? Tiny Mite, she studiert whas? With her listeningin coiffure, her dream of Endsland’s daylast and the glorifires of being presainted maid to majesty. And less is the pity for she isn’t the lollypops she easily might be if she had for a sample Virginia’s air of achievement.

Service superseding self.

- James Joyce, (1882–1941), ‘Finnegans Wake’

Taken from the ‘Night Lessons’ episode of the Wake wherein Shem, Shaun, and their sister Issy are at their lessons their light exercises opening out upon the whole world of human learning including Kabbalistic Theology, Viconian Philosophy, the seven liberal arts of the Trivium and Quadrivium, with a brief recess for letter-writing and belle-lettristics, the mind being directed by gradual stages from the murky mysteries of cosmogony down to Chapelizod, Dublin, and the tavern of Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, and while the young girl broods upon love, Shem assists Shaun with a geometry problem disclosing to him through circles and triangles the mother secrets of Anna Livia Plurabelle (see my article ‘On the Geometry of the Absolute’) whereupon Shaun indignantly strikes him down though Shem recovers and forgives and the chapter ends with a final examination and beginning as the children are prepared to create their New World which will feed upon the Old.

Thanks eversore much, Pointcarried! Jules Henri Poincaré, (1854–1912), French mathematician, theoretical physicist, engineer and philosopher of science noted for his work on the three-body problem concerned with how to distribute equally and maintain satisfaction to all three participants engaged in a threesome .. I jest … actually the problem of finding the general solution to the motion of more than two orbiting bodies in the Solar System which had eluded mathematicians since the time of Isaac Newton, (1642–1726/27), later known as the n-body problem where n is any number of more than two orbiting bodies, and the n-body solution was regarded as very important and challenging at the close of the 19th century and Poincaré albeit he did not solve the original problem (that was finally achieved by Karl Frithiof Sundman, (1873–1949), for n = 3 in 1912 and was generalised to the case of n > 3 bodies by Qiudong Wang in the 1990s) just in case the problem could not be solved any other important contribution to classical mechanics would then be considered to be prizeworthy and the prize was finally awarded to Poincaré.

Why did it take so long to find a solution, all that time since Newton’s day, so many brilliant mathematical minds since then? Why was the solution found at the time it was? Similarly, the dispute between Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, (1646–1716), (who of course appears in the insect riddled ‘Ondt and the Gracehoper’ episode of the Wake as nits: ‘He took a round stroll and he took a stroll round and he took a round strollagain till the grillies in his head and the leivnits in his hair made him thought he had the Tossmania….’), and Newton, (… thought he weighed a new ton when there felled his first lapapple … ) concerning the integral calculus is well known that is they developed the integral calculus independently and both accusing the other of plagiarism thus setting up a kind of partisanship in mathematics of all places. The integral calculus, the basics of which may now taught be taught school, all of which took Leibnitz and Newton an unimaginable amount of thinking to work it all out, but why had not mathematical geniuses such as Blaise Pascal, (1623–1662), or René Descartes, (1596–1650), gotten there first? Because there has to be an advancement. In the ‘Phenomenology of Spirit’ (phenomenology: that which shows itself to us) Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, (1770–1831), describes the progression of shapes of consciousness that Spirit has to go through in the course of human history and development whereby each negates or surpasses (sublates) each other while each shape of consciousness at its time was taken to be the best that can be done, something great and important that had been attained, and then through the process of negation and the operation of the dialectic something new emerged and from such a vantage point it was possible to look back and recognise that they simply did not know what is known now and they were unable to see through from where they were to where we are now. As Hegel explains:

‘Now, because the system of the experience of Spirit embraces only the appearance of Spirit, the advance from this system to the Science of the True in its true shape seems to be merely negative, and one might wish to be spared the negative as something false, and demand to he led to the truth without more ado. Why bother with the false? — The view already discussed, namely, that we should begin with Science straight away, is to be answered at this point by examining the nature of the negative in general regarded as what is false. This is a topic regarding which established ideas notably obstruct the approach to truth’.

- ‘Phenomenology of Spirit’

Hence, though one may be tempted to do so, instead of reading the Phenomenology in its entirety one might turn to the last chapter alone to see how it ends, thereby satisfying themselves with a easily digestible form and fully articulated unity, the end-result of the science, for why burden oneself with a load of historical background stuff? Well, because it is not simply background that is why. It is important to look back and to observe what has been occurring throughout all of this rather than merely observing it all as merely false, a process of negation, of negativity, for otherwise we are simply assuming that we know what truth and falsity are, while a true approach to truth does justice to falsity. History, the notion thereof, plays a fundamental role in human thought given its invocation of notions of human agency, of change, of the role of material circumstances in human affairs, of the putative meaning of historical events, it presents the possibility of learning from history, it implicates the possibility of better understanding ourselves in the present through an understanding of the forces, the choices, the circumstances that brought us to our present situation.

However, according to Aristotle, (384–322 BC), poetry is more philosophical than history in virtue of history focussing upon the particular, upon what has occurred, upon what was the case for particular individual things, while poetry focusses upon the universal. So, for instance, Byron penned on ode on one particular individual, Napoleon, (1769–1821), but then in the poem Napoleon stands for something, whereas with historical characters or events from a historical perspective, the battle of Waterloo, 1815, say, what do they stand for?

Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte (excerpt)

by Lord Byron (1788–1824)

’TIS done — but yesterday a King!

And arm’d with Kings to strive —

And now thou art a nameless thing:

So abject — yet alive!

Is this the man of thousand thrones,

Who strew’d our earth with hostile bones,

And can he thus survive?

Since he, miscalled the Morning Star,

Nor man nor fiend hath fallen so far.

Ill-minded man! why scourge thy kind

Who bow’d so low the knee?

By gazing on thyself grown blind, Thou taught’st the rest to see.

With might unquestion’d, — power to save,

— Thine only gift hath been the grave,

To those that worshipp’d thee;

Nor till thy fall could mortals guess

Ambition’s less than littleness!

Thanks for that lesson — it will teach

To after-warriors more

Than high Philosophy can preach,

And vainly preach’d before.

That spell upon the minds of men

Breaks never to unite again, That led them to adore

Those Pagod things of sabre sway

With fronts of brass, and feet of clay.

In the Wake the children had been reading in their history books about the past and the Punic wars and about the five bloods of Ireland, (O’Neill of Ulster, O’Connor of Connacht, O’Brien of Thomond, O’Lochlan of Meath, and McMurrough of Leinster), and about Julius Caesar, (100 BC — 44 BC), and druidesses and the triumvirate while Issy fails to see the point in all this studying as the happy thought springs to her mind that so long as life and love last and so long as her image in the mirror stays the likeness of love itself, sombre autumn to her fresh spring, she couldn’t give a fig for it! The boys study their history books, learning about the emperor Napoleon, and his famous horse and about Dathi that was struck by lightning as he crossed the Alps and about Hannibal and the Hegira and how Dagobert went through his preparatory schooling in Slane, where he learned how to wear his breeches inside out from Brian O’Lynn, Ireland’s chief ‘culoteer’.

But what of philosophical history? Which Hegel describes thus:

‘… the Philosophy of History means nothing but the thoughtful consideration of it. Thought is, indeed, essential to humanity. It is this that distinguishes us from the brutes. In sensation, cognition, and intellection; in our instincts and volitions, as far as they are truly human, Thought is an invariable element. To insist upon Thought in this connection with history may, however, appear unsatisfactory. In this science it would seem as if Thought must be subordinate to what is given, to the realities of fact; that this is its basis and guide: while Philosophy dwells in the region of self-produced ideas, without reference to actuality. Approaching history thus prepossessed, Speculation might be expected to treat it as a mere passive material; and, so far from leaving it in its native truth, to force it into conformity with a tyrannous idea, and to construe it, as the phrase is, “à priori.” But as it is the business of history simply to adopt into its records what is and has been — actual occurrences and transactions; and since it remains true to its character in proportion as it strictly adheres to its data, we seem to have in Philosophy, a process diametrically opposed to that of the historiographer. This contradiction, and the charge consequently brought against speculation, shall be explained and confuted. We do not, however, propose to correct the innumerable special misrepresentations, trite or novel, that are current respecting the aims, the interests, and the modes of treating history, and its relation to Philosophy. … The only Thought which Philosophy brings with it to the contemplation of History, is the simple conception of Reason; that Reason is the Sovereign of the World; that the history of the world, therefore, presents us with a rational process’.

- ‘Lectures on the Philosophy of History’

Giambattista Vico, (1668–1744), may have been the inventor of the philosophy of history, well he certainly appears to have been the first to take seriously the possibility that people had fundamentally different schema of thought in different historical eras which is the very concern of Hegel’s Phenomenology also, hence many similarities can be found between Viconian philosophical history and Hegelian philosophical history, but there was one area where there is radical disagreement, it is to do with something Hegel mentions in the passage I have just quoted, and it is well worth our while delving into it to see who is right on this one if only for the very intriguing issues it raises.

An Allegorical Monument to Sir Isaac Newton’, 1727/29, Giambattista Pittoni

First, however, one view that Vico shared with Hegel, was that a straightforwardly empirical approach to human history falls short of what is required, for as Hegel points out there was a significant difference between the impulses and inclinations which operated in a restricted sphere and those which operated in the conflict of interests in world history and that we had to move from empirical to philosophical history to take account of the latter, and similarly Vico was of the view that we cannot merely appropriate the concepts and understanding appropriate to our own age and apply them to history at large (nice use of homographs there if I do say so myself), for to do thus would be to run the risk of wholesale conceptual anachronism as indeed occurred, Vico contends, in the endeavour to discover something akin to present philosophical wisdom in the great poems and myths of the past. Vico refers to this tendency as the boria, that is to say, vanity or conceit of the scholars. That he was concerned to demonstrate how to avoid conceptual anachronism is common ground to almost all Vico scholars albeit they differ in their accounts of his recommendations as to how to do so.

The response to this quandary is not of course the application of more detailed and careful empirical research, for when he directs his attention to the philologists who have done exactly that Vico discerns that their failure to work in accordance with a knowledge of universal principles has left them totally at variance with one another over many indeed most of the important issues of interpretation in history. Hence he berates the philologists for having failed to correct their work with the reasoning of the philosophers and the philosophers for similarly having disregarded the work of the philologists, and the solution, he insists, is to discover a way of bringing the two into a fruitful collaboration, and whatever form that may take Vico evidently rejects both a purely a priori and a purely empirical approach which was echoed albeit perhaps not achieved in practice by Hegel in his insistence that while a philosophical viewpoint was needed philosophical history must not succumb to an a priori manipulation of the facts. Hence on the very lowest estimate we may observe that Vico concurs with Hegel in maintaining that while history must not be a product of a priori philosophy neither can it dispense with something rather more systematic and reflective than the approach of the empirical historian. But while Hegel contends that the empirical historian employs some categories Vico is blunt in apparently crediting them with none and constantly laments over their failure to endeavour to set their source materials in a context that will lend their interpretations of them some credibility.

From which we may conclude that Vico shares with Hegel the objective of delivering a scientia scientiarum, a science of sciences, at the basis of which will be a theory of the development of human nature as such, thereby giving its history a significance which we may describe as philosophical in so far as it will provide a framework for understanding the whole range of human activities and phenomena and the different bodies of knowledge that have been produced. Similarly he shares with Hegel the view that when it comes to a theory of the development of human nature the categories appropriate to an understanding of contemporary history are inadequate and some other set of categories must be adduced. Vico and Hegel are at one when it comes to the importance of history as a mode of knowledge and it is not as David Hume, (1711–1776), supposed one of the subaltern sciences but on the contrary it is a science fundamental to any proper understanding of ourselves in the world in which we live. Properly conceived history must combine with philosophy to form a united discipline, that which Hegel designated philosophical history a term not used by Vico but he does refer to his work as ‘a new science concerning the common nature of nations’ and yet is quite clear about its combined character.

Why his Science has not yet previously been discovered he explains thus:

‘The unfortunate reason for this lack is that we have not yet possessed a science which constituted both a history and philosophy of humanity together. For the philosophers have meditated upon a human nature already civilised by the religions and laws in which, and only in which, philosophers originated and not upon the human nature which gave rise to the religions and laws in which philosophers originated; while … the philologists have handed down vulgar traditions which are so disfigured, mutilated and displaced that, unless their proper appearance is restored to them, their fragments are pieced together and they are returned to their [proper] places, no serious thinker can believe them to have been created thus.’

- ‘The New Science’

‘El astrónomo’, 1688, Johannes Vermeer

But what of the non-rational origins of humanity? There are many points of dissimilarity between Vico and Hegel, for instance Hegel was very insistent upon the need for a commitment to a substantial theory of rationality and what that means is not simply that philosophical history should ignore all those parts of the historical world in which reason had not developed itself but rather that original history which provides the philosophical historian with his or her materials must exclude all legends, folksongs and poems, for these are the products of nations whose consciousness is still obscure and as such they cannot be ‘the object of the philosophical history of the world, whose aim is to attain knowledge of the Idea in history’. For albeit the original historian cannot have the reflective knowledge which philosophical history provides he or she still participates in or is in immediate contact with the spirit of his or her age and hence with the rational and therefore the philosophical notion of the object of philosophical history determines what is to be admitted as original history and this excludes legends, folksongs and so on which are the products of nations of obscure consciousness, which is to say, nations in which reason has not manifested itself.

Vico, however, not only does not disregard the consciousness of obscure nations as it expresses itself in legend, myth, traditional tales and so on, but he informs us that we shall never come to a proper understanding of the development of human nature if we do not come to see how it has developed necessarily from such beginnings and the beginning to which he is prepared to go back is in fact far more obscure than those which Hegel is compelled to reject. He describes it as the ‘first human thought born into the gentile world’ and asserts that it has cost ‘a good twenty years of research’ to discover it albeit one suspects an exaggeration here for the thought in question, that the world is a god, was first formulated by Vico in ‘Diritto Universale’ or ‘Universal Right’ which was published between 1720 and 1722 and Vico’s previous philosophical works, from the ‘First Inaugural Oration’ of 1699 to ‘De Antiquissima Italorum Sapientia ex Linguae Originibus Eruenda Libri Tres’ or ‘On the Most Ancient Wisdom of the Italians Unearthed from the Origins of the Latin Language’ of 1709 display no concern with this problem nor, given their conceptual orientation, is it easy to see how Vico could then have been thinking of it, and in the first ‘New Science’ of 1725 he says that its discovery had involved twenty-five years’ work.

Be that as it may, the account that Vico gives of this first form of thought is indeed a somewhat extraordinary one, its primary feature being that of conjuring into existence, naturally and imaginatively, the theological conceptions mentioned earlier by spreading humanity’s conception of itself over the world a dramatic depiction of which process he presents in the ‘New Science’. Vico attributes to poetic man the thought of himself as a living body so that by proceeding in this way he naturally sees the physical world as a very large body and thunder and lightning as the very loud grunts of this being, identical to those through which poetic man sought to express himself. This being is the Jove in which all gentile religions originated although note must be taken of Vico’s account being almost wholly confined to the gentile nations for the history of the Jews he asserts took a different course because as God’s chosen people they received divine help. Whether he believed this or whether he claimed it merely to avoid investigation by the officers of the Inquisition is an unresolved issue but it is certainly true that his doctrines were viewed with suspicion during his own lifetime.

Irrespective of the sincerity of his claims concerning Jewish history it is apparent enough that almost the entirety of Vico’s account of the course which the histories of nations must take is about that of the gentile nations and is explicitly said by him to be so, nonetheless it is difficult to see how an account of the ‘ideal eternal history’ could fail to have applied to Jewish history as well in effect depriving it of the unique status which Christian thought attributed to it. One need not therefore resort to naturalistic interpretations of Vico to see why he may have felt a certain reluctance to make some of the implications of his thought too explicit. As man begins to discriminate more features of his world and, later, certain qualities of character, and certain social needs and utilities, he takes these to be a series of other gods, the children of Jove, so that a theogony of gods is naturally born in the minds of the first people in terms of which they think. The influence of Lucretius’, ( c. 99 BC — c. 55 BC), ‘De rerum natura’ upon Vico has long been known:

… And no marvel

If in those times the thunderbolts prevail

And storms are roused turbulent in heaven,

Since then both sides in dubious warfare rage

Tumultuously, the one with flames, the other

With winds and with waters mixed with winds.

This, this it is, O Memmius, to see through

The very nature of fire-fraught thunderbolt;

O this it is to mark by what blind force

It maketh each effect, and not, O not

To unwind Etrurian scrolls oracular,

Inquiring tokens of occult will of gods,

Even as to whence the flying flame hath come,

Or to which half of heaven it turns, or how

Through walled places it hath wound its way,

Or, after proving its dominion there,

How it hath speeded forth from thence amain,

Or what the thunderstroke portends of ill

From out high heaven. But if Jupiter

And other gods shake those refulgent vaults

With dread reverberations and hurl fire

Whither it pleases each, why smite they not

Mortals of reckless and revolting crimes,

That such may pant from a transpierced breast

Forth flames of the red levin- unto men

A drastic lesson?- why is rather he-

O he self-conscious of no foul offence-

Involved in flames, though innocent, and clasped

Up-caught in skiey whirlwind and in fire?

Nay, why, then, aim they at eternal wastes,

And spend themselves in vain?- perchance, even so

To exercise their arms and strengthen shoulders?

Why suffer they the Father’s javelin

To be so blunted on the earth? And why

Doth he himself allow it, nor spare the same

Even for his enemies? O why most oft

Aims he at lofty places? Why behold we

Marks of his lightnings most on mountain tops?

Then for what reason shoots he at the sea?-

What sacrilege have waves and bulk of brine

And floating fields of foam been guilty of?

Besides, if ’tis his will that we beware

Against the lightning-stroke, why feareth he

To grant us power for to behold the shot?

- ‘De rerum natura’

Vico’s account of the nature of primitive thinking goes well beyond that of Lucretius of course and this first human thinking is very different from our present thinking for poetic man had no capacity whatsoever to see things as instances of abstract universals, a capacity which Vico attributes to man only in the third age. His ‘thinking’ has more of the character of our experiencing, for everything is seen as particular and the best that he can do is to take different particulars, those which we would identify as instances of universals, as parts of a whole, which is itself a divine being:

‘Thus, for example, they understood Jove, Cybele or Berecynthia, and Neptune and, first by mute pointing, interpreted them as those substances of the sky, earth and sea which they imagined to be animate divinities, and therefore, in accordance with truths delivered by their senses, believed them to be gods. Through these three divinities … they interpreted everything pertaining to the sky, the earth and the sea; and, in the same way, with the other kinds of divinities they symbolised the other kinds of things which pertain to each god, such as all flowers to Flora and all fruits to Pomona.’

- ‘The New Science’

‘Pfeife rauchender Dichter in einem Gelehrten Kabinett’, (‘Poet smoking a pipe in a scholar’s cabinet’), 17th cent., unknown artist.

Hence unlike Hegel Vico is prepared to take the world of myth seriously as an expression of human consciousness albeit in an admittedly primitive area, and concerning the significance of the difference Hegel dismissed this kind of consciousness from philosophical history on the ground that it is not even implicitly rational while Vico insisted upon the necessity to take it into consideration albeit it is so primitive and irrational in character that it is hard to see what aside from sheer comprehensiveness would be lost in terms of the comprehensibility of the rest were it to be omitted, or to put it another way, is Hegel the one losing out in virtue of the fact that his rationalism compelled him to dismiss the obscure, that is to say, Vico’s poetic, from philosophical history? Well, from Vico’s point of view Hegel cannot have a correct conception of the second necessary stage in historical development, the heroic age.

It is no easy task to put exact limits upon the notion of the heroic age, a difficulty which arises from the fact that Vico himself appeared to change his mind over the boundary which distinguished it from the poetic age, but its principle features are evident enough in that it arises in a period when according to Vico after the poetic and theological way of life has arisen and its benefits have become apparent strangers from outside appeal for asylum to the communities, or ‘families’, which have grown up around the theological world view, and are taken in on the basis of something akin to a very low level feudal arrangement. They have, for instance, almost no rights in law because law is the preserve of the king usually the ‘father’ of the family and through him, at best, of the rest of the family, they have no rights of possession, no rights to marriage, hence no legitimate offspring to whom to transfer their possessions and thus strengthen their access to possession as such, and this entire mode of life discovers its justification not in the actual strength of the rulers and their family proper but in their claims to be descended from unions of the gods and ordinary mortals.

It is their semi-divine status that guarantees that they and nobody else should have the mediate right to possession of the land, its produce and its workers, which belongs ultimately to the gods, and furthermore the period of heroism is also according to Vico the start of the period of the class war. The situation in which the newcomers to society find themselves is one of considerable hardship, it is a situation in which they can have none of the solaces of religion, of the comforts and companionship of marriage, of children who can be a legitimate extension of themselves and to whom they can leave a heritage and so on, hence it becomes a period of class war in which, step by step, these virtual slaves, the ‘plebs’ in Rome, win the legal right to equality in these economic, social and human spheres of life, but the barrier all along is the myth of the semi-divine status of the nobles, which, although used by them to their own advantage in the war, is nevertheless one which they also believe:

‘The second nature was heroic, which the heroes themselves took to be of divine origin, for since they believed that the gods created everything, they took themselves, as those generated under Jove’s auspices, to be his children; and being of the human species, they located in this heroism, and did so with justice, the natural nobility by which they were the princes of the human race. This natural nobility they vaunted over those who repaired to their asylums to save themselves from the perils of their infamous bestial communion in which, coming without gods, they were taken to be beasts … ‘

- ‘The New Science’

Vico also makes it evident that the plebs have to overcome this vanity of the heroes and recognise that they themselves share the same human nature, hence the rationale of the institutional structure at the start of the heroic period is to be found in a set of wholly false beliefs and no change in the institutional structure can transpire without being accompanied by and eventually being grounded in a change in that set of beliefs, and the principle of heroism is treated by Vico with the utmost seriousness so that that he is ready to put down a large part of the defects in other histories to a failure to identify it:

‘Heroic nature, which lay halfway between the divine and human things of nations, has been largely unknown until now, because we have either relied on memory alone or imagined it other than it was. It has thus concealed from us the divine things of nations, from which it originated, while leaving us without a science of human things, all of which were born of divine things. Thus the material for working out not merely the systems of the natural law of the gentes but the whole science of human learning, divine and gentile, has come down to us in a distorted and despoiled form.’

- ‘The New Science’

What would be lost then according to Vico by a failure to go back to the very origins of human history would be an ability to appreciate how that which we take to be human nature is a development from a nature part of which consists in a wholly mythical consciousness and to appreciate how these origins have had their effect upon the whole way in which, over the course of history, a more rational human nature has been forged. Hegel’s presupposition of an implicit but concrete rationality, as part of what it is to be ‘historical’, Vico would protest, compelled him to take far too rational a view of its origins, and to start far too late in the real process by which it arose, to be able to do anything to correct his mistake. The view that doctrines ‘must begin with the times in which their subject matter begins’ is fundamental to the ‘New Science’.

‘The master of mathematics’, Pietro della Vecchia, (1603–1678)

Which sounds all well and good until you probe into the issues more deeply. Despite his protests to the contrary is not Vico being dogmatic in the sense in which that term is applied in philosophy? As Hegel explains:

‘Dogmatism as a way of thinking, whether in ordinary knowing or in the study of philosophy, is nothing else but the opinion that the True consists in a proposition which is a fixed result, or which is immediately known. To such questions as, When was Caesar born?, or How many feet were there in a stadium?, etc. a clear-cut answer ought to be given, just as it is definitely true that the square on the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides of a right-angled triangle. But the nature of a so-called truth of that kind is different from the nature of philosophical truths’.

- ‘Phenomenology of Spirit’

The philosophical dogmatist believes that we can pronounce definitively upon a philosophical issue as we can pronounce upon the date of Caesar’s birth or upon the equality of the square on a triangle’s hypotenuse to the two squares on its other two sides. Dogma, as it was used in Greek philosophy, referred to a notion of which certain schools of philosophy believed that were one not to start from it then one would not get anyway, the making of progress depended upon accepting x, y and z. Unquestioned assumptions of a religious nature also scientific the central dogma if you don’t accept it you make no progress in this field or understand things a basic building block or component Kant used the term opposed to scepticism and transcendental philosophy Dogmatic philosophy is not truly philosophical if you think the truth is encapsulated in propositions that are a fixed result something you can rely on,or that it’s something immediately known. Historical knowledge, mathematical knowledge, knowledge that can be encapsulated in a proposition. It can be a fixed result we don’t have to question who caesar was every time we bring up caesar albeit there may be ne reassessments or interpretations ut without new evidence we stick with fixed result Some things can be immediately know is coffee bitter with philosophy we cannot just stick with the positive logicalpositivism is a misguided way of doing philosophy and a terrible thing to engage in because it lkeads tou astray away from learning how to do genuine philosophy the aimof only what can be measured publicly verified etc restricting yourself to what is inherently unphilosophical we cannoy use fixed results to carry out the progress and process of philosophy.

What would be lost then according to Vico by a failure to go back to the very origins of human history would be an ability to appreciate how what we take to be human nature is a development from a nature part of which consists in a wholly mythical consciousness and to appreciate how these origins have had their effect upon the whole way in which, over the course of history, a more rational human nature has been forged. Hegel’s presupposition of an implicit but concrete rationality, as part of what it is to be ‘historical’, Vico would say, forced him to take far too rational a view of its origins, and to start far too late in the real process by which it arose, to be able to do anything to correct his mistake. The view that doctrines ‘must begin with the times in which their subject matter begins’ is fundamental to the ‘New Science’.

Consider Vico’s explication of the frontispiece of the ‘New Science’ (see part four of this series):

‘ON THE BELT OF THE ZODIAC WHICH GIRDS THE GLOBE OF THE WORLD, ONLY TWO OF THE SIGNS APPEAR IN THEIR MAJESTY, or (as they say) IN FULL RELIEF, THOSE OF LEO AND OF VIRGO. In the first place, this is to signify that, for its principles, this science contemplates Hercules, given, first, that one finds that every ancient gentile nation tells of some Hercules as its founder. This science contemplates him in the greatest of his Labours, the one with him killing the lion which, in spewing flames, burned down the Nemean forest, and it is a Hercules adorned with the skin of this lion who was raised to the stars; and given, second, that one finds herein that this lion is the great ancient forest of the Earth, the forest which Hercules (whom one finds was a character standing for the political heroes, who must have come before martial heroes) set on fire and brought under cultivation. In addition, this is to offer the beginning of historical times, which started for the Greeks, from whom we have all that remains of gentile antiquity, with the Olympiads connected with their Olympic games, games which we have been told Hercules founded: these must have started with the Nemean games, introduced so as to commemorate the victory recording when Hercules slayed the Nemean lion; thus, historical times started for the Greeks when they started cultivating the fields’.

Doctrines ‘must begin with the times in which their subject matter begins’, according to Vico. But we know so little of the times when their subject begins, thousands of years into the murky past, homo sapiens evolved in Africa some 300,000 years ago, we began to write in the Middle East a mere 5000 years ago. how can we possible penetrate to the real meaning of myths or know anything about from whence they arose? And it gets worse, so far as mythic consciousness goes. What is mythic consciousness? according to Edmund Husserl, (1859–1938), myth is the source of identity and explanation of the world, the childhood condition of human mind and history, with two two functions in essence. It offers a narrative that creates the collective, culturally shaped identity of a community, and this narrative explains the origins of the order of the world, for the particular community in question. From the point of view of cognitive function myth is a totalizing activity of human mind through which it apprehends the world as a coherent totality, as cosmos, with him or herself having a fixed place in it, but with regarding to its particular form that strongly adheres to the life-world and to its concrete practices and customs myth while serving as the preliminary foundation and form of scientific attitude has the historical development of its own whereby it gets more and more universal, abstract and in its own way also rational and what is first of all important is the reconstruction of the process from local myth to rational and universal science.

Myth for Husserl is a way of thought without any rationality but having the logic of its own, a logic bound to the terrain in which the proper people or tribe is living (that rather challenges Vico’s contention upon the universality of myths). It is a territorial myth, for myth defines and fundamentally determines the cultural identity of a group or community, the myth of another, alien group, the foreign myth (der fremde Mythos) could appear as a threat to the cultural identity of the first and such opposition and tension could generate conflicts between cultural, historical communities. The relationship between two culturally different groups need not be necessarily hostile however for it could also assume the form of a relatively peaceful communication and through communication between separate groups or through peculiar reflections within the very same group the limits of a myth may be widened, the local tribal myth may be rendered more rational and more universal and every community, every nation has a myth of world (Weltmythos), which refers back to the specific myth, this territorial myth of this people, and this myth of world with the cultural progress of the history becomes more and more rational in particular elements and in its general connections and patterns. The myth slowly takes the form of a religion with several rational motifs in it which lays the foundation of theology as a scientific discipline, and which is albeit bound to the fundamental narrative of certain sacred texts rational within its specific limits. Myth and religion claims a total description and explanation of the present order of the world and science emerges as a special form of epoché (suspension of judgment) as it brackets the contents and formations of traditional myths and religious practices and customs as well as theory and it endeavours to explain the world and humanity’s place in it solely from itself, and yet the historical foundation at least in the sense of intentional history of such a scientific attitude is a more rational form of religious attitude.

With Ernst Alfred Cassirer, (1874–1945), we get a different story concerning the mythical mind,a more egalitarian one whereby the stress is not upon the superiority of rational, scientific cognition and knowledge in contrast to myth, but rather tends to analyse myth and mythical consciousness that has its own peculiar characteristic, special significance and logic, and what is central to mythic world-view and attitude is its affective and emotional character. The universal coherence and totality of mythical world-view is created through certain emotions and a decisive feature of mythical stance is that there are no strict and rigid borders between external and internal, really existing and purely imaginative, so that subject and object exist in an intimate, barely differentiated fusion in a firm interlocking and the mythical world-view is unaware of such abstract unities as the ideal meanings which we can discover on more formal, more abstract levels of human thought, such as the theoretical, scientific thinking. The myth is always quite concrete and it explains the world in the network of concrete relationships between worldly things.

Everything is fundamentally different than what we encounter in the modern world and thought. The myth applies an essentially different notion of causality whereby causal connections are governed by symbolic laws and by divine will and there is nothing without a cause, mythical thought looks for a cause everywhere, a thing or an event without a cause makes no sense to it. The concrete character of myth could be observed on typical mythical topographies, on the division of space by mythical thinking whereby every direction and region of space possesses a quite concrete meaning, it is a very concrete location with its own inhabitants and laws. Up and down, heaven is the realm of superior, divine beings, hell is something inferior, infernal, chaotic, demon-like creatures. Left and right, right is a cosmic direction, something that refers to cosmic, creative tendencies, structures and qualities, while left is the source of destructive, dark, chaotic forces. East is the origin of light, life and joy, it is the dwelling place of positive, heavenly creatures and peoples, while West is the realm of darkness and underworld with creatures who are characteristic to such a realm.

Do you see the problem of incorporating mythic consciousness into philosophical history?

‘Personification of Astrology’, circa 1650–1655, Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri)

And furthermore:

‘As regards historical truths — to mention these briefly it will be readily granted that so far as their purely historical aspect is considered, they are concerned with a particular existence, with the contingent and arbitrary aspects of a given content, which have no necessity. But even such plain truths as those just illustrated are not without the movement of self-consciousness. To cognize one of them, a good deal of comparison is called for, books must be consulted, in some way or other inquiry has to be made. Even an immediate intuition is held to have genuine value only when it is cognized as a fact along with its reasons, although it is probably only the bare result that we are supposed to be concerned about’.

- ‘Phenomenology of Spirit’

The truths of history to the extent that they are contingent, and concern particular existents are indeed bare matters of fact which nothing renders necessary albeit even here there are grounds for and against so that error becomes part of truth, and historical truths are anything that falls within the realm of the particular, the contingent, the arbitrary, that which has happened or has been reported to have happened, albeit philosophy is indeed going to be grounded in the historical process and interested in the great meaning underlying the historical process philosophical truths are not historical truths, the latter bear upon particulars while not aiming at informing us about or applying to things universally, we generalise upon them thereby leaving the boundaries of history proper, generalising from a particular to another particular, comparing the current decline of the West for instance with that of the fall of the Roman Empire, endeavouring to go from the particular to the universal.

As for the contingent, things just happened to be that way, it is the realm of chance, and the arbitrary goes beyond the contingent, arbitras is closely bound up with voluntas, judgements and decisions are only possible for beings with free will, with a capacity to choose, to differentiate between options, only such beings can make arbitrary decisions and history is largely the product of volitions by people albeit other historical perspectives are possible, namely that people did not have a great deal of choice in the circumstances in which they worked, this may be something of a paradox of history, that it deals with people making decisions. A self-consciousness decides something and something happens. If history is taken as an object a subject is thinking or cognizing it and this can proceed in two ways, towards inquiry, whereby we ask what happened? Asking questions, examining archives, comparing one thing with another, a more philosophical inquiring into the reasons, the why. And secondly facts are contingent, arbitrary, and of little worth unless we can be sure we are not reading our own desires into them, we need to go beyond the mere fact for knowing mere facts does not amount to actual knowledge. And what are the facts of a mythic consciousness? How can we ensure indeed they are facts properly interpreted and not something we read our desires into?

As Hegel explains:

‘… the history of mankind does not begin with a conscious aim of any kind, as it is the case with the particular circles into which men form themselves of set purpose. The mere social instinct implies a conscious purpose of security for life and property; and when society has been constituted, this purpose becomes more comprehensive. The History of the World begins with its general aim — the realization of the Idea of Spirit — only in an implicit form (an sich) that is, as Nature; a hidden, most profoundly hidden, unconscious instinct; and the whole process of History (as already observed), is directed to rendering this unconscious impulse a conscious one. Thus appearing in the form of merely natural existence, natural will — that which has been called the subjective side — physical craving, instinct, passion, private interest, as also opinion and subjective conception — spontaneously present themselves at the very commencement. This vast congeries of volitions, interests and activities, constitute the instruments and means of the World- Spirit for attaining its object; bringing it to consciousness, and realizing it. And this aim is none other than finding itself — coming to itself — and contemplating itself in concrete actuality. But that those manifestations of vitality on the part of individuals and peoples, in which they seek and satisfy their own purposes, are, at the same time, the means and instruments of a higher and broader purpose of which they know nothing — which they realize unconsciously — might be made a matter of question; rather has been questioned, and in every variety of form negatived, decried and contemned as mere dreaming and ‘Philosophy’.’

- ‘Lectures on the History of Philosophy’

‘The Geographer’, (‘De geograaf’), 1668–1669, Johannes Vermeer

And furthermore:

‘As for mathematical truths, we should be even less inclined to regard anyone as a geometer who knew Euclid’s theorems outwardly by rote, without knowing their proofs, without, as we might say, to point the contrast, knowing them inwardly. Similarly, if someone became aware, through measuring a number of right-angled triangles, that their sides do, in fact, have the well-known relation to one another, we should consider his (mere] awareness of the fact unsatisfactory. Yet, even in mathematical cognition, the essentiality of the proof does not have the significance and nature of being a moment of the result itself; when the latter .is reached, the demonstration is over and has disappeared. It is, of course, as a result that the theorem is something seen to be true; but this added circumstance has no bearing on its content, but only on its relation to the knowing Subject. The movement of mathematical proof does not belong to the object, but rather is an activity external to the matter in hand’.


‘In philosophical cognition, too, the way in which the [outer] existence qua existence of a thing comes about, is distinct from the way in which its essence or inner nature comes to be. But, to begin with, philosophical cognition includes both [existence and essence], whereas mathematical cognition sets forth only the genesis of the existence, i.e. the being of the nature of the thing in cognition as such. What is more, philosophical cognition also unites these two distinct processes. The inner coming to-be or genesis of substance is an unbroken transition into outer existence, into being-for-another, and conversely, the genesis of existence is how existence is by itself taken back into essence. The movement is the twofold process and the genesis of the whole, in such wise that each side simultaneously posits the other, and each therefore has both perspectives within itself; together they thus constitute the whole by dissolving themselves, and by making themselves into its moments’.

- ‘Phenomenology of Spirit’

Mathematical cognition, the mathematical way of knowing, were one merely to memorise equations without understanding why they have them in mind or what they would be used for or why the equations work just as they are then one does not really know mathematics. Many years ago I memorised a Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, concerned with the limits of provability in formal axiomatic theories, to reproduce it in a philosophy of mathematics examination. A rather dangerous strategy, had I memorized just one little bit of it wrongly I would have exposed the fact that I had not a clue what any of it really meant .. but I do understand the significance of the theorem if not the proof. One is bereft of knowledge, indeed as I have just shown not even memorising a proof suffices, one requires the facility for constructing proofs, the know-how for getting from point a to point b without getting lost along the way, for otherwise one is reliant upon the maps of another, one needs to make it inward just as the Phenomenology is concerned with making inward or appropriating the historical development of human consciousness in its entirety and mathematics is a part of that. Once the mathematical knowledge is attained the proof is no longer needed and is discarded, mathematical knowledge like knowledge in general exists for the knowing subject and the subject is extraneous to the process, the proof either works or it does not.

Philosophical cognition is different. Outer existence and inner essence are not separate, rather in philosophical cognition the essence is made external to become existence, indeed thinking about the nature of mathematics is philosophical cognition, we apprehend its essence and externalise it into determinate existence, we look at the individual, the particular, what happens to be there at this point, and we endeavour to discover what is essential, what it has in common with other things, what it has to speak to us about more than just itself, what is in it, the outer becomes inner, the inner becomes outer, and the process is continually ongoing whereby we cannot merely say we now have the result forget about the proofs, the process of figuring all of this out in philosophical cognition, all of this remains part of the process, hence the Phenomenology leads us through all of these previous shapes of consciousness …

Now how could we possible apprehend the inner essence of a myth and give it outer existence?…


The sixth thunder word of the Wake (shut the door), occurring in a chapter the theme of which is the experience of childhood, rife with children’s songs, nursery rhymes, and playground games, childhood’s end, shut the door, innocence has gone, turning back is not an option … :

luk døren (Danish): shut the door.

dun an doras (dun un durus) (Gaelic): shut the door.

chiudi l’uscio (Italian): shut the door!

Feara-Muighe (faremwi) (Gaelic): Men of the Plain, Co. Cork, anglic. Fermoy, and fermez la porte (French), shut the door.

Türe zu (German), shut the door!

sphalma (Greek), a stumble, false step; failure, and sphalna portan (Modern Greek), shut the door.

sport one’s oak, to keep one’s door shut.

zakroi dver’ (Russian), shut the door.

kapiyi kapat (Turkish), shut the door, and kapuk (Hungarian), gates. (kapakka, (Finnish), tavern, it must be closing time at the pub).

‘L’Orage’, 1872, Gustave Adolphe Kirstein

Lukkedoerendunandurraskewdylooshoofermoyportertooryzooysphal nabortansporthaokansakroidverjkapakkapuk.

To be continued ….



David Proud

David Proud is a British philosopher currently pursuing a PhD at the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool, on Hegel and James Joyce.