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Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Vico and the Modern Idea of History: Part II | Modern Diplomacy

Photo: Emanuel L. Paparella
"It is intriguing that within modern times (from Galileo and Bacon onward) the idea of global history was born in the European philosophical mind at the same time when European imperialism was at its apex, well supported by science and technology, (the st world of logical positivism) considered the definitive modern answer to all social, political and economic problems." notes Professor Paparella, a scholar interested in current relevant philosophical, political and cultural issues. 
 
Photo: Modern Diplomacy

Specifically, historicism is born with the publication of Giambattista Vico’s New Science (1725) in the 18th century. Until then history was not considered universal but a rather tribal enterprise, not worthy even to be called a science since it was not concerned with universal problems. The ancient Greek certainly did not consider it a primary pathway to truth, neither did Descartes. History was considered as a teacher of sort who taught man about his past (as Cicero had pointed out, Machiavelli concurring) but the fact that it was man who made history and, at the same time and almost paradoxically, history made man, was yet unknown philosophically.
 
But by the 18th century, the so called age of enlightenment, the whole world could be envisioned as one stage wherein a single global drama could be played out. It was almost natural that Europe would arrive at the idea of universal history and see itself at the very center of its processes. Natural too that it should have put its meaning and interpretation in terms of Western Civilization. In fact, had there not been those early Greek thinkers who initiated philosophy as we know it, there would not be any science, no technology, and no atomic bombs either; which is to say, without its origins in ancient Greece there would not have been any modern culmination of science and technology either, what goes by the name of positivism.
 
Vico has taught us that to understand the nature of any cultural historical phenomenon one must study its origins. To even begin to grasp the advent of our modern technical civilization and the entrepreneur’s mind-set we ought not begin with the scientific mind-set of the 17th century but with its origins, as Vico has well taught us, and situate the emergence of the new modern science within the larger background of Western history. We need to begin at the beginning of thought among the early Greek.
 
When we focus on such origins we notice the strange fact that no such eruption of thought occurred in the ancient Oriental world. While it is true that the Chinese were (and still are) a highly intelligent people, that there is no indication that they were in any way at a lower intellectual level than the Greeks, they did not produce science, not even the beginning of science. There is little indication that, left on their own, they would have arrived at science. The contrary can be asserted: that the harmonious and well balanced patterns of Chinese civilization were against the reckless and dangerous adventure of the mind what we in the west call reason; a reason that needs to be followed and adhered to no matter where it leads.
 
While it is true that with Galileo the earth is no longer the center of the universe we have to keep in mind the bigger picture: that Greek science maintained that there an immediate bond between ourselves and nature. The motto for this nexus was Sozein ta Phainomena (to preserve things as they show themselves to be) which simply meant that the Greek scientist would preserve the nexus between natural objects and our direct perception of them. Objectivity in that observation is all important. No capricious gods there.
 
The question arises: why did philosophy which prepares the way for modern science originate among the Greeks? Why did it take place there? Why did it take place at all? To begin to answer this question we have to grasp the fact that human creation is not deterministic, human acts are unpredictable; that a new vision can go beyond any existing previous framework. That is to say, the outburst of light in ancient Greece need not have happened at all. Parallel universe are possible.
 
The birth of philosophy cannot be reckoned as the effect of a cause. The birth of philosophy, its origins, so important to determine its essence for Vico, is the point at which Being comes into its own and claims mortal minds. There is no more split between subject and object, between thought and Being. As Parmenides first perceived, they belong together in unity. Being is the whole, the All calling to thought. There is intellectual awe at the thought that the human mind is capable of raising itself above all that is, that it is, that it exists. Hence the famous question: why is there something rather than nothing?, a question which begins Heidegger’s Being and Time.
 
A century and a half after Parmenides Aristotle brings to completion the great age of Greek philosophy. This century and a half from Parmenides to Aristotle is the most revolutionary and speedy acceleration of all of history. This may seem preposterous to us moderns but consider this: the period opens with Parmenides’ vision of Being as an intelligible whole within which human thought is to find its elements. It is like the sun at sunrise: its light is still perceived as one of the things of the phenomena. It closes with Aristotle mapping out various and distinct realms of beings mapped out into the territories of different disciplines, not changed that much since then: logic, mathematics as a deductive system, physics or natural science, biology, psychology, ethics, politics, economics. Science is born, albeit to be intelligible to itself it has to cling to the maternal apron strings of philosophy. Now we are at high noon; the light of the sun pervades everything and yet, just because it is so pervasive it is no longer consciously perceived; it is just there taken for granted and needs to be rediscovered and disclosed again
 
For Aristotle to be is to be an individual entity of some kind, to exist is to be an individual instance of a species. So when the Greeks created philosophy proper they ceased to be aware of the light of Being itself in which they saw what they saw. The history of Being for Western thought begins therefore with the forgetting of Being. But the schematized world of Aristotle still has an inner unity which we moderns have lost without even being aware of it. That unity is the Greek sense of Physis which we translate as nature. Stones, plants, animals, stars, and planets still belong to the one cosmos within which man lives and has its being as a natural being. The cosmic alienation, the nihilism of us moderns, had not yet entered the Greek spirit.
 
Modern science has been around for some three hundred years now. However we ought not forget that it is built upon the foundations of Greek science. Without Euclid and Archimedes, Newton would have been impossible. Yet most of us would agree that our science is not exactly that of the Greeks, or why would we call it “modern science”? More often than not we couple it with technology. In his Science and the Modern World, Alfred North Whitehead brilliantly deals with this conundrum. There he upsets one of the taken for granted assumptions of conventional history which seems to take for granted that the modern period begins when men turn from the faith of the Middle Ages to a reliance on reason culminating with the age of Enlightenment (18th century). What is overlooked is that the Middle Ages were characterized by the sweeping rationalism of the scholastics (among whom Thomas Aquinas) and in reality the modern period begins with a revolt against such a rationalism and a turning to the stubborn empirical facts of experience. It is that, according to Whitehead that is at the origins of the modern era.
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Source: Modern Diplomacy


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