The Presence and Absence of Origin
Roberto Esposito’s Early Interpretation of Giambattista Vico
ALEXANDER U. BERTLAND
Giambattista Vico (1668–1744) presents a striking account of the origin of thought. In his New Science, he paints a dramatic picture of a state of nature in which giants, descended from the children who abandoned Noah, wander in an animal-like fashion around the forest. They suddenly hear a giant thunder strike, and they cannot instinctively recognize its source (SN, 377). This noise, which they imagined as a commanding voice from the sky, awakened both their powerful imaginations and an intense moral compulsion (SN, 504). Hence, a profound superstition caused the first people to settle and found the first communities. This fanciful account of the origin of society puts Vico in sharp contrast with the more traditional social contract theories of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke.
Roberto Esposito emphasizes in his later writings the importance of the gap Vico delineates between the bestial and the social. In Immunitas: The Protection and Negation of Life
, Esposito refers to the work of Gennaro Carillo, which emphasizes the Vichean divide between the undifferentiated masses of giants (giganti
) and the law that allows humans to take on a political form (IM
, 43–44). Vico separates these two realms to explain that the law’s function is to maintain a rational order that exists apart from the feral state. At the same time, the separation between the realms reveals a constant threat that the civil world could return to the
wild state of roaming masses of giants. In his work Living Thought: The Origin and Actuality of Italian Philosophy
, Esposito explains that, for Vico, the course of history must always fight against the nonhistorical wilderness in order to maintain its order, yet it cannot eliminate the nonhistorical since that provides the course of history with its energy. Esposito writes, “Nothing is more deadly, for Vico, than the typically modern idea that we can never sever the knot that binds history to its nonhistorical beginning, unraveling it through a process that fully temporalizes life” (LT
, 27). In Esposito’s later work, this one moment becomes the main source from which Esposito draws insight from Vico.
At the beginning of his career, Esposito had a much broader interest in Vico’s New Science. Two of his earliest works centered directly on Vico: Vico e Rousseau e il moderno Stato borghese published in 1976 and La politica e la storia: Machiavelli e Vico published in 1980. In these texts, Esposito discusses the way Vico reconstitutes the connection between the metaphysical and historical, but they do so in a way that goes beyond the feral/social distinction. The works broadly analyze how Vico conceives a metaphysical intertwining of the historical with the political realm. Vico, throughout the New Science and beyond, plays with the intersections and confrontations of institutions or, as Esposito would later call it, the “immanentization of antagonism”—in order to reveal the metaphysical truth that underlies these interactions (LT, 24). Within a variety of oppositions in history, Vico reveals a profound sense of order that is lost on Machiavelli and Rousseau.
This chapter will examine these early writings to illuminate some key elements of the Vichean relationship between the metaphysical and the historical that Esposito identifies. Unfortunately, the main reason for returning to these early works of Esposito cannot be the content of the analysis. Esposito does not repudiate these early works, and he always maintains that Vico is important. At the same time, however, he stops drawing on specific ideas from Vico’s account of history. At the end of the chapter, I will speculate as to why this might be the case.
More specifically, this chapter, explores how Esposito’s approach in these early texts served as an initial testing ground for his later philosophical approach. In his later writings, when Esposito investigates a social institution, he recenters one’s orientation toward it, shifting what is essential and what is accidental. He recontextualizes what is foundational and what is arbitrary. He does not simply show how established moral norms are actually in flux; he reveals how previously hidden necessities
are guiding this historical process. For example, in his recent work, Due: La macchina della teologia politica e il posto del pensiero
, Esposito shows that the apparent division in liberal democracy between religion and politics does not really hold, and that other factors serve as boundaries that guide political understanding. This play of historical institutions and hidden necessity can be seen throughout Esposito’s later writings.
Esposito found in Vico’s New Science a philosopher who made the same movement that Esposito himself would later make. In Esposito’s interpretation, Vico used the evidence of historical analysis to reshape the boundaries between the essential and accidental in political institutions. The New Science appears outlandish and bizarre but this is because, as Esposito notes, Vico recognized the need to adapt his language to reflect the mentality of a different historical era (LT, 74). Nevertheless, the New Science represents a legitimate attempt to research empirically the development of human political institutions at an epistemological level and reveal hidden structures within them. Vico discovered a gap between pre-philosophical poetic wisdom and a post-philosophical rational conception of the world. The original conflict between these two forms of thought established tensions that governed social development and the growth of political institutions. Esposito finds these tensions in Vico and he explicates them in comparison with Rousseau and Machiavelli.
An essential point of Esposito’s analysis is that Vico’s examination of the tension between these forms of thought never reduces history to historicist arbitrariness. On the contrary, Vico always insists that within the course of a tumultuous history it is possible to find a coherent and rational order that supports the civil world. This becomes both the philosophical and methodological link between Vico and Esposito. Esposito later loses interest, apparently, in Vico’s Baroque account of the development of Roman law. Nevertheless, Esposito shares Vico’s desire to locate determinate structures in the growth of political institutions. It is worth dwelling on Esposito’s early ideas about Vico’s approach to philosophy to consider how this may have shaped his later approach.
Methodologically, both thinkers approach philosophical writing using a similar set of tools. Their texts are quite different because Esposito draws on a wide range of twenty-first-century research while Vico had to rely on the Baroque and ancient texts that were available to him. Nevertheless, because both authors investigate conflicting and intertwining political institutions and structures of thought, they reject a systematic approach to philosophy that relies on a linear derivation of conclusions
from premises. Instead, their works weave and circle across many topics in order to draw together disassociated points while separating ideas held in common. Vico presents a series of axioms (degnità
) that provide justifications for his New Science
. Yet, these axioms do not serve as first principles as they might for an author like Spinoza. Instead, they are meant to course through the entire science (SN
, 119). Further, Vico is fond of using oxymorons to identify the fundamental ideas of his science, most notably “poetic wisdom” and “ideal eternal history.” From a traditional Enlightenment perspective, the connection of these terms does not make sense, but Vico uses them as foundational points in his science, connecting what is normally unconnected. Perhaps most importantly, Vico and Esposito share a passion for etymology. Esposito’s analysis of community and immunity depends on his etymological analysis of their roots in the term munus
, 5–6, 22–23). Vico’s most famous idea, that the true is the made, depends on his etymology of verum
. His New Science
is filled with etymological analyses of words such as padre
. The imaginative exploration of word origins by these two authors should not be confused for a lack of rigor. Both authors take great care to provide consistency within their projects. This is harder to see in Vico because of his dependence on ancient sources and the separation between the eighteenth century and the current day. Nevertheless, Vico certainly worked to present a coherent science. The fact that these authors used these similar tools reveals their shared commitment to the idea that the metaphysical may be uncovered in temporal institutions.
Having identified this underlying similarity, it is possible to explore the content of Esposito’s early interpretation of Vico’s New Science
. Esposito has a distinctive way of placing Vico’s ideas in a historical context. Many Vico scholars and Vico himself present his work as being in opposition to the greater scientific project of the Enlightenment and specifically to Descartes. The extent to which Vico should be understood as anti-Enlightenment has recently become a more open question. Regardless, Esposito side-steps that discussion by putting Vico in conversation with Rousseau and Machiavelli. These authors share many of Vico’s themes. In particular, in the Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men
, Rousseau presents an account of history that is very similar to Vico’s. In fact, one might suspect, despite the lack of evidence, that Rousseau encountered the work of Vico while in Venice, the one city where Vico’s work had a major influence. Machiavelli shares Vico’s desire to locate his theory directly in human political institutions as epitomized in the
history of Rome. While other scholars have discussed the connections between Vico, Machiavelli, and Rousseau, Esposito uses this comparison to focus primarily on the question of how historical investigation ought to relate to philosophy.
Like Vico, Rousseau and Machiavelli accept that a philosopher needs to work from the evidence of history. Further, all three thinkers discuss possible courses of history albeit with different levels of metaphysical commitment. They share a concern about the grand structure of the course of historical development. Esposito could have contrasted the ways they charted different paths of history, but he did not. Instead, Esposito examines the commitments that are entailed by their different approaches to history itself. All three authors, as thinkers who explore history philosophically, are committed to the notion that within particular historical events, universal truths can be located. They differ in how they portray the relationship of the universal to the particular within the course of history. This becomes the focal point of Esposito’s investigations.
Esposito makes this question explicit in a passage of La politica e la storia through a critique of the hermeneutic reading of Vico. Hermeneutics has valued Vico’s discovery of a sensus communis that is established by nonreflective but linguistic thought and that serves as a context for communication. Hans-Georg Gadamer emphasizes this aspect of Vico in Truth and Method. According to Esposito, Gadamer’s approach is flawed because it fails to explain the significance of Vico’s science of history. In Gadamer’s reading, Vico draws a sharp divide between practical wisdom and theoretical wisdom and between the abstract and the concrete (MV, 170). Gadamer does not attempt to explain or bridge this gap. Practical wisdom can look to the abstract to understand its own limit and finitude, but it cannot enter the theoretical. Theoretical wisdom is entirely blocked from the practical. Esposito writes that in Gadamer’s interpretation, “the expression science of history is a true oxymoron, a contradiction in terms, a theoretical paradox: at least if the term ‘science’ remains charged with its traditional, and frankly undeniable, rational character …” (MV, 171). Esposito is unsatisfied with Gadamer’s approach, and he tries to explain Vico’s true value, which may be found in his science of history that unites theoretical and practical wisdom.
Esposito examines the way in which Vico connects particular historical instances with the universal pattern of history, which Vico calls the ideal eternal history. The traditional reading of Vico is that the ideal eternal history is an abstraction into which all particulars may be placed.
Esposito warns that this view makes the assumption that particulars are static and that their dynamic relation is explained through the universal pattern. Esposito emphasizes that particulars are themselves temporal and therefore dynamic. It is the historical flow of the particulars that give rise to the universal pattern of history. Instead of starting with the universal pattern and placing particular events into it, the universal grows over time out of the particular. To understand the universal pattern and to develop theoretical wisdom, therefore, it is necessary to begin from practical wisdom and the historical existence o...