Kant and Vico on the Aesthetic and the Poetic; or Literary Purity and the History of Civil Institutions

(from work in progress on the philosophy of literary judgement)

In Vico, we will see how the tradition of the study of rhetoric combines with the study of law.  He sees the historical study of law in Grotius, in the seventeenth century, as a model for combing law with language and therefore with literature.  Grotius puts jurisprudential theory in the context of national history and the state, particularly with regard to philology.  Drawing on this, Vico establishes a view of poetry as essential to the study the history of human institutions.  In Kant, we will see how an aesthetic theory is formed round a theory of mind, and transcendental philosophy, apparently to harmonise understanding and imagination (which in this case refers to the capacity for sensory perception).  At this point Vico and Kant may seem very far apart, and that is not a completely false impression, but it is an impression that needs to be qualified.  Vico is concerned with principles and methods of thought, and expounds his theory of the history of human institutions through language, law and history on the foundations of those principles, and even trying to achieve a revolution in the general principle and methodology of philosophy.  Kant writes about law, politics, history, the state and international relations.  References to law and politics even enter into his most general transcendental writings.  His philosophy is guided at one level by an Enlightenment principle, ‘Think for yourself’ which is evidently applicable to politics and religion, as well as to philosophical abstraction.  Kant thinks of a taste for beauty and for the sublime as lined not only with a theory of mind and knowledge, but also with communicability, human community, law, morality and religious symbolism.  It is Vico, who in some respects diminishes the role  of poetry (summing up all literary art for him), by suggesting that it has declining importance in the third and final stage of history, the human or democratic stage.  Vico thinks of human history as starting off with two non-human stages divine and then heroic.  The divine age is characterised by very non-literal language, and the heroic age is summed up in the poetry of Homer.  The human age is the age of literal language, publicly accessible law in direct terms, and legal community rather than poetry.  It is an era where the force of law diminishes, leading to a collapse of the democratic age back to the Hobbesian chaos, which precedes a new divine age, and another run through the stages of history.

Kant’s work on aesthetics is preceded by an Enlightenment revival of the philosophy of art and beauty, though this more obviously influenced Kant than Vico.   Shaftesbury (Anthony Ashley Cooper), Frances Hutcheson, David Hume, and particularly Edmund Burke, developed a view of taste and beauty within an empiricist  theory of mind and perception.  In Burke the theory of taste and beauty dominates the discussion of mind and perception.  This marks  a  major revival of philosophical aesthetics, or maybe its invention since the word ‘aesthetic’ only began to be used in philosophy of art and beauty at that time.  Philosophy of art, and beauty, is a field which had not produced major texts after the foundational contributions of Plato and Aristotle.  The history of philosophical aesthetics between Aristotle and the eighteenth century is of passages within longer works, along with literary techniques used in philosophy; what emerges of philosophical interest from the discussion of essays of taste and poetics; and the more self-reflective parts of literature, and other arts.

The eighteenth century growth of aesthetic philosophy, itself included some reference to texts after Plato and Aristotle, as in Vico’s reference to Horace in his Autobiography:

Then reading in Horace’s Art of Poetry that the richest source of poetical suggestion is to be found in the writings of the moral philosophers, he [Vico] applied himself seriously to the ethics of the ancient Greeks, beginning with that of Aristotle […] (120)

However, Vico’s main point is not to find an insight into taste in Horace, but  to explore how Vico himself had made the transition from comparing Latin poetry and literature with Italian writing of the same kind, to the study of the history of civil institutions.  His reference to ‘moral philosophers’ is here somewhat peculiar anyway, since Horace is referring to Socratics (Aes Poetica 310) rather than moral philosophers.  Even if there is a mistake in Vico’s memory of Horace, the point of the transitions between philosophy and literature is important, a matter to which we will return later in this chapter.  Unlike Kant, Vico was not concerned with developments in the theory of mind and perception after Locke and Leibniz.  It is the development of political and legal philosophy from Machiavelli, through Bacon, Grotius, Hobbes, and Pufendorf which provides the source of Vico’s thoughts on language and poetry.  Vico was born in 1688, so is closer in time to seventeenth century political and legal thought than Kant, who was born in 1724, and was therefore affected by the slightly later growth of the philosophy of taste in Britain and Wolff’s more rationalistic discussion of aesthetics in Germany.


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