Philosophy of the Novel: Vico’s Influence and Method

Early draft version extract of work in progress for a project on philosophy of the novel, beginning with the importance of Vico even if he does not address the novel. He does address Homer and the approach of his New Science is a highly suggestive in relation to the genre of the novel. No references 

This post is continuous from the last post 

Vico’s influence has not only been on thinkers about aesthetics, history, politics, and society, but also to some major novelists, including Fyodor Dostoevsky in the nineteenth century and James Joyce in the twentieth century, a topic that will return in chapter 10 with regard to Joyce’s novels Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. That influence on literature means that sometimes literary criticism influenced by Vico is looking at texts themselves influenced by Vico.

On the literary critical side, the German literary critic Erich Aeurbach, best known for Mimesis. The importance of his work on the novel makes him the basis of chapter nine of the this book, so as with the very last chapter, Vico will return through the topic of his influence.  Other examples of Vico’s influence on the philosophical and theoretical aspects of the humanities include  Michel Foucault, the French philosopher and historian of discourse, who will be referred to later, did not refer to Vico much directly, but the direct references are very rich in implication, and suggest much indirect reference. His brief comments on Joyce are an example of a Vico influenced theorist who discusses a Vico influenced novelist. Edward Said, himself affected by both Auerbach and Foucault, addressed Vico’s place for literary and cultural thought, and he will be considered as a successor figure to Auerbach in chapter nine. Hans-Georg Gadamer discusses Vico in his major work Truth and Method. Jacques Derrida makes brief reference to Vico in Of Grammatology, and wrote a couple of essays on Joyce again giving us the circle of philosophy and literature that arises from a philosopher influenced by Vico, himself influenced by Homer, who comments on a Vico influenced novelist, particularly in the case of Joyce who was deeply engaged with Homer in Ulysses. Again given their importance for aesthetic and literary critical thinking, they will be considered later, partly with reference to their approach to Vico.

In the beginning of the New Science, ‘Idea of the Work’, Vico sets up his claims about  the beginnings of civil institutions and his own approach to studying them, through commentary on a  picture, that serves as a frontispiece to the book.  Here Vico refers to a lady with winged temples. The temples here means the upper part of the two sides of the head. This lady stands on a sphere which is the world of nature and she is ‘metaphysics’.

Metaphysic looks at God with ecstasy and stands above the order of natural institutions, that is the world of nature. It is through nature that philosophers have previously  observed God. Vico is signalling that his position is that of the lady who is metaphysics, and that he is making a new start in philosophy by referring to legal institutions rather than nature. Metaphysics looks at the world of human minds in observing God. God’s providence is applied to the world of human spirits which is the civil world, world of nations. That is the metaphysical world. The world of nations comprises institutions symbolised by hieroglyphs at the bottom of the picture.

It is important for Vico that the jewel worn by metaphysic is convex (curves so that light spread out from it) and not flat. A flat jewel symbolises the private illumination from intellectual and moral institutions which has been the basis of previous philosophy. The convex jewel symbolises metaphysics which knows that knowledge of God’s providence comes through public moral institutions and civil customs which are the basis of the existence and continuity of nations. The ray from God reflected from the jewel worn by metaphysics goes down to a statue of Homer, referred to by Vico as the first gentile author, that is the first author other than the authors of the Hebrew Bible. So Vico’s commentary on an image includes an explanation of why Homeric epic is at the centre of the understanding of human institutions.

Vico does not have much to say directly  visual communication for most of the book, except in the sense that he thinks ‘divine’ and ‘heroic’ languages have a visual element. Divine language is also the language of the gentes (first communities) and is mute, communicating through objects and signs (New Science, section 32) The divine stage of history for Vico is period between early humans leaving the forest and creating communities, but before they create cities. He thinks of it as a community of patriarchal families, which are themselves really despotic little kingdoms in loose aggregation. His models for this include Polyphemos and the other Cyclopes in The Odyssey, and underling that is probably some interest in the passages in the Politics where Aristotle refers to a kind of bare existence and the pre-civilised life of the cyclopes. However, Vico’s examples of divine language don’t always seem to fit this, as when he frequently refers to Egyptian hieroglyphics (New Science, section 32).

More on this topic coming soon


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