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Winter 2003

Vico and the grounds of pragmatics,
by Amadeu Viana

Pragmatics does not usually delve into historical material, looking for functionalist cues to understand the present approaches. Renaissance period is a right moment to look for such insights, because its furious reaction against scholastic grammar. In the baroque period, the standpoint unfolded by Giambattista Vico is perhaps the most interesting stance to evaluate contemporary philology and discourse research, for his important concern to link words and actions, even from a cognitive perspective. Recent researches, from both sides of the Atlantic, have recently valued the work of the Italian to overcome standard philological viewpoints in order to achieve a much more comprehensive system of explanation of knowledge and language, with deep philosophical implications. Vico thought (as modern pragmatics does) that reason and arguments are a positive acquisition of human knowledge, after a long chain of ties between emotions, actions and signs. The principles included in the Scienza Nuova look like the best way to incorporate historical material into contemporary pragmatic thinking.


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1. The uses of history

2. The functionalist current

3. Giambattista Vico's contribution

4. Other research into the colloquial

5. References


1. The uses of history

Crapanzano (1996), in a bright study on narrativity and the construction of the self, makes extensive use of Herculine Barbin's diary. Barbin documents her coming to terms with sexuality in the face of the rigid compartmentalisation of 19th century society. Barbin was brought up as a woman, suffering a severe distance from her hermaphrodite identity. Her gradual recovery of her masculine side, followed by the unfolding of a problematic sexuality, arrives finally at a kind of dramatic equilibrium, a process documented in detail in her diary. Crapanzano's discursive study is built around the critique of this mid 19th century text.

I allude to this case because modern pragmatics does not readily delve into such historical material, nor does it very often refer to studies and findings from other traditions. Crapanzano (1996) is a fine instance of the productive utilisation of texts, demanding our attention and questioning us on the uses of history.

Possibly the most notable instance of the use of history in modern times to explain or justify the opening of an intellectual breach is Noam Chomsky’s Cartesian linguistics. While it is true that a linguistics historian could take issue, the direction taken by MIT's famous scholar was the correct one: the mentalist and logicist tradition on which the modern concerns of linguistics are based, taking over from Saussure’s methodological Cours de la linguistique general.

Chomsky was solely interested in pointing up a philosophic tradition. He does not go into the history of linguistics to reveal the repercussions of Descartes' ideas on the specific treatment of language, nor controversies over the use of etymologies, or even the correctness or otherwise of the linguistic classifications currently in vogue (Droixhe 1978). Proceeding in this way, he situates himself at a different level of the current debate, achieving a revaluation of precedents, unprecedented until then.

Pragmatics and to some extent discourse analysis also have remained relatively aloof from problems of this kind. These disciplines emerged out of the new enthusiasm for oral language and new methods of accessing it and treating it, during the second half of the 20th century. As such, they typically represent a different trend in linguistics, focusing on communication issues, and centred on the effects of context. The notions of functional diversity, situational variation, and meaningful underlying rules, have shaped research along lines that were not far distant from those proposed by Jakobson, Benveniste and Goffman.

But what point could there be in resuscitating precedents? Certainly, the alternative systematisation of researchers like M.A.K. Halliday suggests a kind of consolidation of linguistic or pragmatic thought quite different in its premises from those posited by Cartesian logic. To delve into the history of linguistics to look for clues means in the first place avoiding accusations of being pre-scientific: such accusations were routinely raised before Saussure’s researches and the 19th century spread of philology. It also means having to locate and to define which topics are of interest, and what level of discussion the debate on precedence should take.

In any case, such investigation surely is worth the trouble, if an interesting social psychologist like Shotter (1993), in a clever study of the construction of talk and the role of the imagination, feels the need to turn to the Italian Giambattista Vico and his notions of common sense functionalism. That is the track that we will be on in the pages that follow.

2. The functionalist current

The idea of a rising line in linguistic research culminating in Saussure's Cours is plainly simplistic. I would prefer to look back at the coexistence of different ways of perceiving communication and the role of language, at different stages in the history of linguistics and philology. To mention only the Renaissance as a point of departure, the reaction of the humanists to the speculative grammar is perfectly documented in the essay by Joan Lluís Vives (1492-1540), In Pseudo-Dialecticos (1519). In this paper Vives, a native of Valencia, unleashes his argumentative fury (in accord with the innovative presuppositions of humanistic rhetoric) against the autonomous linguistics reflection of his time –daughter of pure architectural logic, as practiced in Paris and Oxford. On the other hand, what approach did Vives think was the correct one? We will not find it specifically in any work on languages or grammar. Vives makes it very clear, in various different places in his works, that his notion of language is inseparable from communication and learning, and that writing looks like as an historic support and as an aid for linguistic knowledge and analysis.

That is enough, if we are thinking in the functionalism tradition and the effects of context, but not enough if we expect a more intense study of these cause-effect relationships. Nor is it sufficient if we are looking for grammar problems and we wish to know the pragmatic rules that interact with them.

At the same time, Vives' essay points in an interesting direction: functionalism and the relevance of communication. This relevance is expressed well with the expansion of rhetoric knowledge, and shows the continuity between authors. Leonardo Bruni (1369-1444), to go no further afield, writing of translation, defended the idea that all words were interconnected in a fascinating way, forming a mosaic, warning of the ease with which we can fall prey of faux amis or belles infidèles. At the same time he stressed the necessity of having to hand the greatest amount of contextual and practical information (De Interpretatione Recta, 1426). Here we are far from grammatical analysis based on logic, such as would later to be posited as the basis of universal grammar.

The diversity of the functionalist tradition also puts us on the motivationalist track. For some reason, the extension of the arbitrariness hypothesis, linked to critical judgement and the positive analysis of language (the foundation, certainly, of the major task of grammatical reconstruction carried out in the 19th century), has pushed the motivationalist trends out to the periphery of research. The delicate issue here is that during the Renaissance and the Baroque period these were not simply peripheral currents and, in the absence of a consistent rational hypothesis, it is difficult to decide what forms part of the scientific endeavour and what not. In fact, motivationalism provided the basis for the association of forms and meanings that scholars and critics wove in their approach to the reconstruction of texts.

But to progress from text history to general linguistic knowledge is something different. Certainly Condillac (1715-1780) and his language of action is an interesting point de repère in this overview. His idea of the functional and semiotic origin of language is linked to the motivationalist hypothesis, and to the rejection of abstract grammatical analysis. Condillac's language of action presupposes an active notion of context, an source for communication that has to do with the things being done. Condillac's approach, while practical, avoids Locke's theory of arbitrariness and recognizes the cognitive value of functionalist associations. A century later, the father of sociology August Comte would take this point of departure to found a biological (and functional) theory of language and to address the history of its evolution in terms of the history of signs.

3. Giambattista Vico's contribution

The Italian writer Giambattista Vico (1688-1744) is surely one of the most interesting links in the epistemological shift from scholarly tradition to modern positive research. In his New Science, Vico develops a theory of the origin of human knowledge based mainly on language. To confront the imposing Cartesian criticism over philologists and historians, New Science opens with a chapter about chronological and historical notes, apparently discouraging anyone seeking abstract principles or statements on method. Vico's idea was to base his hypotheses concerning the linguistic usage and social functions of language on solid historical criticism.

The central thesis of New Science is the poetic or creative origin of language. The second book is in fact devoted to this topic. Here we will find the best functionalist explanations of linguistic activity, reinforced with substantial sociological insights.

It is surprising that hispanic linguistics had not detected Vico's rejection of Sánchez de las Brozas’ grammatical enterprise. Sánchez was one of the leading grammatical rationalists of the end of the 16th century. His line of argument was compatible with the (Aristotelian) idea of seeking logical causes for syntactic principles –very much in accord with what was to be studied in the 20th century under the more or less useful heading of formal linguistics. Sánchez' rarefied logicism reminds Vico of the fact that people speak long before they are able to attend grammar classes. "As if peoples who formed languages had first to go to Aristotle’s school (...)!" [SN44 455].

Grosso modo, Vico's functionalism, conceived as closely linking languages and humanity, is in opposition to Cartesian inspired formalism and logic. It is also in opposition to the rationalist idea (so widespread in the 20th century) of conceiving poetry as a deviation from prose – of understanding poetic language as something more than everyday language activity, as something that is added and perhaps escapes us. Vico takes the term poetic in its classic sense, meaning creative. Uniting these different aspects, Vico's functional hypotheses have their point of departure in the principle of linguistic creativity, associated with the first human linguistic productions, which, evidently, are not (or were not) the elaborated prose of our written language.

It hardly needs to be said that all this runs counter to many of the presuppositions of modern linguistics –to the extent that such presuppositions differ from the strong functional hypothesis that we are outlining here. This creative origin, related to the informal and rough-hewn beginnings of knowledge, and with the first steps taken by mankind, looks like the union of a powerful fantasy and an initial event: in Vico's historiographical context, the exclamation of the first men in front of thunder, thinking of it as the manifestation of God. In a more mundane situation, a cry of fear.

According to Vico's thought, functions are transformed according to necessities and at the same time transform the type of knowledge. It is plain that prose here is the result of such a transformation, an evolution that underwrites rational thought, just as the alphabet is a transformation of the first writing using signs. Vico connects linguistic and stylistic transformations with the evolution of writing, in a magnificent historical tapestry.

A powerful transformation indeed is that which produced the first linguistic sign. Vico applies rhetorical knowledge to the analysis of language. The first poetic characters naturally image forth the contents, as "[the fact] of the first men of the gentile world conceiving ideas of things in terms of fantastic characters of animated substances, (...) and of expressing themselves through acts or objects that have a natural relationship with ideas (as for example, the act of scything three times or taking three ears of corn to mean "three years") and thus explain themselves through the use of natural signs" [SN44 431]. Thus, it would be a mistake to think of a generalised arbitrariness: "In the question of common languages, the fact that they communicate through conventions has been taken too much for granted by philologists. If languages had natural origins they must have articulated meaning naturally" [SN44 444].

The idea of poetic characters, therefore, is linked to the formation of meaning and nascent states: "It is showed that the first men, as the children of mankind, not being able to form intelligible genres, had the natural need to invent or contrive poetic characters for themselves, the latter being types or fantastic universals, in order to reduce the particular species, as true models or near perfect ideal portrayals, each one reflecting its genus" [SN44 209]. What is most interesting here is that this operation upon fantasy is the foundation of fables and myths and the background of meaning we still find in popular language, since: "The poetic word, contemplated here by virtue of this poetic logic, circulates for long stretches within historic times, like the great rivers flow a goodly distance into the sea, and keep the waters of the sea sweet where the violence of their current takes them" [SN44 412]. Vico does not let pass unnoticed the relationship between common language and literary construction, nor the pertinence of narrative in the origin of discourse, a theme more recently thrown into relief by modern pragmatics.

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