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Vico and the grounds of pragmatics,
by Amadeu Viana


The functional approach designed by Vico takes into account three orders or states which are also three levels of cognitive relevance, and which we could relate to three corresponding states in the history of communication. Vico refers to the language of gods, the language of heroes and the language of men. The first comes down to us from the creation of the world, and only remnants survive; the second is that of fantasies of heroic ventures, symbolic and oral; and the third is represented by vernaculars, codified in writing and conventional. This graduation enables us to harmonise what we know of the expansion of writing (and its successive transformations, from the sacred or hieroglyphic to the articulated or alphabetic), with their corresponding social orders, and the unfolding of rational knowledge, indisputably linked with vernacular languages and conventionalism. The diversity of languages is the result of the human activity: "Through the very diversity of the nature [of languages], they have saved the same utilities or necessities of human life in different aspects, (...) in the same way so many languages have been shaped in one way or another. (...) For example, we may still observe that the cities of Hungary are named in a different manner by the Hungarians, by the Greeks, by the Germans or by the Turks. And the German language, (...) transforms almost all the names of foreign languages into its own native ones (...)" [SN44 445].

Appropriation and contamination are, therefore, features of human languages, which are never abundant enough or rich enough for the things they designate [446].

This essential relationship between word and action, the epistemological basis of Vico's thought and the correlations he traces, also provides the ground of his proposal for linguistic analysis. The creation of languages shadows or reproduces the creation of knowledge. After the natural, emotional origins, interjections followed, "Utterances voiced with the force of violent passions, which are monosyllables in all languages" [SN44 448]. A progressive order generated the parts of speech: pronouns, particles, prepositions, and lastly nouns, necessary for the constitution of sentences. "Finally, the authors of language created the verbs, as we see among the children, who develop nouns and particles but leave out verbs" [SN44 453].

While he is not giving a strict grammatical explanation, Vico’s observations about this or that aspect of linguistic usage are particularly interesting, to the extent that they allow us to follow the functional trail of the relationship between language structure and language user. Vico goes on: "Names awaken ideas that leave clear vestiges, particles (which mean modifications) do the same; yet verbs signify movements, and bring the notion of before or after, measured against the indivisible present, something which philosophers themselves find extremely difficult to understand. And there is a physical observation which more than proves what we are saying, and that dwelling amongst us we have a good man, gravely afflicted with apoplexy, who remembers names or nouns, but had completely forgotten the verbs." [SN44 453].

Vico is not a grammarian. Nor does he take his linguistic insights much further than this. But he takes pains to establish the relevant connections: "Even the verbs that are generic over all the others –such as "sum" from to be (...), "sto" of those things which are static, "eo" of movement (...), "do", "dico" and "facio", which channel all actions, (...)– must have arisen from the imperatives; because in the family state, impoverished in language as it was, parents would speak and give orders to children and family members (...). These imperatives are monosyllables, as they have come down to us (...)." [SN44 453].

His functional view has the advantage of being highly coherent and of presenting an historical synthesis full of relevant observations. The downside is that (from our contemporary point of view) he does not subject the empiric material to any positive proof. However, Vico was writing before the great development of 19th century philology, and the modern resurgence of interest in oral data, with the 20th century linguistic turn. In its favour, on the other hand, he has the anti-Cartesian viewpoint of evaluating language in its historical context, and his radical refusal to consider it in isolation, related to the singular value he accorded to the word and the organisation of meanings, in human activity and in society as a whole.

For Vico the original poetry (= creation) is the outcome of strict historical necessities. Rather than an ornament it is a clear and direct way of tackling things, moved by passion, which the symbolic language elaborates and which, as a result of the commonplace confusions of vernacular languages, we find difficult to capture when it comes to us in written form. As compensation, however, vernaculars pave the way for criticism and the development of reason, assisted by the articulated written medium. In this way an inverse proportion is achieved: "The more robust fantasy is, he weaker its rational thought" [SN44 185]. In any case, the three cognitive orders coexist and we could say that they became interwoven: "As the three began at the same time, the heroes and man (because it was men that fantasised the gods and believed that heroic nature was a blend of the nature of the gods and that of man), in the same wise the three languages began at the same time (understanding always that writing accompanied them)" [SN44 446].

This functional genesis is also the genesis of rhetorical figures. Vico continues with the analysis of written genres and styles, to reinforce his functional hypothesis of the origin of verse –which we find encoded in the very etymology of the word prose. Undoubtedly another of his interesting finds is the relation he establishes between rhetorical figures and historical styles, based on the four classical figures, metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche and irony. Vico roundly asserts that irony is the mode akin to rational reflection: "Irony certainly could not have emerged other than in the times of reflection, since it is formed on the false by virtue of an reflection that takes on the mask of truth." [SN44 408]. This is true to the extent that metaphor constitutes the natural mode for the transformation of sense and passions, which is the source of fables: "So that all metaphor derived in this way is a fable in little" [SN44 404].

Vico considers that the two intermediate modes, metonymy (in which things that appear together may end up being referred to in the same way), and synecdoche (which transforms the particular into general), as transitional modes in the rhetorical construction of human languages, which ends up creating figures with reverse meaning, such as irony, as we have said, that belongs to rational mode.

4. Other research into the colloquial

The point is that, with this great functional fabric or tapestry, Vico furnishes us with enough elements to understand the patterns of pragmatic and sociolinguistic variation we observe in our immediate context, making is relevant to the present discussion. Thanks to Vico we can perceive more clearly which elements enter in the warp and weft of human functional organisation: the initial and spontaneous nature of the emotions and passions, the ordering and reflexive role of writing, the relation between history and rhetorical styles, or the cognitive nature of metaphors –including those that arise out of colloquial speech.

This multifactored functionalism was recently spotlighted by Jürgen Trabant and Marcel Danesi, on the two sides of the Atlantic. Trabant (1996), writing out of the German tradition of linguistic critique, related to humanism and hermeneutics, sees a connection between Giambattitsta Vico and Leibniz, Herder and Humboldt. Trabant is interested in the Vickian idea of outlining a mental dictionary common to all nations, together with the particular stance of the Italian in conceiving of the dictionary in terms of thematic cohesion. Trabant also looks at the relationship between memory, fantasy and ingenuity, viewed as historical and cognitive functions, taking up these lines of approach from the New Science. His revision of Vico's linguistic approach takes him toward a basic semiotics, which sinks its roots into history, to become a powerful science of language. Danesi (1993) connects these contributions with modern cognitive pragmatics, and with a necessarily non-structuralist and non-arbitrary semiotics, i. e. a semiotics of senses and fantasy. In Danesi's formulation, language is not exactly the object of study, but rather a part of what he is looking at. The basis of communication lies elsewhere, in the mind's capacity for transformations, and in the organisation of the senses and perceptions – in verbal form or otherwise. The advantage of Danesi's approach is that it presents us a Vico brought up to date, accessible to the interests of linguistic research, and particularly permeable also to everyday metaphor.

Both writers, Danesi and Trabant, support Vico's idea of incorporating a theory of knowledge resting on the nature of language, in no way seen as a structure, but rather as an activity, i. e. in terms of use. Vico consistently maintains, from his early writings in Latin onward, that linguistic research could and should create clarity and distinctions in philosophical thought. Perhaps the most interesting point is that we have here an authentic research programme, spread out over the whole of his work, concerned primarily with words, a programme which started out from the shaky etymologies of his time to go on to construct a notional and pragmatic map –around linguistic functions.

It has been said all too often that pragmatics is the waste paper bin of the disciplines, that takes in all that the other theories reject. The waste paper basket analogy may be charming, but hardly inviting. To underline the systematic side of research has its merits. To think that there could be a theory, with its corresponding scientific (philosophical) implications, that takes into account the intermittent and novel perspectives to approach colloquial language, making use of stylistics, looks like a welcome circumstance. What Vico presupposed above all is a system. The fact that this comes down to us from the 18th century is in itself of no little interest.

All this lead us to the reconsideration of our consolidated habits facing the vernacular, perhaps thinking about ordinary language in a different way, with its necessary involvement in contexts of day-to-day usage. Undoubtedly, this process helps to make ordinary expression less dramatic (and less penalised). In this sense, we should need to go back to the Renaissance discussions on language in order to find rational defences of ordinary language, against the typical bookish dismissal of the latter. The French humanist and cabalist Charles de Bovelles (1478-1567) might perhaps serve as a good illustration of what we mean. Bovelles (Liber de Differentia Vulgarium Linguarum, Paris, 1533) supports the freedom of evolution of vernaculars, as a product of a country’s customs (patriae consuetudinem), in a kind of original and studied laissez passer. He maintains that it is a mistake to castigate the vices of the mother tongue –since such fluctuations are to be found in all the vernaculars. While we might differ from him in his openly liberal attitude, we have necessarily to appreciate his positive evaluation of ordinary languages, and the considerable contrast it makes with the more normal tendency to despise the colloquial. This is a fine way to incorporate historical material into contemporary thinking.

5. References

Crapanzano, V. (1996): "'Self'-Centering Narratives", in M. Silverstein & G. Urban, Natural Histories of Discourse. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, ps. 106-127.

Danesi, M. (1993): Vico, Metaphor and the Origin of Language. Bloomington Indiana: University of Indiana Press.

Droixhe, D. (1978): La linguistique et l'appel a l'histoire (1600-1800). Geneva: Droz.

Shotter, J. (1993): Conversational realities. London: Sage.

Trabant, J. (1996): La scienza nuova dei segni antich. Bari: Laterza.

Vico, G. (1990): Scienza Nuova (1744), a Opere, A. Battistini ed. Milan: Mondadori, ps. 410-971 [SN44]. [Reference is to paragraph number. Translation is mine.]

Amadeu Viana
Universitat de Lleida

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