I don’t know about you guys but my soul was forged in the smithy of 18th century Neapolitan academic marginalia. Who is Giambattista Vico? He came after Renee Descartes, the guy who said I think therefore I am. This hypothetical version of reality, where thinking=being, relies on the assumption that God made everything just right and we can plug-in to that perfection through scientific inquiry. That’s all well and good but what happens when scientific discoveries and what was known about the history of the world through the Bible don’t really fit together? Which version of God’s truth wins? Vico saw earlier than most that this contradiction must be resolved somehow. He begins his master work, Principles of the New Science Concerning the Common Nature of Nations, or New Science in short, with a spotty history of the world that begins with a back dated moment of Creation based on the Holy Bible. But like a true modern thinker, he also throws in some older dates of important events from other civilizations but not without a sense of skepticism. The New Science would probably be more appropriately named the New Humanities because this book laid down the foundation of modern humanities. What does it mean to go back to ancient texts from the whole world with a modern mindset? Vico promises us that the ideal education of a young man should be a holistic one, including sciences, arts, histories, literatures, but what do we hope to gain from ancient texts in the age of modern technology? Memories and lessons inscribed in language itself, practical wisdom for navigating a highly technological yes but nevertheless the same old human world. This foray into a newly imagined relationship with history paved the way for the first Modernism. Moderns are ancients with fancy tools and mathematical models. Modernists are the students who look at the tools they are given and wonder how now? The now is the same for all of us on the planet, but the how always comes out different. That nations have a common nature means they are different in disposition. Hence, Other Modernisms.
Other Modernisms is also the Other of Modernism, the nullification of modernism through its universal manifestation. We’re not there yet, and we people are like tweens, sometimes acting with calculated precision and other times still learning to cope with our limbs and senses the best we can. Mahayana Buddhists believe that no one is liberated from the illusion of being trapped until everyone is liberated. That is why in their version, Buddha comes back to the human world after reaching Nirvana to help others cross, these Buddha manifestations are called Boddhisatvas. In the same way, a modern Buddhist or a Buddhist Modernist, whichever way, may believe that we are not really modern until we are all modern. But then of course, what would modernity mean?
It doesn’t matter. My dad likes to boast about his academic achievements. When will I no longer be the most learned man in our family? He likes to ask me. And, my adviser told me that Vico is the perfect place from which to study Western Philosophy. Vico stands at the crossroad of modern philosophy. Before Vico lies the great body of practical wisdom from antiquity followed by Christian theology followed by a return to philosophy but now wedded with a clock maker God. After Vico, philosophy finds its proper place in our modern political economy, in education, cultural production, and hopefully increasingly to governance. But education is where it begins and it’s where I begin. Knowledge is like a pyramid, my dad would say, echoing Bacon along with a Baconian Vico, the broader the base, the higher the apex. Learn everything from everywhere and put it together, the things we learn are the things we take to our next questioning.
Though at this point, my dad, almost 60 has one foot in the deconstructed-dads club, but I am nevertheless super glad to have stumbled upon his Vico-moment. It’s uncannily modern in its own way; I am but a textbook application of the New Humanities.