Vicos Poetic Logic and the Embodiment of Mind

The need for an epistemological pluralism that I noted earlier was first advanced by the Italian philosopher Giam-battista Vico (1668-1744). He initially recognized the distinction between self-knowledge and knowledge of social institutions of which we are the authors, on the one hand, and knowledge of the natural world that exists outside of our minds and that would remain even if we did not exist, on the other. This is the distinction that Dilthey, a century later, characterized as human studies, (Geisteswissenschaft) versus natural science (Naturwissenschaft). Em-pathic knowledge of the self and the other and third-person observations will remain different ways of knowing, but the establishment of a biology of meaning will, I hope, include first-, second-, and third-person perspectives.16 So a biology of meaning may eventually straddle this epistemological divide.

Giambattista Vico was born in 1668, 72 years after Descartes. Although he is today thought to be Italy's most famous philosopher, his influence has been nearly completely overshadowed by Descartes. The reasons for Vico's relative obscurity are many. His style, unlike Descartes', was undisciplined. Further, he was not a clear or coherent thinker. Isaiah Berlin observed, "Vico has not enough talent for his genius." Consequently, his fate has been to be repeatedly forgotten and rediscovered.

What Descartes would completely deny and what Vico was the first to discover is that meaning is embodied in our total affective interest in the world (Edie 1969). (Affective interest is a concept similar to Freud's concept of cathexis, as I shall describe in chapter 8.) Vico further stated, "Meaning is constructed through imaginatively entering into the minds of others." Vico did not share Descartes' quest for certainty but, in a more pluralistic tradition, accepted what was only probable. Further, Vico proposed what we would now describe as an evolutionary concept of mind. In 1744, when Vico's New Science was published, biology was not yet recognized as a separate discipline, and Darwinian evolution was more than a century in the future. Vico proposed that in the course of cultural evolution, the human mind evolved linguistically, which resulted in historically different stages of consciousness and different constructions of reality. Vico anticipated a similar hypothesis introduced by the psychologist Merlin Donald (1991) and the archeologist Steven Mithin (1996). It seems to me probable that in human evolution the acquisition of a cognitive capacity for metaphoric thought occurred before the acquisition of language and that the capacity to use conceptual metaphor and the acquisition of language evolved separately. (The evolution of metaphor and language will be discussed in chapter 10.)

Vico wrote that initially humans were without language and communicated by means of signs and gestures. Metaphor was then the primary mode of knowing and understanding the world. With the acquisition of metaphor, the world was interpreted animistically, thunder was a god, and reality was structured in accordance with myth. Vico said, "Every metaphor is a fable in brief" (1744, p. 129). He described an animistic world in which the structure of mind was projected outwards as a metaphor derived from bodily experience.

In fact, metaphor was understood not as a figure of speech, a trope, but as a vital means of understanding the world. (This observation waited to be rediscovered by philosophers and linguists such as Lakoff and Johnson [1999] at the end of the twentieth century.) Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was not acquainted with Vico, said, "The world is emblematic. Parts of speech are metaphors, because the whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind" (1847, p. 18).

Vico further stated, "It is noteworthy that in all languages the greater part of the expressions relating to inanimate things are formed by metaphors from the human body and its parts and from the human senses and passions" (1744, p. 405; my emphasis). Vico knew that metaphor is derived from the body and its affective experiences. This is a theme that I shall develop in chapter 4.

Vico opposed the view of the scholastics and Descartes that human nature is lawful, fixed, static, and unchanging. It is important for us to recognize that his work foreshadowed controversies that are still very much alive today. Although neurobiology has unquestionably demonstrated the plasticity of the human brain, there are those who still argue that human nature has been fixed in its genetic adaptation to a late Pleistocene environment and has therefore remained unchanged for 25,000 years (Tooby and Cosmides 1990). Those who believe in an unchanging human nature also argue for a strong genetic determinism of the mind (Dawkins 1976 and Wilson 1998).

I mentioned that it has been Vico's fate to be continually forgotten and rediscovered. For example, John Searle, without citing Vico, stated in his monograph The Mystery of Consciousness (1997), "The really important distinction is not between the mental and the physical, mind and body, but between those real features of the world that exist indepen dently of observers—such as force, mass and gravitational attraction—and those features that are dependent upon observers—such as money, property, marriage and government." (This is the heart of Vico's argument.) All these cultural institutions—such as money, property, marriage, and government—exist only because of the meaning that we attribute to them. Vico would describe such institutions as man's construction. As such, they can be better known, as products of our mind, than nonhuman nature, which we can only observe from the outside. We no longer believe, as Vico did, that introspective and empathic knowledge is superior to scientific knowledge. Today most cognitive scientists and neurobiologists dismiss such knowledge as merely anecdotal, and yet every scientist who investigates consciousness makes use of their own introspection. I will reiterate: when investigating a biology of meaning, we need to accept a pluralistic epistemology that combines a first- and second-person (intersubjective) perspective with the traditional third-person perspective of neuroscience. The need for this epi-stemic pluralism was also recognized by the philosopher of science Herbert Feigl (1958) and neuroscientists Francisco Varela (1999) and Max Velmans (2000).

In his essay on the mind/brain problem (1958), Feigl argues for a "double" knowledge, referring both to phenomenology and introspection and to neurophysiology. This topic as it relates to the mind-body problem will be discussed further in chapter 11.

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