Poetic Logic and the Importance of Language

Giambattista Vico establishes metaphysics as “the first wisdom of the gentile world” (375). These first men were consumed by their senses and their imagination, and everything they knew about the world, God, and themselves began from there. Any true investigation of wisdom should plainly begin where knowledge first sprung. Consequently, Vico attempts to understand “the first wisdom” in the same way the ancient theological poets would have. According to Vico, knowing how things would have been communicated and expressed is vital to understanding the material and the history of knowledge itself. The study of poetic logic is Vico’s way of understanding those early theological poets. Vico tells us that logic comes from the word logos which originally meant both fable and myth. To understand poetic metaphysics and all the sciences that naturally followed, Vico calls for us to discover the origin of language and letters.

Before words were invented, theological poets would not have be able to verbally articulate themselves. Instead, Vico claims that they would have used signs and gestures that directly represented their ideas in order to get their points across. The world’s first languages would have reflected the culture that it was spoken in. Because Vico showed that these first men only came to know things through their senses, he thinks they would have communicated in a language as natural as their surroundings. Vico gives evidence of this by the use of tropes found in ancient literature and language. Metaphors, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony each used nature as a way of expression. This is how poetic language like the hieroglyphics of ancient Egypt came to be. Those first symbols, gestures, and words “spoken by the theological poets, was not a language in accord with the nature of the things it dealt with… but was a fantastic speech making use of physical substances endowed with life and most of them imagined to be divine” (401).

Language does not just stop there for Vico. It has obviously changed and developed over the years, and Vico posits an early Egyptian axiom that there are “three languages corresponding in number and order to the three ages that had elapsed in their world: the age of gods, heroes, and men” (432). Each age has also been affirmed by the Greeks who  agree with the Egyptians on this matter. The first mention of the age of gods was in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. Homer recollects a language much older than his and is used only by the gods. According to Vico and Homer, it was a sacred and divine language where the names of the gods represented events in nature. Jove’s name, for instance, represented the lightning and thunder men saw in the sky. The earliest divine fables and myths of the ancient world would have been expressed through hieroglyphics, sacred and divine characters, otherwise known as the language of the gods.

The second age was that of heroes. During this age, Vico claims that language would have been spoken through more complex symbols than the ones of hieroglyphics. Homer calls this sēmata, signs that the heroes wrote. These symbols would have been physical ways to express “metaphors, images, similitudes, or comparisons, which… supplied all the resources of poetic expression” (438). The age of heroes is by the far the most expressive of the three languages. The last age of language was the age of men.The language is very literal and is represented by letters.  It was used in everyday life, and Vico believes that it began within the lower classes. This largely accounts for the diverse languages and vernacular that erupted all over the world. Cultures are defined by everyday life, and someone in China would not have had the same life as someone is Greece.

These three ages correlate with the three human customs that Vico states earlier in the book: “all have some religion, all contract solem marriages, all bury their dead” (333). Religion is the epitome of the age and language of the gods. It is formal, sacred, and known to few. The Bible, for instance, used to be read and understood only by educated priests in the Catholic Church. In Homer’s Odyssey, Mercury tells Ulysses about a remedy known only to the gods, “knowledge of which is denied to men”, which could be taken to mean the general public (437). Marriage and the language of heroes is a bit harder to relate, but according to Vico, both deal in some way with the gods. Marriage was and continues to be religiously celebrated by every culture, and it is directly sanctioned by the gods. Heroes, especially those written about in Homer’s epics, are themselves semi-divine. Their language relates back to the gods in this manner. Burial and the age of men are perhaps the closest related to each other. The custom of burying the dead is a direct reflection on man’s mortality. It is a fate shared by everyone, and therefore, it is the least special. Mortality shares this trait with the vulgar language spoken in the age of men. Everyone dies, and similarly everyone could speak the language of men.

The relationship between language and knowledge is significant  because both appear to start from the senses. If this is indeed Vico’s claim, he is heavily criticizing modern philosophical thought and the Enlightenment which says knowledge begins through reason. In his critique, Enlightenment philosophers fail because they miss the big picture for one of two reasons. Philosophers have either “treated separately these two things [origin of languages and letters] which are naturally conjoined” or ignored language completely (431). Many of these philosophers try to find knowledge through the reasoning of the mind. However, ignoring language is like ignoring the pen the philosopher writes with. Vico’s contemporaries, like Descartes, ignore language and simultaneously ignore the senses whereas Vico uses language to show how knowledge started from the senses. It is impossible to convince anyone that knowledge comes from the mind when you speak with a language that started from the senses. Whether Descartes writes in French or Latin, he writes in a language that, as Vico shows, rebukes his argument altogether.

Knowing the origin of language is important to Vico for many reasons, but perhaps the most important reason is so that he can better understand knowledge itself. Without language, how would we convey the most basic human thoughts? Philosophers, in their search for knowledge, have to recognize that language is not only a tool but an arrow pointing in the right direction. Language, it appears to Vico, stems from the senses, and the history of our languages coincide with the history of our knowledge. In order to have knowledge of anything, one must first understand language and all its aspects: the age of gods, heroes, and men. Language and knowledge naturally go hand-in-hand. From this point everything, including the sciences, art, and law, can take its root as well.


One thought on “Poetic Logic and the Importance of Language

  1. Chelsea,

    I think this is a great, thorough paper which goes outside what we talked about in class but which also does a good job of accurately portraying Vico’s position.

    I think you are right that the three languages somehow map onto the three ages. I wonder if the marriage is related to the language of heroes in that heroes are the result of relationships between humans and gods. This might imbue human marriage with a symbolic holiness, as it is the something like the image of the union between god and human. I’m not sure; I agree with you that this one is trickier to map.

    The episode between Mercury (Hermes) and Ulysses (Odysseus) that you mention occurs in Odyssey 10 on the isle of Circe. Hermes shows Odysseus how to pull up the plant, moly, which will prevent Circe’s metamorphic enchantments. It is the episode in which the word “physis” (nature) appears for the first time in Greek literature. So Vico using it as an example is far from casual, and it is good that you pointed it out.

    I think that you are right that one of the things that most modern philosophy overlooks is the importance of language. This is one of the things that really gets taken up in the 20th century, either through Heidegger, Derrida, et al or through analytic philosophy with Russell, Wittgenstein, Austin, et al. In the beginning was the word–you might say this is the postmodern insight, for better or for worse…

    Very nice work


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