Classic Revisited: Dupre’s “The Enlightenment & The Intellectual Foundations of Modern Culture”

Today’s classic revisited is a wonderful work by a master of intellectual history, Louis Dupré (Yale), The Enlightenment & The Intellectual Foundations of Modern Culture (YUP 2004).  Those wishing for a history of Enlightenment ideas — ranging through most of the major French and German figures and including some lesser-known names as well — will greatly enjoy it.  Here’s a passage about a favorite Italian philosopher of mine, Giambattista Vico, which is, I think, nicely done.  — MOD

Vico’s presence in this story requires some justification.  He firmly belongs to what Isaiah Berlin has called the anti-Enlightenment.  Working and thinking within the older Italian rhetorical tradition, he appears to be more a late humanist than an early Enlightenment thinker . . . . Vico understood the significance of the issues raised by Enlightenment thought and he shared Descartes’ epistemological concerns.  Yet he saw the unsatisfactory conclusions to which a rationalist philosophy would lead.  He accepted the modern axiom that truth originates in the mind.  Yet he denied that the mind operates exclusively by rational categories.  For him, truth is not primarily to be attained through a deduction process patterned on the model of mathematical reasoning, but through reflection on what humans have actually done in history.  Despite their erratic behavior, history follows a regular, recurrent pattern.  A true science of history, then, must be more than a chronicle of facts and events.  It must account for these returning movements and include a justification of their implied universal cycles.  Unlike the universals of rationalist philosophy, however, the historical ones are based on observation.  In his cyclical theory of history Vico attempted to fill the gap that separated universalist rationalism from historical empiricism . . . .

The Roman concept of sensus communis, well known to Vico through his sutdies of rhetoric and Roman law, justified the authority of those beliefs that theory alone cannot prove but that are indispensable for practical life.  Vico’s rejection of the need for indubitable foundations places him, together with Pascal, at the head of a line of critics of Descartes that stretches all the way to the present.  Modern epistemology, in his view, arbitrarily dismisses millennia of conscious life as if they were no more than a prolonged state of error and ignorance.  Yet to those early, prerational ages the human race owes all that made modern reflection possible: language, religion, and civilization.  (190-91)   

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