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  • Knowledge of Things Human and Divine: Vico's New Science and Finnegans Wake
  • William Desmond
Donald Phillip Verene . Knowledge of Things Human and Divine: Vico's New Science and Finnegans Wake. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003. Pp. xiv + 264. Cloth, $45.00.

This is an outstanding book written with elegance and verve, packed with erudition and delivered with wit. It offers insight into both Joyce and Vico in their distinctiveness and in the mutual light they throw on each other. Verene outlines what is peculiar to his own approach in the following way. In the early part of the twentieth century the influence of Croce on the study of Vico as the "Italian Hegel" was immense. Verene, a distinguished Hegel scholar who has himself written with aplomb of the images in Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, is well-placed to situate Vico in relation to Hegel. Croce's influence was followed [End Page 362] by the search for a "Vico without Hegel." The ensuing studies of Vico as an original thinker in his own right have tended to oscillate between two approaches: either stressing Vico as a figure in intellectual history, addressing his sources and influences; or in terms of the philosophical and critical assessment of Vico's ideas themselves.

Verene offers a third approach, derived from his own relation to Joyce in relation to Vico. His reading of Joyce made him realize how in Joyce's work we find an entire Vico, a Vico who gave Joyce himself wings of imagination. In the present instance, one might say that Joyce and Vico together give Verene wings in a new flight of philosophical and scholarly imagination. Philosophy must go to school with the poets, since philosophy is an activity of language, and must discover its own beginnings in the myths from which all culture also begins. As Verene nicely puts it: "The connection between Joyce and Vico became for me a sleeping giant, only partially awake, like Howth Castle and Environs at the beginning of Finnegans Wake" (ix).

That said, the more dominant concern of Verene's book is the work of Vico in its full compass, albeit approached in a Joycean spirit, and refracted through Joyce's own refraction of Vichian concerns. Much of the work on Vico in English focuses on the New Science. As Verene himself points out there are only two books in English which address themselves to the full compass of Vico thought, including The New Science: Robert Flint's Vico (1884) and H.P. Adam's Life and Writings of Giambattista Vico (1935). Verene joins their company as a third, and does so with distinction.

His book is divided in three parts. Part I gives a portrait of Vico which itself is doubly delivered. Thinking doubly is central to both Joyce ("two thinks at a time") and Vico. Verene offers us a marvelous portrait of the Joycean Vico, in which his ear for the striking citation of phrase from Joyce resonates with the voluminosity of Vico's teachings. He shows not only that Vico had entered intimately into Joyce's art but that the plurivocal way of poetic wisdom was already celebrated in Vico. This portrait is delivered with the contagious spirit of comedy. Verene portrait of Vico is a biography in which history and myth are wedded to each other, and each under the wise rule of a vision equally philosophical as philological.

In Part II Verene offers us a recounting of Vico's voyage from the beginnings of his studies to the edge of a new beginning, as equally old as new, with the New Science. This part will be especially illuminating for students of Vico, newcomers as well as adepts, who would benefit from an overview of Vico's career, delivered with attunement to the major intellectual concerns animating its individual episodes and its overall course. In three chapters it covers the following concerns: first, the new art of pedagogy—wisdom speaking; second, the most ancient wisdom—metaphysics; and third, the universal law—jurisprudence.

Finally in Part III Verene deals with the culmination of Vico's voyage in the New Science. This part is particularly good on the...


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pp. 362-363
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