Vico’s Concept of Knowledge as an Underpinning of Dostoevskij’s Aesthetic Historicism

Nina Perlina, Indiana University

In the first letter written upon his release from katorga in January, 1854, Dostoevskij briefly describes to his brother Mixail his life in prison. In the same letter he begs Mixail to send him “ancient and new philosophers in French translation”: Vico, Guizot, Thierry, Thiers, and Ranke. Noticeably, three authors from his list, Guizot, Thierry and Ranke, were admirers of Vico. One can surmise that Dostoevskij was familiar with Vico’s writings since before his arrest, and now, following the inspiration of his creative memory, he realized the need for rereading a philosopher in whose general ideas he sensed an affinity to his own views.

The central tenet of Vichian tradition that states that “man creates his knowledge through the modification of his mind,” and his famous “corsi i ricorsi” procession substantiates the aesthetic historicism and teleology of Dostoevskij’s narrative in his nontraditional genre forms of zapiski/zametki, and dnevniki (Notes from the House of the Dead, “Winter Notes on Summer Impressions”, Notes from the Underground, Diary of a Writer) in which he reveals to his readers “a sense of knowing” which is as much individual and specific, as it is “basic to all human studies.”

In contemporary philosophy of culture, Vico is known for several revelatory achievements. In his Vita (where he used the third person narrative) Vico modified an autobiographical discourse in such a way that it enabled him to view his own living experience as an illustration of the main social principles of human knowledge and consciousness. Vico stated that “men’s own efforts to understand the world in which they find themselves … continuously transform their worlds and themselves.” In Notes from the House of the Dead one finds the same type of interdependence between self-understanding and one’s vision of the external world. In this work Dostoevskij finds a narrative form that enables him to treat the problems of truth, guilt, crime, justice and culpability from a dual perspective--from within the prison house (Gorjančikov’s experience) and from the outside position of a thinker who foregrounds the fundamental question of how much redemption is possible within the social system.

In his New Science Vico treated different social structures (laws, institutions, religious beliefs and behavioral norms) as “natural forms of self-expression, of communication with other human beings or with God.” According to this view, through co-experiencing and re-enlivening/recollecting the ways of people’s self- expression, one can understand their social and cultural history and come to an understanding of the basic principles that substantiate their sense of morality, social justice and their commonwealth. In my further analysis of the notes and diaries I will demonstrate how Dostoevskij develops his own new mode of learning about human interaction, and to what extent this new interpretation of collective experience is comparable to the Vichian conception of culture. In the world of Dostoevskij’s aesthetic historicism, a recollection is indeed a re-collection and a rearrangement of different seminal features of the past that make one capable of a better understanding of the present. Dostoevskij’s creative memory works through the realization of the corsi i recorsi procession that modifies, reconstructs and transmits the knowledge of others into his new concept of truth and justice.