Human Creativity & Cultural Diversity: Being Different is a Natural State Image courtesy of NATO | Afghan dreams through the eyes of Afghan children.

Human Creativity & Cultural Diversity: Being Different is a Natural State

Globalization has underlying impacts on social relations, transformation of political communities and narration of self through its interconnecting and networking of the world. More particularly, sense of selfhood and narration of identity have been affected by the deteriorating characteristics of globalization. These transformations reflect the emergence of a new sense of a global “we,” which brings deep diversity, cultural plurality and identity differences on the surface of the world today, thus making it more and more heterogenous. Furthermore, the global “we” encourages its members to be culturally rooted and encumbered. As a result, the conventional narration of selfhood narrowed down to national containers becomes problematic. Instead, a more cosmopolitan form of political community comes to the forefront, which has extended roots in the identity and cultural diversity of its members.1

Imagination of the lifeworld could be promising if the global spread of identity difference and cultural diversity are recognized as ontologically true.2 The aim of this article is to explore philosophical foundations of recognition of difference by resting on Giambattista Vico’s constructivist account of selfhood. Vico’s philosophy is the most appropriate foundation because he is among the first of the early modern philosophers to present a socially constructed conception of self with roots in culture, language and history. This view admits recognition of difference. Second, he is the first modern thinker whose philosophy addresses societies’ historical and structural transformations. Third, Vico encourages people to look at different patterns of cultural development in different societies. Hence, he implicitly draws attention to recognition of difference.

Patterns of Historical Development

Vico has a clear message: The social world is constructed by man. Hence, it can be deconstructed and reconstructed for men of different historical periods and conditions. Man looks at successive historical contexts of his world to explore how different patterns of social life have been constructed to meet needs and expectations. Indeed, Vico’s philosophy contains two components: The social world is made by men, and man knows what has been made. This article delves into these two interrelated principle ideas and ways through which the idea of recognition is informed.

Photo courtesy of NATO | School children in Libya.Photo courtesy of NATO

School children in Libya.

Vico’s first crucial insight is that the social world – for instance, the history of human ideas – is constructed by man; hence, its nature and dynamism must be understood by man as well. Characteristics and principles of the man-made social world must, therefore, “be found within the modifications of our own human mind.3” In fact, nothing is true and real in the social world other than what man experiences with his presence in the socially made world. In this reflection, knowledge of the world comes through interactions with surroundings, society, social principles and cultural norms one values and lives with. Vico teaches that man makes his social world from his will and beliefs while, simultaneously, he is made by this world. In this reflection, man’s sense of selfhood – who he is and how he lives with others – is affected by requirements of the constructed nature of the social world. Imperative in this view is that selfhood is, in itself, a product of the historical evolution of societies.4 That is to say, within this relationship of man and social life on one hand, and social life and history on the other, identity is articulated and formed. If true, one could argue that one’s sense of selfhood and construction of identity is embedded in developments of history. Hence, it is constructed differently for everyone.

Standing at the center of this account of selfhood is the conviction that man, who knows himself as the architect of social life, is aware of his contribution, roles, commitments and duties. Indeed, knowing himself and the architecture of the social world accords man a social nature.5 Knowing oneself, in this sense, becomes a crucial factor in the interpretation of history as well as construction of the social world. The reflection originating from this account of selfhood is that the universal and eternal principles on which all societies were found and still preserved are determined inwardly.6 In other words, societies develop themselves in accordance with their own inward and purposeful criteria; hence, they are different. To speak of the social life – its institutions, history and nature, as well as its norms, patterns of social behavior and even the construction of civilization – is to understand based on their distinct patterns of life.7 Within this insight, knowledge of the social world involves discovering how it comes to be and how it results from man’s purposeful actions. These two principle ideas in Vico’s philosophy, i.e., the constructed account of selfhood and the man-made social world, are imperative in the analysis of identity of difference and necessity of its recognition.

Human Creativity and Social Change

Photo courtesy USAID | Children in Southern Sudan.Photo courtesy USAID

Children in Southern Sudan.


Such a deep, historically informed insight about man and social life seems to be an attempt by Vico to illustrate the importance and centrality of a human-centered vision of the social world. He advances the idea that abstract and clear ideas cannot contribute to the development of human consciousness. Criticizing philosophers of his time, Vico advances the idea that the intelligibility and meaningfulness of history is absent in works of those thinkers. Those philosophers fail to present how knowledge of self and social life is created.8 This knowledge is only gained through analysis of historical patterns through which man has developed his identity through interaction with others in the socially constructed life. To grasp the meaningfulness of these historical developments, and their correlation with social life, one must go beyond abstract ideas and pure reason. Being ignorant of the historical evolution of social life, philosophers of the Enlightenment wholly marginalized philosophy from real life.9 Accordingly, a need exists for a historically mediated, as well as an anthropologically focused and hermeneutically inspired, path to analysis of the social world wherein man resides and structures it.10 In this portrait of the social world, individual persons, groups of people and societies are mediated via the whole range of social norms, institutions and cultures, including conceptions of language and historical consciousness. No wonder people, as well as societies, express themselves differently. Grasping this view of human and social life requires acknowledgement of the difference as the true dimension of the lifeworld. Based on this brief introduction to Vico’s account of the social world, the intellectual grounding of the idea of recognition can be analyzed in further detail.

There are as many different vulgar tongues as there are peoples. . . . Peoples have certainly by diversity of climates acquired different natures, from which have sprung as many different customs, so from their different natures and customs as many different languages have arisen.11
In De antiquissima, Vico investigates the nexus between language and history to show how the social world is made. Hence, people of different cultures and identity express themselves differently. For him, language, especially its causal usage, is the starting point in the formation of social coordination and determination of selfhood. This is an innovative reflection. Not only is language a means of self-expression, it is also a creative mode for resolving social tension.  More particularly, through social coordination and relations, and the transformation of history from one period to the next, language itself is transformed and becomes a clue in the formation of creative and more humanistic civilizations. Language reflects the entire course of human relations. Hence, it is the means by which people express beliefs, worldviews, customs, regulations and lifestyle. It also explains the institutions through which societies of different forms come to birth, live and die. Language not only gives form to societies but also contributes in a creative mode to determination of the content of social life. Language mirrors the mutual reliance of different societies, the social world and their developments. Indeed, language reflects why people of different societies express themselves differently and portrays the causes and history of their existence. However, through the transforming of societies from one period to the next, language is transformed itself. It moves and transforms with cultural contexts while simultaneously influencing culture and expression of people.

The importance of language in its contribution to determining different patterns of social relations and cultural expression is crucial in understanding how people of different identity and culture have developed in entirely distinctive modes. Vico himself argues that his reflection on sources of difference determined by language and historical transformation is innovative. This view into cultural difference has not been explained by previous thinkers of his time.12 To give more accuracy to this view of difference, Vico delves deep into the history of the formation and transformation of different societies. His journey starts from the ancient Egyptian era of polytheism, moves toward the age of emergence of heroes and continues to the modern age of humanity. Languages corresponding to each period are, respectively, the language of signs and physical objects, the language of images and metaphors, and the ordinary language of public discourse. It is a rational language.

One point to stress is that words employed in past periods do not necessarily reflect social truth because in ancient times a person’s status was assigned by external sources rather than determined by their own will. Only in modern time has man been able to express himself authentically and originally. Accordingly, only the language of the modern age could indicate the historical truth of societies – the true ways through which people think about who they are and their social world. Such reflections remind one that thoughts of self, identity and culture are united with philology (the study of historical cultures and the contingent world).

“Philosophy contemplates reason, whence knowledge of the true comes; philology observes that of which human choice is authored, whence comes consciousness of the certain.13 ”

Historical Patterns of Social Development

Photo courtesy NATO | A UK soldier hands a bottle of water to a local child in Afghanistan.Photo courtesy NATO

A UK soldier hands a bottle of water to a local child in Afghanistan.

In spite of the rigorous importance of history in the study of different peoples’ patterns of cultural development, why does Vico further delve into deeper levels of historical investigations and stress philology? Why does this union of disciplines become a central part in Vico’s philosophy? It seems that he strives for knowledge by investigating things made by choice – by the determined will of people. These made-things include the study of languages and deeds of peoples both at home, as in their customs and laws, and abroad, as in war, peace, alliances, travels and commerce.14 Vico draws on philology to undertake an investigation into the formation of societies and periods through which they developed their own distinct culture and identity. In this sense, philology is knowledge of the nature of man, of formation and transformation of societies, of cultural developments and of language. It affords the systematic and consistent interpretation of historical passages of nations and would show how nations have developed differently.

This study of the development of people and societies seems to contrast the philosophical realm of universal truths. However, Vico postulates a different idea. He believes that both philosophers and philologists pursue their studies separately without understanding that the two fields must be integrated into one another to enjoy the benefits of mutual collaboration. If the two are integrated, philology is better equipped with a theory of development of human nature. It turn, philosophy could produce a substantive vision of life that would include both thought and the will of people in their social interaction. The suggested integration accounts for a new critical perspective that can interpret historical events and produce a continuous history of events that explains the emergence of humanity.15 In other words, through integration of the two fields, the study and interpretation of the history of development of different nations comes to support the universal knowledge of truth. As one commentator argues: Through such integration the historical law and historical facts become mutually supporting.16 This reflection influences the opening of a new look to the future understanding of the history of social transformations and orientations. Further, it reflects the fact that people cannot be isolated from their struggle for desirable social transformations.

This view of societies’ historical development is stimulating with respect to recognition of difference. One may advance the argument that various aspects of social life, at any given stage of history, constitute coherent patterns that, although different, are intrinsically connected to one another. History is then assumed to be a continuous whole itself – the idea that influenced German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel in later times. But, such continuity and coherence follow different patterns in the development of social life and its institutions. Standing at the centre of such developments, human creativity performs the main task of continuity and change. Social relations and institutions are different. Cultures are distinct from one society to another because they all originate from human creativity. People make their social life and are made by social life. They are the architects and the products of the historical developments of their societies. They should know the patterns of historical developments that influence their feeling, impression of lifestyle, institutions and culture. And, from this knowledge, they should be able to change the course of their social life. Such a mutual relationship of people’s creative power and social change makes societies and their culture different. Being different is the natural characteristic of societies.

Photo courtesy USAID.Photo courtesy USAID.


Taking this account of historical development into consideration, one can argue that artifacts of societies are distinguished from one another because they stem from different people with different minds: “. . .this world without doubt has issued from a mind often diverse,” as Vico explains.17 Man can understand diverse patterns of historical development and societies because he experiences his own social and self-expression in diverse ways. This experience differs from time-to-time and place-to-place because different people and societies have historically extended their culture and identity very differently. As already explained, these experiences can be fully grasped when collective products of societies, such as languages, customs, myths, fables and monuments of art, are understood and acknowledged. This argument is one of the most insightful features of Vico’s approach in confirming the inner significance and uniqueness of different cultures. Within this perspective, each society is seen to be have been developed in accordance with its autonomous cultural totality. Hence, it is different from other societies. However, despite being different, people can grasp the distinctiveness of different cultures because they are capable of knowing human social nature, language, experience, history and rational maxims of any specific period.18 People cognize the historical development of others because the history of their formation and development is socially constructed.

This view of social construction relative to conception of recognition can now better be argued. Peoples are themselves beings in continual change. By being so, they can change their constructed social world in accordance with needs and requirements of the time as well. Therefore, their cultural developments and social achievements cannot properly be grasped in isolation from the historical context. Rather, they always need to be comprehended through the intimate understanding of specific periods of time in which they have been struggling and practicing for social and cultural self-expression. People and their cultural identity must also be interpreted in light of related social institutions through which they have been developed and from which they have drawn their values for their life. Institutions and social practices are, indeed, the storage of beliefs and ideas of different people during the course of their development. Indeed, social practices and institutions are different because they have been developed in different minds and cultures in different periods of history. It would not be meaningful to conceive of distinct cultures, peoples and societies through the lens of one culture or assume fixity of human social life beyond the experience of their development. Rather, as Sir Isaiah Berlin, Russo-British Jewish social and political theorist and philosopher, argues in his interpretation of Vico’s philosophy, people should always keep in mind the diversity of cultures and different patterns through which they have been developed.19 Approaching such a striking task of historical inquiry, the failure of philosophical accounts ignoring cultural self-expression of different societies as the truth of human life becomes more visible. This failure becomes more perceptible when one investigates perspectives that attempt to bring into union incompatible attributes and characteristics of culturally different people and societies.

From these first men, stupid, insensate, and horrible beasts, all the philosophers and philologists should have begun their investigations of the wisdom of the ancient genitals. . . . And they should have begun from metaphysics, which seeks its proofs not in the external world but within the modifications of mind of him who mediates it. For, since this world of nations has certainly been made by men, it is within these modifications that its principles should have been sought.20