Inventing the new from the old - from White's 'tropics' to Vico's 'topics'

Hayden White said a long time ago that it is important 'to understand what is fictive in all putatively realistic representations of the world, and what is realistic in all manifestly fictive ones.' In the past decades only the first half of this project has been taken up: White's own 'tropics' can be regarded as a research strategy to understand what is fictive in realistic representations of the world. In this essay I venture into the second part. My thesis is that trying to understand what is 'realistic' in fictive representations of the world much resembles the peculiar brand of topics that Giambattista Vico practised in his Scienza Nuovo. In Vico's topica the whole of history is regarded as stored in 'places' (i.e. 'institutions') that can be 'visited' on the plane of the present. On the level of language, these places can be identified as metonymies. Surprisingly, the concept of metonymy brings about a rapprochement between critical and substantive philosophy of history: in historical autopoiesis the 'new' is invented out of 'old' metonymical places. Vico's notion of inventio shows how, every now and then, people break apart from the stories they live by and start to commit deeds they hadn't even dreamt of.