Vico, Giovanni Battista

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VICO, GIOVANNI BATTISTA (16681744), Neapolitan philosopher of history and culture. Vico was born and lived his life in Naples except for nine years (16861695) spent as tutor to the Rocca family at Vatolla. He received a degree in law from the University of Naples (Salerno) in 1694. Vico was professor of Latin Eloquence, that is, rhetoric, at the University of Naples from 1699 to his retirement in 1741. Because of the low salary of his position, Vico provided for his family by working as a private tutor and by writing on commission.

As part of the duties of his professorship, Vico presented a series of inaugural orations marking the beginning of each university year. The last of these, De nostri temporis studiorum ratione (On the Study Methods of Our Time), published in 1709, contains the first statement of Vico's original philosophical position. This was followed by an attack on Descartes, De antiquissima Italorum sapientia (On the Ancient Wisdom of the Italians) in 1710, in which Vico states his famous principle of verum et factum convertuntur the convertibility of the true and the made. Between 1720 and 1722 Vico wrote two works and a series of annotations that comprise a large study known as Il diritto universale (Universal Law), in one chapter of which Vico gives a first sketch of his concept of a new science of nations. The first version of his major work, now known as the Scienza nuova prima (First New Science), was published in 1725. The two parts of his autobiography were completed between 1725 and 1728. The definitive version of his major work, entitled Principi di scienza nuova di Giambattista Vico d'intorno alla comune natura delle nazioni (Principles of New Science of Giambattista Vico Concerning the Common Nature of Nations), was published in 1730 and revised in the year of his death. This version has come to be known as Vico's Scienza nuova seconda or simply as Vico's New Science. Vico's work was very little known in his time. It was revived in the nineteenth century by Jules Michelet and early in the twentieth century by Benedetto Croce and Fausto Nicolini. More recently Vico's thought has been given a further revival in works by a number of European and Anglo-American scholars.

In the New Science Vico claims that religion, marriage, and burial are the three "principles" (principi) at the basis of all human society. Vico intends to emphasize the genetic and etymological meaning of the word principi as "beginnings." The institutions of religion, marriage, and burial are the necessary and sufficient conditions required for a minimal human society, one that can generate and transmit culture. Vico's emphasis is on religion, the first term in this list of principles or institutions; through its beginning, marriage and burial begin.

In Vico's view, religion arises from a primordial fear of the actions of a divine being and from the attempt to establish a relationship to this being through auspices. The primordial phenomenon through which the divine appears is thunder and humankind's fear of it. In Vico's account, the first humans, who have grown to gigantic size and who are living in the great forests of the earth since the biblical flood, produce the first act of human speech by calling the thunderous sky Jove. Every people, or nation, has its Jove. Human speech and the culture of any nation begin at the sudden transformation of the physical states of the thunderous sky and humankind's fear of it into a spiritual meaning, the presence of a god. Jove is the first name forged in human consciousness. This is done not through an act of reasoning but through an act of imagination, or what Vico calls fantasia. Fantasia is not the passive formation of images from sensation, but an active power to form or make something true in human experience. Vico calls Jove an "imaginative universal" (universale fantastico), which is the term he uses for the form of thought that characterizes the primordial religious-mythic or poetic mind.

In Vico's view, the nations of humanity begin at various times and places independent of each other, but all share a common nature. They all have structurally similar beginnings in the Jove experience and they all undergo the same course (corso) of historical development that passes through three ages, that of gods, heroes, and men. Within a corso various organized religions evolve from the impetus of the original religious mentality and life. The world of nations is a panorama of corsi and ricorsi. That all nations have a common naturethat they begin in an act of naming the divine and develop according to the pattern of three agesis in Vico's view evidence of providence in history.

Providence, for Vico, is evident in this three-stage life of any nation. In the age of gods men see all of nature and social institutions in terms of the presence of gods. Social order exists through fathers who found cities and take auspices of the divine. In the age of heroes fantasia is directed to form not gods but certain human figures, such as Achilles, as imaginative universals. In the age of men all life and thought becomes secularized: abstract thought rather than fantasia dominates; natural piety fades; the forms of social life become dissolute. When this occurs a given corso comes to an end and a civilization falls. At this point God reestablishes the providential structure of history by a ricorso in which a new beginning is made by a return of the survivors to the original severe conditions of life and primordial religious experience.


Works by Vico

The standard edition of Vico's writings is by Fausto Nicolini, Opere di G. B. Vico, 8 vols. in 11 (Bari, 19111941). The standard English translation of Vico's major work is The New Science of Giambattista Vico (Ithaca, N. Y., 1961; rev. trans. 1968). Complementary to this is The Autobiography of Giambattista Vico (Ithaca, N. Y., 1944). Both of these works are translated by Thomas G. Bergin and Max H. Fisch and are admirable in their style and accuracy. Both contain prefaces and notes that are indispensable. Vico's De nostri temporis studiorum ratione (1709) has been translated by Elio Gianturco as On the Study Methods of Our Time (Indianapolis, 1965). Partial translations of Vico's works, including De antiquissima Italorum sapientia and La scienza nuova prima, are available in Vico: Selected Writings, edited and translated by Leon Pompa (Cambridge, 1982). For a comprehensive description of the Italian and English editions of Vico's works, see Michael J. Mooney's "Vico's Writings" in Giambattista Vico's Science of Humanity, edited by Giorgio Tagliacozzo and me (Baltimore, 1976).

Works about Vico

The classic bibliography is Benedetto Croce's Bibliografia vichiana, revised and enlarged by Fausto Nicolini (Naples, 19471948). Also useful is A Bibliography of Vico in English, 18841984, edited by Giorgio Tagliacozzo et al. (Bowling Green, Ohio, 1986), and its supplements published by the Institute for Vico Studies in New York. For a full, paragraph-by-paragraph commentary on Vico's Scienza nuova, see Fausto Nicolini's Commento storico alla seconda Scienza nuova, 2 vols. (Rome, 19491950). For the classic interpretation of Vico's thought from the standpoint of Hegelian idealism, see Croce's The Philosophy of Giambattista Vico, translated by R. G. Collingwood (London, 1913). Three recent interpretations of Vico in English are Leon Pompa's Vico: A Study of the 'New Science' (Cambridge, 1975), which examines Vico's ideas as they constitute a science of society and history; Isaiah Berlin's Vico and Herder (New York, 1976), which considers Vico from the perspective of the history of ideas; and my own Vico's Science of Imagination (Ithaca, N.Y., 1981), which examines Vico's conception of "imaginative universals" as the basis of his thought. Several volumes of essays by European and American scholars have been edited by Giorgio Tagliacozzo, director of the Institute for Vico Studies, and others. Many of these essays show the connection of Vico with other thinkers; one of the most recent volumes is Vico: Past and Present (Atlantic Highlands, N.J., 1981). See also the yearbook, New Vico Studies (1983), edited by Tagliacozzo and me.

Donald Phillip Verene (1987)