Giovanni Battista Vico

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VICO, GIOVANNI BATTISTA (Giambattista Vico; 16681744)

VICO, GIOVANNI BATTISTA (Giambattista Vico; 16681744), Italian philosopher of history, law, and culture. Vico was born in Naples on the eve of the Feast of St. John the Baptist (23 June). He lived all his life in and near Naples, where his father was the proprietor of a small bookshop, above which the family lived in a single room. Vico's mother was illiterate. In a society dominated by wealth, political power, aristocracy, and clergy, Vico was self-made and self-taught. From grammar school on he spent only short periods in formal instruction. The center of his mature education was a self-devised program of reading the ancients against the moderns, carried out while tutoring the children of the Rocca family for nine years at Vatolla (16861695). In 1699 he won the concourse for the professorship of Latin eloquence (rhetoric) at the University of Naples, a position he held until succeeded in 1741 by his son Gennaro. As part of his duties Vico presented a series of orations to inaugurate the academic year, the two most prominent being "De nostri temporis studiorum ratione" (1709; On the study methods of our time) and "De mente heroica" (1732; On the heroic mind). This series of orations taken collectively constitutes a full doctrine of pedagogy.

In 1710 Vico published De Antiquissima Italorum Sapientia (On the most ancient wisdom of the Italians), the first part of a system of philosophy directed against Cartesianism. (The planned second and third parts were never completed.) The work contains one of Vico's best-known principles, "that the true is the made." He first applied this as a principle of mathematical reasoning; later he applied it in his science of historybecause human beings make history, they can make a complete knowledge of it. In 17201722 Vico published a large, three-part work, De Universi Juris Uno Principio (Universal law), in anticipation of qualifying for a university chair in civil law. In 1723 he suffered the greatest disappointment of his career, his failure to succeed in the concourse for this position, described in his Autobiografia (17281731).

Universal Law was a prelude to his magnum opus, Principi di una scienza nuova d'intorno alla comune natura delle nazioni (1725, 1730, 1744; Principles of new science concerning the common nature of the nations). Failure of the concourse left him free to develop the versions of this work. Through an analysis of Roman law begun in Universal Law and in particular the concept of ius gentium (the law of the peoples)that part of Roman law which it has in common with the laws of all other nationsVico developed his conception of "ideal eternal history," according to which all nations develop through a natural law of three ages. The age of gods, in which all of nature and basic social institutions are ordered in terms of gods, is followed by the age of heroes, in which all virtues necessary to society are embodied in the character of the hero, followed by the age of humans, in which custom is replaced by written law and thought becomes abstract and rational.

This ideal eternal history stands against the seventeenth-century natural-law theories of Hugo Grotius (Huigh de Groot [15831645]), Samuel von Pufendorf (16321694), John Selden (15841654), and Thomas Hobbes (15881679). In place of a state of nature, from which human beings form a covenant, passing from a state of war of all against all to a state of rationally governed civility, Vico formulates his conception of "poetic wisdom" or, in modern terms, "mythical thought." Societal life first depends upon the human power of fantasia (imagination) to narrate the meanings of events through myths. From mythical commonalities, rational forms of understanding gradually develop. Against the Enlightenment principle of progress, Vico sees history as cyclic, that is, each nation passes through a corso (course) of the ages of ideal eternal history and falls, only to rise again in a ricorso.

Vico's influence on later thinkers is sporadic. Johann Gottfried von Herder (17441803), Karl Marx (18181883), Samuel Taylor Coleridge (17721834), and William Butler Yeats (18651939) discovered Vico and realized their connection to him after their own views were largely formulated. The major figure of the nineteenth century fully influenced by Vico was Jules Michelet (17981874), who translated Vico's works into French, making them the basis of his own philosophy of history. The two figures most influenced by Vico in the twentieth century and who in turn introduced Vico to many readers were Benedetto Croce (18661952) and James Joyce (18821941). Croce merged Vico's conception of history and society with his own philosophical idealism, making Vico into the Italian Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (17701831). Joyce was influenced by Vico throughout his career. Most prominently Joyce based the cycles of Finnegan's Wake (1939) on Vico's New Science, as he had based Ulysses (1922) on the ports of call of Homer's Odyssey.

See also Cartesianism ; Grotius, Hugo ; Herder, Johann Gottfried von ; Philosophy ; Political Philosophy .


Primary Sources

Vico, Giambattista. The Autobiography of Giambattista Vico. Translated by Max Harold Fisch and Thomas Goddard Bergin. Ithaca, N.Y., 1975. Translation of Vita di Giambattista Vico Scritta da se medesimo.

. The New Science of Giambattista Vico. Translated by Thomas Goddard Bergin and Max Harold Fisch. Ithaca, N.Y., 1984. Translation of Principi di una scienza nuova d'intorno alla comune natura delle nazioni.

. Opere. 2 vols. Edited by Andrea Battistini. Milan, 1990. Edition of many of Vico's major works, including most helpful commentary and notes on each.

Secondary Sources

Berlin, Isaiah. Three Critics of the Enlightenment: Vico, Hamann, Herder. Edited by Henry Hardy. London, 2000. Treats Vico's philosophical ideas as the beginning of the Counter-Enlightenment.

Mazzotta, Giuseppe. The New Map of the World: The Poetic Philosophy of Giambattista Vico. Princeton, 1999. Connects Vico's thought to the basic figures and themes of the Renaissance.

Verene, Donald Phillip. The New Art of Autobiography: An Essay on the "Life of Giambattista Vico Written by Himself." Oxford, 1991. An analysis of Vico's autobiography and its connection to New Science.

. Vico's Science of Imagination. Ithaca, N.Y., 1981. An assessment of Vico's philosophical ideas and their originality.

Donald Phillip Verene

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Vico, Giovanni Battista



Giovanni Battista Vico, Italian jurist, philologist, and philosopher, was born in Naples in 1668 and died there in 1744. His contribution to European thought may be characterized as an attempt to combine Enlightenment ideas of natural law and Renaissance literary theory within a comprehensive theory of myth as the basis for a new conception of social dynamics. He is best known for his philosophy of history, set forth in The New Science (1725).

Vico, the son of a poor bookseller, was largely self-educated. He held the chair of Latin eloquence (rhetoric) at the University of Naples from 1699 to 1741. He had originally been interested in jurisprudence, on which he wrote a number of works; but when he failed to win the competition for the chair of civil law in 1723, he turned to the study of history and to the articulation of his so-called New Science, which occupied him up to the time of his death. In 1735 Vico was appointed royal historiographer to the Neapolitan house of Bourbon, but this was a belated and niggardly reward for a life that had combined consistent dedication to learning with unrelieved poverty, marital tragedy, public indifference to his work, and betrayal by a succession of patrons.

Vico’s prime intellectual enemy was Descartes. He objected to Descartes’s belief that man was everywhere, always, and equally rational. In his view, rationality was a historical acquisition, not a constant component of human nature. Vico’s secondary target was the natural-law tradition as represented by Selden and Pufendorf. The thinkers upon whom he drew for inspiration most often were Plato, Tacitus, and, among the moderns, Grotius and Francis Bacon. In the New Science Vico tried to combine Plato’s notion of the relation between sense data and ideas, Tacitus’ insight into historical process, and the inductive method advocated by Bacon in the Novum organum. But Vico was no mere eclectic; the New Science was a highly original synthesis of the various philosophical creeds and scholarly disciplines of his own time, a synthesis which took into account the materialism of a Hobbes and the idealism of a Descartes, but which framed them in a new approach to history, conceived as the study of human consciousness as it has evolved in time and space.

The New Science—main principles . The main arguments of the New Science can be discussed in terms of a question and three assumptions. The question is, How does it come about that men, who are basically ferine, selfish, and vicious (as Machiavelli and Hobbes argued), are able to form communities, to submit themselves to the rule of law, and to serve the well-being not only of themselves but of others too? According to Vico, none of the received intellectual traditions could solve this problem. Classical philosophy could not even conceive of it, because it denied the fact of change. Modern philosophers posed it, but then went on to solve it by holding that ancient man was just as rational as modern man and formed human society in much the way that modern men form a commercial concern or corporation. Christian theology begged the question by appealing to divine intervention to explain the formation of human communities out of the primitive animal nature. Even if Christian theologians were right about the way in which the ancient Hebrews had been formed into communities, there remained, Vico noted, the problem of explaining how the “gentile” nations were able to raise themselves above the animal level without the direct aid of the one, true God. And it is to this question that Vico’s work addresses itself.

This brings us to the three assumptions that underlie Vico’s New Science: that cultural artifacts are creations of human consciousness, nothing more and nothing less; that a human mind in the past operated in the same way that a present one does; and that men are capable of understanding human phenomena in ways that are not possible with respect to natural phenomena. Hence Vico’s methodological principle—one can understand only what one has created or is in principle capable of creating. In effect this means that since God, not man, is the creator of the natural world, then only God, and not man, can understand it fully. Since man is a part of nature, he can, to be sure, understand nature in part. But there will always be something in nature that he cannot comprehend fully; there will always be something mysterious about nature for everyone but its creator. It follows, therefore, that the Enlightenment was altogether misguided in its attempt to construct a science of human nature on the basis of a study of physical nature: understanding cultural phenomena, which are creations of men alone, in terms of incompletely understood natural principles is doomed from the start. Man can understand himself and everything he himself has created, i.e., the whole realm of human culture; but he can do so only on the basis of an inductive study of culture, not by proceeding from the study of nature. Thus, according to Vico, the proper basis for a science of culture and a metaphysics of mind can be found only in a historical investigation of the encounters between human consciousness and nature as they occur in different parts of the world at different times and in different situations.

However, if past human consciousness is understandable by present human consciousness, it must not be thought that past problems were the same as present ones or that the specific responses of men to those past problems were similar to what present responses to those problems would be. Quite the contrary—and here is the core of Vico’s historicism—each age has its own problems, and its responses to those problems will vary according to the level of rationality achieved by the culture in question. Cultural change is a macrocosm of the changes that occur microcosmically in the individual human being as he passes from birth to maturity: each age has its own needs, capabilities, and preconceptions; and each age calls forth the institutions and values necessary for it to deal with the world as it conceives of it. In order for modern man to understand primitive man, then, it is necessary for the modern to enter sympathetically into a world in which nature seemed alive and governed by hostile spirits whose power over man was exceeded only by their malignity. A proper understanding of human consciousness requires that we return to the time when humanity was a child, when men lived and acted like animals, and then show how the very nature of nature itself set up a process of development that lifted man out of his natural brutality, in spite of his own egoistic impulses, and set him on the road to civilization.

Vico’s social theory . If primitive man is as ignorant of the nature of nature and is as irrational in his responses to nature as a child is, then it follows, according to Vico, that human society resulted not from abstract considerations of utility or from rational self-interest, as Hobbes believed, but, rather, from immediate responses to real or imagined physical threats. The basic unit of society, the family, was formed when primitive man was frightened by such natural occurrences as thunder or lightning, took refuge in caves with his women, and grew used to living in groups. A similar fear lay at the base of primitive religious belief. Since men translate the unfamiliar into terms of the familiar, the processes of nature are at first experienced as anthropomorphic spirits that must be propitiated and placated, an activity that falls to the heads of families. Thus was born the “age of the gods,” the time when men lived in patriarchal communities (familii), bound together by blood ties alone and ruled over by strong men who combined the roles of priest and king.

These primal communities were expanded when fugitives from the original ferine competition sought protection by the patriarchs in return for their labor. The first truly social classes appeared at this point, for the refugees (socii) were not linked by blood to the primal kinship groups but were affiliated only by services rendered and received. The division of power and privileges thus established on functional lines generated tensions within the primal group, and the socii soon began to demand fuller participation in the benefits of the group to which they contributed their labor. This required that the patriarchs of the various tribes come together to protect themselves from the socii. Here, according to Vico, is the origin of aristocratic societies In such societies the ruling group claimed descent from the gods; it was characterized by punctilious adherence to codes of honor and achievement; and its dominant style of life was perpetuated by a specific kind of poetry, the heroic epic. Thus, the “age of the gods” gave way to “the age of heroes,” the age of religion to that of poetry, and the rule of priest-kings to that of nobles— this succession being a result of the demands of power relationships and the pursuit of individual privilege.

The very success of each ruling group in each age bred the conditions for its overthrow. The security and order established by the aristocrats resulted in the enrichment of the plebeians: the latter grew stronger and rebelled, and then justified rebellion by appeals both to their contribution to the general welfare of the community and to the humanity that they shared with the nobility. The struggle between aristocrats and plebeians resulted in the transition from the age of heroes to the age of peoples, from the language of poetry to that of prose, and from a customary code of conduct to legal systems in which the written contract came to define relations between parties enjoying definable rights and specific privileges in the commonwealth. Only then was monarchy possible, for monarchy was imaginable, for Vico, only as rule by one in the interests of an internally differentiated social whole.

Such is the basic pattern of the corso, or cycle, which, according to Vico, all nations follow in their development from primitivism to civilization. He did not rule out the possibility of cultural borrowing, but he insisted that cultures which have embarked upon their corsi will borrow only those ideas, institutions, and values which conform to their needs at the particular stage at which they have arrived by an inherent logic of evolution. Of course, it is possible for nations to become “arrested” in their development, or even annihilated, if they come into conflict with other cultures at more advanced stages of growth. But on the whole, cultures develop in response to needs and desires peculiar to them at specific times in their cycles.

All of this points to the relationship between human needs, on the one hand, and institutional forms and modes of expression, on the other. It provides a critical tool for the historian, allowing him to penetrate the opaque language of myth and legend. And it suggests that religious, poetic, and even philosophical systems must be viewed primarily as rationalizations of achieved social relationships. As Vico put it, “The order of ideas must follow the order of institutions.” This is the essence of the New Science. Vico employed this insight with special subtlety to criticize contemporary thought about the nature of Homeric poetry and of Roman law.

Idea of history . Although Vico shared the Enlightenment belief in the providential nature of history, he rejected the idea that humanity as a whole developed inevitably in linear sequence from lower to higher forms of self-consciousness and rationality. In most cultures, he held, each stage is an improvement over the preceding one, but every third stage (the philosophical, or scientific, stage), which follows the religious and heroic stages, is always followed by a period of decline, a time of barbarism rendered more barbarous by the refinements on savagery that sophistication provides— in other words, true decadence. Thus, for Vico, providence seems to operate only within cultures (rather than across cultures) to turn private self-seeking to public good—and only for a while. In the end, providence is assimilated into human consciousness and thus becomes identical with the activities of a humanity liberated from all fear of nature and God by the New Science. Private self-seeking then predominates, in the form of mere pursuit of pleasure, and results in a breakdown of civic responsibility and therewith the disintegration of culture.

Vico did not rule out the possibility of a greater, macrocosmic providence operating across cultures as well, that providence revealed by the Christian religion which allows Western man to experience the cyclical recurrence of the cultural process in an ultimately progressive way. For example, the “second barbarism” of the early Middle Ages constituted a positive advance over the “first barbarism” of the Homeric age and the barbarism of pre-Roman Italy. And Vico saw the expansion of Western civilization over the globe as an anticipation of a new humanity, unifying peoples hitherto separated and imprisoned within their specific cyclical patterns of rise and fall. In short, human history in general does not develop in either a linear or a cyclical pattern, but more like a spiral, consisting, as it were, of a motion in which every two steps forward is paid for by one step backward; this conception is similar to the dialectical pattern envisaged by Hegel and Marx a century later.

And, like Hegel and Marx, Vico seems to have regarded his own philosophical activity as evidence that mankind was at last entering into its kingdom here on earth. The New Science is both evidence of the birth of a new historical consciousness and the instrument by which humanity is to be liberated from cyclical determinism. It is liberating in that it shows man not as the product of fate or of physical process alone or of divine will alone, but as free creator of his own destiny. Just as Christianity is the one true religion for all men everywhere, so the New Science is the one true philosophy for all men everywhere. And just as Christianity had freed man from servitude to an imagined hostile nature by divesting that nature of all spirits, so the New Science will free man from servitude to religion itself, not by destroying religion but by revealing it for what it really is, i.e., man’s vision of what he might become. In the New Science men are revealed as creators of their own humanity, are liberated from myth, and are charged to undertake creation of themselves selfconsciously and positively.

Vico’s influence . Vico’s philosophy was not very influential during the eighteenth century, but it did prefigure many of the ideas that later appeared in romanticism. Therefore, Vico became fully appreciated only in the nineteenth century, largely as a result of Michelet’s popularization of his work. Vico’s influence on nineteenth-century social and literary theory was profound: Goethe, Mazzini, Coleridge, Thomas Arnold, Taine, Marx, and Engels all admitted debts to him. In the present century his influence has been even greater, encompassing thinkers and writers as diverse as Croce, Gentile, and Collingwood in philosophy; Joyce and Yeats in literature; Toynbee and Trotsky in historiography; Pareto, Sorel, and Sorokin in social science; and Edmund Wilson and Erich Auerbach in literary criticism. It is only in the present century that Vico’s highly original Autobiography, first published in 1728 and reissued with an addition in 1731, has been fully appreciated. Here Vico applied the principles of the New Science to the analysis of his own intellectual evolution, thus providing, or so he believed, a confirmation on the ontogenetic level of the phylogenetic pattern of human evolution.

Hayden V. White

[For the historical context of Vico’s work, seeHistory, article on The philosophy of history; and the biographies ofBacon; Descartes; Grotius; Hobbes; Plato. For discussion of the subsequent development of his ideas, seeSociology, article on The development of sociological thought; and the biographies ofCroce; Pareto; Sorel; Sorokin; Trotsky.]


(1725) 1948 The New Science. Translated by Thomas G. Bergin and Max H. Fisch. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press. → First published in Italian. A paperback edition was published in 1961 by Doubleday.

(1728-1729) 1944 The Autobiography of Giambattista Vico. Translated by Max H. Fisch and Thomas G. Bergin. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press. → First published in Italian.

Opere. Edited by Fausto Nicolini. 8 vols. Bari: Laterza, 1911-1941.

Opere. Edited by Fausto Nicolini. Milan: Ricciardi, 1953. → A one-volume selection.

Opere. Edited by Paolo Rossi. Milan: Rizzoli, 1959.

Il pensiero di Giambattista Vico. Edited by Paolo Rossi. Turin: Loescher, 1959.

Tutte le opere. Edited by Francesco Flora. Vols. 1—. Milan: Mondadori, 1957—.


Adams, Henry P. 1935 Life and Writings of Giambattista Vico. London: Allen & Unwin.

Amerio, Franco 1947 Introduzione allo studio di Giambattista Vico. Turin: Società Editrice Italiana.

Caponigri, A. Robert 1953 Time and Idea: The Theory of History in G. B. Vico. Chicago: Regnery.

Chaix-ruy, Jules 1943 La formation de la pensée philosophique de G. B. Vico. Gap (France): Jean.

Ciardo, Manlio 1947 Le quattro epoche dello storicismo: Vico, Kant, Hegel, Croce. Bari: Laterza.

Corsano, Antonio 1956 Giambattista Vico. Bari: Laterza.

Croce, Benedetto (1911) 1964 The Philosophy of Giambattista Vico. Translated by R. G. Collingwood. New York: Russell. → First published in Italian.

Croce, Benedetto 1947-1948 Bibliografia vichiana. 2 vols. Revised and enlarged by Fausto Nicolini. Naples: Ricciardi.

Nicolini, Fausto 1949-1950 Commento storico alia seconda Scienza nuova. 2 vols. Rome: Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura.

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Italian philosopher, historian, and jurisprudent; b. Naples, June 23, 1668; d. there, Jan. 23, 1744. His work Scienza Nuova d'intorno alla comune natura delle Nazioni (1744) opened a new epoch in the theory of history, of historiography, and of culture.

Early Work. Vico's first philosophical orientation was Cartesian, but his strongly humanistic formation led to an early dissociation from this current. In a literary sense, his criticism is linked to Descartes's animadversions on the humanistic disciplines in the Discourse on Method; Vico's corrective is his De nostri temporis studiorum ratione [1708; in G. B. Vico, Orazioni inaugurali, De antiquissima Italorum sapientia, le Polemiche, ed. G. Gentile and F. Nicolini (Bari 1914)], which gives the first intimation of his unification of philosophy and philology. In the doctrinal sense, his criticism of Cartesianism centers upon the cogito, which he considers without ontological force, and upon the clear and distinct idea, which he considers too narrowly evidential. His corrective is found in the Liber metaphysicus of the De antiquissima, which exhibits the first outlines of his doctrine of the human mind and of the philological method in philosophy, both elaborated later in the Scienza Nuova.

Vico's doctrine takes its greatest impetus from his studies in the history of law. He concluded that the codes of Roman law were subject, both in construction and interpretation, to the boria degli dotti, the illusion of the learned "who will have it that whatever they know is as old as the world" (Scienza Nuova 1.2.127; Bergin and Fisch, 55). That is, the laws so codified were considered to be the products of reason and will. Vico's vision is that they must be, rather, crystallizations of a vast body of historical experience, behind which lay not only the development of institutions but that of the human mind itself. The first results of his efforts in this direction appear in the Diritto Universale [171923, ed. F. Nicolini 3 v. (Bari 1936)]. In this document, however, the intellectualism against which his criticism is directed is only partially overcome. The fulfillment of this insight had to await the Scienza Nuova itself.

The New Science. The Scienza Nuova records Vico's two basic and profoundly revolutionary achievements: the reconstruction of human presence and, on this basis, the reconstruction, in principle, of historical social process. Though for purposes of exposition these achievements are best distinguished, in this document and in Vico's thought as a whole they are absolutely immanent to each other and to the concrete process of interpreting historical documents. On these two chief achievements depend all of the celebrated "discoveries" of the New Science: for example, the theory of poetry and myth, the poetic ages of man, and the theory of the class struggle as the basic dynamic of social change.

The "reconstruction of human presence" turns about the epistemological vindication of the senses and of the imagination, and an assertion of the practical effectiveness of the passions. In classical intellectualism, the principle of consciousness had been reason; by contrast, sense and imagination had been assigned inferior cognitive roles. In like manner, the center of ethical force had been placed in the will, and the passions denigrated. Vico mitigates such intellectualism. Reason and will remain for him ultimately normative; yet he assigns to sense, imagination, and passion an autonomous validity. This validity is nevertheless subordinated, through the dialectic of spontaneity and reflection, to reason and will in the total economy of "human presence."

The second achievement documented in the Scienza Nuova is the reordering of human cultural history upon the basis of the moments of presence or "modifications of the human mind." In the classical tradition the distinctions and relations between these moments of presence had been purely formal. Above all, any time-existential relationship between them had been, if at all, only inchoately indicated. As a result, there had emerged various dualisms, such as that between the logical and the real; and history, regarded essentially as a logical process, had been assigned little value. Vico opposes this tradition. He deploys the moments of human presence through time, presenting the time process as generating the logical order, and not as incidental to it. For him, in fact, history is not merely a science, but the universal matrix of significant human discourse.

Vico maintains that the deployment of human presence through time is in the collective consciousness rather than in the individual. He does not, however, conceive this deployment along psychological lines. Rather, he places it in the document, which, for him, is not simply the written record; it is also, and even more, the living social process and the institution. Thus one can understand how, for Vico, the Roman law is un serioso poema. At the same time, the "course of nations" is the working out in time of the "eternal and ideal history," and these are entirely immanent to each other. Yet, between them appears a tension that leaves place for providence. For Vico, providence is the principle of rectification of the temporal course of nations in the direction of ideal and eternal history; the latter, moreover, is subject in its temporal manifestation to the law of ricorsi or eternal return. It is traversed anew by every nation and in every nation works itself out afresh.

These principles are applied in the substantive portion of the New Science: the history of "poetic wisdom." Poetic wisdom is the record of the spontaneous consciousness of early man in his literature, social institutions, and the like. The dimensions of this wisdom include poetic theology, poetic physics, and poetic politics. These Vico undertakes to reconstruct on the basis of the documents of early Mediterranean culture.

Bibliography: g. b. vico, The New Science , tr. t. g. bergin and m. h. fisch from 3d ed., 1744 (Ithaca 1948); The Autobiography , tr. m. h. fisch and t. g. bergin (Ithaca 1944), important introd. f. amerio, Enciclopedia filosofica, 4 v. (Venice-Rome 1957) 4:157288. b. croce, Bibliografia Vichiana, ed. f. nicolini, 2 v. (Naples 194748). f. nicolini, Saggi Vichiani (Naples 1955). a. r. caponigri, Time and Idea: The Theory of History in Giambattista Vico (London 1953). t. berry, The Historical Theory of Giambattista Vico (Washington 1949). a. corsano, Giambattista Vico (Bari 1956).

[a. r. caponigri]

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Giambattista Vico

The Italian philosopher and jurist Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) is considered the founder of the philosophy of history. His main work, "The New Science, " is an examination of social and political institutions in terms of their connection with phases of human development.

Apart from being known by a few German thinkers, such as Johann Georg Hamann and Johann Gottfried von Herder, the work of Giambattista Vico was ignored until modern times. Yet the belated recognition of his genius and contribution is such that some scholars suggest that his mode of historical thinking is capable of modifying the intellectual relations between the pure and social sciences.

Vico was born in Naples on June 23, 1668 the only child of Antonio and Candida Vico. Except for one sustained period he lived his entire life in the city of his birth. During this period of political turmoil Naples was ruled by a succession of foreign powers (Spain, Austria, and France) and domestically controlled by the powerful Jesuit order. Intellectually, the city became the center of Italian Cartesianism. Vico, who was in opposition to all of these forces, was unable to advance his career. His lack of recognition and success in his professional work, as well as personal misfortunes, made him a bitter man who was periodically subject to melancholia.

In childhood Vico nearly died as the result of a fractured skull, which prevented him from attending school. Because his father was a bookseller, the child read quite extensively but at random. Although he attended a Jesuit university for a brief time, he went only to those classes that interested him. He spent a great deal of time studying logic and scholastic metaphysics until he found himself attracted to the study of law. Despite his lack of formal legal training, he successfully defended his father in a lawsuit when he was only 16 years old. But he developed a distaste for law as a profession and never practiced again.

From 1685 to 1695 Vico tutored relatives of the bishop of Ischia and lived in Vatolla. These were the happiest years of his life, and he used his free time to pursue his intellectual interests. He read widely in the fields of philosophy, history, ethics, jurisprudence, and poetry. His knowledge of science remained cursory, and he had a positive dislike for mathematics.

Vico returned to Naples in 1697 and became professor of rhetoric at the University of Naples. Part of his duties consisted of offering a lecture at the opening of each academic year from 1699 to 1708. These essays show the development of his thought, and On the Study Methods of Our Time ranks as a classic defense of liberal education. Between 1720 and 1722 he published a three-volume study, Universal Law. In 1725 he wrote his Autobiography; the same year he published the first edition of The New Science, which he modified and expanded in editions of 1730 and 1744. Despite these activities, Vico was not appointed to the chair of civil law and, because of his large family, he was forced to supplement his income by writing commissioned poems and prose encomiums. He died on Jan. 22/23, 1744, in Naples after a long and painful illness.

His Thought

René Descartes, credited with being the originator of modern classical philosophy, attempted to reform scientific thinking by a strict adherence to mathematical reasoning. Vico, who came to the study of philosophy from law, questioned the criterion of rationalist truth on the basis that real knowledge is by way of causes. He believed that ultimately we can know fully only that which we have caused. The true, or verum, is identical with the created factum. Despite its obscurities, Vico's intuition about history remains quite suggestive. Only God knows the natural cosmos perfectly, and the rationalist model of perfect demonstrable knowledge is attainable only in the realm of mathematical abstractions. But we can know history because it has been created by man, and its originative principles can be discovered by a reconstructive interpretation of our own mind.

Accordingly Vico's New Science anticipates the later thought of G. W. F. Hegel, Auguste Comte, and Arnold Toynbee: "Our philosophical and philological investigations revealed an ideal eternal history which has been traversed in time according to the division of the three ages …" Vico was indebted to Egyptian mythology for his basic metaphor of poetic, heroic, and natural natures. But the scope of his immense and diffuse learning enabled him to systematically associate these three types as reflected in customs, laws, language, institutions, and political authority; or, in brief, in the manifestations of nations as well as individual characters.

For example, primitive cultures are notoriously mythological in their thinking. To Vico this fact was a clear reflection of their ignorance of natural causes and the compensating strength of their imaginations. He believed the study of common language in its progression from oracular to expressive to vernacular provides a "mental dictionary" of character, nation, and time. Similarly, he believed a close study of laws and the facts of commerce yields more insight about a civilization than a study of its science or philosophy.

Vico's comparative method issued in a concept of political organization. In aristocracies the nobles "by reason of their native lawless liberty" will not tolerate checks upon their power. When plebeians increase in number and military training, they force the aristocracy to submit to law, as in democracies. Finally, in order to preserve their privileges, the lords accept a single ruler, and monarchies are established.

Further Reading

Studies of Vico include R. Flint, Vico (1884); B. Croce, The Philosophy of Giambattista Vico (1913); and A. R. Caponigri, Time and Idea: The Theory of History in Giambattista Vico (1953).

Additional Sources

Burke, Peter, Vico, Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Verene, Donald Phillip, Vico's science of imagination, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981.

Albano, Maeve Edith, Vico and providence, New York: P. Lang, 1986. □

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Vico, Giambattista (1668–1744) Italian philosophical historian. In his New Science (1725, revised 1730 and 1744), Vico advanced the arguments of historicism: that all aspects of society and culture are relevant to the study of history, and that the history of any period should be judged according to the standards and customs of that time and place. Overlooked until the late 19th century, he is now regarded as one of the greatest philosophers of history.

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