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Vico, Giambattista

 Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) is one of the first modern thinkers to formulate a philosophy of mythology and to base both philosophical and historical knowledge on a conception of narration. Vico lived and taught in Naples throughout his life except for a nine-year period at the beginning of his career, when he served as tutor to the Rocca family on their estate a distance from Naples. Vico was professor of Latin eloquence, or what in modern terms would be understood as Rhetoric, at the University of Naples. In the last part of his career he was appointed royal historiographer.
 Vico's major work is the Scienza nuova (New Science), which he published first in 1725 and then in a fully rewritten version in 1730. This second version, along with revisions he was making in the text for a third edition in the year of his death, 1744, has come to be known as the Scienza nuova seconda. Vico maintained that in the text of this second version he had placed practically all his ideas of any importance. His conception of his New Science and its leading ideas are developed in several prior works. In De antiquissima Italorum sapientia (On the Most Ancient Wisdom of the Italians, 1710) he states his principle verum ipsum factum, that the true is the same as the made, that is, "convertible" with the made, as part of a criticism of the metaphysics of René Descartes (ch. 1, sec. 1). In two Latin works and a set of notes on them which Vico grouped under the Italian title Il diritto universale [Universal law] (1720-22) he offers a first sketch of his conception of the new science, in a chapter entitled "Nova scientia tentatur" [A new science is essayed], and also states a principle of jurisprudence that may have shaped his conception of the method of the New Science--certum est pars veri, or, the certain is part of the true (bk. 1, ch. 82).
 Vico says in his Autobiography (1725-28) and in the New Science itself that his "new science" is based on a nuova'arte critica. This "new critical art" is a means to elicit the "common nature of nations" (New Science, par. 348). In the De antiquissima Vico explains his principle the "true is the made" as applicable to mathematics; mathematical trues ("intelligibles") are such because they are made in accordance with the principles of mathematics, not because they correspond to some rational order of nature (ch. 1, sec. 2). Vico does not discuss this principle directly in the New Science, but he alludes to it, and his views generally presuppose it (par. 349). In the New Science it becomes a principle of history: that history is made by humans. In their creation of the things of the civil world humans make the trues or intelligibilities of history. The historical life of nations follows a common pattern in each nation. Because humans make history, a science that uncovers and expresses the principles of this making is possible. It can demonstrate the ways in which humans achieve trues or intelligibilities in their acts of making history.
 This new science of history requires a new critical art of interpretation in which philosophy is joined with philology, in which the true (verum) is joined with the certain (certum) (pars. 338-60). Philosophy has by its nature always aimed at stating the forms of intelligibility common to all experience. Philology presents the "certains" of the human world, by which Vico means all the things that depend upon human choice, that is, the histories of the languages, customs, and deeds of peoples in war and in peace. This new critical art must apply itself to the philology of these certains in order to show how they involve various principles of intelligibility ordinarily understood only in abstract terms by philosophical analysis. Vico discusses the conception of the certain (il certo) and the true (il vero) in the New Science, but his thought is likely guided by his jurisprudential principle certum est pars veri, the sense that a certain instance of positive law formed by human choice is valid and can truly be regarded as law only when understood as part of universal or natural law, and the reverse, that law in a universal sense is forever abstract unless embodied in positive systems of law. Even more specifically, Vico's notion of the connection between the universally true and the individually certain may be grounded in the Roman conception of ius gentium, that part of ius naturale that is understood to be actually present in the civil laws of all nations and thus to be in fact common to them all.
 Vico turns this jurisprudential principle of the true and the certain into a metaphysics of history such that, as he holds in the New Science, it shows what providence has wrought in history (par. 342). The new critical art of the philosophical examination of philology shows, in Vico's view, that all nations follow a common pattern of development. This pattern shows the providential structure of human events. A further dimension to the new critical art is Vico's axiom that "doctrines must take their beginning from that of the matters of which they treat" (par. 314). He says that the first science to be learned must be mythology (par. 51) and that the "master key" to his new science is the discovery that the first humans thought in "poetic characters" or "imaginative universals" (universali fantastici) (par. 34). All nations begin in the same way by the power of the imagination (fantasia) to make the world intelligible in terms of gods. This age of gods gives way to a second age, in which fantasia is used to form social institutions and types of character or virtues in terms of heroes. Finally, these two ages, in which the world is ordered through the power of fantasia, decline into an age of rationality, in which the world is ordered in purely conceptual and logical terms and in which mental acting is finally dominated by what Vico calls a barbarism of reflection (barbarie della riflessione) (par. 1106).
 This cycle of ages of gods, heroes, and humans repeats itself within the world of nations, forming what Vico calls ideal eternal history (storia ideale eterna) (par. 349). The world of nations is typified by the corsi and ricorsi of these three ages. From the standpoint of Vico's conception of the metaphysics of history, the divine attempts to reveal itself over and over again in human affairs, but history never takes on this sense of progress typical of eighteenth-century thought.
 Vico's New Science is a large and varied work that treats many subjects, of which only a few can be touched on here. Of particular interest to the scholar of literary criticism, in addition to Vico's conception of a "new critical art," are two products of this art: sapienza poetica, or "poetic wisdom," which is the title of the second and largest book of the New Science, and his "discovery of the true Homer," the subject of the third book. Put in modern terms, Vico's "poetic wisdom" is a conception of a science of mythology. He regards mythic narrative as having a logic of its own that is achieved through the power of imagination, or fantasia. Fantasia is a primordial power of the mind through which the world and human experience are first given order. In Vico's view, fantasia is an active power through which the things of the civil world are first made. Fantasia is a type of learning that precedes reason in the history of human affairs. It is this original form of the mythic that literature later attempts to recover. Vico's conception of myth as a primordial form of thought has affinities with various and diverse modern theories of myth, such as those of Claude Lévi-Strauss and Mircea Eliade.
 Vico believes that one of the verifications of his New Science is his discovery of the true Homer, namely, the ancient Greek people themselves (par. 806). Through his new critical art Vico claims to prove that Homer's works should be regarded not as containing a hidden philosophical wisdom but as commanding a form of wisdom of their own, a poetic or mythic wisdom that is a summation of the fantasia of the ancient Greeks. Implied in this conception of Homer is a solution to Plato's ancient quarrel with the poets. Unlike Plato, Vico regards Homer not as in contest with philosophical thought but as embodying a form of thought that precedes philosophy and is required as a precursor to philosophy.
 Vico's influence during his lifetime was not great, and it did not extend to the thinkers of northern Europe. He greatly desired their attention to his work, but it remained largely unknown to them. In Italy, there was a fairly continuous Vico tradition in criticism and literary criticism influencing, for example, the essays of Ugo Foscolo and, later, Francesco De Sanctis and Benedetto Croce. In Germany, J. G. von Herder knew something of Vico's ideas, but Vico did not directly influence Herder's work, although as Isaiah Berlin has shown, Vico and Herder taken together make a suggestive chapter in the history of ideas.
 The first great revival of Vico's ideas occurred in France with Jules Michelet's discovery of the New Science in 1824 and his subsequent publication of his abridged translation and an exposition of Vico's ideas. It was from Michelet's translation that Victor Cousin derived his interest in Vico. The earliest English promoter of Vichian ideas was Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who was responsible for much of the interest in Vico among English writers in the latter nineteenth century. In a long and important footnote in Capital, Karl Marx discusses the possibility of applying Vico's conception of history to a history of human technology. Croce and Fausto Nicolini compiled the modern standard edition of Vico's works, the so-called Laterza edition, and Croce was the one philosopher in the contemporary period to base his conception of aesthetics and culture on Vico, merging Vico with Hegelian idealism. The most prominent figure to introduce Vico to twentieth-century readers was James Joyce, who used the New Science as the grid for Finnegans Wake. Joyce was especially interested in Vico's notion that "memory is the same as imagination" (la memoria e la stessa che la fantasia) and with Vico's notion of the cycle of the three ages of history. In the last two decades Vico's thought has undergone a renaissance of critical interpretation and application to various fields of literature and the humanities, largely among English-speaking scholars.

Donald Phillip Verene


Notes and Bibliography

See also Benedetto Croce.

Giambattista Vico, The Autobiography of Giambattista Vico (1725-28, trans. Max Harold Fisch and Thomas Goddard Bergin, 1944), The New Science of Giambattista Vico (1725, 3d ed., 1744, trans. Thomas Goddard Bergin and Max Harold Fisch, 1948, rev. ed., 1968), On the Most Ancient Wisdom of the Italians (1710, trans. Lucia Marchetti Palmer, 1988), On the Study Methods of Our Time (1709, trans. Elio Gianturco, including "The Academies and the Relation between Philosophy and Eloquence," trans. Donald Phillip Verene, 1990); Opere di G. B. Vico (ed. Fausto Nicolini, 8 vols. in 11, 1911-41), Vico: Selected Writings (ed. and trans. Leon Pompa, 1982).

Isaiah Berlin, Vico and Herder: Two Studies in the History of Ideas (1976); Benedetto Croce, Bibliografia vichiana (rev. and enlarged Fausto Nicolini, 2 vols., 1947-48); Ernesto Grassi, Vico and Humanism: Essays on Vico, Heidegger, and Rhetoric (1990); Michael Mooney, Vico in the Tradition of Rhetoric (1984); New Vico Studies (ed. Giorgio Tagliacozzo and Donald Phillip Verene, 1983-); Leon Pompa, Vico: A Study of the "New Science" (1975, 2d ed., 1990); John D. Schaeffer, Sensus Communis: Vico, Rhetoric, and the Limits of Relativism (1990); Giorgio Tagliacozzo and Donald Phillip Verene, Giambattista Vico's Science of Humanity (1976); Giorgio Tagliacozzo, Donald Phillip Verene, and Vanessa Rumble, A Bibliography of Vico in English, 1884-1984 (1986); Giorgio Tagliacozzo and Hayden V. White, eds., Giambattista Vico: An International Symposium (1969); Donald Phillip Verene, The New Art of Autobiography: An Essay on the "Life of Giambattista Vico Written by Himself" (1991), Vico's Science of Imagination (1981); Donald Phillip Verene, ed., Vico and Joyce (1987).

Topics Index Cross-references for this Guide entry:
New Science

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