Vico, Giovanni Battista

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Vico, Giovanni Battista (1668-1744): Italian Philosopher.

Giambattista Vico was the preeminent Italian philosopher of the eighteenth century. The son of a local Neapolitan bookseller, Vico studied law at the University of Naples. After earning his degree, he served briefly as a tutor to a family of the local nobility.

In 1698, he was appointed Professor of Latin Eloquence, or Rhetoric, at the University of Naples. In his early works, On the Study Methods of our Time (1709) and On the Ancient Wisdom of the Italians (1710), the latter being the first part of a projected larger work on metaphysics, Vico criticized the rationalist metaphysics of the dominant Cartesian philosophy with its emphasis on mathematical physics as the apotheosis of human knowledge and its corresponding denigration of the study of history and languages. He based his critique on what came to be known as the verum-factum principle, namely, that the true is convertible with the made. According to this principle, we can only have knowledge of that which we have made. Thus, we have knowledge of mathematics because mathematical entities are products of the human mind. Because God created the cosmos, only God has actual knowledge of the physical world. Unable to attain such knowledge, human beings must settle for mere consciousness of the physical world. In contrast to the natural sciences, however, humans are capable of attaining knowledge of history, since it is the product of human activity. With this doctrine, Vico reversed Descartes’s privileging of physics over the humanities.

In 1723, The University’s coveted Chair in Civil Law fell vacant, and Vico applied for the position. As part of his application, he wrote the treatise Universal Law, the bulk of which he later dismissed. He was disappointed in his efforts, as the position went to another, but this had the effect of liberating him to write the work on which his fame now rests, The New Science, which went through three editions – 1725, 1730, and 1744.

In the New Science, Vico developed an ideal philosophy of history that is both stadial and cyclical. He rejected theories positing a common origin of all civilizations, followed by a diffusion to other regions, as flowing from what he called “the conceit of nations,” in which seeks to glorify its own accomplishments by claiming the preeminence in the development of civilization. Instead, he argued for an account of separate but similar development among nations. According to this view, all nations proceed through three stages of historical development: the ages of gods, heroes, and men, respectively. In the first two stages, those of gods and heroes, human thought is characterized by the poetic imagination, rather than reason. This is obscured by the tendency of philosophers to attribute their own mode of thought to previous peoples, or what Vico termed “the conceit of scholars,” which he cited as the fundamental error of natural law theorists such as Grotius. It is only in the final, third stage of history, the age of men, that humans become rational. Drawing his material primarily from Roman history and law, the driving force behind this development is the class conflict between patricians and plebeians.

In addition to these three stages of development, Vico held that history displayed a cyclical character, which he characterized as course and recourse. Once a culture has finished passing through all three stages, it may then succumb to a new barbarism, the barbarism of reflection. That culture will then proceed to develop again, though without strict repetition due to its own prior experience. The overall pattern of historical movement constituted an ideal eternal history guided by divine providence.

Methodologically, Vico made major breakthroughs in the study of history. In general, he rejected the notion that those closer to the events necessarily possessed a greater understanding of them due to that proximity. Instead, historians working at a distance may actually be able to attain a superior insight into the phenomena under scrutiny. Vico maintained that changing forms of thought can be seen in language and thus advocated the use of etymology in the study of history. Furthermore, he argued that social structures and institutions are expressed in the mythology of a people.

In addition to The New Science, he also published his Autobiography (1727-1731), which was one of the first works in the genre of philosophical autobiography. In 1735, Charles of Bourbon appointed Vico to the position of royal historiographer. Though largely unknown outside his native Italy during the eighteenth century, Vico is widely credited with being the first major figure of the counter-enlightenment. In the nineteenth century, his work was discovered by the French historian Jules Michelet, upon whom he exerted considerable influence. Michelet brought Vico’s work to the attention of a wider audience. In addition to Michelet, Vico also influenced thinkers as diverse as Karl Marx, Benedetto Croce, and James Joyce.

Further Reading:

Isaiah Berlin, Three Critics of the Enlightenment, 2000.

Mark Lilla, Vico: The Making of an Anti-Modern, 1993.

Donald Philip Verene, Vico’s Science of the Imagination, 1981.

Kevin E. Dodson

Lamar University

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