Giambattista Vico

Giambattista Vico
Giambattista Vico

Born in Naples, Italy, in 1668, Giambattista Vico is best known for his critique of the Cartesian method and his philosophy of history. Beyond these areas, he is also known for contributions to linguistic theory, legal history, and cultural anthropology. Many have construed Vico as an eighteenth-century thinker who expressed the germ of ideas more fully developed in the nineteenth century.

Thus, for example, Karl Löwith understands Vico’s master work The New Science to anticipate “not only fundamental ideas of Herder and Hegel, Dilthey and Spengler, but also the more particular discoveries of Roman history by Niebuhr and Mommsen, the theory of Homer by Wolf, the interpretation of mythology by Bachofen, the reconstruction of ancient life through etymology by Grimm, the historical understanding of laws by Savigny, of the ancient city and of feudalism by Fustel de Coulanges, and of the class struggles by Marx and Sorel”.

The familiar picture of Vico as the “great anticipator” contains some truth.More recent scholarship, in contrast, has tried to understand Vico as a thinker in his own right. The result has been a proliferation of different and often incompatible interpretations.

contemporary hermeneutics
contemporary hermeneutics

These include views of Vico as a pioneer of contemporary hermeneutics; a creator of the modern social sciences; an architect of a uniquely Christian synthesis of philosophy and poetry; an advocate of a naturalistic Epicureanism thinly disguised as orthodox piety; a proponent of a Counter-Enlightenment approach to politics; and an author of a “genealogy of morals” that exposes the roots of modern secularism in pagan idolatry, divination, and sacrifice.

Rather than comment on rival interpretations of Vico, I here invite the reader to consider some aspects of what Vico himself regards as a continuous project of thought. This project begins with the works he published in 1709 and 1710 (On the Study Methods of Our Time and On the Most Ancient Wisdom of the Italians), runs through his jurisprudential writings from 1720 to 1722 (Universal Right), and concludes with the three major versions of The New Science.

Anti-cartesian Writings

In 1709 Vico published a version of the inaugural oration he delivered at the University of Naples in the preceding year, under the title De nostri temporis studiorum ratione (On the Study Methods of Our Time). In that work, which does not mention Descartes by name, Vico considered the art of “criticism” (critica), juxtaposing it with the art of “topics” (topica).

Anti-cartesian Writings
Anti-cartesian Writings

Characteristic of criticism, in Vico’s sense of the term, is a “dry and attenuated method of argumentation” that he associated with the Stoics and their then contemporary counterparts. Vico chided critics for wanting to purify, from even the suspicion of falsehood, their first truths, which they took to exist “above, outside of and beyond all images of bodies”. His argument against criticism involves two main claims.

The first claim is that to prioritize criticism in the education of children is unwise. Youths taught not to accept anything unless it can be certified by a rationalistic standard will have bad memories, impoverished imaginations, and a knack for rashly entering into “astonishing and unaccustomed ventures”.

The second claim is that criticism is poorly suited to discover truth. Because “the invention of arguments is prior by nature in the judgment of truth”, criticism has no work to do unless the mind has investigated and brought to light the full range of relevant possibilities.

memory and imagination
memory and imagination

The success of this prior investigation, Vico thought, depends upon the exercise of memory and imagination, especially in assisting the mind as it runs through the commonplaces. These mental capacities, Vico argued, are smothered by premature indoctrination in criticism, but can be developed through an immersion in topics.

In On the Study Methods of Our Time, Vico protests against what he regards as the domination of Cartesian criticism, but he does not oppose it as such. In On the Most Ancient Wisdom of the Italians, a work published a year later, 1710, he became more explicit in his opposition to Descartes.

In that work, Vico charged Descartes with dogmatism, attributing to him the desire to consider all truths doubtful until metaphysically established by the principle “Cogito, ergo sum” (“I think; therefore I am”). Vico argued that, contrary to how he presented himself, Descartes is far from original. He noted that the use of the evil genius was anticipated by the Stoic in Cicero’s Academia (45 BCE), and that the cogito principle was already enunciated by the slave Sosia in Plautus’s Amphitryo (186 BCE).

Swimming, swimming, swimming...
cogito principle

Vico does not claim that the cogito principle is false; he merely holds, “It is an ordinary cognition that happens to any unlearned person such as Sosia, not a rare and exquisite truth that requires such deep meditation by the greatest of philosophers to discover it”. The cogito principle is not only hackneyed, according to Vico; it is also unable to meet the skeptic’s argument.

For the cogito principle to provide knowledge of the nature of the mind, it would have to grasp the causes of thought (for Vico, as for Aristotle, knowledge is knowledge of causes). According to Vico, the cogito principle furnishes only consciousness (conscientia) of thinking, without illuminating its causes, and thereby fails to provide knowledge (scientia).

Like Francis Bacon before him and Immanuel Kant after him,Vico sought a middle path between dogmatism and skepticism. Against the skeptics, whom he represented as tracing absence of knowledge to a universal ignorance of causes, Vico pointed to domains in which we possess knowledge of the causes of things, because we originate them ourselves.

#Purple Sea #Anemone with #clownfish
synthetic geometry

His examples were synthetic geometry, painting, sculpture, ceramics, architecturecrafts in which skepticism has no application, unlike those of rhetoric, politics, and medicine, which are “conjectural” arts in that they do not teach the forms by which their subject matter is created.

Vico formulated a second argument, more theological in character, against the skeptics. Although skeptics properly observe that we do not know the causes of things that we are merely acquainted with (here we have consciousness or awareness, but not knowledge), it does not follow that these things lack causes.

The pertinent question, according to Vico, is not “Do they have causes?” but “Where are the causes located?” If the causes are truly unknown, as the skeptic argues, they cannot be within us. But they must exist somewhere, in some locus or receptacle outside the self.

comprehension of causes
comprehension of causes

This locus Vico named the “comprehension of causes, in which is contained all genera, or all forms, through which all effects are given”. Since this “comprehension” is infinite and necessarily prior to finite body, it is nothing other than God, “and indeed the God whom we Christians profess”.

In place of the cogito principle, Vico proposed his own version of a first truth, crystallized in his principle “Verum et factum convertuntur” (“The true and the made are convertible”). Although Vico claimed to derive the verum-factum principle philologically, he also understood it to be the core of a new antiCartesian epistemology and metaphysics.

The core of the new metaphysics was that to know something is to make it, where making is collecting or gathering elements into a whole. Strictly speaking, only God conforms to the verum-factum principle, because he uniquely contains “the elements of things, extrinsic and intrinsic alike”. Because God makes elements and contains them within himself, he can arrange them perfectly, with utter precision and control.


God’s understanding of the elements of things is self-knowledge. Human beings, by contrast, do not possess such understanding of the elements. Since the human mind does not contain the elements of things within itself, it thinks about them through representations, at one remove, as it were.

“Thought [cogitatio] is therefore proper to the human mind, but understanding [intelligentia] proper to the divine mind”. Human thinking, Vico concluded, should be understood as “participation in reason”. Thus, in contrast to the dogmatists, who exalt human truth, Vico downgraded it. Unlike the skeptics, however, he did not intend to deny its claims altogether: “Humanity is neither nothing, nor everything”.

A final dimension of Vico’s early polemic is what might be called his “genealogical” critique of Descartes. In the second of two responses to Cartesian critics,Vico suggested that Descartes maliciously neglected ancient philosophers to promote his own doctrines. He was even so bold as to suggest that Descartes was an intellectual tyrant: “Descartes has done what those who have become tyrants have always been wont to do.

natural light
natural light

They came to power proclaiming the cause of freedom. But once they are assured of power, they become worse tyrants than their original oppressors”. Vico unmasked Descartes’s appeal to the natural light of reason as an excuse to avoid the labor of erudition and to avoid reading texts in the original languages.

Vico also indicted Descartes for concealing the nature of his sources. In wanting his readers to believe that he had no significant predecessors or important teachers, Descartes “gathers the fruit of that plan of wicked politics, to destroy completely those men through whom one has reached the peak of power”.

Descartes’s Machiavellian cunning inspired him to lie about his origins: “Although he can dissimulate the fact with the greatest art in what he says, he was versatile in every sort of philosophy”. As an alternative to what he regarded as the uncandid fable of Descartes’s Discourse on the Method, Vico proposed his own Autobiography where he sought to “narrate plainly and step by step the entire series of Vico’s studies with the candor proper to a historian”.

The Turn to History

The Turn to History
The Turn to History

In 1716, Vico began producing philosophical history, composing (though hampered by a severe cramp in his left arm) The Life of Antonio Carafa (which only appears in the eight-volume collection of Vico’s work published by Laterza called Opere di G. B. Vico).

At that time he discovered On the Law of War and Peace, by the Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius (1583–1645). Impressed with Grotius’s work, Vico made him the last of his “four authors.” The first three authors whom Vico privileged in his Autobiography were Plato, Cornelius Tacitus, and Francis Bacon. Vico associates Plato with “universal knowledge” that contemplates “man as he ought to be”.

The Roman historian Tacitus, by contrast, offered “counsels of utility” pertaining to “man as he is”. Uniting Platonic “esoteric wisdom” and Tacitean “vulgar wisdom” is Bacon, “at one and the same time a universal man in theory and in practice”. Despite his ambition, Bacon failed intellectually to encompass “the universe of cities and the course of all times, or the extent of all nations”.

Swan underwater By samebody (Viktor Lyagushkin)
type of philology

Grotius, however, “embraces in a system of universal law the whole of philosophy and philology”. Vico described his own ambition in similar terms. He sought to reconcile “the best philosophy, that of Plato made subordinate to the Christian religion,” with a type of philology that “contains within itself the history of languages and the history of things “.

To bring this reconciliation about, Vico began researching the history of Roman law after reading and annotating Grotius. The first fruit of this inquiry was several volumes collected under the title of Diritto Universale (Universal Right; 1720–1722/2000).

Vico’s occasion for writing this work was his desire to demonstrate his qualifications for a chair in law at the University of Naples paying six times as much as his position in rhetoric, which he would hold for most of his life. The intellectual wellspring for the work was Vico’s desire to address the question whether justice is natural or merely conventional.

loredana chivu.
Niccolò Machiavelli

Vico reduced contemporary answers to this question to two positions. First, there was the stance that he associated with “the skeptics,” a category that included Epicurus, Niccolò Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes, Benedict de Spinoza, and Pierre Bayle. Their common argument is that justice is not natural, but rooted in fear, chance, or necessity.

Second,Vico considered the possibility that justice is grounded in the social nature of humans as a necessary condition for maintaining social order. This was the strategy of Grotius, who claimed to treat the rational basis of law in a quasi-mathematical manner, abstracting from particulars.Vico faults Grotius for excessive abstraction.

Rather than bring his profound philological learning to bear in his attempt to counter the reduction of justice to expediency, Grotius depended on abstract and rationalistic arguments that are not persuasive against the skeptics. The positive aim of the Universal Right is to replace Grotius’s system with a new conception that places particular facts and universal truths in a more illuminating relationship.

beautiful undies!!
legal concepts

This attempt required Vico to turn his attention to the history of legal concepts, particularly the law of nations. Against Grotius’s tendency to treat the law of nations (ius gentium) and natural law (ius naturale) as if they were not only distinct but also separate and autonomous, Vico attempted to exhibit natural law as present within the law of nations, which in time becomes civil law (ius civile).

This attempt required Vico to argue that natural law has a dual origin: a metaphysical origin in eternal truth and a historical origin in the customs of human society. These dual sources can ultimately be traced to a single origin, God, whom the work identified as the “one principle and one end of universal law”. Vico ordered the volumes of the Universal Right according to a tripartite scheme intended to reflect the “origin” of divine and human things, their “cycle” (progress and return), and their “constancy.”

Vico’s New Science

The composition of the Universal Right established Vico as an erudite scholar, but it did not win him the law chair that he sought. Deciding to compose in the language of his countrymen, rather than that of the university, Vico wrote, in 1725, the first part of his autobiography and a first draft of The New Science.

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Vico’s New Science

Now lost, this draft assumed the form of a negative critique of the “improbabilities, absurdities, and impossibilities that his predecessors had rather imagined than thought out”. Because Vico could not afford to print the work as it stood, he decided to rewrite it using a “positive method that would be more concise and thus more efficacious”.

The result of this effort is the first version of The New Science (1725/1984). Its full title indicates the continuity with his previous work: Principles of a New Science of the Nature of Nations, from Which Are Derived New Principles of the Natural Law of Peoples.

In the subsequent versions of The New Science (1730, 1744), Vico placed less emphasis on the specifically political problematic. His larger aim was to achieve a new understanding of the origins of human culture. Vico thought that prior attempts to achieve this goal were vitiated by methodological errors characteristic of both philosophers and philologists.

first humans
first humans

Philosophers,Vico argued, confuse their own refined natures with that of the first humans, who were necessarily simple and crude. They project their own “esoteric wisdom” and mental habits onto the primitive mind, which is not capable of advanced conceptual thinking.

This projection is rooted in the “conceit of scholars,” the habit of supposing that what contemporary thinkers know “is as old as the world”. Yet philologists (poets, historians, orators, grammarians) are no more helpful for understanding human origins, according to Vico.

This is not only because they lack access to relevant data, but also because they are susceptible to the “conceit of nations”— the prejudice that “before all other nations, [one’s own nation] invented the comforts of human life and that its remembered history goes back to the very beginning of the world”). Against the background of this twin failure, Vico concluded, “We must reckon as if there were no books in the world” (The New Science, para. 330).

ancient nations

Vico’s attempt to transcend philosophy and philology assumed the form of a system that aspires to contain the virtues and avoid the vices of each. In its final exposition in 1744, the system began with a chronological table that outlines “the world of the ancient nations,” followed by an enumeration of 114 “axioms” that purport to organize the material of the chronological table into a coherent whole.

Against the inclination to despair that any recovery of remote human origins is possible, Vico proposed “the eternal and never failing light of a truth beyond all question: that the world of civil society has certainly been made by men, and that its principles are therefore to be found within the modifications of our own human mind” (The New Science, para. 331).

Vico was pessimistic about the ultimate intelligibility of the world of nature, “which since God made it, He alone knows” (The New Science, para. 330). The civil world, however, is eminently knowable: “Since men made it, men could come to know it” (The New Science, para. 331).

Ancient Wisdom
Ancient Wisdom

Here Vico reformulated the verum-factum principle that he articulated in the Ancient Wisdom of 1710. From the verum-factum principle, Vico went on to identify three “universal and eternal principles (such as every science must have) on which all nations were founded and still preserve themselves” (The New Science, para. 332).

These are religion,marriage, and burial. The core of The New Science is the attempt to read human culture as the exhibition of these principles in a variety of guises, mutually ordered by what Vico called a “divine legislative mind” and, m simply, “Providence” (The New Science, para. 133).

The New Science is known both for its method of investigation and its substantive conclusions. Regarding method, Vico proclaimed his desire to begin where his subject matter begins, with the assumption that the nature (natura) of civil phenomena is intelligible only through their birth (nascimento).

idea or institution
idea or institution

If there are several possible ways of conceiving the history of an idea or institution, Vico argued that we should focus on the possibility whose manner is most orderly and conducive to the preservation of the human race.

Such an “order of things cannot be approached directly, but must be sought through the “order of ideas” and “order of language.” As a preliminary to accomplishing the goal of the new science, to disclose the necessary substructure of the civil world, Vico asked the reader whether he can imagine more, fewer, or different causes than the ones he finds.

White Lingerie
logical necessity

Near the end of the section “Method” of Book 1, Vico declared that his aim was to clean, piece together, and restore “the great fragments of antiquity, hitherto useless to science because they lay begrimed, broken, and scattered” (The New Science, para. 357). The light shed by excavation and reconstruction would enable him, Vico thought, to trace “all the effects narrated by certain history” to their originating institutions, “as to their necessary causes”.

Not all readers have found persuasive Vico’s claim to strict logical necessity. Rather than defend the claim, many contemporary interpreters have advanced the weaker argument that a Viconian perspective is able to render intelligible aspects of the civil world (especially myth, custom, law, poetry) that would otherwise remain obscure.

weaker argument
weaker argument
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