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Born: 1668, Naples, Italy

Died: 1744, Naples, Italy

Major Works: On the Ancient Wisdom (1710), The Autobiography of Giambattista Vico (1725, 1728, 1731), The New Science (1725, 1730, 1744)

Major Ideas

There is no fixed human nature that remains identical regardless of time, place, and circumstance; human nature develops in accordance with self-knowledge and with insight into the essences of things.

A Divine Providence gives human beings those nonrational creative capacities, operating on associative principles, that will produce false beliefs from which true ones will follow.

The ultimate goal of Providence is the preservation of humanity.

Human history is knowable because human beings have made it, just as nature is known to God because he has made it.

Human beings will act for the sake of their own particular ends, but the socialized nature of those ends will bring about unforeseen changes in society itself.

Historically, society evolves in cycles from one governed by imagination, superstition, and custom to one governed by rational understanding and that, in turn, declines into a society governed by imagination; in a parallel fashion, the political nature of society evolves from anarchy to oligarchy and then to democracy and monarchy, and finally declines to anarchy.

The subject of the new science is the world of nations.

Giambattista Vico was a professor and scholar whose many interests included metaphysics, epistemology, jurisprudence, rhetoric, social and political philosophy, and history. During the early decades of the eighteenth century, when the concept of autobiography was being discussed and reevaluated, Vico proposed a model that was truly a novel one for his time. Autobiography was not to consist of personal confessions. It was to comprise instead a pedagogical evaluation of sources and methods of learning experienced by the author, along with a description of all the arts and sciences.

Vico's own autobiography describes his education and the influences on his thought during the period from his birth to 1731. Like similar personal narratives, however, it relates some dates and details that are inconsistent with other historical records. (For example, the author was born in 1668 and not in 1670 as he claimed.) Despite the errors, this work serves as a good introduction to the man and his ideas. From it we learn that Vico's early education was an unsystematic one, for it progressed by means of tutors and Jesuit schools. The irregularity in his schooling was due to a severe skull fracture that he suffered from a fall when he was only seven years of age. Although Vico's surgeon predicted that he would either die or remain an idiot for the rest of his life, the young boy recovered fully. After an absence from school for several years, Vico returned to his formal education but, as his teachers soon discovered, he was capable of more advanced work. than were others in his age group. Subsequently, at times with a tutor and on other occasions by himself, Vico continued his learning in philosophy, literature, and then law

In 1686, Vico became the tutor for the Rocca family at the castle at Vatolla (south of Salerno), where he was employed for nine years. This was the only time that Vico lived outside of Naples, and he occupied himself with classical philology, literature, law, and with works by Renaissance writers, such as Giovanni Boccaccio, Dante Alighieri, Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch), and Niccolo Machiavelli. And although according to Vico's Autobiography, the years between 1686 and 1695 were spent in relative isolation, he did travel to Naples frequently. Vico thus remained in contact with its intellectual life and in 1694 he received his LL.D. from its university In 1699 the year of his marriage to Teresa Caterina Destito he won the competition for the chair of rhetoric at the University of Naples. This position provided Vico with a very modest stipend and for the rest of his life, he was forced to supplement his income through writing ceremonial orations official histories, biographies, and by means of private tutorin g He retired from his appointment to the university in 1741.

Vico's duties as professor of rhetoric included the delivery of an annual inaugural oration. The six speeches that he presented between 1699 and 1706 proposed the. ends or goals of various studies, and philosophically speaking they expressed a blend of his early Cartesianism with Neoplatonism. The first three orations treated of human nature; the next two of political ends and the sixth of the Christian goal of learning. Until 1707 Vico's two favorite philosophers were Plato; for his elaboration of the ideal, and Tacitus, for his practical wisdom. He then began to study the work of Francis Bacon, whose writings greatly influenced Vico's thinking; and his seventh oration On Method in Contemporary Fields of Study opens with high praise for the evaluation of the arts and sciences in Bacon's On the Dignity and Advancement of Learning (1605).

Vico's "On Method" contains suggestions of what was to become his mature conception of human learning. Here he evaluated the application of a method modeled on the procedure used in geometry to other disciplines. Vico found it inadequate when applied to the physical world and to the realm of practical affairs For him the definition of a concept used in mathematics or geometry is determined by convention only Thus within the framework of these disciplines a judgment is true by virtue of its deductive consistency with other judgments, and not by its correspondence with independently existing essences. Vico's conception of the deductive sciences would be consistent with the development of Riemannian geometry in the nineteenth century and with the implications of Principia Mat hematica (1910-13), by Bertrand Russell and A. N. Whitehead.

In physics, however, or in the natural sciences, the true requires conceptual correspondence with forms existing in God's mind; and since we cannot know such entities, judgments in these sciences must be probable only. In human affairs, moreover, practical and moral problems are too complex to lend themselves to the kind of analysis used in the deductive disciplines. Furthermore: "Knowledge differs from practical wisdom in this respect: those who excel in knowledge seek a single cause to explain many natural effects, but those who excel in practical wisdom seek as many causes as possible for a single deed, in order to reach the truth by induction." Unfortunately, according to Vico, the art of prudence had been widely neglected due to excessive study of the sciences.

In 1710, Vico published On the Ancient Wisdom of the Italians taken from the Origins of the Latin Language. Although this hook was intended as merely the first volume of a three-part work (the second part on physics and the third on ethics were never completed), it remains one of the most important of his early publications. On the Ancient Wisdom proposes that a sophisticated philosophical theory lies embedded in the Latin language. From ancient times, Latin had been made a repository of profound philosophy, especially of Zeno's concepts. Here Vico's error, one that he would severely correct in the works of other thinkers, lay in imposing his own theory onto the writings of the ancients-one that was based on the prejudices of his time. Vico's mature view, however, was that their wisdom was popular (not sophisticated), poetic (not philosophical), and practical (not theoretical).

On the Ancient Wisdom also elaborates one of Vico's most interesting contributions to theory of knowledge, his verum-factum conception of truth: The true is what is made or done. For him, it followed that some things are true but not real; for example, figures of geometry, which are "fictions" or human-made abstractions; and some are both true and real, for example, things of the physical world, which God made.

Vico maintained, furthermore, that knowledge is of the "cause" of the true, where cause is the form (that is, the ground or necessary condition) for the true, as generated by the construction of the elements of a system. Indeed, according to the verumfactum conception, "to know is to arrange these elements." Revealed theology, having a divine origin, comprises the most certain knowledge of all; and the greatest, most certain human knowledge is of geometry and mathematics, of those systems that we construct by definition and convention. With regard to such deductive disciplines, the true and what is made are convertible in human beings, just as with the natural sciences, knowledge and creation are necessarily connected in God. Human knowledge of mechanics, physics, and morality that requires study of mind is the least certain of all, since the causes of empirical objects are the forms that God creates in his intellect. So although we think about composite entities by associating their images, we cannot fully understand them, which means that we cannot comprehend their forms and interrelations. Thus physics and the natural sciences must use the experimental method of Bacon and Galileo to devise merely probable judgments about nature and the universe.

On the Ancient Wisdom is sometimes considered a transitional work between Vico's early Cartesianism and his later new science. Here he did replace Descartes's concepts of the a priori, of clear and distinct ideas as forming the basis for science, with the verum-factum conception of truth which, as we have seen, denied any necessary connection between truth and reality in the deductive disciplines--a connection that Descartes and other rationalists had attempted to demonstrate. Moreover, what in Descartes appeared as a sharp disjunction between the theoretical and empirical disciplines, the deductive and natural sciences, became ultimately unified in Vico's epistemology through the application of verum-factum. Yet Vico's ordering of knowledge in terms of degrees of certainty, along with his view of the most profound knowledge as consisting of self-knowledge derived from introspection, were also held by Descartes. Nevertheless, Vico was eventually to become the anti-Descartes and the new Bacon of historical st udies.

During 1717-32, Vico's studies included the writings of Hugo Grotius, John Selden, Samuel Pufendorf, and Thomas Hobbes. In opposition to his early views, Vico then held that brutes were the ancestral founders of civilization and that intuitional awareness of particulars and feelings are basic forms of apprehension. His conception of intuition as knowledge and of art as involving creative fancy influenced the development of Benedetto Croce's aesthetics and inspired his essay, "Giambattista Vico primo scopritore della scienza estetica" (1901).

In about 1725, while Vico was completing what is referred to as the "negative New Science," which consisted mainly of the destructive criticism of existing theories of natural law, Abbe Lorenzo Ciccarelli conveyed Count Gian Artico di Porcia's request for Vico's autobiography, which was to be included in a collection of like essays. After refusing several times, he agreed to submit it, and eventually in 1728, his Autobiography along with Porcia's proposal for other such narratives, were published. On July 20, 1725, however, Corsini withdrew his promise to publish the negative New Science, and Vico's ambitions suffered a great setback, equal to his defeat in the competition for the chair of civil law. He decided to publish at his own expense, but lacking funds to offer his work in its present form, he decided that if a "positive method were substituted for a negative one," the size of his manuscript would be reduced sufficiently for publication. The revised work, a quarter of its original size, became what Vi co would call the first New Science (The Principles of a New Science of the Nature of Nations Leading to the Discovery of the Principles of a New System of the Natural Law of the Gentes, 1725). Here Vico's problem was how to establish the basic pattern present in the development of the nature of civil society. Its nature could be discovered through a study of the development of the human mind. In the second edition of 1730 (Five Books by G. B. Vico on the Principles of a New Science of the Common Nature of Nations), the problem was stated as one of the historical origins of civil society; and in the third of 1744 (Principles of a New Science Concerning the Common Nature of Nations), published during the year of Vico's death, it became further reformulated as that of the natural law of the peoples (gentes).

The New Science

In all three editions of The New Science, Vico's goal was to create a science of human society, which would be analogous to what Galileo and Newton had elaborated for the realm of nature. In the first edition, Vico attempted to replace the theories of natural law held by, for instance, Grotius, Selden, and Pufendorf, with a correct one. They had erroneously assumed that natural law, which for them really amounted to a principle devised by philosophers, was rational, whereas in fact the natural law of the gentiles consisted of force. Thomas Hobbes, moreover, incorrectly insisted that men came together contractually by virtue of their enlightened reason, whereas according to Vico, gentile society could have arisen only by means of a Divine Providence that used the passions as a means of preserving the human race and its nations. Natural law was coeval with' the customs of the nations that were instituted by Providence.

In his Autobiography, Vico acknowledged that there is a great difference between the first New Science and the second edition, which was for him far superior to: the first. In the former, he had considered ideas apart from language, whereas the two naturally go together This change marks one of Vico's great discoveries--that of the unity between philosophy and philology. In the second edition, moreover, although still interested in the natural law of the gentiles, he was even more concerned with the common nature of nations, as the differences between the 'two titles would suggest. Comparatively speaking, there is far less difference between the second and 'third editions. The latter incorporates some corrections 'and additions, and Vico probably considered it his definitive work. The two later editions present a developmental, his-toricized conception of nature, society, man, and human institutions. Vico held that there exists an ideal eternal history traversed in time by every nation in its rise, developme nt, maturity, decline, and fall. Every nation develops cyclically from a primitive state that Vico described as poetic in the case of man and his institutions, and as anarchy in that of societal relations, to increasingly more civilized states, only to decline eventually into anarchy. Vico's discovery was thus of the eternal within, not apart from the temporal, of the universal in history rather than of universal history.

The first steps in the building of a world of nations were taken by brute humans. Human institutions occurred in forests, then huts, then villages, next cities, and finally academies. Humanity itself was created by the same processes whereby institutions were created; and thus the former was an effect of the latter when creatures not-yet-human made themselves into humans. The nature of peoples is first crude, then severe, then benign, then delicate, and finally again brutish.

Since the sciences are themselves institutions, we must inquire also about the origins of the new science itself. Its beginnings, for Vico, lay in the coming to self-consciousness of human nature. The mind is naturally inclined by its senses to see itself externally in the body, and only with difficulty does it understand itself by reflection. But because of their self-making, humans are able to know themselves and the process whereby they came to be; and when the one who creates things also narrates them, history is most certain. Just as one comes to know by making the personal history of development from a primitive, brutish state to a civilized one, so the history and new science of the world of nations can be known by being created out of the reality of evolving human institutions. Vico's New Science was unique for his time, and no like attempt to trace the progress and decline of the nation would appear until well after his death.

Further Reading

Berlin, Isaiah. Vico and Herder: Two Studies in the History of Ideas. London: Hogarth Press; New York: Viking Press, 1976. An introduction to some of Vico's most interesting ideas, such as explanation per causa, the difference between "scienza" and "coscienza," "verum" and "certum," and to his concepts of teleological and cultural explanation.

Burke, Peter. Vico. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. This work serves as a good, brief introduction to Vico's ideas.

Caponigri, A. Robert. Time and Idea: Theory of History in Giambattista Vico. The author considers the central theme of Vico's writings on theory of history as one of the relationship between the historical and the eternal, between the temporal and yet ideal nature of historical development.

Croce, Benedetto. The Philosophy of Giambattista Vico. Translated by R. G. Collingwood. New York: Macmillan, 1913. Presupposes some prior acquaintance with Vico's work and presents a thorough evaluation of what is living and what is dead in Vico's philosophy from the vantage point of twentieth-century Italian idealism.

Haddock, Bruce A. Vico's Political Thought. Swansea: Mortlake Press, 1986. This work explicates the genesis of Vico's political thought, from his earliest discussions to the New Science.

Pompa, Leon. Vico: A Study of the "New Science." Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975. A clear and systematic discussion of the New Science.

Verene, Donald Phillip. Vico's Science of imagination. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1981. Verene shows how Vico's concept of fantasia develops from his study of myths and demonstrates its importance for his new science, as well as for subsequent philosophy.
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Author:MOSS, M. E.
Publication:Great Thinkers of the Western World
Article Type:Biography
Date:Jan 1, 1999
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