Giambattista Vico Biography


(History of the World: The 17th and 18th Centuries)

Article abstract: Vico founded the philosophical study of history and elaborated the theoretical basis for sociological study.

Early Life

Giambattista Vico was one of eight children born to a Neapolitan bookshop owner and his scarcely literate wife. Giambattista was an energetic and prodigious child, already enrolled in school at the age of seven, when a fall from the top of a ladder fractured his skull. The fracture gave rise to a large tumor, and his doctor predicted that the boy would either die of it or grow up an idiot. Although Vico’s convalescence was prolonged, neither part of the doctor’s prediction came true. Vico came to credit the injury, however, with engendering his lifelong melancholic temperament, the sort of temperament, Vico said, that belongs to all men of ingenuity and depth.

Vico’s early formal education was classical, which at the time meant indoctrination into medieval Christian Aristotelianism, but he also spent a great part of his youth in solitary study, which was doubtless encouraged by living upstairs from the family bookshop. At seventeen, Vico went, at his father’s urging, to the University of Naples to study law. He read philosophy in his spare time and wrote ornate, metaphysical poetry for relaxation. He quickly grew impatient with the incessant note-taking and memorization of legal cases and quit his university lectures, saying that there was no true learning to be obtained from them. He resumed his devotion to private study of the works of great writers and supported himself by tutoring the nephews of the Bishop of Ischia in Vatolla. He continued to develop his ideas largely by himself for the ensuing nine years and developed passing enthusiasms for the philosophy of Epicurus, Plato, Cornelius Tacitus, Pierre Gassendi, Roger Bacon, René Descartes, and Baruch Spinoza, among others. In 1695, Vico returned to his native city and was appointed four years later to the professorship of rhetoric at the university. This was actually a minor post with a modest stipend; Vico kept the post until shortly before his death.

Life’s Work

Vico’s ideas gained rudimentary expression in two of the first tracts he published. In a 1709 oration De nostri temporis studiorum ratione (On the Study Methods of Our Times, 1965), Vico denied the applicability of the Cartesian geometrical method of analysis to the human studies of practical wisdom, ethics, politics, and law. What he wanted to put in its place emerged in a 1710 publication entitled De antiquissima Italorum sapientia (partial translation in Selected Writings, 1982). Vico focused upon etymology as a source of clues to the truth about human development. Linguistic analysis utilized a sort of ingenium, the power of connecting separate and diverse elements, that Vico thought was necessary for human self-understanding and practical wisdom. This early work of Vico was met with a mixed reception; his critics complained of its obscurity. Nevertheless, Vico submitted it with an application for the chair of civil law at Naples when the post fell vacant in 1723. His rejection was a bitter disappointment and proved to be only the beginning of the neglect he had to endure throughout his carer.

The first edition of Vico’s magnum opus, Principi di scienza nuova intorno alla natura delle nazioni per la quale si ritruovano i principi di altro sistema del diritto naturale delle genti (The New Science, 1948), was published in 1725. Vico had hoped that this work would do for the study of man and culture what Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica (1687) had done for mathematical physics. Dissatisfied with its reception, he recast it twice; subsequent editions were published in 1730 and (posthumously) in 1744.

The structure of the third edition of The New Science was quite unusual. It contained an elaborate allegorical drawing for a frontispiece, followed by a detailed explanation of the icon. A chronological table followed, which placed in parallel columns the major events in the histories of seven peoples. Next came a catalog of 114 axioms that summarized the assumptions and conclusions of the work. The three remaining sections developed a narrative of human history, the elaboration of Vico’s theory that human history manifested three ages: the age of gods, the age of heroes, and the age of men.

According to Vico, history was the gradual process of the humanization of man. In prehistory, bestial giants roamed the endless forests of the earth. Their mental powers were dormant in their enormous bodies so that all thought was sensation. They lived strictly in the present, copulating at inclination and increasing in size by inhaling the vapors of their excrement. The first formation of thunder and lightning elicited a new emotion of fear in the giants; they trembled at the sky and named it Jove. Jove was the first thought. Thus began the age of gods. It is an age whose story was told by Herodotus, when men thought that everything either was a god or was made by gods. Religion brought forth primitive morality, which begot the “might makes right” age of heroes, as characterized by Homer. As human powers of reason were developed to control unruly passions, the age of men was born.

Vico saw these ages as...

(The entire section is 2208 words.)