Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2208
Article abstract: Vico founded the philosophical study of history and elaborated the theoretical basis for sociological study.
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.
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 continuing in a never-ending cycle, or ricorso, that manifested an ineluctable, providential pattern which he called the “ideal eternal history” of man. Every culture, he believed, passed through these identical stages; each age had a characteristic mode of expression, set of customs, kind of law, and type of religion.
Vico believed his discoveries about the evolution of human civilization to be scientific. The method of inquiry which yielded these results attended precisely to the aforementioned characteristic institutions of each group of people. One of Vico’s deepest insights was that man may know himself in a way he can never know what is external to him (that is, nature). Whatever is of man’s own making speaks truth about him; this includes cultural institutions, language, and even history itself. Vico expressed this principle by saying that the true (verum) and the made (factum) are convertible. Thus, a systematic, historical investigation of all the results of human will and contrivance would produce a true understanding of man. Vico believed that this was the only way for man to reach self-understanding.
According to Vico, language study plays a special role in human self-understanding. Vico’s original and extraordinarily interesting views on linguistic interpretation were of a piece with his principle of verum ipsum factum. He believed that the terms people use, including abstract terms, could be traced to linguistic contrivances of the earliest humans. Etymology thus could illuminate earlier environmental conditions, psychological states, and commonplace activities of human ancestry. That was a result of the fact that language and thought were coextensive for Vico; language was a direct reflection of the development of thought, rather than a tool that was deliberately and artificially constructed. Vico theorized that poetic figures, such as metaphor, in the language of his contemporaries had more directly expressed the experience of humans in earlier ages. Earlier people thought strictly in pictorial images, analogies, and personifications, and these formed the currency of their communication, which involved only gesturing and picture drawing. Vico designated such figures “imaginative universals,” and they had a property which third-age ratiocinating men can scarcely recapture: that of invoking a universal image by means of a particular. The abstractions employed in the age of men are the opposite of the imaginative universal. Abstractions hold only what many particulars have in common, but which the particular alone can no longer express (with the exception, perhaps, of particular images in poetic contexts). Similarly, what third-age men call the extravagant fiction of mythology in fact expresses the most fundamental postulates and cognitive associations of the first men. Vico referred to his own saga in The New Science as a myth in just this sense.
Although Vico occupied most of his mature years writing reincarnations of The New Science in the hope of satisfying his critics, he also penned in his fifty-seventh year an intellectual autobiography. This was a pioneering work of its genre and a fascinating philosophical document in its own right.
Vico gained a very limited fame in his time. He received the honorific recognition of royal historiographer from the sovereign Charles of Bourbon only after his memory was failing and he had been overcome by physical infirmity. After his death, a bizarre quarrel over who should have the honor of carrying his coffin to the grave erupted between the Royal University professors and the confraternity of Vico’s parish. The intransigent confraternity took their leave, and as a result the coffin remained at the family home for quite some time. Vico’s son finally had to enlist the services of the cathedral to conduct the body to the sepulcher.
Giambattista Vico’s work was largely ignored by his contemporaries, most of whom were enthusiastic Cartesians. He was not without outspoken detractors, however, who ridiculed him as obscure, speculative, and slightly mad. It has been said by twentieth century thinkers, who have the benefit of hindsight, that Vico was simply too far ahead of his time to have had any immediate influence. Yet the relative neglect of Vico’s work continued in posterity. A small group of later thinkers have remarked on the importance of Vico, including Karl Marx, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Butler Yeats, and Matthew Arnold, but their work did not reflect any direct and significant influence from Vician thought. A very few thinkers have based their thought on Vico’s insights: Jules Michelet, Benedetto Croce, and to a certain extent, R. G. Collingwood and Ernst Cassirer. Even though Vico must be credited with being the father of the social sciences and the philosophy of history, his work has yet to join the vanguard of seminal philosophical texts.
Most twentieth century thinkers have come to know Vico through James Joyce. Joyce referred readers who had difficulty with his works to Vico’s The New Science. Joyce claimed that his imagination grew when he read Vico in a way that it did not from reading Sigmund Freud or Carl Gustav Jung. Joycean texts are replete with references to Vico, and they palpably appropriate Vico’s cyclical theory of history as well as his theories of language and myth. Consequently, Vico’s thought has enjoyed something of an epiphany in the late twentieth century that may yet certify his status as a great contributor to Western thought.
Adams, H. P. The Life and Writings of Giambattista Vico. London: Allen & Unwin, 1935. This biography is one of few which attempt to integrate Vico’s life and his thought. It is amusing and elegant, and includes translations of some of Vico’s poems. Indexed.
Burke, Peter. Vico. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. A concise treatment of Vico’s intellectual development, his main work, and his influence. Indexed, with a helpful list for further reading.
Caponigri, A. Robert. Time and Idea: The Theory of History in Giambattista Vico. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1953. An excellent exposition of the main Vician themes of ideal eternal history, ricorsi, and the natural law. Densely packed and well indexed.
Crease, Robert. Vico in English: A Bibliography of Writings by and About Giambattista Vico. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1978. Forty-eight pages of bibliographical entries, including a section of works which simply discuss or mention Vico.
Croce, Benedetto. The Philosophy of Giambattista Vico. Translated by R. G. Collingwood. London: Howard Latimer, 1913. This now-classic commentary on the totality of Vico’s thought may be too complex to serve introductory students, but it is a solid and reliable secondary source for issues not covered in more general literature. Well indexed.
Pompa, Leon. Vico: A Study of “The New Science.” New York: Cambridge University Press, 1975. A very close analysis of Vico’s text is offered here; this work is laced with quotations and helpful interpretations of passages in their context. Indexed, with a short bibliography.
Tagliacozzo, Giorgio, ed. Vico and Contemporary Thought. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1979. This collection of essays is an excellent example of many such works now available which mark a resurgence of interest in Vico’s thought. These essays focus on the relevance of Vician insights to urgent twentieth century practical and philosophical concerns. This also contains the first English translation of Vico’s essay De mente heroica (1732; On the Heroic Mind). Well indexed; contributors come from a wide range of disciplines.
Verene, Donald Phillip, ed. Vico and Joyce. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987. Essays discuss Vician themes not only in Finnegans Wake but also in Ulysses and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Accessible to beginning students of Joyce’s literature and Vico’s thought. Well indexed; contributors from many disciplines.
Vico, Giambattista. The Autobiography of Giambattista Vico. Translated by Max Harold Fisch and Thomas Goddard Bergin. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1963. The first one hundred pages of this edition are the translators’ introduction to Vico’s life and thought; this is perhaps the best one hundred pages on Vico that an introductory student could possibly read. The second one hundred pages are Vico’s autobiography, a delightful and accessible work, although it also repays careful scholarly study. Indexed, with a chronological table of Vico’s life.
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