Context

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Like many an eighteenth century scholar, Giambattista Vico was in agreement with literary figure Alexander Pope’s slogan, “The proper study of mankind is man.” However, whereas the typical representative of the Enlightenment thought that the way to study humanity was to apply the principles of Newtonian mechanics—for example, David Hartley’s Observations on Man (1749); Julien Offroy de La Mettrie’s L’Homme-machine (1747; Man a Machine, 1750; also known as L’Homme Machine: A Study in the Origins of an Idea, 1960)—Vico maintained that the only way to know humanity is in terms of humanity’s creations—language, history, law, religion—in short, through the study of civilization.

Vico professed to be carrying on the work of the French philosopher René Descartes, and he took sharp issue with both the Cartesians and the Newtonians for supposing that nature is properly understandable by humans. Is it not true, he asked, that we can know only what we make? Then only God can understand nature, because it is his creation. Humans, on the other hand, can understand civilization because they have made it. This was Vico’s Archimedean point, 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 modification of our own human mind.”

Vico professed, at the same time, to be an adherent of the method of Sir Francis Bacon; he claimed that he was merely carrying over into the study of civil affairs the method Bacon had applied to the study of nature. What he seems to have borrowed from Bacon, however, is not the inductive principle that most people associate with the English thinker, but the practice of turning to sensible evidence to verify one’s theories. Vico explained that his science consisted of two parts, reasoning and investigation. The former, which he called “philosophy,” had to do with the development of theories on the basis of axioms, definitions, and postulates. The latter, which he called “philology,” was the empirical study of language, history, and literature. He maintained that because these latter studies are founded on memory and imagination and are mixed with emotion, they do not give us the truth; but when they are consulted by an intelligent investigator, who has a theory to test, they are of paramount importance and make possible a science of humanity.