Giambattista Vico

The Italian philosopher and jurist Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) is considered the founder of the philosophy of history. His main work, "The New Science, " is an examination of social and political institutions in terms of their connection with phases of human development.

Apart from being known by a few German thinkers, such as Johann Georg Hamann and Johann Gottfried von Herder, the work of Giambattista Vico was ignored until modern times. Yet the belated recognition of his genius and contribution is such that some scholars suggest that his mode of historical thinking is capable of modifying the intellectual relations between the pure and social sciences.

Vico was born in Naples on June 23, 1668 the only child of Antonio and Candida Vico. Except for one sustained period he lived his entire life in the city of his birth. During this period of political turmoil Naples was ruled by a succession of foreign powers (Spain, Austria, and France) and domestically controlled by the powerful Jesuit order. Intellectually, the city became the center of Italian Cartesianism. Vico, who was in opposition to all of these forces, was unable to advance his career. His lack of recognition and success in his professional work, as well as personal misfortunes, made him a bitter man who was periodically subject to melancholia.

In childhood Vico nearly died as the result of a fractured skull, which prevented him from attending school. Because his father was a bookseller, the child read quite extensively but at random. Although he attended a Jesuit university for a brief time, he went only to those classes that interested him. He spent a great deal of time studying logic and scholastic metaphysics until he found himself attracted to the study of law. Despite his lack of formal legal training, he successfully defended his father in a lawsuit when he was only 16 years old. But he developed a distaste for law as a profession and never practiced again.

From 1685 to 1695 Vico tutored relatives of the bishop of Ischia and lived in Vatolla. These were the happiest years of his life, and he used his free time to pursue his intellectual interests. He read widely in the fields of philosophy, history, ethics, jurisprudence, and poetry. His knowledge of science remained cursory, and he had a positive dislike for mathematics.

Vico returned to Naples in 1697 and became professor of rhetoric at the University of Naples. Part of his duties consisted of offering a lecture at the opening of each academic year from 1699 to 1708. These essays show the development of his thought, and On the Study Methods of Our Time ranks as a classic defense of liberal education. Between 1720 and 1722 he published a three-volume study, Universal Law. In 1725 he wrote his Autobiography; the same year he published the first edition of The New Science, which he modified and expanded in editions of 1730 and 1744. Despite these activities, Vico was not appointed to the chair of civil law and, because of his large family, he was forced to supplement his income by writing commissioned poems and prose encomiums. He died on Jan. 22/23, 1744, in Naples after a long and painful illness.


His Thought

René Descartes, credited with being the originator of modern classical philosophy, attempted to reform scientific thinking by a strict adherence to mathematical reasoning. Vico, who came to the study of philosophy from law, questioned the criterion of rationalist truth on the basis that real knowledge is by way of causes. He believed that ultimately we can know fully only that which we have caused. The true, or verum, is identical with the created factum. Despite its obscurities, Vico's intuition about history remains quite suggestive. Only God knows the natural cosmos perfectly, and the rationalist model of perfect demonstrable knowledge is attainable only in the realm of mathematical abstractions. But we can know history because it has been created by man, and its originative principles can be discovered by a reconstructive interpretation of our own mind.

Accordingly Vico's New Science anticipates the later thought of G. W. F. Hegel, Auguste Comte, and Arnold Toynbee: "Our philosophical and philological investigations revealed an ideal eternal history which has been traversed in time according to the division of the three ages …" Vico was indebted to Egyptian mythology for his basic metaphor of poetic, heroic, and natural natures. But the scope of his immense and diffuse learning enabled him to systematically associate these three types as reflected in customs, laws, language, institutions, and political authority; or, in brief, in the manifestations of nations as well as individual characters.

For example, primitive cultures are notoriously mythological in their thinking. To Vico this fact was a clear reflection of their ignorance of natural causes and the compensating strength of their imaginations. He believed the study of common language in its progression from oracular to expressive to vernacular provides a "mental dictionary" of character, nation, and time. Similarly, he believed a close study of laws and the facts of commerce yields more insight about a civilization than a study of its science or philosophy.

Vico's comparative method issued in a concept of political organization. In aristocracies the nobles "by reason of their native lawless liberty" will not tolerate checks upon their power. When plebeians increase in number and military training, they force the aristocracy to submit to law, as in democracies. Finally, in order to preserve their privileges, the lords accept a single ruler, and monarchies are established.


Further Reading on Giambattista Vico

Studies of Vico include R. Flint, Vico (1884); B. Croce, The Philosophy of Giambattista Vico (1913); and A. R. Caponigri, Time and Idea: The Theory of History in Giambattista Vico (1953).

Additional Biography Sources

Burke, Peter, Vico, Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Verene, Donald Phillip, Vico's science of imagination, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981.

Albano, Maeve Edith, Vico and providence, New York: P. Lang, 1986.