Giambattista Vico

Great Teacher Series @ Theosophy Trust


Truth is sifted from falsehood in everything that has been preserved for us through long centuries by those common traditions which, since they have been preserved for so long a time and by entire peoples, must have had a public ground of truth.
The great fragments of antiquity, hitherto useless to science because they lay begrimed, broken and scattered, shed great light when cleaned, pieced together and restored.

Scienza nuova, 356-357 GIAMBATTISTA VICO

The transition from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment was riddled with uncertainty and fraught with danger. Pico della Mirandola's emphasis on the dignity of man, quintessentially represented in the power of choice, and Marsilio Ficino's reverence for antiquity, reflected in the powers of reason and imagination, liberated philosophical thought from dogmas of the Dark Ages while preserving medieval learning. The focus on the human being as the microcosm of the macrocosm gave a new impetus to the study of man and the impact of the physical and social environment. Reason and observation gained status in the eyes of those who, whilst avoiding the excesses of the Reformation and the reaction to it, looked towards a cool reassessment of human knowledge. All this pointed to the possibility of growth in learning and evolution in social structures. At the same time, metaphysical speculation and undisciplined imagination were suspect.

The promotion to centrality of the human mind was also the recognition of its finiteness, for increasingly discredited divine revelation alone could lay claim to unshakeable certainty. The shadow of the Age of Reason was the reduction of the powers of consciousness to a mechanistic method, a tendency reinforced by demonstrable progress in mechanical arts and skills. Giambattista Vico discerned the explosive decoction of reason and mechanics and offered a new science which could bring the highest insights of the Renaissance into the methodology of early modern investigations.

Giambattista Vico was born, the sixth of eight children, to Antonio Vico and Candida Masullo on June 23, 1668, in Naples. He was named after John the Baptist and baptized in the Catholic Church, to which he remained loyal throughout his life. From early childhood he combined a keen and wide-ranging intellect with an insatiable love of knowledge, and much of his education occurred in his father's bookshop. At the age of seven he fell from the top of a ladder – perhaps one used to reach books in the shop – and severely fractured his skull. During the five hours in which he lay wholly unconscious and without movement, the local physician declared that he would either die or become an idiot. Although his convalescence spanned three years and his constitution would remain delicate throughout his life, he recovered fully and entered school in his tenth year.

Vico outstripped his fellow students so rapidly that he was soon transferred to a Jesuit school. Within a year, however, he found his teachers holding him back once again, and he left school to study on his own. The scholastic logic of Petrus Hispanicus and Paulus Venetus overwhelmed him temporarily, but when he was invited to attend the meetings of a respected local academy, he returned to his metaphysical studies with renewed zeal. A chance visit to the university drew his attention to Roman law at a time when jurisprudence involved knowledge of ethics, theology, politics, history, philology, language and literature. Though he listened to the detailed lectures of Don Francesco Verde, a distinguished professor of law, he realized that basic principles were easily lost in minutiae, and he turned to self-study once more. In his sixteenth year he tested his skills at the bar by pleading a case in his father's defence. He succeeded but decided against the taxing task of practising law. He found his health weak, the courts noisy, cases tedious and his poetic mind too restricted in that profession, though he discovered in jurisprudence clues to a fresh understanding of humanity and society.

A door opened for Vico when the Bishop of Ischia, impressed by his views on teaching jurisprudence, recommended him as a teacher for the sons of his brother, the Marquis of Vatolla. For nine years Vico luxuriated in the landscapes of Cilentum and the extensive library of castle Vatolla. He read ancient authors and Italian writers from Cicero to Boccaccio, Virgil to Dante, Horace to Petrarch. He appreciated Plato and disliked the Epicureans because they taught una morale di solitarii, an individualistic ethic which ignored the immutable laws governing collective humanity. He took up Cartesian philosophy and immediately recognized in it the basis of the emerging sciences, but he discovered in Descartes error and danger. When he returned to Naples in 1694, he found Dante ignored, Ficino and Pico set aside and Cartesianism in the forefront of intellectual debate. Vico was impoverished in a city which little cared for his views. He was reduced to composing inscriptions and writing encomiums for hire, a sometimes degrading chore he continued to perform after being appointed professor of rhetoric at the University of Naples in 1697. Two years later he married Teresa Destito and eventually fathered several children. Although he had no taste for academic politics and his position was amongst the most poorly paid at the university, his brilliance and eloquence led him frequently to deliver the opening address for the university's academic year.

In 1710 Vico published De Antiquissima Italorum Sapientia (The Ancient Wisdom of the Italians), in which he attempted to exhibit the wisdom of Ionic and Etruscan sages through a philological analysis of Latin words. This early form of linguistic and conceptual analysis – inspired by Plato's Cratylus and by Francis Bacon's Wisdom of the Ancients – rested on the view that knowledge is a causal relationship between the knower and the knowable. The disciplined application of reason can alone convert experience into truth. This process is the root of true science, not the geometrical method of Descartes. Metaphysics must find the facts which can be converted into truth and so discover a principle of causation rooted in common sense. For Vico, this principle is found only in God, the true and ultimate Ens who contains all faith and intelligence. With this groundwork, Vico spent the next twelve years elaborating the idea that a historical approach to law as developed in different societies, married to a metaphysical view of immutable divine law, could delineate a science which comprehends the truths knowable to man.

In 1722 the chair of jurisprudence fell vacant at the university. Vico, already the author of Diritto universale, a sweeping and insightful three-volume treatise on jurisprudence, expected to be appointed to the chair, the remuneration for which was many times that of rhetoric. He was passed over in favour of an insignificant thinker, but though shocked and disappointed, he saw in this rebuff a divine call to abandon worldly gain, and he turned his attention entirely to writing. In the second decade of the eighteenth century, a group of Italian noblemen-scholars led by Count Gian Artico di Porcía launched a plan to publish biographical accounts of important contemporary thinkers. Each thinker was to write an account of his own life and education, so that students might see how excellent minds evolved. Vico was invited to submit a life and did so. The project eventually faded, but Porcía chose Vico's account among those submitted and published it as a model for such an enterprise. Thus Vico wrote the first modern autobiography. In 1726 he produced his Principi de una Scienza nuova d'intorno alla commune natura della nazione (Principles of a New Science Concerning the Nature of Nations), and followed it in the next few years by two wholly revised and rewritten editions. The first New Science used an analytic and inductive method, the second was more synthetic and the third added much new material.

As Vico's reputation spread, his health waned and his life was clouded by domestic troubles. One daughter suffered from a serious lingering illness, and a son was imprisoned for dissolute living and indebtedness. A second daughter achieved renown as a poetess, and his favourite son was appointed to his chair of rhetoric. When the Bourbons took the throne of Naples, Charles III appointed Vico royal historiographer. Soon thereafter his health collapsed, and cancer almost destroyed his power of speech. For fourteen months he lay in gloom and pain, unresponsive to those around him. Suddenly one day he aroused himself, recognized his wife and children and quietly sang a passage from the Psalms. Then he died quickly, passing into history on January 20, 1744.

Vico's scienza nuova is at core a science of man, for he believed that one cannot learn about man – or indeed about anything – by starting with what is external to the human being. Though Descartes began with cogito ergo sum, "I think, therefore I am", as the primal certainty, Vico found in this disembodied affirmation an alienation of consciousness from its proper objects. The self-awareness of the cogito is unreflective and cannot be the basis for scientific knowledge. For Vico, the guiding principle of all possible knowledge is verum factum, 'made truth', that is, "the true and the made are convertible". One can know with certainty only what human beings themselves have created, and since the human mind is not its own creation, man cannot have a clear and distinct idea of it, and a fortiori the awareness of mind cannot be the criterion for knowledge. The existence of God cannot be proved a priori from the existence of mind and its ideas, as Descartes thought. Further, mathematical and geometrical method is not satisfactory for science because the self-evident certitude of mathematics derives from the fact that it is a human invention. Clear and distinct ideas, the bedrock of Cartesian science, are either human inventions or in principle false. In either case, they cannot be the basis for certainty in respect to nature.

Vico did not claim to offer another method which could guarantee such certainty. Rather, he denied that man can know nature in the way he can know, for instance, mathematics. "We cannot demonstrate physics from causes", Vico wrote, "because the elements which compose nature are outside us." God, not man, creates Nature and alone can know it fully. Nonetheless, human beings are a part of Nature, and they participate in its phenomena. By devising experiments derived from hypotheses, man imitates nature to a degree, and to that degree can learn Nature's laws. "The things which are proved in physics", Vico said, "are those to which we can perform something similar." Cartesian thinkers looked to the physical sciences as the standard for human knowledge and shunned history because of its inexactitude and the inescapable subjectivity of its interpretations. Vico's standpoint compelled him to reverse this view. Physics for Vico remains approximate because it is external to man, but history deals with the distinctively human world. Its phenomena are the result of human activity and therefore are knowable by man.

Vico was intensely aware of the radical implications of the principle of verum factum. In the first place, Vico realized that it suggests a kind of knowledge inadequately covered by Aristotelian categories. The distinction between knowing that and knowing how was well known. One knows that Naples is in Italy, but one knows how to write a sentence or ride a horse. Vico identified a distinct form of knowledge founded on memory and imagination, analysable only in terms of itself and characterized only through examples. This is a knowing what – what it is to be sick, to be rejected by one's peers, to grasp a double meaning, to deceive oneself. Such knowledge arises from a combination of personal experience, an intermeshing of one's experience with that of others through communication, and a powerful and sometimes highly disciplined use of the imagination. The historian, being human, is capable of understanding the history of humanity with an intimacy denied in the case of the physical sciences. Only the human sciences, in Vico's view, approach certitude.

Secondly, Vico recognized in the principle of verum factum the implication that humanity cannot be understood as a collection of static entities. Human nature is in the making, and man must be understood historically. Whatever the ultimate nature of the human being, humanity cannot be understood by a priori appeals to human nature. Rather, "every theory must start from the point where the matter of which it treats first begins to take shape". This genetic method in human science requires, thirdly, that historical understanding should not be parochial. Social and legal theorists from Grotius to Hobbes have floundered on this point by attributing to ancient man conceptions that took long ages to evolve. When one falls into this error, one imposes ersatz myths and twisted frameworks on the past. Fourthly, Vico rejected any notion of a value-free science as impossible to attain because conceptually incoherent, and he drew attention to the principles of accurate interpretation of the past. Finally, verum factum suggests that different methods are needed for disparate sciences. Experiments based on hypotheses constitute the best method for the physical sciences, but the human sciences require another approach.

The study of man is not amenable to experimentation in the ordinary sense. Nevertheless, there is an abundance of materials at hand which, when examined imaginatively and with discernment, yield the story of humanity. Language and myth, ancient traditions and institutions, can be deciphered and interpreted – not in terms of truth and falsehood, but in terms of profundity or shallowness, perceptivity or blindness. Vico called this approach 'philology', by which he meant a kind of anthropological historicism, a science of human consciousness which is the history of its evolution. Whilst each human being must face the question of food, shelter and health individually, three constants mark collective human evolution, though each nation creates its own responses to them. Divine Providence operates everywhere; conflicting desires and passions must be tamed and channelled; and the fate of each individual at death must be dealt with. Further, the way and means of confronting these constants must be such that they are accepted as just by a large proportion of the population.

From all that has been set forth in general concerning the establishment of the principles of this science, we conclude that, since its principles are (1) divine providence, (2) marriage and therewith moderation of the passions, and (3) burial and therewith immortality of human souls; and since the criterion it uses is that what is felt to be just by all men, or by the majority, must be the rule of social life, these must be the bounds of human reason. Let him who would transgress them beware lest he transgress all humanity.

Though one cannot cross the boundaries of human reason with impunity, one should use the whole reach and range of reason to understand humanity. Language is a fundamental tool in the history of mind because it evolves naturally in a way commensurate with evolving consciousness. Proper 'philology' provides the interwoven experience that allows for knowing what ancient man thought and other men think, for human beings make sense of their world through language. For Vico, language can neither be wholly identified with thought nor entirely separated from it. The imagination disciplined in discernment and emancipated from parochial views can find in language the keys to human evolution. Metaphors, for instance, may be 'dead' today or may be mere suggestions of fanciful connections between things, but, Vico taught, they can show the student of the human sciences ancient humanity's modes of direct apprehension. Primitive man is poetical in consciousness, and it is his language that allows contemporary man at once to have access to his ancestral history and to be debarred forever by his own modes of thought from directly experiencing it. Imaginative insight – fantasia – links human consciousness across time; it does not reduce it to one unchanging nature. Like language, myths are important historical records of consciousness when scientifically interpreted. Philology, when married to philosophy, reveals the working of divine Providence in time. This in essence is the scienza nuova, the foundation of all scientific knowledge.

In rejecting intellectual parochialism, Vico also avoided cultural relativism. One culture cannot be judged superior to another (parochialism), but neither can it be said that all cultures fulfil the same needs (relativism), for each culture is the interacting response to changing human consciousness at some stage of development. Nonetheless, Vico claimed to have discovered an 'ideal eternal history' that manifests as a pattern of development in each nation (if undisturbed by external forces such as conquest). A nation or distinguishable social group begins in a bestial condition without laws. In time, the age of the gods dawns, a period of strict and strong patriarchy. The age of heroes emerges when family alliances are formed to protect the patriarchs against other clansmen. The age of men is marked by the conversion of this struggle into class conflict. Eventually democratic republics are established to moderate conflicts, but they become corrupt and, if allowed to run their course, they gradually revert to bestiality. In each period the historian can find a correlation between the social structure, the forms and uses of art and religious and philosophical standpoints. Whilst Vico did not attempt to square corsi e recorsi, the cyclic view of history, with the unidirectional dispensational Christian view, his religious orthodoxy suggests that he may have seen in this cyclic pattern a reflection of an architectonics of evolution for the cosmos as a whole.

The breadth and richness of Vico's ideas and the fundamentally fresh vision he offered were quite beyond the comprehension of most of his Cartesian contemporaries. He was largely ignored by succeeding generations, until Herder, Hegel and Marx and many scientists of the twentieth century recognized his 'modernity'. Many thinkers have drawn from his seminal ideas, but few have attempted to comprehend his thought as a whole. Had the social sciences looked to the humanism of Vico rather than the positivism of Auguste Comte, to his open-textured view of knowledge in the physical sciences rather than to a crude geometrical analogy, to his marriage of human dignity and divine Providence rather than to a mechanistic determinism, the world might be significantly different. Though he could not pass the torch of insight undimmed through subsequent generations, he left a message which has been heard with renewed interest and respect in the present epoch.