The New Science of Giambattista Vico
Giambattista Vico: An International Symposium
Revolutionaries in thought, as in art, do not invariably make an impression upon their age. Often, of course, they produce a strong and definite impact. Thus philosophers like Descartes, Kant, and, in our own time, Wittgenstein introduced radical innovations whose general significance was not lost upon their contemporaries or immediate successors. The complexities and multifarious implications of their teachings, and the extent to which these bore upon matters lying outside as well as within the range of their direct concern, may not have been adequately noticed or fully understood; but at least it was never in doubt that there was something to be noticed and understood.
Vico, by contrast, stands out as a supreme example of an original and seminal thinker of whom such notice was conspicuously lacking. In retrospect he can be seen as a landmark in the history of modern Western thought, the originator of an outlook in which whole tracts of human experience appear in a transformed perspective, and the author of a work whose perceptions still preserve—after the lapse of more than two centuries—an extraordinary freshness and haunting power. Yet during his lifetime his ideas found no sympathetic response among those who read him; moreover, the importance of what he had to say passed almost wholly unacknowledged and unappreciated for more than fifty years after his death.
There is, indeed, a sense in which, though a great forerunner, Vico has never been a major influence. The holder of a minor and badly paid professorship at the University of Naples for most of his life, he published the first edition of his masterpiece, the Scienza nuova (New Science), in 1725 and followed it with drastically revised editions in 1730 and 1744. These earned him a measure of respect as a scholar, but without recognition of the depth and novelty of the conceptions they embodied. And even when recognition eventually came, it tended to be partial and to be dependent upon the extent to which the ground had already been prepared by other thinkers. A brief glance at the history of Vico’s reputation shows it in fact to have followed an uneven course, the interpretation put upon his work and the value accorded to it being continually subject to variations in the intellectual climate.
Generally, it is true to say that Vico’s ideas only began to impinge upon the European consciousness during the period immediately subsequent to the French Revolution. He was first read in England by such men as Coleridge and Thomas Arnold, while in France counterrevolutionary writers, such as de Maistre and Ballanche, portrayed him as a source of notions diametrically opposed to those that had inspired the Enlightenment and (more specifically) the ideology of Jacobinism. In Ballanche’s opinion, for instance, he was “a somnambulist of genius” who “came a century ahead of his time”—“profoundly intuitive, he could have no effect upon the assimilative men who were the sole rulers of the eighteenth century.”
Such remarks had more than a …