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 purely political significance; behind them lay the conviction that Vico had propounded an altogether new view of history and society, and one moreover that anticipated in a striking fashion conceptions deriving from the Romantic movement in Germany. Thus it was the affinities he discerned between Vico’s approach and that of writers like Herder, Humboldt, and Niebuhr that led the French historian Jules Michelet to acclaim him as offering a premonitory vision of the shape taken by the historical studies of the early nineteenth century. It was largely as a result of Michelet’s enthusiastic advocacy, together with the translations he provided, that Vico’s views—linked in this case with a progressivist rather than a reactionary political outlook—first achieved widespread prominence.
If Vico’s reputation in the first half of the last century was mainly due to the efforts of historians and social theorists, it was a philosopher—Benedetto Croce—who was chiefly responsible for reviving interest in him at the beginning of the present one. Here, however, his work tended to be presented according to the Idealist metaphysic Croce inherited from Hegel, which he regarded as having been in many ways prefigured by the Neapolitan writer. Perhaps partly because of these Idealist associations, the attitude adopted toward Vico by Anglo-Saxon philosophers has—with one or two exceptions, such as Collingwood—been somewhat distant and tentative, so that he occupies to this day a curiously isolated position when set beside figures of comparable stature and importance.
Lip service may be paid to his name, and he is frequently to be found respectfully mentioned as a harbinger of later developments in the human and social studies; it is notorious, though, that these have tended to suffer neglect at the hands of recent philosophy, at least by contrast with the amount of attention lavished upon conceptual and methodological issues relating to the physical sciences. Some of this lack of concern has inevitably rubbed off onto Vico. Moreover, the latter’s thought is in any case resistant to tidy classification, and hard to accommodate within the main traditions to which American and British historians of ideas customarily address themselves.
What was it that Vico accomplished, making it justifiable to see him as the originator of a whole mode of thinking and as having prefigured, at least in outline, independent inquiries that have come to fruition in our own period? Speculative achievements of this order do not spring fully armed from the minds of those who conceive them, and many of Vico’s key notions originated in his study of writers who, besides the “four authors” (Plato, Tacitus, Bacon, Grotius) he singled out in his Autobiography as “models,” included among their number Lucretius, Hobbes, Machiavelli, Bodin, and Descartes. In a manner characteristic of pioneers, however, the ideas he thereby encountered and absorbed were to function as a spur rather than as a source for the eventual formation of his own philosophy. Their value, that is, consisted for him primarily in the kinds of problems they raised rather than in the solutions they offered: even if some were incorporated within what he himself wrote, they were transposed into an unfamiliar setting that often infused them with a new significance; while others were simply rejected as involving major, though suggestive, errors.
The latter was above all the case with the doctrines of Descartes. For these Vico seems to have felt a temperamental, and not merely an intellectual, antipathy, and it is against the background of his emancipation from them that the emergence of what is crucially distinctive in his own outlook can best be delineated and understood. In view of the persistence of cardinal strands of the Cartesian tradition in the later development of Western philosophy, it was a break with far-reaching implications.
The assault which Vico initiated in 1708, with his lecture On the Study Methods of our Time, was to continue over a period of years, gradually gaining in depth and momentum. Descartes’ theory of knowledge, still profoundly influential at the outset of the eighteenth century, was almost exclusively oriented toward mathematics and the natural sciences, he and his followers tending to treat with disdain whatever lay outside their scope. Specifically, this meant relegating such subjects as history, politics, and the study of law and language to a peripheral place. Furthermore, it was founded upon the claim that (as in geometry) the only propositions that could finally be accepted as certain in any domain were intuitably self-evident truths, together with such consequences as were derivable from them by a rigorous process of logical inference. Vico moved against this position, at first on a relatively narrow front and subsequently on a very broad one.
Thus he began by challenging the Cartesian account at a single, but nonetheless vital, point—its application to natural science. He agreed that the propositions of pure mathematics were, as Descartes had insisted, models of clarity, and such that to deny or question them was to invite absurdity. He argued, though, that Descartes had been fundamentally mistaken in his conception of what guaranteed their validity and that, once this was pointed out, it could be seen to constitute an error fatal to his entire scientific methodology. For the latter involved the assumption that the structure of the physical universe could be presented in the form of statements which possessed the same unassailable character as those of arithmetic and geometry.
But this, Vico claimed, was to overlook a crucial consideration, namely that the transparent certitude of mathematical reasoning derives solely from the circumstance that we ourselves create the “world of forms and numbers” with which it deals, its elements being fictions or conceptual constructions related to one another according to rules that we have freely devised for our own use: mathematics did not record or reflect the inner nature of things, but was rather an arbitrary product of the human mind. None of the foregoing was true, on the other hand, of the material world investigated by the natural sciences; this was given to us as a “brute” reality, and it had been created, not by men, but by God. Thus the Cartesian attempt to assimilate physical theories to mathematical systems, finding for both a common ground and criterion of truth in the doctrine of clear and distinct ideas, rested ultimately upon an illusions.
Vico’s conception of mathematics as a matter of invention rather than discovery was, in its time, both novel and arresting: some have seen it as foreshadowing Kantian ideas, while others (more plausibly) have regarded it as strikingly anticipatory of approaches to the subject that have only become current in the present century. In his eyes, however, it was connected with, and subsidiary to, a wider thesis which he later used to give a radically new twist to his objections to Cartesianism and which was to form the basis of his projected historical science.
This was the principle of verum factum, “the true (verum) and the made (factum) are convertible”: more generally, we can fully know only that which we ourselves have created. Whether this doctrine—at least in his formulation of it—originated with Vico, or whether (as has been maintained) he acquired it from earlier sources, does not really matter. What is essential is the original manner in which he employed it. For in his hands it became an instrument with which to undermine the notion that the science of physics represented the paradigm of true knowledge, one that other forms of inquiry must either conform to or else be dismissed as devoid of serious interest.
As Aristotle had long before indicated, it was wrong to suppose that all branches of study must necessarily follow the same pattern, whether geometrical or of some other kind; on the contrary, the methods we used, the categories we applied, should be adapted to our subject matter. So far as the investigation of nature was concerned, we could—by controlled observation and the construction of experiments—discover uniformities that enabled us, within limits, to explain and predict what occurred. Yet neither the natural phenomena themselves, nor the laws to which they were subject, were of our own contrivance; seventeenth-century theorists had been right in stressing that it was “unscientific” to anthropomorphize nature, to treat it as if it were intelligible in human or quasi-human terms.