Giambattista Vico
Giambattista Vico; drawing by David Levine

Anyone who reads Vico has at his first reading been amazed. It seems impossible that any European philosophy should be so wildly imaginative and undisciplined, and should be a mixture of the most accurate prescience and quaint nonsense: flashes of clear light in a picturesque lumber room of antique learning. After the first edition of the Scienza Nuova appeared in 1725 nearly a hundred years had to pass before Vico could be taken seriously. Living in a city, Naples, that was still a provincial corner of Europe, a visionary trained in ancient rhetoric and entangled in theology, still writing in a baroque style, he was first understood, and put to use, by Michelet. He is almost unique among European philosophers in having had no predecessors and no immediate progeny.

Even now he is usually approached, in America and in Britain, through Croce and Collingwood, and therefore selectively, only as a philosopher of history; and some of the visionary madness and prescience is left out of account. The most careful review in English of his entire thought is an essay by Isaiah Berlin.*

I read Vico originally for the sake of his philosophy of the unconscious mind, manifested in language, which had provided Joyce with a scaffolding for Finnegans Wake. Vico believed that the primary processes of thought, in the imagination, are still verbal, and that they compose a poetry of puns, a dream-like network of associations and analogies. The forms of civilized language preserve the condensations and displacements of this primitive thinking. True history is a kind of philosophy, in which we retrace the steps that lead us back to the root metaphors of a childish vision of the social world. As an individual comes to understand his adult vision of personal relations by returning to the childhood fantasies that formed it, and are still operative, so also civilized societies can preserve their energies only if they are ready to recapture by a controlled regression the primitive poetry with which they began. So Vico provides a defense of the humanities, and of imaginative social anthropology, in competition with the claims of modern philosophy and of the physical sciences. In any living literature the past of the race returns, as in a dream that is compounded of history and poetic myth. The manifest content of history, the literal record of the foundation of cities and law, calls for an interpretation which will reveal the prelogical fantasies of power and parentage that have formed our civil consciousness. And the starting point is the study of the original metaphors and images which have formed our conceptual scheme.

For those contemporary philosophers in the English-speaking countries who have tried to develop the insights of G. E. Moore, Wittgenstein, and J. L. Austin, the study of language is also the larger part of that whole inquiry which has traditionally been called philosophy; and for some it is even the whole of philosophy. But the study of language, as it is understood by philosophers today, is certainly not to be identified with that wide inquiry which Vico called philology. The study of language now is intended by philosophers to yield solutions to more or less precisely defined problems of epistemology, and also to some traditional problems of ethics and aesthetics. Sometimes the study of language will show that nothing as definite as a solution can be found, because closer inquiry shows that the conventions governing the correct use of language are much less determinate and exact than had been assumed in the original setting of the problem.

In general the closer and more detailed study of language shows that the traditional formulations of philosophical problems often presuppose a false picture of the functioning of language, or depend upon a failure to notice distinctions that are in fact to be found within language as it is actually used. Then the problem disappears, or at least is transformed. Inquiries along these lines, which are characteristic of contemporary thought, are piecemeal inquiries, and are not designed to sustain some larger theory of human nature or of human history, and are not ancillary to a philosophical anthropology of the kind that Vico projected.

The second, and largely distinct, type of contemporary study of language is scientific in method, but its results may be of the utmost importance to philosophers. Linguists may in the foreseeable future be able to specify the principles which determine the grammatical structures common to many different languages: principles of word order and sentence construction. One school of theoretical linguists has suggested that there are innate principles which guide children in learning a language toward certain preferred forms which are common to different languages. These theorists believe that they can show that the ability of children to learn to construct sentences in their native language cannot be explained except by postulating an innate readiness to respond to certain preferred syntactical structures.


This much disputed hypothesis has great significance for philosophers: first, it suggests that empiricists have been mistaken in the account that they give of the formation of the categories of thought; secondly, it suggests that the ancient idea of a universal grammar may have some foundation in fact, and that the division of terms into types might be given some secure basis. There is the possibility that the intuitions upon which philosophical logicians have previously relied may be replaced by a theory of linguistic structures that is testable and capable of being confirmed by observation of speech-habits, now made possible by new techniques.

The point of contact between Vico and the contemporary philosophy of language is to be found at a more general level. For Vico, as for some analytical philosophers of the present time, the study of the original metaphors and images, from which the commonplace set of mental concepts has been formed, is the province of the philosophy of mind. Vico’s originality was to reject the possibility of a constructed language of clear and distinct ideas, and to insist on the part that the imagination must always play in forming the vocabulary by which our experience is colored. It is the work of philosophy to engender a new self-consciousness about the imaginative sources of our thinking, and particularly of our thinking about our own mental states and functions. In setting these limits to the philosophical enterprise of “correcting” the understanding, Vico was anticipating the analytical philosophers of the present time, who have argued that philosophers must confine themselves to describing language as it is actually used, and that the project of a logically clear, or reformed, language can be given no substance. As some contemporary analytical philosophers reject the ambitions of Russell and Carnap to discover the logical foundations and the adequate intellectual order of our claims to knowledge, so Vico rejected the similar ambitions of Descartes; and the nature of language was in both cases the point at issue.

Vico lived in a world dominated intellectually by Descartes and he cannot be understood without some reference to this background. Descartes prescribed a method, a method that was to be an infallible guide to all thinking about intellectual problems. The method, which may at first seem too simple and obvious, was that, in thinking about any problem, we should attend only to clear and distinct ideas; our arguments should move from one clear and distinct idea to another, tracing the connections between them in their proper order, the argument moving from the simple to the complex. If we proceed in this manner we shall avoid all the confusions and uncertainties of scholastic philosophy; every problem will be broken down into its simple elements, and our answers will depend upon only the most simple and self-evident propositions. The prototype and supreme instance of such a method was mathematics; the mathematician defines his terms precisely and in his deductions moves from the simple and self-evident to the more complex, setting out distinctly every step in his argument. So Descartes was in effect recommending that all thought, to be worthy of the name, must approximate to this mathematical ideal.

Within this program of so-called rationalism, a firm distinction was implied between the intellect itself, the faculty of pure thought, and the imagination; and soon the point was made that the imagination is the prime source of all intellectual confusions. It is the weakness of the human mind, attached as it is to the body and dependent on the senses, that it tends to rely on images in its thinking, images that must be derived ultimately from sense-experience. We have the greatest difficulty in thinking in purely abstract terms; even mathematicians have recourse to diagrams and figures to illustrate their arguments. But their strength is that in principle their arguments do not depend for their validity on these illustrations, or indeed on any other appeal to the senses and the imagination. In philosophy we are systematically confused, because its vocabulary is obviously imprecise and figurative, its terms not clearly defined and distinguished; our conception of God, for instance, is muddled and anthropomorphic, because we try to understand the word “God” by forming an image of him; and so we are inevitably led to think of God in terms that are appropriate to human beings, although by definition such terms are inapplicable to God.

The rationalist program involved eliminating as far as possible from our thought, and therefore from our language, all figurative and metaphorical conceptions, all expressions that could only be understood by reference to images. These must be replaced, as far as possible, by expressions that are abstractions. It is not difficult to see that this insistence on clear and distinct ideas naturally becomes a theory of language; the ideal of thinking only in terms that are abstract and clearly defined, of largely eliminating imagery and metaphors, becomes a doctrine of style—in fact, of the classical style of seventeenth-century literature, both prose and poetry. It was a principle of style which required that even the most intensely expressive poetry should be entirely clear and logical and should employ a language of high abstraction, with a careful control of sensuous imagery and concrete illustration. Abstract concepts in fact became the raw material, not only of the semi-philosophical prose, the reflections on abstract themes (such as Old Age, Love, and Vanity) which were the literary fashion of the period, but even of poetry; and from France this principle of style, of clear and distinct ideas logically arranged, spread throughout Europe. What distinguishes almost any typical page of eighteenth-century writing, whether poetry or prose, is the high proportion of abstract nouns and generalized conceptions, and the transparency of the language, which will allow no dark suggestions of uncontrolled analogies, and which will leave only the substance of the matter, and no shadows, in the mind of the reader.


Against this background Vico anticipated the romantic movement by declaring that it is only by the recovery of the lost imagination that vitality can be saved. This central doctrine he develops both as a theory of history, that is a theory of the general order of development of human societies, and as a theory of language, of its origin and proper interpretation. He himself recognizes no essential distinction between a theory of history and a theory of language, because his second great principle is that the clue to the understanding of a civilization is a study of the forms of its language. Each phase of the human mind, as it develops by stages in history, is reflected in the forms of language, in the vocabulary, and in the type of unquestioned imagery which are typical of that phase. Thus the name that he gives to the supreme science of the human mind is philology; for him the study of the evolution of the human mind is the study of the evolution of language and vice versa. Philology is the supreme historical science, because it covers the unconscious frameworks of past experience.

Vico finds a parallel to the development of the human mind through stages in history in the development of an individual’s mind from childhood to old age. He takes this analogy very seriously, finding the characteristics of the primitive mind, as revealed in primitive language, reproduced in the natural language of a child. The literal prose of his own time corresponded to a civilization’s later and declining years; it was staid, self-conscious, and inert, the quick life of the senses and imagination forgotten in middle age. In fact this analogy between the growing-up of humanity and the individual’s growing-up, became rather more than a mere analogy to Vico: it enabled him to claim that his new science could achieve a certainty and self-evidence which could never be achieved in the natural sciences; for in studying the history of the human mind, as it is manifested in the successive states of society and civilization, we are only retracing the history of our own minds in macrocosm. By an effort of self-consciousness, we can know intuitively what it was like to live in the heroic and barbarous ages, feeling at the mercy of uncontrollable forces, without conscience or powers of reflection; for we have all ourselves lived through such a phase as children, when we were in fact absorbed in the sensations of the moment and in fantasies of the imagination, when we did not distinguish between fact and fable. We have all experienced the transition from the open fantasy life of the child to the duller life of adult reason and reflection.

Vico’s case against rationalist philosophies—and this means almost all philosophies of the mind previous to his own—is that they have cut themselves off from any adequate analysis of thought or language, because they have been totally unhistorical in their outlook. So the new science, the science of man, anthropology in the widest sense, must be quite different in method, must be a different kind of science, from the natural and mathematical sciences, which to Descartes were the exemplary forms of knowledge. Vico, unlike most philosophers, before and since, was not over-impressed by the certainty of mathematics; anticipating modern positivists in this as in other respects, he remarked that the truths of mathematics seemed so certain to us simply because we had ourselves invented mathematics.

What we can discover, or re-discover, in Vico’s New Science is the primitive poetry and the natural metaphysical imagery out of which our adult or civilized thought and language have stage by stage developed. Language is not created by an artificial convention among rational men, or the words of a language invented as mere labels for abstract ideas. It begins in natural imagery, with words having at first little or no literal meaning. Primitive language appeals directly to the senses and the imagination, to what can be seen and touched. It is a thing-language, and contains very few expressions that directly represent psychological processes or states of mind; for primitive man, like a child, thinks concretely and expresses feeling in play and ritual. To realize this is of the very greatest importance in understanding the forms of civilized or adult language; for when, in its adolescent phase, humanity gradually becomes self-conscious and introspective, we find (in Vico’s words) that “to describe the operations of the pure mind, we must avail ourselves…of metaphors drawn from the senses”: that is, we extend the use of expressions which originally applied to material things and give them some wider, and therefore metaphorical, meaning in describing the operations of our minds.

Vico tried to uncover the original metaphors now concealed within some typical psychological verbs of the Latin language; the metaphors of course are no longer felt as metaphors because they have become familiar. It is only with an effort of self-consciousness that, for example, we can trace the English word “apprehend” back to its original concrete and physical meaning, and so discover in this instance that general movement from the concrete to the abstract characteristic of all vocabularies in their development.

If, as the philologists of the New Science, we re-trace the history of words like “law” or “liberty” or “the people” back to their first origins, within this word-history, in the successive extensions of the connotations of such words, we shall find a whole history of civilization. To trace the development of a word is to trace the history of an idea. To enter into the minds of the men of the Homeric age, or indeed of any other of the recurring ages of man, must be to uncover the similes and metaphors by means of which they interpreted their experience. The general beliefs and dominant ideas of a society at a particular stage—what Vico sometimes calls its “common sense”—are not to be found in explicit propositions that state the beliefs or define the ideas; they are implicit in the changing forms of the language itself.

The great error of rationalists and philosophers is to assume that words like “liberty” or “justice” have some constant literal meaning as standing for some abstract idea, and so to consider any proposition in which they occur as eternally true or false, as they might consider some proposition in geometry. We cannot understand such words in any of their uses apart from the whole mythologies of which they were, or are, a part. In this principle of interpretation Vico anticipates, I believe, the methods of modern anthropology, yet another science of which he can reasonably be said to have written the first program. We must not look for literal meanings or for abstract statements at a stage in which the distinction between the literal and the metaphorical, and between knowledge and myth, does not exist. Primitive language is all poetry, is suggestion not statement; and science and philosophy begin as myth and fable, and myth and fable are misconceived either when they are interpreted literally or when interpreted as allegory. The personified gods and forces of nature, the stories of strong and wise men, are the beginnings of the speculation on the abstract concepts, on strength and wisdom, which later develop from them.

There is no doubt where Vico’s own sympathies lie—with the childhood of humanity, when the life of the mind was poetry, not prose, with the ages of imagination, and not with the ages of reason and philosophy. Like W. B. Yeats, he hated a language of abstraction and loved poetry and analogy, what philosophers call nonsense. He speaks magnificently of philosophers as “these old men of the nations.” Although a philosopher, he has himself the qualities of the primitive which he so admired—flashes of insight alternating with wild absurdities, soaring imagination without any powers of criticism, and an outrageous indifference to evidence and literal statement of fact. It is easy, if we apply critical and scientific standards, to point to absurdities in his philology and anthropology; in his poetical description of the dark life of cave-dwellers, of the wild patriarchal world of the first families and of the first awakening of a sense of duty at the sound of thunderclaps heard in the early world (Joyce makes great play with this symbol of the thunderclap in Finnegans Wake). In such passages he is often absurd: it is poetry rather than literal statement. But through all the absurdities of detail, the majestic conception of the history of the human mind as reflected in the developing forms of its language emerges vividly. The metaphysics, the social philosophy and organization, the legal conceptions of a people reveal themselves not in explicit propositions but in the history and derivation of words; we must dig the metaphysics and social philosophy out of the verbal imagery.

This leading idea of the New Science makes Vico more than the precursor of the romantic movement or the prophet of historical method; it makes him a figure of the twentieth as well as of the nineteenth century; for it is only in this century that philosophers and anthropologists have methodically turned back upon the forms of language to discover the metaphors and models out of which metaphysical theories develop, realizing that merely to study the explicit propositions of philosophy is never to go to the root of metaphysical puzzles; the root of the puzzles is to be found in the ever-changing metaphors of current language—for instance, in the transference of words originally applied to things which we see and touch to apply to the operations of the mind. So the study of the development of root metaphors is not merely necessary for the historian of ideas; it is also the proper study of the pure philosopher.

In Vico’s own image, great rivers when they enter the sea preserve something of their own identity for a distance before they are merged in the ocean which is literal language, the ocean which is always being fed and gradually transformed by the inflow of original metaphor. We cannot fully understand, or analyze, the meaning of any now abstract word—say the word “cause” or “substance”—without tracing it back through the various unpremeditated extensions of meaning to its primitive root. Only by so tracing derivations can we find the pictures or analogies which will still cling to such abstract words.

This Issue

February 13, 1969