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Giambattista Vico

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Please help improve this articleby adding citations to reliable sources. Unverifiablematerial may be challenged and removed. Western philosophy
18th century philosophy
(Enlightenment Philosophy) Giambattista Vico Name Giambattista Vico Birth June 23, 1668(Naples, Italy) Death January 23, 1744(Naples, Italy) School/tradition HumanismInfluenced by Plato, Francis Bacon, MachiavelliInfluenced Hegel, Coleridge, Goethe, Marx, Croce, Joyce

Giambattista Vico or Giovanni Battista Vico (June 23, 1668January 23, 1744) was an Italian philosopher, rhetorician, historian, and jurist. He is well known for his saying verum esse ipsum factum ("truth itself is constructed").



Born to a bookseller and the daughter of a carriage maker in Naples, Italy, Vico attended a series of grammar schools, but ill-health and dissatisfaction with Jesuit scholasticism led to home schooling.

After a bout of typhus in 1686, Vico accepted a tutoring position in Vatolla (a Frazione of the comune of Perdifumo), south of Salerno, that would last for nine years. In 1699, he married a childhood friend, Teresa Destito, and took a chair in rhetoric at the University of Naples. Throughout his career, Vico would aspire to, but never attain, the more respectable chair of jurisprudence. In 1734, however, he was appointed royal historiographer by Charles III, king of Naples, and was afforded a salary far surpassing that of his professorship. Vico retained the chair of rhetoric until ill-health forced him to retire in 1741.

Major works and their reception

Vico is best known for his verum factum principle, first formulated in 1710 as part of his De Italorum Sapientia. The principle states that truth is verified through creation or invention and not, as per Descartes, through observation: “The criterion and rule of the true is to have made it. Accordingly, our clear and distinct idea of the mind cannot be a criterion of the mind itself, still less of other truths. For while the mind perceives itself, it does not make itself.” This criterion for truth would later shape the history of civilization in Vico’s opus, the Scienza Nuova (The New Science, 1725), since he would argue that civil life — like mathematics — is wholly constructed.

Relying on a complex etymology, Vico argues in the Scienza Nuova that civilization develops in a recurring cycle (ricorso) of three ages: the divine, the heroic, and the human. Each age exhibits distinct political and social features and can be characterized by master tropes or figures of language. The giganti of the divine age rely on metaphor to compare, and thus comprehend, human and natural phenomena. In the heroic age, metonymy and synecdoche support the development of feudal or monarchic institutions embodied by idealized figures. The final age is characterized by popular democracy and reflection via irony; in this epoch, the rise of rationality leads to barbarie della reflessione or barbarism of reflection, and civilization descends once more into the poetic era. Taken together, the recurring cycle of three ages — common to every nation — constitutes for Vico a storia ideale eterna or ideal eternal history.

Vico’s major work was poorly received during his own life but has since inspired a cadre of famous thinkers and artists, including Benedetto Croce, James Joyce, Bertrand Russell, Samuel Beckett, Isaiah Berlin, Erich Auerbach, Northrop Frye, Harold Bloom, Edward Said, Marshall McLuhan, Thomas Berry, and Robert Anton Wilson. Later his work was received more favourably as in the case of Lord Monboddo to whom he was compared in a modern treatise.[1]

For Ernst von Glasersfeld, Giambattista Vico is "the first true constructivist" (in An Introduction to Radical Constructivism).

Vichian rhetoric and humanism

Vico’s version of rhetoric is the result of both his humanist and pedagogic concerns. In De Studiorum Ratione, presented at the commencement ceremonies of 1708, Vico argued that whoever “intends a career in public life, whether in the courts, the senate, or the pulpit” should be taught to “master the art of topics and defend both sides of a controversy, be it on nature, man, or politics, in a freer and brighter style of expression, so he can learn to draw on those arguments which are most probable and have the greatest degree of verisimilitude.” As Royal Professor of Latin Eloquence, it was Vico’s task to prepare students for higher studies in law and jurisprudence. His lessons thus dealt with the formal aspects of the rhetorical canon, including arrangement and delivery. Yet as the above oration also makes clear, Vico chose to emphasize the Aristotelian connection of rhetoric with dialectic or logic. In his lectures and throughout the body of his work, Vico's rhetoric begins from argumentation. Probability and circumstance are thus central, and invention – the appeal to topics or loci – supersedes axioms derived through pure reasoning.

Vico’s recovery of ancient wisdom, his emphasis on the importance of civic life, and his professional obligations place him firmly in the humanist tradition. As such, he would be compelled to address the privileging of reason in what he called the “geometrical method” of Descartes and the Port-Royal logicians.

Response to the Cartesian method

As he relates in his autobiography, Vico returned to Naples from Vatolla to find “the physics of Descartes at the height of its renown among the established men of letters.” Developments in both metaphysics and the natural sciences abounded as the result of Cartesianism. Widely disseminated by the Port Royal Logic of Antoine Arnauld and Pierre Nicole, Descartes’ method was rooted in verification: the only path to truth, and thus knowledge, was through axioms derived from observation. Descartes’ insistence that the “sure and indubitable” (or, "clear and distinct") should form the basis of reasoning had an obvious impact on the prevailing views of logic and discourse. Studies in rhetoric — indeed all studies concerned with civic discourse and the realm of probable truths — met with increasing disdain.

Vico’s humanism and professional concerns prompted an obvious response that he would develop throughout the course of his writings: the realms of verifiable truth and human concern share only a slight overlap, yet reasoning is required in equal measure in both spheres. One of the clearest and earliest forms of this argument is available in the De Italorum Sapientia, where Vico argues that “to introduce geometrical method into practical life is ‘like trying to go mad with the rules of reason,’ attempting to proceed by a straight line among the tortuosities of life, as though human affairs were not ruled by capriciousness, temerity, opportunity, and chance. Similarly, to arrange a political speech according to the precepts of geometrical method is equivalent to stripping it of any acute remarks and to uttering nothing but pedestrian lines of argument.” Vico’s position here and in later works is not that the Cartesian method is irrelevant, but that its application cannot be extended to the civic sphere. Instead of confining reason to a string of verifiable axioms, Vico suggests (along with the ancients) that appeals to phronêsis or practical wisdom must also be made, as do appeals to the various components of persuasion that comprise rhetoric. Vico would reproduce this argument consistently throughout his works, and would use it as a central tenet of the Scienza Nuova.

Rhetoric in the Scienza Nuova

Principj di Scienza Nuova - title page of 1744 edition.

In 1720, Vico began work on the Scienza Nuova – his self-proclaimed masterpiece – as part of a treatise on universal law. Although a full volume was originally to be sponsored by Cardinal Corsini (the future Pope Clement XII), Vico was forced to finance the publication himself after the Cardinal pleaded financial difficulty and withdrew his patronage. The first edition of the New Science appeared in 1725, and a second, reworked version was published in 1730; neither was well received during Vico’s lifetime.

Vico’s humanism, his interest in classical rhetoric and philology, and his response to Descartes contribute to the philosophical foundations for the second Scienza Nuova. Through an elaborate Latin etymology, Vico establishes not only the distinguishing features of first humans, but also how early civilization developed a sensus communis or collective sense. Beginning with the utterances characteristic of the giganti or early humans, Vico concludes that “first, or vulgar, wisdom was poetic in nature.” This observation is not an aesthetic one, but rather points to the capacity for early humans to make meaning via comparison and to reach a communal understanding of their surroundings. Thus, the metaphors that define the poetic age also represent the first civic discourse and, like the eloquence of Vico’s own age, engender a civic reality. The poetic principle held, though in altered form, for subsequent formative ages, including early Greek, Roman, and European civilizations.

While the transfer from divine to heroic to human ages is, for Vico, marked by shifts in the tropological nature of language, the inventional aspect of the poetic principle remains constant. When referring to “poets”, Vico intends to evoke the original Greek sense of “creators”. In the Scienza Nuova, then, the verum factum principle first put forth in De Italorum Sapientia remains central. As such, the notion of topics as the loci or places of invention (put forth by Aristotle and developed throughout classical rhetoric) serves as the foundation for truth, and thus, as the underlying principle of sensus communis and civic discourse. The development of laws that shape the social and political character of each age is informed as much by master tropes as by those topics deemed acceptable in each era. Thus, for the rudimentary civilization of the divine age, sensory topics are employed to develop laws applicable on an individual basis. These laws expand as metonymy and synecdoche enable notions of sovereign rule in the heroic age; accordingly, acceptable topics expand to include notions of class and division. In the final, human age, the reflection that enables popular democracy requires appeals to any and all topics to achieve a common, rational law that is universally applicable. The development of civilization in Vico’s storia ideale eternal, then, is rooted in the first canon of rhetoric, as invention via loci shapes both the creation of and discourse about civil life.

Line note references

  1. ^ Hobbs, Catherine, Rhetoric on the Margin of Modernity, Vico, Condillac, Monboddo, Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale, Illinois (1992)



  • Bedani, Gino. Vico Revisited: Orthodoxy, Naturalism and Science in the Scienza Nuova. Oxford: Berg Publishers, 1989.
  • Berlin, Isaiah. Vico and Herder: Two Studies in the History of Ideas. London: Hogarth, 1976.
  • Colilli, Paul. Vico and the Archives of Hermetic Reason. Welland, Ont.: Editions Soleil, 2004.
  • Croce, Benedetto. The Philosophy of Giambattista Vico. Trans. R.G. Collingwood. London: Howard Latimer, 1913.
  • Danesi, Marcel. Vico, Metaphor, and the Origin of Language. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1993
  • Fisch, Max, and Thomas Bergin, trans. Vita di Giambattista Vico (The Autobiography of Giambattista Vico). 1735-41. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1963.
  • _________. Scienza nuova seconda (The New Science of Giambattista Vico). 1730/1744. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1948.
  • Grassi, Ernesto. Vico and Humanism: Essays on Vico, Heidegger, and Rhetoric. New York: Peter Lang, 1990.
  • Joyce, James. Finnegans Wake. Viking 1939.
  • Levine, Joseph. Giambattista Vico and the Quarrel between the Ancients and the Moderns. Journal of the History of Ideas 52.1(1991): 55-79.
  • Lilla, Mark. "G. B. Vico: The Making of an Anti-Modern." Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.
  • Mazzotta, Giuseppe. "The New Map of the World: The Poetic Philosophy of Giambattista Vico." Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999.
  • Miner, Robert. "Vico, Genealogist of Modernity." Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2002.
  • Nicolini, Fausto, ed. Opera di G.B. Vico. Bari: Laterza, 1911-41.
  • Palmer, L.M., trans. De Antiquissima Italorum Sapientia ex Linguae Originibus Eruenda Librir Tres (On the Most Ancient Wisdom of the Italians Unearthed from the Origins of the Latin Language). 1710. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1988.
  • Pinton, Girogio, and Arthur W. Shippee, trans. Institutiones Oratoriae (The Art of Rhetoric). 1711-1741. Amsterdam: Editions Rodopi B.V., 1984.
  • Pompa, Leon, trans. Scienza Nuova (The First New Science). 1725. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002.
  • Schaeffer, John. Sensus Communis: Vico, Rhetoric, and the Limits of Relativism. Durham: Duke UP, 1990.
  • Verene, Donald. Vico's Science of Imagination. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1981.
  • Verene, Molly Black "Vico: A Bibliography of Works in English from 1884 to 1994." Philosophy Documentation Center, 1994.
  • Vico, Giambattista. "On Humanistic Education," trans. Giorgio A. Pinton and Arthur W. Shippee. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1993.
  • Vico, Giambattista. "On the Study Methods of Our Time," trans. Elio Gianturco. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1990.
  • Vico, Giambattista. "The New Science of Giambattista Vico, trans. Thomas G. Bergin and Max H. Fixch. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1968.

See also

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Categories: 1668 births | 1744 deaths | People from Naples | 18th century philosophers | Early modern philosophers | Enlightenment philosophers | Italian philosophers | Rhetoricians | Social philosophy | Theories of history | Roman Catholic philosophersHidden categories: Articles lacking sources from November 2007 | All articles lacking sources

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