Giovan Battista (Giambattista) Vico (23 June 1668 – 23 January 1744) was an Italian political philosopher, rhetorician, historian, and jurist, who is recognized as one of the greatest Enlightenment thinkers. He criticized the expansion and development of modern rationalism and was an apologist of classical antiquity. Vico is best known for his magnum opus, the Scienza Nuova of 1725, often published in English as New Science.
Vico is a precursor of systemic and complexity thinking, as opposed to Cartesian analysis and other kinds of reductionism. Furthermore, he can be credited with the first exposition of the fundamental aspects of social science, though his views did not necessarily influence the first social scientists.
He is also well known for noting that verum esse ipsum factum ("true itself is fact" or "the true itself is made"), a proposition that has been read as an early instance of constructivist epistemology.
Vico is often claimed to have inaugurated modern philosophy of history, although the term is not found in his text (Vico speaks of a "history of philosophy narrated philosophically"). While Vico was not, strictly speaking, a historicist, interest in him has often been driven by historicists (such as Isaiah Berlin and Hayden White).
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. Evidence from his autobiographical work points to the likelihood Vico was mostly self-taught. According to Costelloe, this was due to his father's influence on him during a three-year absence from school caused by a fall at the age of seven.
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 offered a salary far surpassing that of his professorship. Vico retained the chair of rhetoric until ill-health forced him to retire in 1741.
The New Science (1725, original title Scienza Nuova) is his major work and has been highly influential in the philosophy of history, and for historicists like Isaiah Berlin and Hayden White.
Vico is best known for his verum factum principle, first formulated in 1710 as part of his De antiquissima Italorum sapientia, ex linguae latinae originibus eruenda (1710) ("On the most ancient wisdom of the Italians, unearthed from the origins of the Latin language"). 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), because he would argue that civil life – like mathematics – is wholly constructed.
Vico's version of rhetoric is often seen as the result of both his humanist and pedagogic concerns. In De Nostri Temporis Studiorum Ratione ("On the Order of the Scholarly Disciplines of Our Times"), 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” (however, in his "Scienza Nuova", Vico denounces as "false eloquence" one defending both sides in controversies). 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, thereby reconnecting rhetoric to ends (or topics) as their center. Vico's objection to modern rhetoric is that it cuts itself off from common sense (sensus communis), as the sense common to all men. In his lectures and throughout the body of his work, Vico's rhetoric begins from a central argument or "middle term" (medius terminus) which it then sets out to clarify by following the order of things as they arise in our experience. Probability and circumstance retain their proportionate importance, and discovery – reliant upon topics or loci – supersedes axioms derived through reflective abstraction. In the tradition of classical Roman rhetoric, Vico sets out to educate the orator as the deliverer of the "oratio", a speech having "ratio" or reason/order at its heart. What is essential to the oratory art (as the Greek ῥητορική, rhetorike) is the orderly link between common sense and an end commensurate with it — an end that is not imposed upon the imagination from above (in the manner of the moderns and a certain dogmatic form of Christianity), but that is drawn out of common sense itself. In the tradition of Socrates and Cicero, Vico's real orator or rhetorician will serve as midwife in the birth of "the true" (as a form or idea) out of "the certain" (as the confusion or ignorance of the student's particularized mind).
Vico's rediscovery of "the most ancient wisdom" of the senses (a wisdom that is "human foolishness" or humana stultitia), his emphasis on the importance of civic life, and his professional obligations remind us of the humanist tradition. He would call for a maieutic or jurisprudential oratory art against the grain of the modern privileging of a dogmatic form of reason in what he called the “geometrical method” of Descartes and the Port-Royal logicians.
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 phronesis (φρόνησις 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.
He has been the 'sleeping partner' of the Enlightenment. He was largely unknown in his own time, read only in his native Naples. Nonetheless his ideas are remarkably similar to later Enlightenment thinkers. It was only until the 1820s that his writing was recognised, although somewhat reconfigured by the French Romantic historians.
Whilst Karl Marx only mentions Vico once in his works, Vico's ideas run, at least, in parallel with Marx. Both Vico and Marx write about societal class struggles. Their ideas involve all men achieving equal rights. Vico calls this the "age of men". Marx concludes with this state as being the optimal ending point of societal change, but Vico believes this complete equality will lead to chaos and a breakdown in society. Vico displayed his stance on the need for religion, as opposed to Marx, when he declared Providence is needed to keep society in order.
Edward Said’s Orientalism is also indebted to Vico, as Said mentions, and indeed it appears in his book 13 times. Said traces Vico's influence in many philosophers through the twentieth century. Said writes that Vico's “ideas anticipate and later infiltrate the line of German thinkers I am about to cite. They belong to the era of Herder and Wolf, later to be followed by Goethe, Humboldt, Dilthey, Nietzsche, Gadamer, and finally the great Twentieth Century Romance philologists Erich Auerbach, Leo Spitzer, and Ernst Robert Curtius.” (Said 2003 : xviii). For Said, Vico as a humanist and early philologist represented “a different alternative model that has been extremely important to me in my work” (ibid), which is different from the mainstream Western prejudice against the Orient, because it’s different from the dominating “standardization” that came with modernity and was particularly affected by National Socialism, while Vico has been marginal in his effects on later thought. Vico, according to Said, saw the interdependence of human history and cultures that are organically bound together. Moreover, Said argues that we “must take seriously Vico's great observation that men make their own history, that what they can know is what they have made, and extend it to geography. As geographical and cultural entities — to say nothing of historical entities — such locales, regions, and geographical sectors as "Orient" and "Occident" are man-made" (Said 2003 : pp. 4–5).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. Universal right (Diritto universale). Translated from Latin and Edited by Giorgio Pinton and Margaret Diehl. Amsterdam/New York, Rodopi, 2000
Vico, Giambattista. "The New Science of Giambattista Vico", (1744). trans. Thomas G. Bergin and Max H. Fisch. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2nd ed. 1968.
Vico, Giambattista. "On the Most Ancient Wisdom of the Italians: Unearthed from the Origins of the Latin Language," trans. L.M. Palmer. Ithaca, Cornell UP, 1988.