Giambattista Vico  

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New Science (1775) by Giambattista Vico
New Science (1775) by Giambattista Vico

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Giambattista Vico or Giovanni Battista Vico (June 23, 1668January 23, 1744) was a Counter-Enlightenment Italian philosopher, best known for his New Science. Vico was an outsider genius, who lived in near poverty and never met a thinker of equivalent magnitude. However, his views have influenced many philosophers in the nineteenth century. Karl Marx studied Vico, and owes much to him. Also, Vico's notion verum factum anticipates pragmatism and pragmaticism of Peirce. He was able to predict historical development of Europe with appalling accuracy. In the 20th century, his ideas of the myth and nation were embraced by James Joyce, as well as Edward W. Said.

In addition, Feldman and Richardson (1972: 50-61) argue that the study of popular culture as a scholarly discipline can be traced back at least as far as the writings of Giambattista Vico, who anticipated today's cultural studies programs as he attempted to discover the "principles of humanity" in his New Science of 1775.



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, 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.

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.

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.

See also

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