The New Science  

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"The universal principle of etymology in all languages: words are carried over from bodies and from the properties of bodies to express the things of the mind and spirit." — axiom 63, see 114 axioms

"The order of ideas must follow the order of things." —axiom 64 , see 114 axioms

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

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The New Science (1725, original Italian Scienza Nuova) is the magnum opus by Giambattista Vico (1668-1744). Vico’s major work was poorly received during his own lifetime but has since inspired a cadre of famous thinkers and artists, including Benedetto Croce, James Joyce, Bertrand Russell, Samuel Beckett, Isaiah Berlin, Giovanni Gentile, Erich Auerbach, Northrop Frye, Harold Bloom, Edward Said, Marshall McLuhan and Robert Anton Wilson. The New Science's core concepts are the eternal return (the age of gods, the age of heroes, and the age of humans), verum factum and common sense.


Publication history

In 1720, Giambattista 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 The New Science appeared in 1725, and a second, reworked version was published in 1730; neither was well received during Vico’s lifetime.

It is currently in publication by Penguin Classics in an unindexed translation by David Marsh.


Eternal return, the divine, the heroic and human age

Relying on a complex etymology, Vico argues in the Scienza Nuova that civilization develops in an eternal return (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 humanism, common sense

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.

The poetic principle

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.

Influence on James Joyce

James Joyce was influenced by Giambattista Vico's The New Science. Joyce puns on his name many times in Finnegans Wake, including the "first" sentence: "by a commodius vicus of recirculation". Vico's theory involves the recurrence of three stages of history: the age of gods, the age of heroes, and the age of humans — after which the cycle repeats itself. Finnegans Wake begins in mid-sentence, with the continuation of the book's unfinished final sentence, creating a circle whereby the novel has no true beginning or end. See also Ages of Man and Greek mythology.

See also

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