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Compiled by Anthony Harrison-Barbet


(1668 — 1744)



Born in Naples, where his father was a bookseller, Giovanni Vico was mainly self-educated but did attend a Jesuit College for a short time. After a stint as a private tutor he became Professor of Rhetoric in the University of Naples in 1699. In 1735 he was appointed historian to the King of Naples. However, despite his highly original intellectual achievements, he was largely ignored by contemporary thinkers and spent most of his life close to poverty.



[1] Vico rejected Cartesian rationalism. (1) We have no knowledge of the thinking mind as such [a]; there is self-awareness and 'supposed' certainty only at the primitive level of "unreflecting consciousness". (2) Clarity and distinctness of an idea cannot be criteria of truth [b] — not least because propositions which seem to be clearly and distinctly true can in fact be doubted and shown later to be false. (3) We can have no demonstrative or a priori knowledge of God's existence [c]. What then is to be put in the place of Descartes' assumptions? Vico distinguishes between a ('Platonic') scienza and coscienza [external 'awareness']. Scienza involves certain knowledge only of what we ourselves have 'made'. The true (verum) is the made (factum). Vico is supposing here that we have the capacity to create or construct concepts, especially in mathematics (but also in other fields, including political science), which give us complete certainty. He does not mean that the mind actually brings mathematical entities into existence, but that we make up in an arbitrary way the rules or conventions which govern the use and application of mathematical ideas. Even in physics (coscienza), although we do not create nature in the sense that God does, we do exercise a degree of control and ordering of concepts through our hypotheses and experiments, which enable us to "imitate nature" by recreating the conditions in which phenomena occur. And Vico rejects any appeal to purposes or ends supposedly given through pure reason. Physics nevertheless remains less certain than mathematics. In general his view is that we have no direct insight or knowledge into Nature as it really is; this is available only to God [d].



[2] Although we lack complete insight into nature in itself, we do have an intimate grasp and knowledge of history. This is because history is essentially the continuous unfolding and expression of man's nature and will. But Vico nevertheless thinks it is a mistake to look for a specific unchanging human essence which is the same in all places and times, and in different cultures. Thus, while assuming universal law of development, he rejects the concept of a static natural law which implies or is grounded in the concept of a fixed human nature or purpose.

He identifies three stages through which, he thinks, societies pass and which exhibit different mental outlooks [a], as mediated through religion, law, social organization, literature, and so on. He stresses the importance of forms of language, especially those of myth and poetry, for an understanding of the earliest stages; for it is through these modes that we can appreciate the role played by imagination and feeling, rather than abstract reason [b], in the lives and cultures of ancient peoples. The first stage, the "age of the gods", is that of a patriarchal society in which the primary concerns are religion, marriage, and burial. As a result of alliances between the 'fathers' against both internal and external strife, the age gave way to an unstable "age of heroes" characterized by rigid division between patrician rulers and plebeian slaves. This in turn led to class conflict and hence to the third stage, the "age of men", which was essentially 'democratic' and 'humanistic', emphasizing reason and intellect. In due course this type of society therefore gave rise to scepticism, became decadent and corrupt, and reverted to primitive barbarism — thus beginning a new triadic cycle. Although Vico has stressed history as a human construct, he also sees the hand of God at work, operating through man's will and intellect. But he does not believe there to be any incompatibility between human freedom and divine purpose [c].



Vico's importance was not really appreciated until the nineteenth century. Today his Scienza Nuova is regarded as a seminal, albeit somewhat obscure text for the philosophy of history, culture, aesthetics, and philosophical anthropology. Noteworthy features of his thought are his anti-Cartesianism; his view that certainty in all branches of knowledge is to be located in the 'products' or construct of our own creative activity — in the vera facta. He was perhaps the earliest thinker to draw attention to a different type of explanation appropriate to the 'human sciences' [a] (involving empathy or the "imaginative recreation of the past" — Isaiah Berlin] ). Perhaps even more important are his views concerning the role of language. The stress he laid on the historical process was also to be influential. However, such notions as historical cycles, historicism, or historical inevitability have been severely criticized in this century. Indeed Vico's own emphasis on man's creative role may be regarded as not fitting too well with his view of history — or of divine providence.



Vico: Nuova Scienza (1725; 3rd edn 1744) (The New Science, trans. T. G. Bergin and M. H. Fisch).


I. Berlin, "Giambattista Vico and Cultural History" in The Crooked Timber of Humanity.

I. Berlin, Three Critics of the Enlightenment: Vico, Hamann, Herder.

P. Burke, Vico.







Note: Vico was a devout Catholic, but his views concerning the supposed role of God in history and indeed his general religious outlook may also reflect the influence of Greek (especially Neoplatonic) and scholastic thought as mediated through the syncretic writings of the Renaissance scholar Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494).


[1a] No knowledge of the thinking mind

   Bacon (Francis)





[1b]. Clarity and distinctness not criteria of truth    Descartes [1a]


[1c] No demonstrative or a priori proofs of God acceptable

   Bacon (Francis)


[1b 3b]




Dualism of scienza and coscienza; qualified knowledge of Nature — but only of what we 'make': constructions and conventions; role of experiments; rejection of purposes/ ends suggested by pure reason


   Bacon (Francis)








[sec.1 1a 2a e]

[1e 2b c 7d]



[1c 2b]




[2a] Knowledge of history — through which man's nature and will are expressed; cyclical theory (3 stages) but natural law dynamic not static or grounded in man's own purposes



   [also via Grotius]

   [cf. also Montesquieu]








[5b 7b 7c]




[2d e]

[9a b]





[2b] Forms of language (especially myth & poetry); role of imagination and and feeling rather than abstract reason    Herder [2b]


[2c] God at work in man's intellect and will (and therefore history), but no incompatibility between human freedom and God's purposes (providence)    Hamann [1d]


[CSa] Different type of explanation for human sciences; empathy