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Giambattista Vico (1668–1744)

Author of The New Science

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About the Author

Giambattista Vico was born in Naples, Italy on June 23, 1668. He attended Jesuit schools and was self-taught. He was the professor of rhetoric at the University of Naples. He was a philosopher of cultural history and law, who is considered a forerunner of cultural anthropology. His works include show more New Science, On the Study Methods of Our Time, On the Ancient Wisdom of the Italians Unearthed from the Origins of the Latin Language, and Universal Law. He died on January 23, 1744. (Bowker Author Biography) show less
Image credit: Wikimedia

Works by Giambattista Vico

The New Science (1725) 995 copies
Opere (1953) 17 copies
Vico: Selected Writings (1982) 13 copies
Opere filosofiche (1971) 5 copies
Vici Vindiciae (2004) 5 copies
Vico 4 copies
Institutiones oratoriae (1989) 2 copies
Opere minori 2 copies
Den Þnye videnskab (1998) 1 copy
2 (1990) 1 copy
Vico Opere (2 Vols) (1999) 1 copy
Vor tids studiemetode (1997) 1 copy

Associated Works

Critical Theory Since Plato (1971) — Contributor, some editions — 393 copies
The Modern Historiography Reader: Western Sources (2008) — Contributor — 36 copies


Common Knowledge



The Enlightenment was just starting to bud into existence, but an Italian scholar thought the “modern” thinking was ignoring the light of knowledge from classical antiquity and the Renaissance that he proposed had not been looked at properly. New Science by Giambattista Vico was meant to be the debut of a new scientific method that was better than the rationalism that was developing among the European intelligentsia, but what he helped developed was something completely different than his intent.

Using the mythology and histories from Greece, Rome, and other ancient civilizations Vico proposed a ‘history of philosophy narrated philosophically’ which would be a new variant of Renaissance humanism. However what Vico produced has been interpreted as ‘cycles of history’ by later philosophic thinkers or inspiring anthropologists and sociologists by using myths to figure out a culture’s historical memory and how language, knowledge, and society interact with one another. While Vico’s overall ideas were interesting and I could see how his ideas would later influence others in years and centuries to come, this wasn’t the best written book especially because the modern translator had to insert multiple corrections to Vico’s text because he had the wrong person referenced even though this was the third and last edition of his work. While I was intrigued while reading, if I had never seen this book, I would not have missed anything.

New Science is an interesting read, Giambattista Vico’s theories didn’t not have the exact impact he was hoping for, but they were influential.
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mattries37315 | 4 other reviews | May 8, 2023 |
How to rate this? Weird: sometimes charmingly, sometimes irritatingly so—but that's the nature of being an original-for-the-time thinker, I guess, without recognizing, and hence being able to free yourself from, certain assumptions.
KatrinkaV | 4 other reviews | Aug 22, 2022 |
History is the witness of time. —Giambattista Vico

I first encountered Vico in reading Isaiah Berlin on the Counter-Enlightenment, and I have a friend who named his cat Giambattista. Berlin presented Vico as a dissenter from the rationalist ideal; the cat I never did quite understand.

I have on the shelf a very fine volume of the 1948 Bergin and Fisch translation of the ‘definitive third edition’ of Vico’s The New Science from 1744. I dip into it from time to time as one might peer into a cabinet of curiosities; there are sections on everything from the universal flood, giants, divination, duels and astronomy to Homer, Roman assemblies, barbarism, money and providence.

Over the last two decades, an entire field of study has developed around Vico’s work (who knew?), and this small volume contains some excellent exegetical essays by Vico scholars, along with lost commentaries and never-translated addenda by Vico. Reading it made The New Science seem less like esoterica and more like a literary meditation on the sources of human knowledge and the origins of History.

Keys to The New Science is a book about a book, but it is also about the writer as reader and vice versa. We hear of what Vico read, and how he read it. His approach, described in his Autobiography, was to read the ancients against the moderns (“Books are not to be read in isolation, but in comparison to each other”) and his method—a first reading of the whole, a second reading concentrating on the arrangement of arguments into a pattern of thought, and a third reading focusing on the formulation of memorable language—can fruitfully be applied to the reading of The New Science.

What Vico claimed to have conceived with The New Science was a new critical art that brought together the “certainties” of the life of nations—customs, laws, languages, and ‘civil wisdom’ (the subject matter of philology)—and the universal “verities” of metaphysical and moral philosophy. The key problem for Vico was the relationship of the true and the certain, or the connection between law as rational and universally valid, and the law as positive and historical, the product of human will and authority.

As noted in Keys to the New Science, Vico first put forth his distinction of true and certain in an early work, On the One Principle and One End of Universal Law, presented here in synoptic form. Donald Verene’s treatment of Vico’s passages on the origins of poetry (by which Vico means Homeric epic verse) and the “uninterrupted progress of profane history” read like faux-formal prose poems that could have been composed by Guy Davenport or Virgilio Piñera.

Vico’s idiosyncratic interpretation of the work of Homer—provocative, contrary, and wry—takes up nearly a third of The New Science, and reminds us that there once were alternatives to the ossified conventions of the canon. High school classroom readings nearly killed Homer for me, but an early work by Vico, first published in quarto in 1722 and excerpted here, suggests a new approach to a tired classic. The arch section headings alone (including pithy put-downs of fellow scholars) make this volume worthwhile:

Homeric expressions come from crude and unstable minds.
Homer’s silly old wives’ tales were accepted as true by his barbarian audience.
The attempts made by Julius Caesar Scaliger, Francisco Sanchez, and Caspar Schoppe are more witty than true.

When it came to his own readers, Vico was combative and forceful in challenging his audience to accept the clear truth of his principles. In an unfinished 1720 draft (Ad Lectores Aequanimos) he claimed that the failure to comprehend his work would be due either to “an inability to grasp a work of this difficulty” or “an unwillingness to accept principles that are absolutely new.” It’s an old literary trick, denigrating one’s opponent so as to make them feel obliged to reckon with the material and thereby show that the author’s dismissive contempt is unwarranted.

In response to an anonymously written pamphlet attacking The New Science published in 1727, Vico composed a retort (Vici Vindiciae, presented here in translation for the first time) that is a masterpiece of rhetorical self-justification. The commentary by Donald Verene turns the episode into an intriguing literary mystery (Who wrote the anonymous review?) and a consideration of the difficulties Vico faced in putting forth the principles of a new system of science at the time when the Counter-Reformation was in full swing in Naples. Vico claimed the highest pious motives for his work, but the fact that Church authorities had their suspicions was made clear by the existence of a file on Vico in the Archives of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome (also known as The Office of the Holy Inquisition). Verene contends that the second edition of The New Science, an almost total re-write of the first, was the consequence of ecclesiastical opposition.

Vico’s rhetorical and writerly skill allowed him to defend himself against charges of blasphemy even as he slyly mocked ecclesiastical (or any other) authority. The first sentence in the long middle section of the Vici Vindiciae—entitled “Digressions on Human Ingenuity, Acute and Argute Remarks, and Laughter Arising from the Foregoing”—reads, “Philosophy, geometry, and philology, as well as any other branch of knowledge, clearly shows the great absurdity of the opinion that ingenuity conflicts with truth.” Here’s a thumb in the eye of all naysayers.

The most intriguing chapter here discusses the dipintura (allegorical engraving) commissioned by Vico for the frontespizio and the impresa of the title page of the 1744 third edition of The New Science. Verene asserts that Vico intended the reader to take his use of iconic images, reflecting Renaissance symbols and themes, as important to an understanding of the whole work. The fascinating images contain hieroglyphs, astrological signs and geometric symbols, jewels and mirrors, a statue of Homer with a fractured base, the winged cap of Hermes and the female form of “Metaphysic,” and cryptic references to the four writers Vico claims as influences (Plato, Tacitus, Bacon, and Grotius).

In the final short section of Keys to The New Science, comprised of once-lost pages on Descartes, Spinoza and Locke, Vico gives what may be the most succinct statement of his position: that truth arises from poetical wisdom, not from doubt or rational reasoning. This short statement is rich enough in implications for Isaiah Berlin to have written whole books on the subject.

Vico’s New Science throws off light. It is a kind of monument to eccentricity and mad obsession, and a landmark work in and of European intellectual history. This book helps a reader see that.
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3 vote
HectorSwell | Nov 3, 2011 |
It is unique. It is headache inducing. It is glorious and it should be far, far better known.
Kulturtrager | 4 other reviews | Aug 8, 2010 |



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