Vico's Failed Revolution


 Vico's Failed Revolution: 

Chance, Variability, and Design in Eighteenth Century Historiography 




Rodrigo Fernos 



 A new science emerges where new problems are  

pursued by new methods and truths are thereby 

 discovered which open up significant new points of view. 

-Max Weber



 “Does anyone read Vico?” questioned Isaiah Berlin in

an essay that tried to make the ideas of Giambattista Vico more

accessible to the public. It is indeed strange that many

whom he preceded or shared philosophical similarities—Montesquieu,

Niebuhr, and even Herder—generally dismissed Vico after they had

received copies of his work. Twentieth century authors, who try

to extend Vico’s ideas of history into other realms of interpretation

such as literary theory, also fail to refer to the original, preferring

instead to rely mainly on synthetic studies as Pompa’s Study of the New

Science. The universal point of commonality between all analysts

of Vico is the incoherent unreadability of his magnum opus, the New

Science. It is in fact far more interesting to read what is

written about Vico, than Vico’s own work. The poor organization,

the repeatedly self-referential style, and the questionable

etymological grounds of his conclusions make the work rather

problematic and help explain its poor impact. Vico himself was

aware of the book’s limitations and influence, reading in his own

lifetime the same criticisms that would posthumously be made.

Modern intellectuals read Vico for what he suggests, rather than for

what he actually claims to have proven. 


  We should not, however, feel too sorry for Juan

Batista Vico. Upon the reacquisition of Naples by the Spanish

Empire, lost as a result of the tug-of-war between Austrian and French

houses during the War of Spanish Succession, Vico was made Royal

Historian in 1735. This new position more than doubled his

official salary of 135 to 235 ducats, low for the era but still an

improvement for a family of 8 children. Vico earned additional

income from lectures at funerals and marriages, two of three

institutions he believed were universal across all

societies. More importantly Vico, in comparison to Pietro

Gianonne, was never persecuted or prosecuted for his ideas by the

Inquisition. Gianonne’s Historia civil del regno di Napoli (1723)

and his Il triregno (1731) led to that Neapolitan author’s arrest in

the same year as Vico’s promotion. In the last work, Gianonne had made

a similar argument to Vico’s, but of an even more radical nature.

While Vico had argued that pagan history had to be understood in terms

of its own socio-temporal context, Gianonne had gone even further in

applying Spinozan biblical criticism to Catholic mythology

itself. That the Bible should be conceived as a human document

situated in a particular social setting was too much for some

authorities. Gianonne was deceptively lured into Turin where he

would spend the next 13 years of his life imprisoned, dying in his cell

in 1748.


 Vico made sure he would not suffer the same fate.

Throughout his work Vico is vociferously Catholic, another point

universally observed. His constant allusions to the Catholic

faith formally and firmly state his anti-enlightenment allegiance;

“apart from God they [all things] are all darkness and error.” Vico

dedicated the work to Cardinal Nerdi Corsini, who eventually became

Pope Clement XII. Corsini sent a letter to Vico guaranteeing the

book’s Catholic sanction, which must have been of some relief to the

author. Perhaps more importantly, not only does Vico attack

Grotius and Pufendorf for denying the role of providence in their

analysis of history, but he assigns “divine providence” the central

role in his historical scheme. Vico also divides history into two

basic types: Catholic (Hebrew) and pagan (Greek/Roman), thereby

creating a historiographical philosophy that at first appears

counterintuitive and contradictory. While one set of

historiographical dynamics was applied to one history, the other was

guided by a different set. Vico’s ideas of historical causation

were meant only for the latter.


Some authors, while acknowledging Vico’s sincere devotion and religious

belief, claim that his formal recognition of Catholic authority was

solely due to the fear of persecution, as revealed by cases such as

Gianonne’s. Fear of the Inquisition’s impact lead many to publish

underground manuscripts that circulated but were never officially

released to the public. Yet it has also been noted that this

Roman Catholic institution was not particularly active during this

period, nor as severe as its Spanish counterpart; very few writers were

actually prosecuted in Naples. Guiseppe Valleta’s library, a

venue of contact to many free-thinkers of Naples, was never

confiscated. The conflict between the Holy Pontificate in Rome

and the city of Naples had severely weakened the Church, particularly

during Austrian rule of the city. The Roman Church, traditionally

exempt from taxes, had been forced to a limited use of arms upon

greater assertion of authority by Joseph I, the Austrian

monarch. The period of Vico’s most active intellectual activity,

1707-1735, was hence one of relatively poor intrusion by the

Inquisition into Neapolitan affairs. Vico’s genuine religiosity

must be taken at face value. 


 Regardless of what the social atmosphere in which

his ideas can be contextualized, there were necessary philosophical

reasons for these apparently contradictory and arbitrary

distinctions. The same philosophical problem that would affect

the acceptance of Darwinism two centuries later—the problem of

design—was a problem central to Vico’s New Science. Order

could not be conceived as a self-generative activity during this period

of Western intellectual history. An incoherent mass could not,

out of its own volition, acquire shape and form unless guided by divine

providence; shape and form had to be imposed from the outside just as a

craftsman imposed structure on a piece of wood. This belief was

held to be true for individual biological entities as for aggregate

social structures. Hebrew history naturally fit into

this prevailing paradigm. Jewish social institutions and codices, from

which Catholic institutions and codices emerged, had been

directly dictated by God in the Bible (Ten Commandments), and

thereby rendered an implicit internal order by an external force at its


The problem which Vico and many of his contemporaries, including

Gianonne, faced was accounting for the sophistication of Greek and

Roman institutions created without the divine light of

Christianity. In proposing an internal mechanism that had

originally been conceived by God (“divine providence”) into Greek and

Roman history, Vico was able to account for what was then a predominant

historical anomaly of his era. In other words, by postulating divine

providence and the consequent mechanism set in place by It at the very

beginning of the historical process, Vico was able to account for what

today we would refer to as its emergent properties. The first

humans were giant brutes who eventually became “Greeks” as a result of

cultural changes or “modifications of men’s minds”. The ability

to socially “evolve”, according to Vico, had been built into the human

legal-linguistic social system, whereupon God had given man the ability

to ‘make himself’ within pagan history. Upon resolving this

historical anomaly, Vico created a ‘new science’, if we accept Thomas

Kuhn’s definition of a scientific revolution. 


Other scholars believe that Vico’s originality lies

elsewhere. Prior to his New Science, the notion that

societies developed out of preceding epochs had not been cogently

argued or explicitly stated, despite the fact that particularities

unique to other historical periods had been widely recognized, such as

Lorenzo Valla’s observed anachronisms of Constantine’s

Donation. What seemed like a natural ‘logical step’ in

historiography took centuries to make. Vico, as Herder and Kant a

few decades later, hence broadened Western conceptions about the depth

of time; his initial obscurity entails him as the ‘Mendel’ of

history. If we accept the notion that his originality is based

mainly for his introduction of the concept and mechanism of

social evolution, then Ibn Khaldûn, whose book The Muqaddimah

(1377) similarly described the evolution of societies, could be

characterized as an even earlier precursor. Khaldûn was as

ignored by his contemporaries and future generations as Vico had been

nearly four centuries later.


 Vico’s apparent religious conservatism and textual

incoherence, however, have made him an extremely difficult figure to

categorize; historians, like many other intellectuals, like to pigeon

hole. Some, as Benedetto Croce, have proclaimed him a Hegelian,

religious conservatives have adopted him as one of their own, while

Leon Pompa, at the opposite extreme , classifies Vico in a group akin

to enlightenment thinkers. As Berlin repeatedly mentioned, it is

far easier to misread Vico than to characterize the complexities of his

ideas. By far the most sophisticated and nuanced studies of Vico

are those who do not claim him to one side, but rather those which

describe the interaction of both elements in his conceptual

construct. We may place Joseph Mali’s study in this category.

Curiously, the predominant characterization of Vico today is that as

a Romantic / anti-Enlightenment thinker, or simply as a forerunner of

historicism—a claim that was suggested but not actually made by

Berlin. In contrast to French intellectuals of the era, Vico was

deeply opposed to the idea that there was some intrinsic human nature

hiding within history; he did not believe cultures could be surveyed to

eliminate the many veils under which a universal human nature was

hidden, as Voltaire had done in his study of the customs of

nations. For Vico, humanity was an entity in eternal

formation, constantly being shaped and influenced by its own cultural

creations, to such a degree that historical periods were nearly

incommensurable to one another. Only through an intensive

application of a disciplined imagination could moderns come to

understand the primitive mentality of early humans. 


 Given these uncertainties and disparate points of

view, it might be asked, “to what extent did Vico’s ideas in fact

constitute a “new science?” There appears to be no agreement

between contemporary vichian scholars. Half of those

surveyed answered positively, while the other half negatively.

There is no current consensus on the meaning of Vico.




 That Vico sent a copy of his book to Isaac Newton is

perhaps an indication of how predominant Newton’s paradigm of his

Principia (1687) had become, as well as how greatly it had influenced

Vico. The Neapolitan author proclaimed to be establishing a new science

in the title, suggesting a clear reference to the unquestionably new

science of Newton; the persistent use of the term “principles”

throughout the work are also suggestive an intended position. We

may also note parallels between the organization of both books.

Vico, as Newton, begins the essay with a series of assumptions— “axioms

” for Newton, “elements” for Vico—which both men further explore

and apply in the rest of their respective treatises. A comparison

to the images of both works is also suggestive of the an influence

which was never explicitly acknowledged by Vico. The basic visual

elements of the front piece of the Principia’s second edition (1713)

are grossly exaggerated in the front piece of the Sciencia Nuova’s

third edition (1744): altar, cup, sunrays, winged female, light of god,

etc. Vico purportedly introduced these elements at the last

moment in 1730 to provide the reader a mental image of his

argument. Newton never answered Vico’s letter.


 Certainly, Vico was not in a position to take

advantage of the new science. Unlike his friend Paolo Mattia

Doria, who dedicated himself to the study of geometry over a number of

years so as to better understand the new philosophy, Vico never seems

to have attempted to master the natural sciences, possibly due to the

strongly scholastic character of his personal education. While

respecting the achievements of Galileo as a valuable Italian

contribution to the world of learning, Vico did not understood the

genuine meaning and significance of Galileo’s work. Perhaps of

greater significance was Vico’s inability to understand the application

of the new science to the human realm. Condorcet, D’Alembert, and

other Enlightenment thinkers quantified the study of man by

creating social statistics and economics. In spite of the

contingent nature of history and the role played by chance in daily

human affairs, they discovered a persistent continuity and hidden order

by their quantitative methods. Vico clearly would have

appreciated this science, had he understood it, given that he was so

deeply opposed to the Stoic doctrine of fate, which he contrasted to

the equally despicable doctrine of chance by the Epicureans . Men

were not entirely determined nor absolutely free. 


 Although Vico could not understand the mathematical

principles of Newton’s science, at a deeper philosophical level he made

an attempt to apply its principles to the study of society. While

disagreeing with its central epistemological position which essentially

reduced the universe only to a set of quantifiable particles in motion,

thereby eliminating all of those secondary qualities that form

the basis of history, Vico applied Newton’s basic ideas to the study of

society. The galaxy of human society was the resultant by-product

of the activity of autonomous human actors, akin to Newton’s universe

as the result of autonomous particles. Society acquired its

own unique character by the interactions of individuals upon each

other, each entirely ignorant of the ultimate result of their own

activity in much the same manner as Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” or

Hegel’s “cunning of reason.” Vico’s ‘gravitational’ laws of

society, if we may refer to them as such, emerged independently of what

each entity sought to do or intended. In seeking their own

egoistic self interest, early humans for Vico created a set of

overlapping social institutions which continually expanded the sphere

of interest beyond the individual to ever broadening realms: family,

tribe, nation, etc. These social “dynamics” explained how Rome

developed to a republic via the egoistic actions of its nobles whose

initial intention was only to keep their servants in perpetual

bondage. As in the Newtonian scheme, God the ‘watchmaker’

had built society to run its own course, a mechanism that would run

without the need for direct divine intervention once initiated.


 Yet the similarities reach even further into the

core and structure of both men’s arguments. One must stand back

far enough from the details of both arguments to see the similarity of

their general contour, as others have in their study of Marx and Darwin.


In his Principia, Newton develops the proofs of the universal law of

gravitation to then apply this form of the inverse square law to

numerous physical phenomena: tides, comets, falling bodies, the shape

of the earth, Jupiter’s perturbations on Saturn, etc. Newton’s

brilliance arises from the vast explanatory nature of his theory, which

accounted for entities which had previously stood conceptually

separated. While Newton did not inductively arrive at his theory

from the events explained in the third section of his book, it can

nonetheless be said that the study of these events produced a ‘positive

feedback loop’ which fed into the theory. Robert Hooke’s

erroneous claim to have solved the problem of the path of a falling

body, ultimately stimulated to the elaboration and development of

Newton’s own ideas. Two main traits of the structure

Newton’s Principia are thus the deductive nature of his law, and its

wide application to a number of events. 


Vico’s science similarly can also be characterized as being the result

of a “positive feedback loop” between theory and data in which a

‘universal law’ is formed and then applied to particular and apparently

contingent case studies. Although praising Baconian science, Vico

did not arrive at his eternal-ideal-history law from an inductivist

study of historical data. As Pompa notes, to have done so

would have been to have fallen into the Cartesian criticism pertaining

to the problematic nature of historical data and documents; any

generalizations drawn from these would have immediately invalidated

their claims to universality. Vico, instead, arrives a the

‘eternal-ideal-history’ law deductively, as Newton, and then applies it

to particular historical cases, such as the interaction between Roman

language, religious beliefs, and social structures. Comparing the

way history actually occurred with the manner in which it “needed” to

occur (ideal-eternal-history) provides Vico with the intellectual tools

necessary to give social coherence to pagan myths regardless of their

infinite variations. The gamut of Olympian deities, akin to the

gamut of natural phenomena, is hence accounted for by Vico.

Achilles, Hercules, Jupiter, Apollo, and other deities are not men but

rather symbols, archetypes, of a particular mentality and

culture. Vico unites universal philosophy with contingent

history, thereby providing the legitimate grounds for his claim of a

‘new science’. While maintaining its contingent nature, history

is given its universal (spatial) and eternal (temporal) character

which, according to Vico, defines a science.


 When describing his own work, Vico himself portrayed his

efforts in this manner. 

Equipped with these and other less important discoveries, of which he

[Vico] makes a great number, he [Vico] proceeds to discuss the natural

law of the peoples and shows at what certain times and in what

determinate ways the customs were born that constitute the entire

economy of the law.  


The odd and peculiar nature in which the axioms at the beginning of

the New Science are tied to the data Vico proclaims to ‘explain’

validates this point. Vico never argues that he draws the axioms

from the historical instances he claims to be explaining from them,

despite the high probability that the reverse was likely the

case. Vico had to have invented them from some body of data,

regardless of whether he acknowledges the creative process. As

his central front piece purportedly demonstrated, the light of

universal metaphysics (winged goddess) in his work (axioms of the New

Science) “shined” to illustrate the true nature of historical cases



Ironically, Vico’s most profound affinities to enlightenment thinkers

are revealed when contrasted to his strongest enlightenment “opponent”,

Rene Descartes. Certainly, their many differences cannot be

denied. Descartes postulated there were no historical truths per

se. History was characterized by too many uncertainties for its

practitioners to ever claim to for it the status of a science, in

contrast to his own trigonometric algebra or physics. If it was

difficult to know the truth that was daily experienced, (cogito ergo

sum), then the uncertainties of historical records introduced an even

greater amount of uncertainty and ambiguity. Descartes thereby

drives the position of history and the social sciences to the lowest

rungs of the academic hierarchy, a status which even today have been

difficult for them to recover. Some humanists and philosophers

today still believe this is a valid argument, and make efforts to

defend their turf. 


Although Vico’s early writings do reveal an agreement with the basic

tenets of the Cartesian system, by 1708-9 his anti-Cartesian position

had emerged in his Wisdom of the Ancients. Vico overturns

Descartes by developing a new philosophy of knowledge: the verum-factum

principle. The foundation of human knowledge was based on homo

farber, or man the maker. Geometry and other areas of mathematics

were sciences only because they were made by men. Since man could

construct all of the elements of a system in his mind, he therefore

knew how its different parts were arranged. This internal

awareness of its “mechanism” was hence the source of man’s true

knowledge of mathematics (geometry). By contrast, only God could

know the world of physical nature because He, akin to the human

geometer, had constructed all of the parts that composed nature in his

‘mind’; the physical world was merely an extension of God himself, res

extensa. While men could come to some understanding of nature via

experimentation which replicated God’s “construction” of the world,

they could not really “know” as they knew geometry because the

different parts of nature existed outside of man. Man’s knowledge

of nature could only be proximate; the Cartesian cogito for Vico was

not sapientia but rather merely self awareness (consciousness). 


In his later writings Vico further developed the verum factum principle

by applying it to society. Since societies were constructed by

men, they were hence knowable to “historians.” As human

language evolved, this led to a stimulus for the creation of new

institutions in an ascending cycle, which ultimately reached an apex

only to come crashing down as man discovered reason and began to exist

‘outside of history’. Vico, in contrast to Enlightenment

thinkers, did not believe that reason would lead to a better social

order, but would rather lead to social anarchy, the last phase of his

tripartite social cycle. Society was held together only by a very

thin and delicate line, tradition; excessive reasoned questioning of

its claims would hence undermine the foundations of social order.

He is less different to Rousseau than he is to Condorcet. 


It is important to point out that Vico did not believe that men could

know the past because he could somehow enter the conscience of

primitive men. Men are not their own creators. There is a

history which precedes individuals (parents) and which shapes their

consciousness during their childhood years, and hence true

self-knowledge was impossible as a result. Similarly, the manner

in which knowledge of the past was a possibility for Vico was not

directly by an empathic cogito of the past but rather by an analysis of

the creation of men’s minds, particularly their linguistic and legal


Another aspect of Vico’s originality stems from his attacking the

requisite of a pre-ordained order at the beginning of history to

account for the world to be as it was. Previous historians and

philosophers could only account for existing social structures on the

claim that the earliest humans had been perfect; modern institutions

had been present from the very beginnings of human history. The

perfection of early humans was so deeply held that Renaissance scholars

claimed human civilization had “decayed” to its current state.

The same bias, that a preordained order was necessary to account for

the current structure of the world, would also influence the

development of modern biology in the nineteenth century. It was

believed, for example, that a woman’s egg contained all of the future

embryos (humans) that would emerge from it, leading to the more easily

detectable logical problem of infinite regression, reductio ad

absurdum. By rather forcefully arguing that primitive societies

consisted of brutes, rather than of enlightened despots, Vico

struck at the foundations of the existing historical paradigm.

Man literally constructed himself through his figurative use of

language. The influence of Francis Bacon’s Renaissance position

is clear. Bacon argued that “modern man” had in fact moved beyond

the ne plus ultra of Greek thinkers, a fact proven by inventions such

as the compass and the printing press. 


It is perhaps even more important to point out that, upon presuming the

existence of God (divine providence) and seeking out the autonomous or

self-acting laws (“principles”) by which God had designed history via

the will of man, Vico is also following Newton’s footsteps. Vico

may have rejected a universal human nature, but he presumed the

existence of a universal set of laws “out there” that guided all

societies, independent of human volition and the contingent

aspects of human life. Newton similarly did not presume to know

the “nature” of gravity (hypotesis non fingo) despite describing the

laws which regulated its behavior across the entire universe.

These laws were not determined by the particular chemical

characteristics of moving objects, very different to the basis of

Aristotelian physics. 


Regardless of whether one accepts the argument that Vico attempted to

be the Newton of the social sciences in his New Science, one cannot

help but observe the predominant influence of other British thinkers

upon him. John Selden, John Locke, Thomas Hayne, Thomas Harriot

(United States), Francis Bacon and other British intellectual are

mentioned throughout Vico’s work. Vico read widely or was

informed of new work by his ample reading and the influential literary

review, the Giornale. Naples, at the time the third largest city

in Europe next to London, was also a thriving cosmopolitan

center. Some of Vico’s friends made it a point to travel to

London and become acquainted with its intellectual elite, as Abe

Conti. The numerous academies to which Vico belonged, akin to the

Royal Society of London in operating outside the realm of

traditional academia, is another clue to Anglo-Saxon influence.


Selden is of particular importance because many of Vico’s key concepts

seem to have been directly borrowed from his seventeenth century

essays, such as On the Law of Nature and Nations or the History of

Tithes. Selden’s point of contention, as Vico’s, was that

social institutions had to be understood within the particularities of

their historical context. For this very reason, his work was

perceived as an attack on ecclesiastical institutions by implicitly

denying their immanent and eternal nature—an attack Selden denied but

whose example helps account for the particularity of Vico’s binary

historical categories (pagan versus Jewish history) and his overbearing

Christian concern. In dividing history in two, Vico avoids

Selden’s (and Gianonne’s) dilemma in that he could still propose

radical ideas while shielding himself from Inquisitorial prosecution as

these would have no theological implications on the Church’s social

functions, legitimacy, or origins. The role of a historical

treatise, in light of the problem of institutional legitimacy of the

eighteen century, was inherently a negative one. 


One should point out, however, that the relation between the Church and

historical treaties, just as that between the Enlightenment and

Romantic movements, was not as clear-cut as one might imagine.

Amos Funkenstein observed that the principle of accommodation had

widely influenced the manner in which the Bible was interpreted in the

proceeding medieval period, and allowed for a wide degree of

interpretative space. Ibn Ezra, St. Augustine, Mamonides,

and Walahfrid Strabo had all used this principle to allow for a certain

‘bending’ of the tree of biblical truth in light of changing human

conditions, clearly setting the context to Vico’s ideas. God had

not written the Bible in a literal manner, but had rather used a

particular language so that man in his primitive condition could

understand its lessons. After all, if the complexity of God’s

message surpassed man’s capability of comprehension, this message would

have been of little impact. Biblical truths were thusly

characterized by an internal core, prevalent across all biblical

lessons, and an ambiguous zone or “penumbra” which was modifiable

according to the shifting conditions of human societies. The

diversity of Christian liturgical practices and sacrifices across the

Catholic realm were not to be understood as a sign of God’s

inconsistency, lack of credibility or legitimacy. The medieval

principle of accommodation helped pave the way for much Vico’s work,

despite the limitations of his line of inquiry outside of Catholic

(Jewish) history.




Where did Vico’s ideas come from; what sources of information does he

rely on? As previously mentioned, Vico was certainly well read;

the range of scholars and pagan literature cited in the New Science

span across the entire European landscape, influences typically studied

by erudite intellectual historians. Yet thinkers do not live by

words alone, and are perhaps more affected by the incidents of life,

which drive them to read so that they may understand these incidents in

the first place. It is hence surprising that one of the most

highly-mentioned features of his personal life, his children, have been

completely neglected in Vichian studies—surprising because they visibly

shaped his ideas of the mentality of primitive man: the poetic form of



Vico, as usual, might have done much to draw the reader away from this

line of inquiry. He constantly complained in his Autobiography

that his children were an obstacle to his work; he had to concentrate

amidst the distractions of routine chores and unexpected

visitors. The Marquis of Villarosa, who in 1818 described the

final events of Vico’s life in the same work, noted that Vico’s wife,

Teresa Caterina Destito, was of a poor disposition and did not comply

with the accepted female roles of the era, particularly that of a

motherly and homely caretaker. Vico appears to have consequently

been forced to take a more predominant role in domestic life than he

would have otherwise desired.


While Vico’s own complaints could be used to characterize him as

a man who “succeeded” despite of it all, a characterization promoted in

his own propaganda of himself as a martyr to science, these

descriptions clearly reveal the close interaction on a daily basis

between a father and his eight children. Despite explicit

claims to the contrary, it was clear that he cared for his children

very much. Towards the end of his life he sought to assure the

inheritance of his Chair in Rhetoric to his son, Gennaro. Vico

also had a long history of ‘parenting’. One of Vico’s first jobs

was as a tutor to Rocca’s children in Vatolla, the only time he moved

away from his native city. As Jean Piaget, he learned much from

the events constantly before him: his children’s maturation into

adults. Infant ontogeny recapitulated social phylogeny in Vico’s


His characterization of the rise of man from barbarity closely

resembled the growth of an infant. The language of early modern

humans was monosyllabic, “sun”, “moon”, akin to a baby’s first words,

“da-da”, “ma-ma” (repeated monosyllables). This language was

written in the visual form of hieroglyphics, as if simplistically

finger-painted by a child to describe the most basic visual cues of

physical forms. The mind of early man was shaped entirely by his

senses, in contrast to the abstraction of ‘mature’ civilizations which

gave him a certain amount of detachment from daily concerns.

Man’s early ignorance of the world forced him to understand the world

entirely in human terms, or what known as anthropomorphism. For

Vico, this was the first step in the long ladder of scientific

knowledge; children (societies) grew to men (civilized) by projecting

themselves on the natural world. Thunder and lightning, a common

worldly phenomenon, was the way in which God spoke to men, and hence

viewed as one of the “words” of the language of God. As men

progressed, language became more complex and sophisticated, acquiring a

more polysyllabic and abstract-symbolic character. As men

acquired more knowledge of nature, they began to distinguish between

themselves and the external world; the social body gradually became

differentiated from surrounding objects of nature. Vico’s

description of social development reads much like a textbook of child

developmental psychology.


In contrast to Enlightenment thinkers and many other intellectuals of

his century, Vico took also myths to represent valid information as to

the mental states of man. Enlightenment thinkers were too ‘adult’

in that they sought too quickly to arrive at ‘reality’, hence failing

to develop a sensitivity for the unique traits of historical

epochs. Vico’s position and analysis of myth, undeveloped for

centuries, constitutes one of the most original aspects of his

work. Joseph Mali, who has given the most thorough effort to the

analysis of Vico’s “rehabilitation of myth,” accounts for this trait

principally within the intellectual context rather than psychological

predispositions, as most other students of Vico. Edward Gibbon, the

great Roman historian, believed that myths to be too slippery for

rigorous analysis, and rejected this tool for social analysis. In

contrast, for Vico the indigenous Aztec myths and their consequent

sacrificial rituals, horrific as they were to Western eyes, revealed

the profound impact of myth in forming social structures and shaping

men’s behaviors and lifetime goals. Myths had to be taken as an

integral part of men’s lives, as “real”, an attitude developed by

Joseph Campbell in our era.


It is likely that only a father with as much parental experience as

Vico would be so inclined to accept the internal components of this

imaginary world and try to firmly contextualize them within its

existing reality; it is a process which closely resembles a parent’s

effort to understand the internal psychical imaginary world of their

children. While an adult may have learned to recognize the

imaginary from the real, the lack of experience inherent to a child

will make this imaginary world as real as the external world, akin to

primitive man’s understanding of lighting as Jupiter. As Vico

describes of primitive society, imagination constitutes reality; the

mental state is based entirely on sensory data, an idea curiously

similar to David Hume and John Locke. For a child, a poster of a

shark will be as real as the shark itself; the man turned werewolf in a

movie will be as real as the policeman who regulates daily traffic;

fake Monopoly money will be of greater value than a $1,000 bill. Only

by understanding the origins and distortions of this mental reality can

the adult bridge the inherent “communication” (cognitive) gap between

the two different generations; naturally, it is only the parent and not

the child who can make this jump. (It is far easier to step

“down” to a previous mental state than it is to “step up”, a process

that requires years of socialization and experience, akin to

thermodynamic energy flows.) It seems that Vico was alluding to

this process when using the term “modification of men’s minds”—an

ambiguous term Vico fails to explicitly defines. 




 Vico’s study of language and word forms, etymology,

is perhaps one of the most frustrating elements of his New Science, and

the one that is most rejected by modern scholars. We may portray

Vico as an archeologist who “dug” into the depths of time by studying

the basic structure of language; common ‘vulgar’ terms were also not to

be dismissed as evidence for patterns of previous mental states.

Certainly etymological evidence was not the only basis of his study,

partly because he had been encouraged to expand the use of available

evidence to reach viable conclusions by contemporaries who had read the

work. During this time other historians as Francesco Bianchini

were using visual imagery and material artifacts (coins) to study

Italian culture and determine if it was of Egyptian, Greek, or Etruscan

origins. While Vico’s use of the term “philology” expanded beyond

that of merely linguistic studies to include all forms of human

expression such as legal codes, etymology per se remained an integral

part of Vico’s analysis. 


Certainly, there are profound differences between the actual practice

of archeology and Vico’s etymological excavations. While true

archeological sites contain corroborative evidence, such as pollen

samples, that can be used to determine the time stamp, age, and origins

of the artifacts therein found, linguistic ‘sites’ (word structures) do

not have such corroborative remnants beside them. A second

crucial difference is that most archeological sites typically remain

buried and protected for eons, while linguistic structures are in

constant use and modification. Gibbon certainly was correct

in his claim that evidence drawn from language is hard to generalize

and inherently “slippery” (unreliable). Incidentally, Vico took

actual fossils evidence, possibly Neanderthal fossils commonly found in

Europe at the time, to justify his claims for the existence of “giant”

brutes in the early history of societies. 


 Despite these problems, Vico’s linguistic analysis

is more suggestive (and frustrating) than it might appear precisely

because linguistic evidence can be used to gather important historical

clues that lead to valuable insights into the past. Again, the

presence of variability is of crucial importance to such techniques. 


 Language, as Thomas Jefferson realized, changes very

gradually and slowly. A person in their lifetime might perceive a

few changes in the language they learned as a child, but within this

timeframe their mother tongue will remain essentially stable.

Were it otherwise, human communication between two different

generations would not be possible due to the intrinsic linguistic

differences between each. Slow-occurring etymological

modifications can hence be used as a temporal gauge to determine

the dates of events. Once linguistic rates of change are

calculated, an analysis of similarities and/or differences between

languages can be used to determine their common ancestry—in exactly the

same manner as geneticists use genetic differences between animals to

determine their relative positions in the evolutionary tree.

(History, in this sense, can borrow biological” methodologies” to

enrich its own techniques and uncover hidden truths from the

past.) Jefferson used this technique in his Notes on the State of

Virginia to determine the temporal origins of Native Americans in the

United States and refute the claims made by the Comte de Buffon as to

the inferior traits of North American natural history. Jefferson

found that the common linguistic differences were so great, and

hence Native-American tribes shared a common ancestry that was deeply

situated in historical time. “Indians” must have been present on

the continent many thousands of years ago. As Vico perceived,

variability in linguistic structures can be used to provide historical

evidence, but not in the manner Vico suggested—a methodological flaw

possibly due to Vico’s lack of an early mathematical education. 




 To what extent may one claim that Vico created a

“new science”? A key criteria of a science is whether newly

created research paradigms are adopted and developed by others, as

suggested by Weber. While Nicolas Copernicus created a scientific

research paradigm, Leonardo da Vinci did not. Vico’s New Science

was, ultimately, a failed effort . Although certainly a highly

original thinker who was conscious of new ideas in his own writings, as

had Ibn Khadlun, his inability to clearly express himself led to his

own demise—an auto-destructive tendency which cannot be explained away

by falsely alleging that the writing of his era was equally incoherent

and obscure. Many years prior to the formal publication of the

New Science, Vico had distributed a manuscript with the same core

ideas, which also had been highly criticized for its illegible

content. His near contemporaries as Voltaire or his predecessors

as Josephus wrote clearly, eloquently, and in an organized

fashion. Vico was simply his own worst enemy.


 Nonetheless, we may state that he grappled with the

most perplexing questions of his era, pertaining at once to the issues

of chance, variability, and design in human societies. Vico

rejected the presumption of design at the earliest stages of history,

and instead postulated a (Godly-ordained) evolutive mechanism in its

place whereby societies attained their present orderly structure,

perhaps the most original element of Vico’s work. In this sense he laid

the groundwork to the idea that societies “evolved”, and in the process

confronted many of the same philosophical obstacles afflicting

the emergence of a concept such as biological evolution. He never

abandoned faith in the idea that the most commonly observed human

creations, language, could provide evidence of man’s early

history. For this reason, he sits next to Lyell and Darwin in

their shared belief that common processes found in the living present

were universal historical forces; by understanding these, man could

peer into the deepest recesses of his past and explain the contours of

history. As Darwin’s finches and Lyell’s earthquakes, Vico’s

children provided his most direct and substantial source of

information of the mind of early man. Vico may have drawn

from Newton, but he paralleled a Darwin who was his junior by

over a century. 


We may rightly perceive Vico’s treatise, however, as the last effort s

by a frustrated man who had not achieved his most sought-after-goal:

obtaining a recognized juridical professorship that would allow him to

meet the economic needs of his family. It was a competition which had

been predetermined beforehand, and no amount of genius or hard work

would have affected its outcome. Despite this academic failure,

so many years of study and preparation could not be let fall by the

wayside into the empty abyss of time. Upon publication, Vico had

faith that his enterprise would someday be understood by more

enlightened men than his contemporaries. After all, he was

swimming against the tide of a genuine new science (Newtonian physics),

which still was in great need of further development and care.

While it might be pointed out that the intellectual community of Naples

knew Vico was onto something; they just didn’t know what it was. 


In a broader sense, may explain Vico’s anachronism by Vico’s own

theories in noting that he went against the “common sense” or

weltanschauung of his era. Science was yet too fragile, and

men still needed to coalesce their efforts to create what we now take

for granted—the modern world. After this process was firmly in

pace by the nineteenth century, academics would be able to turn back

and try to use Vico to account for the changes which the “mind of

society”(cunning of reason, invisible hand) had wrought on

itself. The drastic social differences of industrialized

societies, when compared to “primitive” ones, had become too great to

be ignored. Unfortunately, new techniques, which Vico could not

master due to his mathematical limitations, would by then render his

own scholastic methods and form of writing obsolete. As the

remnant skeleton lying on the floor, whose extended arm and pointing

hand showed the way out of the deep geological recesses of Earth in the

movie “Journey to the Center of the Earth “(1959 ), we may view Vico’s

work as a heroic but premature effort in dealing with the

universal themes of the human condition. It pointed a way to the

basis of genuine historical analysis but did not succeed in actually

arriving there. Social changes will always supercede human

evolution because man is ultimately a creature of culture and

invention; the rate of change in the former proceeds at a pace far

above the latter. It was to these cultural processes that Vico’s

pen pointed to in his New Science; only through these can we explain

the variable aspects of societies and human nature. 




1 Isaiah Berlin, Three Critics of the Enlightenment: Vico, Hamann, Herder,  Henry Hardyed. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2000), 112-118. 

2 Nathan Roenstreich, "Convertibility and Alienation" in Substance and Form in History: ACollection of Essays in Philosophy of History, ed., L. Pompa and W. H. Dray (Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press, 1981), pp. 77-88; John D. Schaeffer, "The Use and Misuse of GiambattistaVico: Rhetoric, Orality, and the Theories of Discourse," in The New Historicism, ed. H. Aram Vesser (London: Routledge, 1989), pp. 89-101; Leon Pompa, Vico: A Study of the ‘New Science’(Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990). 

3 Giambattista Vico, New Science: Principles of the New Science Concerning the Common Natureof Nations, 3rd Ed.transl. David Marsh (New York: Penguin Books, 2001). 

4 For examples of his self-referential style, and claims to have proven a point yet to be provenplease refer to New Science., 139, 155, 148, 150, 155, 162, 164, 182, 186, 190, 204, 219, 222, 236. His use of Josephus’s history, such a well organized history, make the unreadability hard toaccount for.  Some have argued that texts at the time did not have the coherence and ‘readability’ that they have nowdays.  While this might have been true of medieval texts which tied one factafter another, by the 18th century this had long ceased to be the case. Flavius Josephus, The Jewish War. (New York: Penguin Books, 1984.) Pompa in his work, acknowledging theseweaknesses, seems forced to make an argument for the deductive nature of Vico’s ideas, rather than their inductive character as Vico himself claimed. Pompa, Vico., chpt. 10

5 From the very beginning, when Vico distributed a manuscript of his early ideas, these were criticized as incoherent, a critique that would remain through the three editions of the work(1725,1730, 1744).  Vico seems to have engaged in a propaganda process of acknowledging and correcting its errors.  But he notes that the most significant revision of 1730 was written in greathaste, due to medical and financial problems. Vico portrays the reception of the work in a positive light in his Autobiography, showing for example that these were quickly sold out and the bookentailed a high price.  However, one cannot help but note the defensive tone of his characterizations.  The last edition was published the year of his death at the elderly age of 78.During the last years of his life, Vico appears to have suffered from senile dementia or Alzheimer’s; he had difficulty in recognizing his children and would sit all day long blankedly staring at the wall.Giambattista Vico, The Autobiography of Giambattista Vico. Transl. Max Harold Tisch and Thomas Goddard Bergin (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1944), 174-180.

6 Spanish name used by Charles Bourbon in his letters to Vico. 

7 Highest was 600 ducats. Autobiography, 204; Voltaire, The Age of Louis XIV, transl. Martyn P.Pollack, ed. Ernest Rhys (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1935), passim. 

8 Third institution was religion.

9 Harold Samuel Stone, Vico’s Cultural History: The Production and Transmission of  Ideas in Naples, 1685-1750 (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1997), chpts 10.12.13.

10 Autobiography.,  pp. 156, 197-9. 

11 New Science, Book 1, Section 1.

12 Croce goes so far as to account for Vico’s incoherent writing style on these grounds. 

13 It was, however, despite eventually sold; Vico was even hired to establish its fair market price.

14 Stone, chpts. 1, 6, 7; Volatire, pp. 215-219.

15 Stephen Toulmin and June Goodfield, The Discovery of Time (New York: Harper Touchbooks, 1965), chpts 5-6.

16 Stone, passim. 

17 Vico’s God in this sense was very much like the Isaac Newton’s deity-a clockmaker who set therules from the very beginning and let it operate on this foundation. 

18 New Science, Book 2.

19 According to Thomas Kuhn, the solution of anomalies lead to scientific breakthroughs and revolutions, and in this sense, one may qualify Vico’s study as a “science”. Thomas S. Kuhn, TheStructure of Scientific Revolutions, 2d ed., (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1970), passim. 

20 Toulmin, chpt 6.

21 Ibn Khaldûn,  The Muqaddimah.  ed., N.J. Dawood, transl. Franz Rosenhal (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989), passim; Heinrich Simon, Ibn Khaldun’s Science of HumanCulture. Transl. Fuad Baali (Lahore, Pakistan: Sh. Muhammad Ashraf, 1978). 

22 Joseph M. Levine, "Giambattista Vico and the Quarrel between the Ancients and theModerns" Journal of the History of Ideas 52,2 (Jan-March 1991): 55-80; Helen Liebel-Weckowicz, "Was Vico's Theory of History a True Social Science?" The Historian 44, 4 (1982):466-482; JosephMali, The Rehabilitation of Myth: Vico's New Science (Cambridge: Cambridge  University Press, 1992), passim.

23 this position is one which seems to have swung too much to one side.  Vico had more affinities with enlightenment thinkers than many historians care to recognize or acknowledge.   The purposeof this essay will describe such similarities in order to help bring the ideas of Vico closer to the ‘center’.  Vico was as much an ‘enlightenment’ thinker as he was a ‘romantic’ thinker—aproposition difficult to accept due to apparent contradictory nature. 

24 Berlin refers to Vico as a “counter-enlightenment” thinker, not an “anti-enlightenment” thinker,which was more appropriate to Herder and the German romantic movement. 

25 His approach is perhaps in most congruent within the tenets of Darwinism.  The epistemologicalbasis of modern historiography still firmly resides in the enlightenment presumptions. 

26 Isaac Newton, The Principia: Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy.Transl. I. Bernard Cohen and Anne Whitman (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999). 

27 Ibid., 45.

28 One should not assume, however, that Newton did not  write back because he disagreed with Vico.  It was more likely due to the fact that Vico’s letter was received a few months beforeNewton’s death.   Abbe Conti had been friends to both intellectuals, and sought to put them in touch with one another; Conti had also sent a copy of Vico’s work to Montesquieu.

29 Autobiography, passim. 

30 Stone, passim.

31 Thomas L. Hankins, Science and the Enlightenment. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), chpt. 6.

32 Mali provides a good discussion of these points, chpt 2. 

33 E. A. Burtt, The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science (Atlantic Highlands, NJ:Humanities Press, 1952), passim. 

34 Mali, chpt 1.

35 Amos Funkenstein, Theology and the Scientific Imagination: from the middle ages to the seventeenth century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), chpt 4.

36 Pompa provides a nice summary of Vico’s ideas.  Pompa, Vico., chpt 3.

37 New Science, passim.

38 it is somewhat surprising that this theme has not appear to have been thoroughly analyzed.  If one may draw parallels between the principles of Marxism and Darwinism, one may also do sobetween both new sciences, Vico’s and Newton’s. Garland E. Allen, “Evolution and History: History as Science and Science as History,” in Matthew N. Nitecki, and Doris V. Nitecki, eds. History andEvolution (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1992), 212-240. 

39 Richard Westfall,  The Life of Isaac Newton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993); I.Bernard Cohen, The Birth of a New Physics (New York: W. W. Norton Co., 1985). 

40 Leon Pompa, “Vico’s Science,” History and Theory 10: section VIII.

41 New Science, passim. 

42 New Science., Axiom 22, passim.

43 Autobiography, 171. 

44 We may here note another similarity.  British poets as Blake claimed that with Newton “all waslight”.  Vico in the front piece might be attributing to himself this Newtonian poetic metaphor. 

45 Morrison does an extraordinary job in showing their similarity. James C. Morrison, "Vico'sPrinciple of Verum is Factum and the Problem of Historicism." In Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. 34, no. 4, Oct.-Dec., 1978: 579-95.

46 This point does not seem to have been understood by Virasoro.  See Miguel Angel Virasoro, “Juan Bautista Vico y el problema del saber historico” in Vico y Herder: Ensayos conmemorativosdel segundo centenario de la muerte de Vico y del Nacimiento de Herder (Buenos Aires: Universidad de Buenos Aires, 1948),  37-90.

47 This is in spite of postulating the existence of divine providence at the beginning of pagan history. 

48 Natural historians of the 19th century argued similarly that the actual order of the world and theperfection of biological structures (such as the eye) were proofs of a divine creator, particularly God.

49 Locke is not mentioned in the New Science, but it is known that Vico’s good friend,Benevenuto Donato, dedicated himself solely to the study of Locke.  Through Donato, Vico learned many of his principal ideas. Helen Liebel-Weckowicz, "Was Vico's Theory ofHistory a True Social Science?" The Historian 44, 4 (1982):466-482. Similarly, we may note that David Hume might have influenced Vico in that he argues that all knowledge comes from thesenses.  Primitive men’s minds lacked abstract reasoning, and was instead based entirely on sensory data. Mali, passim.

50 Although French authors are also noted, they did stimulate the book’s schema. German authors are also noted. However, Vico appears to have read most of these works only either by translation,or through mention in Italian journals such as the Giornale dei Letterati. 

51 Stone., passim.

52 Each secondary source mentions  the various Neapolitan societies to which Vico belonged, approximately four in total.

53 Attacks on an opponent’s institutions, ecclesiastical or parliamentary, was based on the presumption that eternally binding social contracts were the most secure; a “history” in this senseshowed the fallibility of a given set of practices or organizations by showing their imperfect human origins. Selden claimed that he was merely interested in their “history54 Funkenstein., chpt. 4. 55 New Science., Book 2.56 Autobiography., 200-209.

57 not all children were ‘good’; one son ended up being a petty theft.  Vico was forced to call thepolice on him, and just as they arrived to the house felt pangs of remorse and warned the son.  The son was unable to escape; his time in prison appears to have reformed the spoiled youth.  Poorsons in fact are more often the result of overly attentive parenting. 

58 Thomas Keenan, An Introduction to Child Development (New York: SAGE Publications, 2002).

59 R. G. Collingwood, The Idea of History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1956), part 2. 

60 His concept of the archetype would be turned into the basis of psychological analysis by KarlJung, while Sigmund Freud would use dreams towards these same ends in the twentieth century. 

61 Joseph Campbell, The power of myth. ed.  Bill Moyers and Betty Sue Flowers. (New York :Doubleday, 1988); Joseph Campbell, The hero with a thousand faces. 2d ed., (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1968).  Vico’s last essay had very much a tone similar to that ofCampbell’s work and interviews.  Perhaps borrowing from Vico, or more likely Karl Jung who developed a theory of archetypes, Campbell believed there were underlying universal patterns or‘themes’ to all myths. 

62 It would be interesting to inquire into the family lives of most enlightenment thinkers. If we takeVoltaire as a measure, it is not likely that they were much of family men. 

63 This cognitive abyss helps explain why horror films and the violent nature of actions movies havethe greatest impact on the youngest, and why they should be socially regulated. 

64 Poor parenting often arises from the inability of parents to make this effort....; while the childmight seem to some as a ‘small adult’ the fact is that their mental worlds are radically different. 

65 While he seems to be utilizing this as “evidence” for his ideas, the logical order is actuallyreversed as previously noted (deductive rather than inductive) 

66 Stone., chpts 9, 11.

67 The corrobative evidence  is not to be confused with carbon-dating techniques, which only emerged in the twentieth century.68 Obviously those that do not, do not survive and hence cannot be used for study. 

69 New Science, 140, passim.

70 Silvio A. Bedini, Thomas Jefferson, Statesman of Science (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1990), passim.

71 Jefferson wrongly calculated, however, that Asian races originated from the Americas. 

72 R.G.A. Dolby, “The Transmission of Science,” History of Science 15 (1977), 1-43.

73 His writing style was more similar in this sense to that of the middle ages where facts were incongruously tied to one another.  On the other hand, Croce points out that Vico’s incoherencemight be an effort to avoid Inquisitorial sanction. Benedetto Croce, The Philosophy of Giambattista Vico. Transl. R. G. Collingwood, (London: Howard Latimer, 1963), 272.74 Relatedly, he sought to extend the basic principles of Newtonian science, society as the field of interaction between autonomously acting entities,  to the study of nations—despite his unshakenCatholic belief and heritage. 75 Max Harold Fisch’s Introduction in Vico’s Autobiography, passim.76 Awareness of change in one (society) encouraged the exploration of change in the other (biology). (disc time).


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