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Vico, Giambattista (1668–1744)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DB067-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 21, 2021, from

Article Summary

Vico lived in a period in which the successes of the natural sciences were frequently attributed to the Cartesian method of a priori demonstration. His own first interest, however, was in the cultivation of the humanist values of wisdom and prudence, to which this method was irrelevant. Initially, therefore, he sought a methodology for these values in the techniques of persuasion and argument used in political and legal oratory. But he soon came to believe that the Cartesian method was too limited to explain even the advances in the natural sciences and developed an alternative constructivist theory of knowledge by which to establish the degree of certainty of the different sciences. Wisdom and prudence, however, came low on this scale.

Through certain historical studies in law, he became convinced that, although there were no eternal and universal standards underlying law at all times and places, the law appropriate to any specific historical age was dependent upon an underlying developmental pattern of social consciousness and institutions common to all nations except the Jews after the Fall. His New Science (1725, 1730 and 1744) was a highly original attempt to establish this pattern, originating in a primeval mythic consciousness and concluding in a fully rational, but ultimately corrupt, consciousness. He believed that knowledge of the pattern would enable us to interpret a wide range of historical evidence to provide continuous and coherent accounts of the histories of all actual gentile nations. The primacy of consciousness in the pattern led him to claim that there must be a necessary sequence of ideas upon which institutions rested, which would provide the key to the historical interpretation of meaning in all the different gentile languages. He supported this conception by extensive comparative anthropological, linguistic and historical enquiries, resulting most famously in his interpretation of the Homeric poems. He also advanced a more developed account of his earlier theory of knowledge, in which the work of philosopher and historian were mutually necessary, to show how this conception of ‘scientific history’ was to be achieved.

Vico believed that the knowledge that wisdom and prudence vary in different historical ages in accordance with an underlying pattern could provide us with a higher insight into those of our own age and enable us to avoid a collapse into barbarism which, in an over rational age in which religious belief must decline, was more or less inevitable. Unfortunately, the metaphysical status of his pattern rendered this impossible. Much of his thought was expressed in a context of theological assumptions which conflict with important aspects of his work. This has given rise to continuous controversy over his personal and theoretical commitment to these assumptions. Despite this, however, his conceptions of the historical development of societies, of the relation between ideas and institutions, of social anthropology, comparative linguistics and of the philosophical and methodological aspects of historical enquiry in general, remain profoundly fruitful.

Citing this article:
Pompa, Leon. Vico, Giambattista (1668–1744), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DB067-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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