Giambattista Vico

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Giambattista Vico or Giovanni Battista Vico (1668 – 1744) was an Italian philosopher, historian, and jurist. Vico presented his philosophical methodology and theory of knowledge in sharp contrast to those of Descartes. While Descartes attempted to establish a new ground of philosophy based on the presuppositions that geometry is the model of knowledge, and that the primary criterion of truth is certainty, and this “certain” truth can be gained by the exercise of reason, Vico presented the effectiveness of “probable” truth, adaptation of “prudence,” and values of rhetoric particularly for human and social sciences. From Vico’s perspective, Descartes’ view of knowledge and adherence to geometry was one-sided, and limited the sphere of knowledge. In contrast to Descartes’ quest for simplicity and clarity in knowledge, Vico pursued a philosophical methodology to disclose richness and diversity in knowledge. His Scienza Nuova was the culmination of his efforts to create a comprehensive philosophy through a historical analysis of civil society.

Vico’s works were poorly recognized during his life, but were re-discovered in nineteenth century by thinkers and artists, including Benedetto Croce, Jules Michelet, James Joyce, Joseph Alois Schumpeter, Karl Marx, Wilhelm Dilthey, and others.

Life and works


Born to a bookseller and the daughter of a carriage maker, Vico attended a series of grammar schools, but poor health and his conviction to be his own teacher led to home schooling.

After a bout of typhus in 1686, Vico accepted a tutoring position in Vitolla, south of Salerno, that would last for nine years. In 1699, he married a childhood friend, Teresa Destito, and took a chair in rhetoric at the University of Naples. Throughout his career, Vico would aspire to, but never attain, the more respectable chair of jurisprudence. In 1734, however, he was appointed royal historiographer by Charles III of Spain, king of Naples, and was afforded a salary far surpassing that of his professorship. Vico retained the chair of rhetoric until ill-health forced him to retire in 1741. He died three years later in Naples, in 1744.

Vico’s major work was poorly received during his own life but has since inspired a cadre of famous thinkers and artists in the nineteenth century, including Benedetto Croce, Jules Michelet (he greatly contributed for the popularity of Vico by translating and introducing Vico’s works), James Joyce, Joseph Alois Schumpeter, Karl Marx, Wilhelm Dilthey, Bertrand Russell, Northrop Frye, Edward Said, and Robert Anton Wilson. Later his work was received more favorably, as in the case of Lord Monboddo, to whom he was compared in a modern treatise.[1]

Vichian rhetoric and humanism

Vico’s version of rhetoric is the result of both his humanist and pedagogic concerns. In De Studiorum Ratione, presented at the commencement ceremonies of 1708, Vico argued that whoever “intends a career in public life, whether in the courts, the senate, or the pulpit” should be taught to “master the art of topics and defend both sides of a controversy, be it on nature, man, or politics, in a freer and brighter style of expression, so he can learn to draw on those arguments which are most probable and have the greatest degree of verisimilitude.” As Royal Professor of Latin Eloquence, it was Vico’s task to prepare students for higher studies in law and jurisprudence. His lessons thus dealt with the formal aspects of the rhetorical canon, including arrangement and delivery. Yet as the above oration also makes clear, Vico chose to emphasize the Aristotelian connection of rhetoric with dialectic or logic. In his lectures and throughout the body of his work, Vico's rhetoric begins from argumentation. Probability and circumstance are thus central, and invention – the appeal to topics or loci – supersedes axioms derived through pure reasoning.

Vico’s recovery of ancient wisdom, his emphasis on the importance of civic life, and his professional obligations compelled him to address the privileging of reason in what he called the “geometrical method” of Descartes and the Port-Royal logicians.

Response to the Cartesian Method

As he relates in his autobiography, Vico returned to Naples from Vatolla to find “the physics of Descartes at the height of its renown among the established men of letters.” Developments in both metaphysics and the natural sciences abounded as the result of Cartesianism. Widely disseminated by the Port Royal Logic of Antoine Arnauld and Pierre Nicole, Descartes’ method was rooted in verification: the only path to truth, and thus knowledge, was through axioms derived from observation. Descartes’ insistence that the “sure and indubitable” should form the basis of reasoning had an obvious impact on the prevailing views of logic and discourse. Studies in rhetoric – indeed all studies concerned with civic discourse and the realm of probable truths – met with increasing disdain.

Vico’s humanism and professional concerns prompted an obvious response that he would develop throughout the course of his writings: the realms of verifiable truth and human concern share only a slight overlap, yet reasoning is required in equal measure in both spheres. One of the clearest and earliest forms of this argument is available in the De Italorum Sapientia, where Vico argues that “to introduce geometrical method into practical life is "like trying to go mad with the rules of reason," attempting to proceed by a straight line among the tortuosities of life, as though human affairs were not ruled by capriciousness, temerity, opportunity, and chance. Similarly, to arrange a political speech according to the precepts of geometrical method is equivalent to stripping it of any acute remarks and to uttering nothing but pedestrian lines of argument.” Vico’s position here and in later works is not that the Cartesian method is irrelevant, but that its application cannot be extended to the civic sphere. Instead of confining reason to a string of verifiable axioms, Vico suggests (along with the ancients) that appeals to phronêsis or practical wisdom must also be made, as do appeals to the various components of persuasion that comprise rhetoric. Vico would reproduce this argument consistently throughout his works, and would use it as a central tenet of the Scienza Nuova.

Scienza Nuova

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

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.

While the transfer from divine to heroic to human ages is, for Vico, marked by shifts in the tropological nature of language, Vico invokes the inventional aspect of the poetic principle in 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 in his Scienza Nuova, Vico sought to formulate a comprehensive philosophy according to his historical analysis of civic discourse. He set a significant precedence for the historical analysis of civil societies, and each society's relation to the respective ideas of their time.


Verum ipsum factum

Vico is best known for his “verum factum” principle, which is expressed as phrases such as verum ipsum factum (truth lies in achievement) or “verum factum convertum” (truth and achievement are convertible), first formulated in 1710, as part of his De Italorum Sapientia. This is Vico’s epistemological concept that makers or creators can know what they make. Vico primarily meant that if God created the world, God is the only one who knows the truth of the world because He created it. Similarly, human beings are not the makers of the world, hence, human beings cannot fully know the truth of the world and have to necessarily rely on God’s revelation and partial truth that He reveals to us. His concept of knowledge also meant that knowing is a process of construction or constitution and that the maker alone has the fullest knowledge about that which he or she created.

Criticism of Descartes

Vico presented this epistemological principle as a criticism of Descartes. Descartes sought the absolute certainty of truth, and set clarity and distinctness as the criteria for truth. Thus, Descartes found geometry to be the model of knowledge, and developed a rationalist theory of knowledge. However, Vico asserted that since human beings are not the makers of the world, we should seek “probable knowledge" rather than to pursue absolute certainty in knowledge. Furthermore, Vico asserted that geometry is not the model of knowledge, and that we should adopt the models of prudence that we find in human history. While Descartes presupposed that mathematical and geometrical knowledge are a priori truths (true prior to experience), and conceived analytical reasoning as the primary method of philosophical inquiry, Vico argued that mathematical knowledge is nothing but an artificial human construct and is only a partial perspective with which to see the world. Furthermore, Vico asserted that analytical reasoning is valid only within a limited sphere of knowledge, and that Descartes' perspective failed to see the diversity and richness of the world and reduced them into a narrow, artificially constructed, and partial realm of knowledge. Vico replaced Descartes’ analytical reasoning and geometrical method with rhetorical reasoning and a “new methodology” that he tried to establish by incorporating the knowledge of history, including the studies of myths and legends. Criticizing Descartes’ quest for the absolutely certain and “clear and distinct knowledge,” Vico set a limit of what the mind can know by saying that: “The criterion and rule of the true is to have made it. Accordingly, our clear and distinct idea of the mind cannot be a criterion of the mind itself, still less of other truths. For while the mind perceives itself, it does not make itself.” This criterion for truth would later shape the history of civilization in Vico’s opus, the Scienza Nuova, since civil life—like mathematics—is wholly constructed.

Philosophy of history

Relying on a complex etymology, Vico argues in the Scienza Nuova that civilization develops in a recurring cycle (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 eternal or ideal eternal history.

Vico held the following theses for the study of history:

  1. Two distinct periods of history can have identical or similar general characteristics; therefore, we can discuss them using an analogy
  2. History tends to repeat itself
  3. This process is not circular repetition, but more like a spiral movement which involves development

Furthermore, Vico cited the following prejudices and fallacies that historians tended to fall victim to:

  1. Idealization and exaggeration of the past
  2. Biased views based upon nationalistic pride
  3. The projection of the historian’s idiosyncrasy to historical figures
  4. The assumption that, when historians find two similar ideas or institutions, one must have learned from the other
  5. Speculation that ancients must have better knowledge regarding their ages than us

For studies of history, Vico valued linguistics, philology, mythology, legends, fables, and oral tradition. He also valued creativity in the arts and literature as well as logical analyses by reason.


This is a partial list.

  • Giambattista Vico, Max Fisch, and Thomas Bergin, trans. The Autobiography of Giambattista Vico Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1973.
  • --------. The New Science of Giambattista Vico. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984.
  • --------. Pompa, Leon, trans. Vico: The First New Science. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002.
  • --------. Anthony Grafton, David Marsh trans. New Science. Penguin Classics, 2000
  • --------. Palmer, L.M., trans. De Antiquissima Italorum Sapientia ex Linguae Originibus Eruenda Librir Tres (On the Most Ancient Wisdom of the Italians Unearthed from the Origins of the Latin Language). 1710. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1988.
  • --------. Elio Gianturco trans. On the Study Methods of Our Time、Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1970.
  • --------. Giorgio A. Pinton transl. On Humanistic Education: Six Inaugural Orations, 1699-1707: from the Definitive Latin Text, Introduction, and Notes of Gian Galeazzo Visconti  Ithaca: Cornell University Press、1993.


  1. Catherine Hobbs, Rhetoric on the Margin of Modernity, Vico, Condillac, Monboddo (Carbondale Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 1992).

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Bedani, Gino. Vico Revisited: Orthodoxy, Naturalism and Science in the Scienza Nuova. Oxford: Berg Publishers, 1989.
  • Berlin, Isaiah. Vico and Herder: Two Studies in the History of Ideas. London: Hogarth, 1976.
  • Colilli, Paul. Vico and the Archives of Hermetic Reason. Welland, Ont.: Editions Soleil, 2004.
  • Croce, Benedetto. The Philosophy of Giambattista Vico. Trans. R.G. Collingwood. London: Howard Latimer, 1913.
  • Danesi, Marcel. Vico, Metaphor, and the Origin of Language. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1993
  • Grassi, Ernesto. Vico and Humanism: Essays on Vico, Heidegger, and Rhetoric. New York: Peter Lang, 1990.
  • Joyce, James. Finnegans Wake. Viking, 1939.
  • Levine, Joseph. Giambattista Vico and the Quarrel between the Ancients and the Moderns. Journal of the History of Ideas 52.1 (1991): 55-79.
  • Mazzotta, Giuseppe. The New Map of the World: The Poetic Philosophy of Giambattista Vico. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999.
  • Miner, Robert. Vico, Genealogist of Modernity. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2002.
  • Nicolini, Fausto, ed. Opera di G.B. Vico. Bari: Laterza, 1911-41.
  • Pinton, Girogio and Arthur W. Shippee, trans. Institutiones Oratoriae (The Art of Rhetoric). 1711-1741. Amsterdam: Editions Rodopi B.V., 1984.
  • Schaeffer, John. Sensus Communis: Vico, Rhetoric, and the Limits of Relativism. Durham: Duke UP, 1990.
  • Verene, Donald. Vico's Science of Imagination. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1981.

External links

All links retrieved May 21, 2024.

General philosophy sources


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