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Giambattista Vico (1668-1744)

         Statue of Vico in the Villa Comunale*
If you were born shortly after the death of Rene Descartes, you came of age during the great blossoming of Rationalism and the study of the natural sciences. If you were interested in philosophy, it would not be at all surprising if you had turned out to be a true child of the Enlightenment, one whom history might group into that vast body of thought encompassed by  such thinkers as Descartes, Spinoza and Voltaire. Giambattista Vico, however, did not quite fit in with the spirit of his times, and that is precisely why he is interesting. 

He was born on the street in Naples known as 'Spaccanapoli' and lived there most of his life. After his university studies and a few years of travelling around teaching, he wound up as a professor at the University of Naples, a post he held until his death. His thoughts are contained primarily in his Autobiography and in Principles of a New Science of Nations

Vico was at odds with the prevailing climate of the eighteenth century, which felt that  truth about the universe could be arrived at rationally. This idea of a 'clockwork' universe, a mechanism entirely accessible to human understanding, remained so persuasive that by the late 19th century prominent scientists were all set to dot the last 'i' of the last law of physics and declare that discipline defunct. Then along came our own century with such things as Relativity, Uncertainty Principles, Quantum Indeterminacy, and Gödel's Theorem. Kurt Gödel showed that mathematics—and, hence, logic—was not the perfect standard of precision that it had appeared to be.

Two centuries earlier, Vico, completely out of step with his contemporaries, had not been comfortable with the Aristotelian ideal of perfect deduction from first principles and had said that even mathematics did not—could not—contain the certainty that philosophers such as Descarte would have liked. The so-called "truths" of mathematics were true only because the rules governing mathematics were man-made and arbitrary. Thus, Vico was somewhat of a harbinger of revolutionary twentieth-century scientific philosophy. 

Something else that made Vico different from his fellow philosophers was the emphasis he placed on the study of history. To someone like Descartes, history was little more than a messy collection of human absurdities, hardly the stuff worthy of true scientific enquiry. To the extent that Enlightenment philosophers worried about the nature of society, it was, again, to discern the "natural laws" that governed human beings, just as, indeed, natural laws governed the movement of the planets. 

Vico, on the other hand, felt that the only way to understand what we are and are to become is to study what we have been, not by trying to mold humanity into rigid preconceptions of what is or isn't natural. Vico believed that societies pass through stages of growth and decay, recurring cycles of barbarism, heroism, and reason, from whence the cycle begins again. Each historical stage has its own kind of language: poetry, for example, being sensuous and metaphoric, is connected with the age of heroism (the epics of Homer, for example), while prose only enters during an age of reason, such as our own. The study of history gives us, thus, a certain power of prediction over our future; that was an idea that foresaw the historical determinism of later philosophers such as Hegel and Marx. 

Even the literature of the 20th century owes a debt to Vico, from as cumbersome a tome as Finnegans Wake, the last page of which runs cyclically into the first page again, all the way to the science fiction of Asimov, whose Foundation novels are based on the premise that the proper study of history and human behavior can be used to predict tens of thousands of years into the future.

*note on statue:
This monument is not only the largest of those in the villa Comunale, but it has the weirdest story behind it. The monument in marble was the idea of prince Leopold of Bourbon (1813-1860), the uncle of the last king of the Two Sicilies (alias Kingdom of Naples), Francis II. And prince Leopold did it himself! He was the only one in the royal family interested in sculpture, or at least the only one who could put his hammer and chisel where his mouth was. He was also a revolutionary who agitated for the overthrow of the Bourbons and the unification of Italy. Revisionist art historians have proposed that the statue was really the work of one of his pupils, Marcinise Onofrio Buccini (1825-96).

Also see this entry on Vico and the Homeric Question
Also see this entry on the Giambattista Vico Foundation.

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