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Giambattista Vico

(1668—1744) Italian philosopher

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Italian philosopher of history. Vico was born in Naples, and educated by the Jesuits. From 1699 he held the chair of rhetoric at the university of Naples. Vico's principal work was the Scienza Nova (1725, recast in new editions in 1730 and 1744, trs. as The New Science of Giambattista Vico, 1949). This work was largely unread in the 18th century, until it was picked up by the theorists of German Romanticism, who responded to many of its original themes. Vico distanced himself from the prevailing Cartesianism of his time in two important ways. First, he denied that Descartes had correctly located the sources of certainty and knowledge. These are not found via ‘clear and distinct ideas’ but in our own activities and actions: one of Vico's mottos was verum factum (‘the true and the made are identical’). Thus mathematics, for example, admits of certainty only because it is a human construction. Secondly, Vico believed that Cartesians overplayed the role of physical and mathematical science, and neglected the possibility of social and historical knowledge. Vico showed an entirely original appreciation of the delicacy with which a historian must confront this task of understanding past modes of thought. This understanding must take as its data all the languages, myths, and traditions that are handed down, interpreted not in terms of a fixed idea of a universal human nature, but by an imaginative capacity for re-entering the modes of consciousness that they represent. Vico is thus a father-figure for many subsequent writers in the Verstehen tradition, such as Dilthey and Collingwood.

A further prescient doctrine of Vico's was that human history goes through connected and coherent stages, resulting in a pattern of corsi e ricorsi, growth and decay. At a given moment the life of a society will manifest a typical unity of which all its social aspects, including its literature, language, law, art, politics, and philosophy, are expressions, but such periods successively pass through the various stages, until the cycle starts again. As we look back on such an evolution we can see that institutions served quite other functions than those for which they were ostensibly designed. This view subsequently formed the foundation of the work of Hegel and Marx, although Vico, himself a Catholic, saw in the whole cycle the guiding operations of providence.

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