Vico, Giambattista

Assigned: Vico, Giambattista. from The New Science (340-57). Also read the editors’ introduction (337-40).

From The New Science (1725/1744)

1. On 340-42 (“Thus, by studying the common nature…”), Giambattista Vico sets forth his “three ages” of world history and ties them to three corresponding kinds of language. What are the three ages and kinds of language, and what is the correspondence between them? What “unfortunate error” (341), according to Vico, kept earlier historians and philologists from arriving at a correct understanding of how “languages and letters” got their start?

2. On 342-43 (“In seeking the basic principle…”), in searching for “the basic principle of the common origins of languages and letters” (342), Vico says, we find that the people of “pagan antiquity” were poets and that they “spoke by means of poetic symbols.” What “two sources” does Vico identify as the origin of all such “poetic expression” (342)? More generally, what does he suggest about the difference between modern ways of speaking and imagining and the ways of the first pagan peoples who followed after the divine age? How does Vico describe the purpose of the polyglot lexicon that he created when he wrote the first version of New Science? (342-43)

3. On 343-44 (“We have reviewed the vain opinions…”), Vico says that the first science to study is mythology, “the interpretation of myths” (342). Why should myth be studied first, and why will it yield a better understanding of the origin of the sciences? He also writes, “The civil world is certainly the creation of humankind” (343), meaning that civil society, or civilization itself, was created by human beings. How does this statement inform Vico’s explanation of the “new science” (la nuova scienza) that he promotes? What is to be studied by those who practice this new science? What should not be its focus, and why? Why was there so much resistance to any notion of studying “the world of nations” rather than “the world of nature” (343)?

4. On 344-45 (“In its first principal aspect…”), how does Vico sketch the proper way to proceed with historical research? What does he apparently mean by his term “a rational civil theology of divine providence” (344), and what is meant by “the ideal eternal history through which the history of every nation passes in time…” (344)? Essentially, Vico is suggesting that material history should be closely studied, but what kind of knowledge will ultimately be gained thereby? What advice does he offer the individual student of the history that he will trace? (345)

5. On 345-46 (“In the axioms, we established…”), Vico writes that with regard to “poetic wisdom” among early peoples, we must find its source mainly in “the conceit of scholars” (345). How did such scholars, from Greece and Hellenistic Egypt, manage to turn their people’s mythology into theological and philosophical discourse? What five reasons does Vico identify for this action on their part? Which is the most important, and why? How does this movement from what Vico calls “popular wisdom” towards “esoteric wisdom” (345 bottom) follow the basic Aristotelian principle that our knowledge is grounded in sensory perception (346)?

6. On 346-47 (“Before discussing poetic wisdom…”), how does Vico define his key term “wisdom”? How did the ancient Greeks think of wisdom and its source? In what way was their original notion of “the Muse” broadened to encompass, among other things, “natural theology,” or “metaphysics” (346-47)? How did the Israelites and Christians, respectively, conceive of wisdom and its source? Vico also says that proponents of the New Science must “distinguish three kinds of theology” (347). What are those three kinds of theology, and what common purpose connects them?

7. On 347-49 (“Our discussion of poetic wisdom starts…”), what three propositions lead Vico to “trace the beginnings of poetic wisdom to a crude metaphysics” (347)? What does he promise that his New Science will offer in terms of historical insight? How, that is, will he enlighten us about “the history of human nature” (348)? According to Vico, who were the ancestors of the people who lived during “pagan antiquity” (348)—what happened to the Biblical races of Ham, Japheth, and Shem as they spread out geographically over time, culminating in a post-Flood race of giants being “scattered throughout the earth” (349)?

8. On 349-51 (“In reasoning about the wisdom of…”), how does Vico trace the history of “the wisdom of the ancient pagans”; namely, “poetic wisdom” (349)? Why, according to him, should philosophers and philologists, in their quest to learn the origin of this wisdom, have begun with metaphysics in relation to the “giants” he has already described? How did highly imaginative poetry spring from such untutored, primitive people? In Vico’s accounting, what “three tasks” does “great poetry” (350) need to fulfill? What caused these early people, these “giants,” to imagine that the god Jupiter, or Zeus, was trying to communicate with them?

9. On 351-53 (“The giants now began to exercise…”), why, according to Vico, can’t modern people truly appreciate the state of imagination and the intensity of the language of the most ancient people? How did the myth of Jupiter, or Zeus, become so strong and pervasive among the ancients? (351) In what sense was this powerful god given life as “a divine archetype or imaginative universal” (352)? What error did authors make who looked into poetry’s origins, from Plato and Aristotle to some of the most illustrious Renaissance humanist scholars? 

10. On 353-55 (“Metaphysics contemplates things in…”), how does Vico, now discussing poetry as “a poetic logic” (354) rather than in terms of metaphysics, explain the nuances of the polyvalent Greek term logos in a manner that tries to explain the origins of speech itself? Does Vico actually believe in the idea that the original or ur-language related intimately to things themselves? If that wasn’t how it came into being, how did the “first speech” (354) originate, and what was it like?

11. On 355-57 (“All the primary figures of speech…”), Vico discusses the nature and significance of the four main tropes—metaphor, synecdoche, metonymy, and irony. How does he explain these figures, and why are they important to the practitioner of the new science? With regard to metaphor, why is it accurate to say that a metaphor relating to the animation of inanimate things is “a miniature myth” (355)? How does this kind of linguistic operation, by Vico’s implication in Axiom 1 (356), amount to a demonstration of the power of ignorance in human affairs? Finally, what is the surprising outcome, according to Vico, of his research into the origin of the four “tropes”—what error did the “grammarians” (357) fall into with regard to the proper relationship between prose and poetry, or verse?

12. On 357 (“We have seen that poetic wisdom…”), Vico states that “the theological poets were the sense of human wisdom, as the philosophers were its intellect.” How do you interpret this remark? What is Vico suggesting about the course of human history and knowledge, and how does his emphasis differ from the supposedly standard Enlightenment view, which centers on the rationality of humankind? In what sense might we say that Vico, instead of trying to leave behind the primitive imaginings and emotions that supposedly gave birth to civilized life, embraces those imaginings and emotions as a primary means of explaining how modern societies came into being?

13. General question: In Giambattista Vico’s New Science, there is much that is, by modern standards, obviously fanciful and erroneous. In spite of that fact, why has Vico’s lengthy study of human nature and history proved to be of such great interest to so many philosophers and artists, as our Norton editors point out in their introduction to Vico? What is compelling or at least inspiring about his methodology, his originality, and his goals that makes serious philosophers and others turn to his work for insight? Discuss.

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Copyright © 2021 Alfred J. Drake