The New Science

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Principj di Scienza Nuova - title page of 1744 edition.

The New Science (original Italian title Scienza Nuova [ˈʃɛntsa ˈnwɔːva]) is the major work of Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico, published in 1725. It has been highly influential in the philosophy of history, sociology, anthropology, and for historicists like Isaiah Berlin and Hayden White. The central concepts were highly original, and prefigured the Age of Enlightenment.

The original full title is Principi di Scienza Nuova d'intorno alla Comune Natura delle Nazioni, which may be literally translated as "Principles/Origins of New/Renewed Science About/Surrounding the Common Nature of Nations".

Production and publication[edit]

In 1720, Vico began work on the Scienza Nuova as part of a treatise on Universal rights. 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 (Scienza Nuova, rather than Nuova Scienza, for which Galileo had been known) appeared in 1725, and a second, reworked version was published in 1730; neither was well received during Vico’s lifetime.

Vico himself worked on two revisited editions, that were published under new titles, the first in 1730 and the second posthumously in 1744. It was the first work by Vico to be written in Italian, while his previous ones were written in Latin.

Approach, style and tone[edit]

In its first section, titled "Idea of the Work" (Idea dell'Opera), the Scienza Nuova (1730 and 1744) explicitly presents itself as a "Science of reasoning" (Scienza di ragionare). Indeed, the work (cf. most notably the section "Of the Elements") includes a dialectic between axioms (authoritative maxims or degnità) and "reasonings" (ragionamenti) linking and clarifying the axioms.

Vico specifies that his "Scienza" reasons primarily about the function of religion in the human world ("Idea of the Work"), and in this respect the work "comes to be a civil theology reasoned from divine providence" (vien ad essere una teologia civile ragionata della provvidenza divina). Reconsidering divine things (viz. "the conduct of divine providence") within a human or political context, Vico unearths the "poetic theologians" (poeti teologi) of pagan antiquity, exposing the poetic character of theology independently of Christianity's sacred history and thus of Biblical authority (see e.g. Scienza Nuova [1744], "Of the Elements," CXIV). Vico's unearthing of poetic theology (anticipated already in his De Antiquissima Italorum Sapientia (1710), "On the most ancient wisdom of the Italians") confirms the philosopher's ties to the Italian Renaissance and its appeals to theologia poetica. With the early Renaissance, Vico shares the call for recovering a "pagan" or "vulgar" horizon for philosophy's providential agency, or for recognizing the providence of our human "metaphysical" minds/menti in the world of our "political" wills/animi ("Idea of the Work," par. 2). "Poetic theology" would serve as stage for an "ascent" (ibid.) to recognize the inherence or latency of rational agency in our actions, even when these are brutal (see further "Of the Method," par. 2). This way, the particular providence of the Bible's "true God" ("Of the Elements," CXIV) would not be required for the thriving of properly human life. All that would be needed was (A) false religions/Gods and (B) the covert work of the conatus (rational principle of constitution of experience rooted in its proper infinite form) examined at length in the De Antiquissima Italorum Sapientia and evoked again in par. 2 of the "Of the Method" section of the Scienza Nuova (1730 and 1744).

Cyclical history (Corsi e ricorsi?)[edit]

Vico is often seen as espousing a cyclical philosophy of history where human history is created by man, although Vico never speaks of "history without attributes" (Paolo Cristofolini, Vice Pagano e Barbaro), but of a "world of nations". Which is more, in the 1744 Scienza Nuova (esp. the "Conclusion of the Work") Vico stresses that "the world of nations" is made by men merely with respect to their sense of certainty (certamente), though not fundamentally, insofar as the world is guided by the human mind "metaphysically" independent of its makings (compare opening paragraph of the Scienza Nuova). Furthermore, although Vico is often attributed the expression "corsi e ricorsi" (cycles and counter cycles) of "history", he never speaks in the plural of "the cycle" or of "the counter-cycle" (ricorso) of "human things", suggesting that political life and order, or human creations, are oriented "backward," as it were, or called back to their constitutive "metaphysical" principle.

On present day "constructivist" readings, Vico is supposed to have promoted a vision of man and society as moving in parallel from barbarism to civilization.

As societies become more developed socially, human nature also develops, and both manifest their development in changes in language, myth, folklore, economy, etc.; in short, social change produces cultural change.[1]

Vico would therefore be using an original organic idea that culture is a system of socially produced and structured elements.[1] Hence, knowledge of any society would come from the social structure of that society, explicable, therefore, only in terms of its own language. As such, one may find a dialectical relationship between language, knowledge and social structure.[1]

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 eterna or ideal eternal history. Therefore, it can be said that all history is the history of the rise and fall of civilizations, for which Vico provides evidence (up until, and including the Graeco-Roman historians).

Ideas on rhetoric applied to history[edit]

Vico’s humanism (his returning to a pre-modern form of reasoning), 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 out of a sensus communis or common (not collective) sense. Beginning with the first form of authority intuited by the giganti or early humans and transposed in their first "mute" or "sign" language, Vico concludes that “first, or vulgar, wisdom was poetic in nature.” This observation is not an aesthetic one, but rather points to the capacity inherent in all men to imagine meaning via comparison and to reach a communal "conscience" or "prejudice" about their surroundings. The metaphors that define the poetic age gradually yield to the first civic discourse, finally leading to a time characterized by "full-fledged reason" (ragione tutta spiegata), in which reason and right are exposed to the point that they vanish into their own superficial appearance. At this point, speech returns to its primitive condition, and with it men. Hence the "recurring" (ricorso) of life to "barbarism" (barbarie). It is by way of warning his age and those stemming from it of the danger of seeking truth in clear and distinct ideas blinding us to the real depths of life, that Vico calls our attention back to a classical art of moderating the course of human things, lest the liberty enjoyed in the "Republic" be supplanted by the anarchic tyranny of the senses.

Crucial to Vico's work remains a subtle criticism of all attempts to impose universality upon particularity, as if ex nihilo. Instead, Vico attempts to always let "the true" emerge from "the certain" through innumerable stories and anecdotes drawn mostly from the history of Greece and Rome and from the Bible. Here, reason does not attempt to overcome the poetic dimension of life and speech, but to moderate its impulses so as to safeguard civil life.

While the transfer from divine to heroic to human ages is, for Vico, marked by shifts in the tropological nature of language, the inventional aspect of the poetic principle remains constant. When referring to “poets”, Vico intends to evoke 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 "the true", 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, for the rudimentary civilization of the divine age, sensory topics are employed to develop laws applicable on an individual basis. These laws expand as metonymy and synecdoche enable notions of sovereign rule in the heroic age; accordingly, acceptable topics expand to include notions of class and division. In the final, human age, the reflection that enables popular democracy requires appeals to any and all topics to achieve a common, rational law that is universally applicable. The development of civilization in Vico’s storia ideale eterna, then, is rooted in the first canon of rhetoric, as invention via loci shapes both the creation of and discourse about civil life.

Reception and later influence[edit]

Vico’s major work was poorly received during his own life but has since inspired a cadre of famous thinkers and artists, including Karl Marx and Montesquieu.[2] Later his work was received more favourably as in the case of Lord Monboddo to whom he was compared in a modern treatise.[3]

Isaiah Berlin has devoted attention to Vico as a critic of the Enlightenment and a significant humanist and culture theorist.[4][5]

Scienza Nuova was included by Martin Seymour-Smith in his book The 100 Most Influential Books Ever Written.

The historical cycle provides the structure for James Joyce's book, Finnegans Wake. The intertextual relationship between Scienza Nuova and Finnegans Wake was brought to light by Samuel Beckett in his essay "Dante... Bruno. Vico.. Joyce” published in Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress (1929), where Beckett argued that Vico's conception of language also had significant influence in Joyce's work. Vico's notion of the lingua mentale commune (mental dictionary) in relation to universale fantastico reverberates in Joyce's novel, which ends in the middle of a sentence, reasserting Vico's principle of cyclical history.[6]

Language, knowledge and society are in a dialectical relationship, which means that any study or comparison of societies must consider the specific contexts of the societies. This has clearly influenced anthropology and sociology.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Hamilton, Peter (1974). Knowledge and Social Structure. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. p. 5. ISBN 0710077467.
  2. ^ Reiner Grundmann, 1991. Marxism and Ecology. Oxford University Press
  3. ^ Hobbs, Catherine, Rhetoric on the Margin of Modernity, Vico, Condillac, Monboddo, Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale, Illinois (1992)
  4. ^ Berlin, Isaiah, Vico and Herder: Two Studies in the History of Ideas, Chatto and Windus, 1976. Redwood Burn Ltd.. ISBN 0-7011-2512-8.
  5. ^ Berlin, Isaiah, Three Critics of the Enlightenment: Vico, Hamann, Herder, Pimlico, 2000. ISBN 0-7126-6492-0.
  6. ^ Verene, Donald Phillip. Vico and Joyce. Albany: State University of New York, 1987. Print.

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