Statue of Vico in the Villa
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.