August 02, 2008

History itself, in Vico's view, is the manifestation of Providence in the world

Giovanni Battista Vico (1668-1744)
His thought is most fully expressed in his mature work, the Scienzia Nuova or The New Science.

  • In Italy, Vico's impact on aesthetic and literary criticism is evident in the writings of Francesco De Sanctis and Benedetto Croce, and
  • in jurisprudence, economics, and political theory, his influence can be traced from Antonio Genovesi (one of Vico's own pupils), Ferdinando Galiani, and Gaetano Filangieri.
  • In Germany, Vico's ideas were known to Johann-George Hamman and, via his disciple J.G. von Herder, to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi.
  • Vico's ideas were sufficiently familiar to Friedrich August Wolf to inspire his article "G.B. Vico on Homer."
  • In France, Vico's thought was likely known to Charles de Secondat, baron de Montesquieu, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and some have seen his influence in the writings of Denis Diderot, Etienne Bonnot, abbé de Condillac, and Joseph Marie, comte de Maistre.
  • In Great Britain, although Vichean themes are intimated in the philosophical writings of the Empiricists and thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment, there is no direct evidence that they knew of his writings. The earliest known disseminator of Vico's views in the English-speaking world is Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who was responsible for much of the interest in Vico in the second half of the nineteenth century.
  • Vico's ideas reached a wider audience with a German translation of The New Science by W.E. Weber which appeared in 1822, and, more significantly, through a French version by Jules Michelet in 1824, which was reissued in 1835. Michelet's translation was widely read and was responsible for a new appreciation of Vico's work in France.
  • Subsequently, Vico's views impacted the work of Wilhelm Dilthey, Karl Marx, R.G. Collingwood, and James Joyce, who used The New Science to structure Finnegans Wake.

Twentieth century scholarship has established illuminating comparisons with the tradition of Hegelian idealism, and taken up the relationship between Vico's thought and that of philosophers in the western tradition and beyond, including Plato, Aristotle, Ibn Khaldun, Thomas Hobbes, Benedict de Spinoza, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, and Friedrich Nietzsche. Comparisons and connections have also been drawn between Vichean themes and the work of various modern and contemporary thinkers, inter alia W.B. Yeats, Friedrich Froebel, Max Horkheimer, Walter Benjamin, Martin Heidegger, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Jürgen Habermas, Paul Ricoeur, Jean-Francois Lyotard, and Alisdair MacIntyre.

As a review of recent and current literature demonstrates, an appreciation of Vico's thought has spread far beyond philosophy, and his ideas have been taken up by scholars within a range of contemporary disciplines, including anthropology, cultural theory, education, hermeneutics, history, literary criticism, psychology, and sociology. Thus despite obscure beginnings, Vico is now widely regarded as a highly original thinker who anticipated central currents in later philosophy and the human sciences.

Since history itself, in Vico's view, is the manifestation of Providence in the world, the transition from one stage to the next and the steady ascendance of reason over imagination represent a gradual progress of civilization, a qualitative improvement from simpler to more complex forms of social organization. Vico characterizes this movement as a "necessity of nature" ("Idea of the Work," §34, p.21) which means that, with the passage of time, human beings and societies tend increasingly towards realizing their full potential. From rude beginnings undirected passion is transformed into virtue, the bestial state of early society is subordinated to the rule of law, and philosophy replaces sentiments of religion.

"Out of ferocity, avarice, and ambition, the three vices which run throughout the human race," Vico says, "legislation creates the military, merchant, and governing classes, and thus the strength, riches, and wisdom of commonwealths. Out of these three great vices, which could certainly destroy all mankind on the face of the earth, it makes civil happiness" (Element VII, §132, p.62). In addition, the transition from poetic to rational consciousness enables reflective individuals-the philosopher, that is, in the shape of Vico-to recover the body of universal history from the particularity of apparently random events. This is a fact attested to by the form and content of The New Science itself.

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