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Giambattista Vico’s New Science

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Frontispiece of Vico’s The New Science: It offers a guide to this reading in the “Idea of the Work,” which is formulated as a commentary on the elements of the dipintura, the engraving of its frontispiece. In the opening line of the New Science Vico compares this engraving to that described in the text of the Tablet of Cebes, which was held in such high regard in Renaissance humanism.

Giambattista Vico:

On October 18,1708, the start of the school year at the Royal University of Naples, Professor Giambattista Vico, who occupied the chair of Rhetoric, gave a stunning speech to his students, eloquently criticizing Cartesian ideology. This speech would be published later as On the Study Methods of our Time.[1]  But the time of the intellectual atmosphere of Europe in the eighteenth century was so much dominated by the Cartesian logic and thinking, that Vico’s thought was not popular. This is perhaps the reason why Vico’s magnum opus La Scienza Nouva published in 1725 went unnoticed. Vico was disheartened with the reception of the book and written a letter to local priest expressing his disappointment. He also sent a copy of the book to Sir Isaac Newton. There was no evidence whether Newton read the book, or even if he had received it. Scholars suggest, even if Newton would have read it, he would have no understanding of the content. [2] Convinced it is a masterpiece- Vico made a revised second edition in 1730. The result was same. There were correspondence between Father Carlo Lodoli and Vico to publish it and Vico sent his six hundred pages of manuscript in Venice but ultimately there was some misunderstanding and the project failed. Still undaunted, Vico published the book third time in 1744, dying shortly thereafter.

The third edition of the book was published six months after Vico’s death and the full name was Principles of New Science of Giambattista Vico concerning the Common Nature of the Nations. Vico referred to this work as “Principles of humanity.”

Frontispiece: It offers a guide to this reading in the “Idea of the Work,” which is formulated as a commentary on the elements of the dipintura, the engraving of its frontispiece. In the opening line of the New Science Vico compares this engraving to that described in the text of the Tablet of Cebes, which was held in such high regard in Renaissance humanism. He notes that as the Tablet of Cebes offers a scheme of morals, the dipintura of the New Science offers a scheme of civil things. This tablet “may serve the Reader to conceive the Idea of this Work before reading it, and to bring it back most easily to memory with such aid as the imagination [ fantasia] may provide him, after having read it” (NS 1).In the “Idea of the Work” the whole of the New Science is presented in microcosm for the reader. In the last lines Vico writes,“to state the idea of the work in the briefest summary, the entire engraving represents the three worlds in the order in which the human minds of the gentiles have been raised from earth to heaven” (NS 42). To grasp this work as a whole, the reader must perceive how the worlds of the divine (the divine mind and the human mind understood as the divine element in man), the civil, and the natural intersect. Human wisdom for Vico has two parts, civil and natural. The former is that in which the ancients excel; the latter is that over which the moderns have developed mastery. This central idea or theme serves as the ultimate principle guiding the specific transitions of the work. Vico explicitly informs the reader what this principle is: “We find that the principle of these origins both of languages and letters lies in the fact that the first gentile peoples, by a demonstrated necessity of nature, were poets who spoke in poetic characters. This discovery, which is the master key of this Science, has cost us the persistent research of almost all our literary life” (NS 34). These poetic characters, he says, are imaginative genera or universals whereby the first figures of the gentile nations organized the particulars of their world. These genera are expressed in fables that tell first of gods and then of heroes. Vico writes, “the first science to be learned should be mythology or the interpretation of fables” (NS 51). The New Science depends upon the discovery of a new science of mythology that allows Vico to discover and present his new science of history of the common nature of the nations.

Vico says this New Science or metaphysic, studying common nature of nation sunder divine providence, discovers origins of human institutions among gentile nations and thereby establishes a natural law of the gentes. This natural law passes through Egyptians and they handed down three ages that world has passed through. These are:

  • Ages of gods- when gentiles believed they are living under divine providence,
  • Ages of heroes- where heroes reigned in aristocratic commonwealth believing in their superiority over plebs and
  • Ages of men- where all men regard themselves as equal in nature and establishes commonwealths as well as monarchy- both being a form of human government (NS31).

Book I: Establishment of principles

Elements :

Vico asserts that in human institutions, mental language must be common which is capable of expressing so many diverse aspects (NS161). This common mental language is the basis of Vico’s New Science and this is supposed to be foundation stone of constructing a mental vocabulary shared by all the articulate living and dead languages (NS 162).

Man lost in ignorance, makes himself the measure of all things. When men have no idea of distant and unknown things, they judge them by what is familiar.

POETIC METAPHYSICS:

For Vico, wisdom of the poets- their poetic metaphysics was the earliest wisdom of the mankind. It was unrationalized, as primitive men were not capable of abstract thoughts.

“Poetic wisdom, the first wisdom of the gentile world, must have begun with a metaphysics, not rational and abstract like that of learned men now, but felt and imagined as that of these first men must have been, who, without power of ratiocination, were all robust sense and vigorous imagination.”(NS 116)

To write good poetry, said Vico, one must feel as children. “Children have a remarkable gift of imagination. When the world was in its childhood, all nations were nations of poets, for poetry is simply imitation. Primeval man had a special kind of poetic thought and whole civilization stems from there. Poetry was the source of the civilization. (NS 215,216,217)

Vico’s thesis about poetry being first and foremost knowledge is based on the following reasonings:

  1. Poetry is a collective product,
  2. Language of Poetry is in constant flux,
  3. It is not scholars or savants, but simple people who are the true judges of poetry,
  4. Poetry uses myths to attain the truth, for general and profound truth is best expressed in myths,
  5. Poetry stems from imagination, but its basis is experience- its function is transmission of this experience,

Vico wrote,

“if the criticism of our time is inculcated in children, their poetic abilities are damaged. Their imagination is dulled and obscured, and their memory is impaired and yet the best poets are those who are guided by imagination…I would venture to affirm that by instinct they [poets] seek out the truth in same measure as philosophers. But the philosophers address himself to the learned people. The poet, on the other hand, addresses himself to the masses, and for this reason, speaks about particular examples furnished by splendid deeds and words of characters of his devising. Thus poets depart from the everyday truth in order to create a more perfect one…They speak falsehoods in order to be in a certain sense, more veracious still.”[3]

Philosopher and philologists have given us the “principles of humanity.” This principle of humanity is equivalent to the phrase “common nature of nations” as quoted in the title (J2). These principles are the principles by which creatures who are not human, are humanised.

To discover how human thinking arose, Vico said, he spent twenty years (NS 338). Vico claims his New Science as history of human ideas, on which metaphysics of human minds must tread (NS 347). The time and place for such a history must be determined by the common sense of human race.

The New Science attempts to describe “an ideal eternal history” experienced in time by each nation from its “rise, development, maturity, decline and fall (NS 349).” For Vico, the world of nations is certainly a human construction and its reflection can be seen within the human mind (NS 349). The New Science creates reality greater than the geometrical world, by its association with institutions dealing with human affairs, which are far more tangible (hence more real) than geometrical elements of points, lines, surfaces and figures (NS 349).  

If the creator also becomes the narrator, then history for its sake is certain. For God, creation and knowledge are one and same thing (NS 349).

Principles of New Science:

  1. Divine Providence:  this makes up law and divine institutions,
  2. Marriage and thereby moderation of passions:     
  3. Burial and therewith immortality of human souls:

Vico opines that since these characters are felt by the majority, it should be the basis of social life.

Book II: Poetic Wisdom

Vico while investigating the source of wisdom of ancient gentiles, finds that it began with the metaphysics, that “seeks its proofs not in the external world but within the modifications of the mind of him who meditates it. For, as we have said above, since this world of nations has certainly been made by men, it is within these modifications that its principles should have been sought. And human nature, so far as it is like that of animals, carries with it this property, that the senses are its sole way of knowing things.” (NS 374)

Hence poetic wisdom, the core of this book, have begun with metaphysics, which is not rational or abstract reasoning of our times but it was rather felt and imagines by the first men. (NS 375)

When first men created things, their ideas were their own and inherently different from God. “For God”, Vico says,“ in his purest intelligence, knows things, and by knowing them, creates them; but they [first men], in their robust ignorance, did it by virtue of a wholly corporeal imagination.” (NS 376) Because of the corporeality, the ancient men dealt it with sublimity. This sublime treatment perturbed the creators to a great extent, which turned creators as poets.[4]

Poetic Logic concerns the imaginative foundations of speech and language, rooted in the four tropes of metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche and irony (NS 404-409).

  1. Metaphor: It is most useful when it can give sense and passion to inanimate objects (NS 404). In all languages, Vico notes, metaphor has anthropomorphic associations with objects, for example, head for beginning, hands of clock, flesh of fruits, blood of grapes, bowel of earth (NS 405). This further proves Vico’s first claim, that ignorant man makes himself the measure of the universe. Faced with incomprehensibility, man makes things out of himself and becomes them by transforming himself into them (NS 405).
  2. Metonymy springs from the first poets who had to describe most particular and sensible ideas (NS 406). When we want to utter our innermost spiritual and sensible understanding, we have to take refuge of metonymy. Metonymy, according to Vico, “drew a cloak of learning over prevailing ignorance of these origins of human institutions.”
  3. Synecdoche refers to a part of the whole being. “Head” commonly used in vulgar Latin, means the whole man- its origin lies as ‘head(s)’ were the only thing that could be identified in a forest (NS 407).
  4. Irony comes in the period of reflection, fashioned on falsehood as “first men of the gentile world had the simplicity of the children, who are truthful by nature.” (NS 408)

These four tropes, as part of the poetic wisdom are modes of engaging with the world, follow each other in a historical sequence, with residues of the former remaining “figuratively” in the domain of the latter.

The decadence of human age, and the ultimate return to the bestial behaviour giving rise to the new age of the gods, is the result of an ironic distance in which one comes to recognize disparities between figurative representation and “literal” reality, in which literal reality is considered the truth.    

Book III: DISCOVERY OF THE TRUE HOMER

Tradition says Homer was blind and from his blindness, he took his name. In Ionic dialect homer means blind (NS 869). As historians conclude, Trojan War, an epoch-making event, did not take place, there was great doubt if Homer existed in real (NS 873). With some surviving poems of Homer, Vico takes the middle ground saying, “Homer was an idea or a heroic character of Grecian men insofar as they told their histories in song (NS 873).”

Homer was the reason that Greek people competed with each other for the honor of their fatherland and claimed for being citizen. Opinions are diverse as Homer, lived in the lips and memories of the people for a span of 460 years (NS876). Each of the poem (constituting the epics, Illiad and Odyssey), were called homeros, being sung by poor rhapsodes who had to make living by singing them throughout Greece. Vico opines these rhapsodes are authors of poems as much as the people (or Homer if he was a person) who composed the histories in them (NS 878).

Homer (or the idea of Homer)  being an incomparable poet, living in the age of “vigorous memory, robust imagination and sublime invention” cannot be a philosopher. (NS 896) This idea of Homer being incomparable can be traced in the frontispiece of the book as Homer receives the divine light, reflecting from the breast plate of metaphysics and hence any human made ideas cannot be come close with it.

Bibliography:

Aitken, R. James (Robert James). 1995. “Piranesi-Vico-II Campo Marzio : Foundations and the Eternal City.” M. Arch., McGill University.

Bayer, Thora Ilin, Donald Phillip Verene, and Giambattista Vico. 2009. Giambattista Vico: Keys to the New Science : Translations, Commentaries, and Essays. 1 online resource (xi, 209 pages) : illustrations. vols. Cornell Paperbacks. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. http://public.eblib.com/choice/publicfullrecord.aspx?p=3138065.

Danesi, Marcel, and Frank H. Nuessel. 1994. The Imaginative Basis of Thought and Culture: Contemporary Perspectives on Giambattista Vico. Media, Communications & Culture Studies ; v. 3. Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press.

Vico, Giambattista. 1990. On the Study Methods of Our Time. 1 online resource vols. Book Collections on Project MUSE. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7591/j.ctv3mt9fb.

Vico, Giambattista, and L. M. Palmer. 1988. On the Most Ancient Wisdom of the Italians: Unearthed from the Origins of the Latin Language : Including the Disputation with the Giornale de’ Letterati d’Italia. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Vico, Giambattista, and Leon. Pompa. 2002. The First New Science. Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought. Cambridge, U.K. ; Cambridge University Press. http://link.library.utoronto.ca/eir/EIRdetail.cfm?Resources__ID=1049994&T=F.

Vico, Giambattista, Carlo Antonio de Rosa marchese di Villarosa, Max Harold Fisch, and Thomas Goddard Bergin. 1963. The Autobiography of Giambattista Vico,. Ithaca, N.Y.: Great Seal Books.


[1] (Danesi and Nuessel 1994, 2–3)

[2] (Danesi and Nuessel 1994, 3)

[3] (Vico 1990, 60–63)

[4] Poiesis in Greek means ‘to create’. Vico masterfully brings the creation back to the poets.

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