Historicalism or Traditionalism Based on Universal Culture

Giovanni Battista Vico

Giovanni Battista Vico (1668-1744) (picture) was born in Naples. Self-educated, a lecturer and professor at the University of Naples, he was also historian for Charles III of Bourbon. Vico rose in sharp opposition against Illuminism and Cartesian Rationalism, and advocated in their stead a new science (“scienza nuova”), history. Vico expounded the principles of history for the first time in a work entitled Principi di una scienza vuova d’intorno alla natural delle nazioni (Principles of a New Science concerning the Nature of Nations).

The fundamental principle of Vico’s “scienza nuova” is: The criterion of knowledge of a thing is its being effected. “Verum upsum factum — verum factum convertuntur.” Thus only the knowledge of things which are being done is certain. Now, since what man has done or is in the process of doing is history, man can have true knowledge only of history. By proclaiming history as fundamental knowledge, Vico opposes:

Illuminism: Illuminism denied that history has any value at all. Vico says that history is the only object of which man can have certain knowledge.

The physics of Galileo and Newton: Galileo and Newton held that only the knowledge of nature is true science. Vico holds that physics is the science of phenomena, not of the essence of nature, which is known only by God, its Author.

Cartesian Rationalism: Vico particularly opposed the rationalism of Descartes. Descartes begins with “Cogito ergo sum,” and constructs the knowable through mathematical deduction. Vico observes that the “cogito ergo sum” indeed manifests the fact of actual thought as the present state of our being, but does not give us the understanding or science of our being. As for mathematical deduction, it is true that it gives us absolute certitude. However, this certitude is not based on the experience of reality but on abstract concepts formed by our intellect under the guidance of our will. Only history gives us true science or knowledge. Like mathematics it reveals the fabric of man’s actions; and unlike mathematics, it is concerned, not with an abstract and fictitious sphere, but with the field of concrete reality.

History, considered in its entire process or current, takes the place of metaphysical being, the object of philosophy. According to Vico, history, under the surface of facts succeeding one another apparently arbitrarily, manifests the presence of providence, which directs these apparently contradictory and unrelated facts to the end intended by God; namely, the progressive development of humanity. The laws regulating the course of human events can be grasped only by the intellect. Starting from the knowledge of contingent facts (philology), the intellect discerns the connection of these facts with eternal principles. Thus Vico establishes the bond between philology (the knowledge of facts) and philosophy (the explanation of these facts in reference to the laws of providence).

Vico summarizes these laws in two theories: (1) the theory of the three stages; (2) the theory of repetition in history (history repeats itself). According to the first theory, every period of history comprises three different stages. In the theoretical or speculative order these stages are sense, fantasy, and reason. In the moral order they are the age of the gods, the age of heroes, and the age of men. This triad indicates the birth, growth and decay of a historical period. When such a period is completed, a new cycle of three stages will follow, but with this difference, that the succeeding cycle is on a higher plane than the former. This is Vico’s second theory of the repetition of history.

Vico was a Catholic, and of course admits belief in God, creation, revelation, and providence in the traditional Catholic sense. However, if, according to his principle, only that which is made by man is knowable, then God, who is not the product of human activity, would be unknowable. This explains why the Scienza nuova was not received by the cultural world for a long time. Later Idealism (as in Croce) accepted it, however, because in it there is set a precedent for explaining concrete reality idealistically, that is, through an immanent dialectic dynamic principle, without having recourse to any transcendent Being.

As Padovani writes:

Where Vico made an original contribution and won consideration as a philosopher is in his discovery of the moment of fantasy proper to man and early humanity. The moment of fantasy is a spontaneous synthesis of sense and reason speaking through the sensible. From this arises language, poetry, and myth. This moment of fantasy is not entirely false, nor is it a ‘post factum’ or reflex clothing for metaphysical speculation; but it is a moment when reason manifests itself immediately and spontaneously through sense perception.

As a concrete illustration of this interpretation of primitive civilization, Vico makes particular mention of the Homeric poems. Denying the historical personality of the Blind Poet, Vico considers these poems as representing the initial mythical, poetic and fanciful moment of Grecian civilization.

Quote from U.A. Padovani, Story of Philosophy, II, 163.


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