Italian philosopher, historian and rhetorician. Born and educated in Naples, Vico graduated in law in 1694 and was Professor of Rhetoric at the University from 1699 to 1741. He was disappointed by his failure to gain the chair of Civil Law in 1723, after which he concentrated upon working out his theories of the historical development of nations, expressed in the various editions of The New Science.
His interest as an epistemologist lies in two features of his work. The first is his rejection of Cartesianism (see CARTESIANISM) in favour of a purely constructivist theory of knowledge, known as the verum-factum theory. The second is his later attempt to modify this in order to show how historical knowledge, usually thought to be less certain than physical knowledge, could become more certain.
A Cartesian for his first forty years, Vico accepted that the only things which could be known were those which were in principle deducible a priori. A growing interest in history, however, led to dissatisfaction with this theory, according to which the past was not a possible object of knowledge. In his On the Study Methods of Our Time (1709) Vico first attacked it on the ground of its inadequacy with respect to mathematics and physics: the truths of mathematics can be known not, as Descartes claimed (see DESCARTES), because they consist in clear and distinct ideas, but because they follow solely from axioms and methods which are of human construction. The projected Cartesian extension of the geometrical method to the physical world is accordingly impossible since the latter is not of human construction. In On the Most Ancient Wisdom of the Italians (1710) this insight became the basis of the verum-factum theory, that we can know only what we have made, and was used to reject all tenets of Cartesianism which depended upon the theory of clear and distinct ideas. Even cogito ergo sum (see COGITO) was dismissed on the ground that since the mind does not create itself, it cannot know the mode of its own construction.
Although the verum-factum theory undermined Descartes’ account of the main areas of knowledge, it did little to rehabilitate history, for Vico could not see how it could be applied to the realm of human conduct, given the presence there of chance and contingency. It was only when, after further historical study, he came to believe that underlying the histories of different societies lay a common developmental pattern, arising from the operation of laws of historical and social growth, that he found a subject matter in history stable enough to be an object of knowledge.
So the first crucial claim of Vico’s later theory of knowledge, expounded in The Principles of a New Science of the Nature of Nations of 1725 and the more complex Second and Third Editions of 1730 and 1744, is that the historical world has been made by men and that its principles must therefore be discovered within the modifications of the human mind. To this Vico adds the idea that the histories of different nations are to be understood as exemplifications of a single pattern, the ‘ideal eternal history’. Understanding of this pattern comes not from historical research but from philosophy, which demonstrates the necessity of its various features by reflection upon the growth of mind. Thus history becomes scientific because it is pursued in the light of philosophical theory, while philosophy relates to the real through its capacity to ground the principles of historical interpretation. The result is that historical events cease to be merely contingent, being manifestions of necessary aspects of the ideal eternal history.
The theory gives rise to two problems. The first concerns the question whether it is sufficiently constructivist to achieve the degree of certainty which Vico claims. The initial verum-factum theory is plausible, in relation to the world of mathematics at least, since the conventional nature of mathematics can be shown by the fact that its content can be altered by an alteration in its axioms and assumptions. This is not true, however, of the world of history, where Vico does not deny that the historian can alter his theories without thereby altering the activities in which historical reality consists. The real past thus remains as external to the Vichian historian as do the clear and distinct ideas, against which Vico first reacted, to the Cartesian mathematician. The second related problem arises from the necessity to treat historical reality as the exemplification of laws, in order to benefit from the combination of historical research and philosophical reflection. For even if these laws operate through human activities, they are not themselves of human making. It is difficult to see therefore how the fact that Vico’s historian makes history, in the sense of making theories about the necessary conditions of the development of mind and applying them to historical evidence, can be a reason for holding that this entitles him to a knowledge of past reality which is more certain than that which, by similar methods, could be gained in any other law-governed field.
See also HISTORICAL KNOWLEDGE.
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