The Historical Turn of Self-Reflection in Vico’s New Science

Vico’s great breakthrough, and the generative principle of his “new science,” is to reverse the science of the Enlightenment based on investigating the book of Nature, claiming to discover in mathematics its native language. Vico directs science, instead, to focus self-reflectively on the human world of culture—of history transmitted through philological tradition and investigated by anthropology and archeology—as its true and proper object. This is the world that humans can understand because they have made it. The only truth to which we have access is what we ourselves have made (verum ipsum factum)—that is, history rather than nature. Classical antiquity is not so foreign to us as our natural environment. The ancient world has been produced by human beings and is still alive within us. We ourselves have made the historical world. Therefore, we can know it through reflection on the principles of our own minds. The world of nature, however, was not made by us: as the creation of a transcendent divinity, it remains forever strange and inaccessible to us in its inner workings.

Vico’s seminal insight, his “indubitable principle” answering to and countering Descartes’s cogito, is laid out with typically baroque stylistic elaborateness in the third section (“De’ Principi”) of Book I of the Scienza nuova-.

But in such a dense and tenebrous night in which the first and from us most distant antiquity is covered there appears the eternal light, which never sets, of this truth, which cannot by any means be called into doubt: that this civic world has certainly been made by men, of which the principles can, since they must, be found within the modifications of our own human mind. It must cause anyone who thinks about it to marvel at how all philosophers seriously strove to achieve scientific knowledge of this natural world, of which God alone possesses scientific knowledge because he made it; and they neglected to meditate on this world of the nations, or rather this civic world, which because men had made it they were able to attain to scientific knowledge of it.

(Ma in tal densa notte di tenebre ond’é coverta la prima da noi lontanissima antichitá, apparisce questo lume eterno, che non tramonta, di questa veritá, la quale non si puó a patto alcuno chiamar in dubbio: che questo mondo civile egli certamente é stato fatto dagli uomini, onde se ne possono, perché se ne debbono, ritrouvare i principi dentro le modificazioni della nostra medesima mente umana. Lo che, a chiunque vi rifletta, dee recar maraviglia come tutti i filosofi seriosamente si studiarono di conseguiré la scienza di questo mondo naturale, del quale, perché Iddio egli il fece, esso solo ne ha la scienza; e trascurarono di meditare su questo mondo delle nazioni, o sia mondo civile, del quale, perché l’avevano fatto gli uomini, ne potevano conseguiré la scienza gli uomini.)1

However, Vico first articulated his verum-factum principle in De antiquissima Italorum sapientia ex linguae latinae originibus emenda libri tres (1710).[1] Its roots can be traced to the Scholastic dictate that God alone knows what he makes: solus scit qui fecitf which is echoed also in Cusanus (De docta ignorantia, Il.xii).

Applied to humans, who do not make themselves as such but only their own historical worlds, this principle relates knowing to the Unknown. This marks the crucial difference between Vico’s science and that of other modern philosophers. He stresses that his science shows how “man makes all things out of ignorance” (homo non intelligendo fit omnia). Vico’s imaginative metaphysics reverses the illusion of rational metaphysics that knowledge rather than unknowing enables and controls human creation (Scienza nuova, 405). Whereas God creates things purely by knowing them, the first humans or “poets” created human culture and civilization through “robust ignorance” (“robusta ignoranza,” 376). Even what humans do make and can know is made ignorantly: they ignore their own creative role and believe their own inventions (“fingunt simul creduntque,” Scienza nuova, 376). Only self-reflection can expose this self-deception so that such “knowing” becomes true or undeceived knowledge.

Vico pursues the scientific quest self-reflectively and turns this pursuit against modern science as we know it, which is based on the model of the physical sciences. Vico’s “new science” is not that of the modern scientific revolution. He links his science instead to the ancient wisdom

Self-Reflection and Vico’s New Science 255 of self-reflection as it has been pursued in the human sciences (scienze timane) and in wisdom traditions of human culture since antiquity. He makes knowledge a matter of self-reflection. Such self-knowledge features a knowledge of human limits (“i confini dell’umana ragione,” 360) that opens us to what we do not make and cannot as such know. We can only attempt to indicate, or perhaps “imitate,” this unknown. Vico, in effect, turns scientific knowing inside out and orients it fundamentally to the Unknowable. Of course, it is still science and therewith by definition a knowing, but it is such by remaining in contact with the Other as an Unknown that transcends it. Opening knowledge toward this unknowable otherness is the (covert) achievement of Vico’s original method in his “new science.”

  • [1] Giambattista Vico, Principi di scienza nuova, ed. Fausto Nicolini (Milan: Ricciardi, 1953), 330. Following the usual practice in Vico studies, passages are cited by their paragraph numbers or “capoversi,” referring to the Scienza nuova of 1744. 2 G. Vico, De antiquissima Italorum sapientia (1710), trans. L. M. Palmer as On the Most Ancient Wisdom of the Italians: Unearthed from the Origins of the Latin Language (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988), 45-46. 3 Rodolfo Mondolfo, Il verum-factum prima di Vico, Studi Vichiani 1 (Naples: Guida, 1969).
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