Why is Vico so ignored…?

“It was as if a great ship had been built, capable of navigating all the oceans of the world, and was left moored in the dock of the shipbuilder to be visited occasionally by a few friends of the inventor, and mentioned in their correspondence by one or two superior persons who recognized not so much its value as the cleverness that must have gone to its construction.”

This was how the work of Vico, his ‘New Science’ has been described.  Why is Vico so ignored in sociology?  Benedetto Croce attributes the absence of recognition in Vico’s own time to his “singular and perhaps unique position in the history of philosophy, an anachronism by virtue of his excess of genius.”  But what of the many years hence?  Arguably Vico was not discovered until the nineteenth century.  James Joyce based the general structure of Finnegans Wake on the New Science, Goethe acquired a copy of the New Science but lent it out, Herder read Vico, Coleridge was possibly the first English disseminator of Vico’s ideas, Marx cites and discusses Vico in Capital, Yeats was interested in Vico, Trotsky quotes Vico in the first page of his History of the Russian Revolution, John Stuart Mill, in an 1844 letter to Auguste Comte, confessed that he had not read Vico; and it was in that year that Comte read him, two years after the last volume of The Positive Philosophy was published.  There is a brief discussion of him in The Positive Polity and his name was duly entered in the Positivist Calendar.  The American George Frederick Holmes, wrote to Comte in 1852 that Vico had a greater claim than Condorcet to be his (Comte’s) precursor.

Vico’s major work is the New Science (Scienza nuova), which was translated into English by the Italianist Thomas Goddard Bergin and the philosopher Max Harold Fisch in 1948. In this work, Vico presents the principles of humanity and gives an account of the stages common to the development of all societies in their historical life. He also shows how all human thought and action is connected to imagination and memory as well as to reason.

So why is Vico ignored in most Sociology text books and why is Comte anachronistically labelled as the founding father of sociology.  Put simply it is because it is believed Comte invented the term and little more explanation is thought to be necessary: he got there first.  Yet no one know really cites Comte as an influence; arguably, sociologists are rather embarrassed by his theoretical position.

Who is that familiar with the “Plan of the Scientific Operations necessary for Reorganizing Society” which aimed to confront “our social anarchy and its sources.”  Comte as a mentor argued that the reconstruction of culture alone justified the professional existence of the proto-sociologists, and, that the main subject of ‘sociology’ was the “grand crisis now experienced by civilized nations.”

“…who among the brain children , the scientists of society, successful now and affluent, reads Comte?  Indeed, why should they?  Few sociologists remain students of the grand crisis, or its successor crises; rather they are its walking symptoms.” (Rieff, 1970: x)

Comte was not working alone: Saint-Simon collaborated on the publication of the ‘Plan’ (originally published in 1822), which claimed that politics would become a social physics and discover scientific laws of social progress.  The thing that was stopping this progress is outlined by Comte to be the unlimited ‘Liberty of Conscience’ was the anarchy Comte felt was hindering the great master plan.

“In astronomy, physics, chemistry and physiology there is no such thing as liberty of conscience; that is to say everyone would deem it absurd not to place confidence in the principles established for these sciences by competent thinkers.”

Who establishes the competence of scientists, or more accurately who then established the voracity of scientific thought?  Because there is a huge problem here.  In Leonardo’s time he was forced to hide all his really good stuff under his bed as it were.  He would have been treated like a witch if the powers at be (the scientific voracity establishers) had seen what he was up to.  And that was in the good old days (a renaissance no less) when learning was supposedly all the rage.  Can we pick substantial other examples?

Berlin was, to some extent, trying to understand the nature of the modern reaction against the Enlightenment.  Princeton University Press state that his essay on, relatively uncelebrated thinkers particularly Vico are not marginal ruminations, but rather “among Berlin’s most important studies in the history of ideas. They are integral to his central project: the critical recovery of the ideas of the Counter-Enlightenment and the explanation of its appeal and consequences —both positive and (often) tragic.”

The splitting off of the ‘human sciences’

What were Vico’s time-defying notions? Berlin summarizes seven theses:

(1) That the nature of man is not, as has long been supposed, static and unalterable or even unaltered; that it does not so much as contain even a central kernel or essence, which remains identical through change; that men’s own efforts to understand the world in which they find themselves and to adapt it to their needs, physical and spiritual, continuously transform their worlds and themselves.

(2) That those who make or create something can understand it as mere observers of it cannot.  Since men in some sense make their own history (though what this kind of making consists in, is not made entirely clear), men understand it as they do not understand the world of external nature, which, since it is not made, but only observed and interpreted, by them, is not intelligible to them as their own experience and activity can be. Only God, because he has made nature, can understand it fully, through and through.[1]

(3) That, therefore, men’s knowledge of the external world which we can observe, describe, classify, reflect upon, and of which we can record the regularities in time and space, differs in principle from their knowledge of the world that they themselves create, and which obeys rules that they have themselves imposed on their own creations. Such, for example, is knowledge of mathematics—something that men have themselves invented—of which they therefore have an ‘inside’ view; or of language, which men, and not the forces of nature, have shaped; and, therefore, of all human activities, inasmuch as it is men who are makers, actors and observers in one. History, since it is concerned with human action, which is the story of effort, struggle, purposes, motives, hopes, fears, attitudes, can therefore be known in this superior — ‘inside’ —fashion, for which our knowledge of the external world cannot possibly be the paradigm —a matter about which the Cartesians, for whom natural knowledge is the model, must therefore be in error. This is the ground of the sharp division drawn by Vico between the natural sciences and the humanities, between self-understanding on the one hand, and the observation of the external world on the other, as well as between their respective goals, methods, and kinds and degrees of knowability. This dualism has continued to be the subject of hot dispute ever since.

(4) That there is a pervasive pattern which characterizes all the activities of any given society: a common style reflected in the thought, the arts, the social institutions, the language, the ways of life and action, of an entire society. This idea is tantamount to the concept of a culture; not necessarily of one culture, but of many; with the corollary that true understanding of human history cannot be achieved without the recognition of a succession of the phases of the culture of a given society or people. This further entails that this succession is intelligible, and not merely causal, since the relationship of one phase of a culture or historical development to another is not that of mechanical cause and effect, but, being due to the purposive activity of men, designed to satisfy needs, desires, ambitions (the very realization of which generates new needs and purposes), is intelligible to those who possess a sufficient degree of self-awareness, and occurs in an order which is neither fortuitous nor mechanically determined, but flows from elements in, and forms of, life, explicable solely in terms of human goal-directed activity. This social process and its order are intelligible to other men, members of later societies, since they are engaged in a similar enterprise which arms them with the means of interpreting the lives of their predecessors at a similar or different stage of spiritual and material development. The very notion of anachronism entails the possibility of this kind of historical understanding and ordering, since it requires a capacity for discriminating between what belongs and what cannot belong to a given stage of a civilization and way of life; and this, in its turn, depends on an ability to enter imaginatively into the outook and beliefs, explicit and implicit, of such societies—an enquiry that makes no sense if applied to the non-human world. That the notion of the individual character of every society, culture, epoch is constituted by factors and elements which it may have in common with other periods and civilizations, but each particular pattern of which is distinguishable from all others; and as a corollary of this, that the concept of anachronism denotes lack of awareness of an intelligible, necessary order of succession which such civilizations obey. I doubt if anyone before Vico had a clear notion of culture or historical change in this sense.

(5) That the creations of man—laws, institutions, religions, rituals, works of an, language, song, rules of conduct and the like—are not artificial products created to please, or to exalt, or teach wisdom, nor weapons deliberately invented to manipulate or dominate men, or promote social stability or security, but are natural forms of self-expression, of communication with other human beings or with God. The myths and fables, the ceremonies and monuments of early man, according to the view prevalent in Vico’s day, were absurd fantasies of helpless primitives, or deliberate inventions designed to delude the masses and secure their obedience to cunning and unscrupulous masters. This he regarded as a fundamental fallacy. Like the anthropomorphic metaphors of early speech, myths and fables and ritual are for Vico so many natural ways of conveying a coherent view of the world as it was seen and interpreted by primitive men. From which it follows that the way to understand such men and their worlds is by trying to enter their minds, by finding out what they are at, by learning the rules and significance of their methods of expression-their myths, their songs, their dances, the form and idioms of their language, their marriage and funeral rites. To understand their history, one needs to understand what they lived by, which can be discovered only by those who have the key to what their language, art, ritual mean-a key which Vico’s New Science was intended to provide.

(6) From which it follows (in effect a new type of aesthetics) that works of art must be understood, interpreted, evaluated, not in terms of timeless principles and standards valid for all men everywhere, but by correct grasp of the purpose and therefore the peculiar use of symbols, especially of language, which belong uniquely to their own time and place, their own stage of social growth; that this alone can unravel the mysteries of cultures entirely different from one’s own and hitherto dismissed either as barbarous confusions or as being too remote and exotic to deserve serious attention. This marks the beginning of comparative cultural history, indeed, of a cluster of new historical disciplines: comparative anthropology and sociology, comparative law, linguistics, ethnology, religion, literature, the history of art, of ideas, of institutions, of civilisations-indeed, the entire field of knowledge of what came to be called the social sciences in the widest sense, conceived in historical, that is, genetic terms.

(7) That, therefore, in addition to the traditional categories of knowledge—a priori-deductive, a posteriori-empirical, that provided by sense perception and that vouchsafed by revelation—there must now be added a new variety, the reconstructive imagination. This type of knowledge is yielded by ‘entering’ into the mental life of other cultures, into a variety of outlooks and ways of life which only the activity of fantasia—imagination—makes possible. Fantasia is for Vico a way of conceiving the process of social change and growth by correlating it with, indeed, viewing it as conveyed by, the parallel change or development of the symbolism by which men seek to express it; since the symbolic structures are themselves part and parcel of the reality which they symbolize, and alter with it. This method of discovery which begins with understanding the means of expression, and seeks to reach the vision of reality which they presuppose and articulate, is a kind of transcendental deduction (in the Kantian sense) of historical truth. It is not, as hitherto, a method of arriving at an unchanging reality via its changing appearances, but at a changing reality—men’s history—through its systematically changing modes of expression.

Berlin closes by noting that every one of these notions is a major advance in thought, anyone of which by itself is sufficient to make the fortune of a philosopher.  But Vico’s work lay unheeded. If, by some fluke of circumstance, he had happened to coin the word “sociology” as a label for his enterprise, he and not Comte would today be regarded as the founding father, and the discipline would be a hundred years older than it is.

The New Science was a book Vico continued to revise until his death, and it is a book that touches on every one of what we today call the social sciences. But above all, it is a sociological theory of the rise and fall of nations. It is the story of the genesis of society and the eons-long transition to civilization, a process that begins with religion and ends with the arts and sciences. Inasmuch as the Inquisition was still unpleasantly conspicuous in Naples, Vico had to preserve the Garden of Eden, but after the Flood men were in a bestial state, scattered “through the forest of the world,” terrified by thunder and lightening, and shamed into seeking the shelter of caves for their carnal intercourse. Thus families arose, and then communities. The order of things was first forests, then hovels, then villages, then cities. Societies begin with religion, which is also a response to fear.

The story of the reception of the Scienza Nuova is a curious one. One would ordinarily expect so innovative an achievement to have had an immediate effect upon Vico’s contemporaries in France, Germany, England, and, above all, Italy. Except for a small group in Venice, nothing of the kind happened. As H. P. Adams writes:

“It was as if a great ship had been built, capable of navigating all the oceans of the world, and was left moored in the dock of the shipbuilder to be visited occasionally by a few friends of the inventor, and mentioned in their correspondence by one or two superior persons who recognized not so much its value as the cleverness that must have gone to its construction.”


Berlin, I. (1976) Vico and Herder; Two Studies in the History of Ideas, Chatto & Windus.

Bierstedt, R. (1979) Sociological Thought in the Eighteenth Century, in Bottomore T. & Nisbet R., Eds., A History of Sociological Analysis, Heineman, London 1979.

Comte, A. (1970) Plan of the Scientific Operations necessary for Reorganizing Society, originally published in 1822, reproduced in Rieff, P. (ed.) (1970) On Intellectuals: Theoretical Studies, Preface, Doubleday.

Verene, D. P., Hartle, A., & Verene, M. B. (2007) Giambattista Vico (1668-1744), The Institute for Vico Studies.


[1] This draws almost literally from Vico’s ‘New science’ (Paragraphs 331-332. Bergin and Fisch translation):  “But in the night of thick darkness enveloping the earliest antiquity, so remote from ourselves, there shines the eternal and never failing light of a truth beyond all question: that the world of civil society has certainly been made by men, and that its principles are therefore to be found within the modifications of our own human mind. Whoever reflects on this cannot but marvel that the philosophers should have bent all their energies to the study of the world of nature, which, since God made it, He alone knows; and that they should have neglected the study of the world of nations, or civil world, which, since men made it, men could come to know.

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