Academic journal article Italica

Jonathan Israel's Enlightenment: The Case of Giambattista Vico

Academic journal article Italica

Jonathan Israel's Enlightenment: The Case of Giambattista Vico

Article excerpt

Abstract: This article focuses on an interpretation of the Enlightenment proposed by the historian Jonathan Israel. It seeks to validate and replicate Israel's findings by way of a case study of Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) and his famous work the New Science (1744). Vico has generally been understood as a Counter-Enlightenment figure, but Israel's interpretation of the Enlightenment suggests that the Italian philosopher was actually a radical thinker and a member of an international intellectual movement known as the Radical Enlightenment. However, an analysis of the New Science that considers it within the context of Israel's paradigm illustrates that Vico's philosophy is not consistent with the premises that characterize the Radical Enlightenment. By critiquing Israel's methodology this study concludes that Israel's misinterpretation of Vico raises questions about his own theories concerning the Enlightenment.

Keywords: Vico, New Science, Jonathan Israel, Radical Enlightenment, Spinoza, hermeneutics. (1)


In 2001, Jonathan Israel published Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650-1750--the first of a book series in which he has presented a new analysis of an important but controversial period in early-modern intellectual history--the Enlightenment. In his work, Israel argued that the story of the Enlightenment was partly a story of conflict between two philosophical factions: the Radical Enlightenment and the Moderate Enlightenment. While the Moderate Enlightenment attempted to reconcile new ideas with traditional institutions, the Radical Enlightenment sought to dismantle traditional religious and political thinking entirely, building society anew on a foundation of secular and liberal principles. According to Israel, the Radical Enlightenment formulated numerous modern-day ideas and values that are at the core of today's democratic practices and thinking.

Israel also asserts that one of the members of the Radical Enlightenment was the Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico (1668-1744). This is a provocative claim: though historians are divided in their opinions about Vico, the consensus nowadays is that he was a member of the so-called "Counter-Enlightenment," which rejected many Enlightenment ideas. (2) What is more, Israel concludes that Vico was a Radical on the basis of a new hermeneutic that uncovers Radical subtexts in seemingly Moderate and even Counter-Enlightenment texts. These arguments challenge prevailing understandings of the Italian philosopher and should not be accepted without question. Thus, if Israel's analysis of Vico's intellectual alignment were wrong, it would cast doubt on both his new method of interpretation and on his overall conclusions.

Therefore, the goal of this research paper is to test the validity of Israel's analysis of the Enlightenment. To achieve this end, it will present a case study that will focus on Giambattista Vico and his philosophy, as presented in his greatest work, the New Science (La Scienza Nuova, 1725-1744). Through a careful reading of Vico's New Science, this research paper will reconsider Israel's conclusion that Vico was a member of the Radical Enlightenment. In the process, the evidence will show that Israel's interpretation of Vico is not convincing. While Vico might have employed some ideas characteristic of the Radical Enlightenment, his philosophy as presented in the New Science ultimately differs fundamentally from the Radical philosophy. Vico does not promote a monistic metaphysics, nor does he support determinism, both of which Israel says were fundamental to the Radical Enlightenment. Vico also upheld the importance of monarchy and religion, while the Radical Enlightenment promoted democratic republicanism and secularism. Indeed, the discrepancies between Vico's ideas and those of the Radical Enlightenment are so great that they raise questions about both the validity of Jonathan Israel's wider thesis and the effectiveness of his methodology. …

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