Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

The Current State of Vico Scholarship

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

The Current State of Vico Scholarship

Article excerpt

Giambattista Vico is one of those chameleon figures in the history of ideas who is so intellectually rich that he can be constantly reinvented. It is indicative of the rich ambiguity of his thought that two of the most prominent intellectual historians working today should have come to opposite conclusions about his relationship to the master-category of eighteenth-century intellectual history: for Mark Lilla, Vico was a Counter-Enlightenment thinker; for Jonathan Israel, he was a figure in the Radical Enlightenment.1 Vico's fungibility gives reason for pause. Someone who can be folded into all manner of intellectual projects may be suspect. But Vico is more colonizing than colonized and, thus, the diversity of his receptions is evidence of creativity, and not merely malleability. The only way to deal with Vico is to dive into the multiplicity of plausible interpretations and find in them the makings of a new line of inquiry. Vico's moment of flourishing in the Anglophone world came initially in the 1960s and 1970s, but if the diversity and quality of receptions in the last five years is anything to go by then we can say that Vico remains - especially in Italian, French, and German - an intellectual historical provocateur.

This review essay surveys such literature and makes a single recurring observation: the various spécifications of Vico's place in intellectual history come into alignment as dimensions of what one might term Vico's reinvention of rhetoric. As a professor of rhetoric in a culture that possessed - for the most part - very weak oratorical institutions, Vico found himself in a particularly paradoxical situation. Recent research on Vico suggests that this paradox worked itself out in Vico's thought in a number of highly interesting ways. First, Vico constitutes an opportunity for intellectual historians of the scientific revolution by offering a simultaneously rhetorical and pragmatic gloss of the early modern logic of experiment. Second, for intellectual historians of religion, Vico constitutes a study in how early moderns could examine the rhetorical functioning of theological vocabularies without necessarily committing themselves to the independent existence of the referents of those vocabularies. Third, for intellectual historians of Enlightenment, Vico confirms that encyclopedism was not a merely French practice in the eighteenth century and that the kind of omnicompetence implicit in encyclopedic multidisciplinarity had roots in rhetorical criticism. Fourth, intellectual historians of Counter-Enlightenment cannot easily fold Vico into their narratives, in part because his legal works (which have been read as a call for cultural retrenchment in response to early modern skepticism) are in fact an account of how Greek rhetoric found its analogue in Roman jurisprudence. Fifth, for historians of the idea of language, Vico demonstrates that there were powerful alternatives in early modernity to the dominant contractualist account of the origin of language (offered by Hobbes, Locke, and others) that were rhetorical and yet did not emphasize the priority of speech over writing.

When it appeared in 1961, Nicola Badaloni's Introduzione a G. ?. Vico was the most sophisticated attempt to locate Vico in the Neapolitan philosophical tradition. In many ways, it remains the best attempt at contextualizing a thinker who is notoriously difficult to situate among his contemporaries. John Robertson's recent Case for the Enlightenment has many virtues (not least its revealing supposition that Vico ought to be read alongside Hume), but as an attempt at contextualization Robertson's work is not as rich as Badaloni's.2 In particular, Badaloni did a great deal to reconstruct the history of natural philosophical inquiry at Naples in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In Badaloni's description, Naples was a place in which a strong culture of natural philosophical investigation set the foundation for concepts such as experimentalism and pantheism. …

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