The New Map of the World: The Poetic Philosophy of Giambattista Vico

The New Map of the World: The Poetic Philosophy of Giambattista Vico

by Giuseppe Mazzotta

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For today's readers, the great Italian philosopher of history Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) can be startlingly relevant to the social and educational divisiveness we confront at century's end: here Giuseppe Mazzotta, one of the leading Italianists in the United States, shows how much Vico, properly read, can bring to an understanding of contemporary social problems.


For today's readers, the great Italian philosopher of history Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) can be startlingly relevant to the social and educational divisiveness we confront at century's end: here Giuseppe Mazzotta, one of the leading Italianists in the United States, shows how much Vico, properly read, can bring to an understanding of contemporary social problems. To explore Vico's body of thought in all its monumental complexity, Mazzotta highlights the place of poetry, or "writerliness," in Vico's educational project, which links literature, history, religion, philosophy, and politics. The New Map of the World is the first book since Benedetto Croce's The Philosophy of G. B. Vico (1911) to interpret the immense range of Vico's creativity.

Beginning with Vico's autobiography, Mazzotta explains that Vico's heroic attempt to unite the arts and sciences was meant to offer a desperately needed political unity to modern society. In contrast to past thematic studies of Vico that focus on a single one of his ideas, The New Map of the World explores the vital interaction of the issues that fascinated him: his educational and political project, his sense of the necessity for a new way of conceiving authority, and his belief in the power of poetry. Mazzotta ends by examining Vico's awareness of the tragic limits of politics itself.

Editorial Reviews

Mazzotta (Italian language and literature, Yale U.) examines the works of the 17th-18th century Italian writer, arguing for the relevance of his ideas and approach to contemporary thinkers. He discusses Vico's unique and influential combination of a poetic sensibility with philosophical thought and historical, religious, and political knowledge; and he investigates all of Vico's writings, contextualizing him among his predecessors, contemporaries, and inheritors, and elucidating the way that various disciplines intertwine throughout his work and thought. Vico's belief in the power of poetry and his skepticism toward authority become strikingly relevant in the face of the contemporary devaluing of the humanities in American education. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
From the Publisher
"Mazzotta has presented us with a fascinating portrait of a complex philosopher. . . . Mazzotta's sure understanding of the texts at issue, coupled with a forceful prose style, makes this book required reading for anyone trying to understand Vico's encyclopedic thought."—James B. South, International Philosophical Quarterly

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Princeton University Press
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Princeton Legacy Library Series
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The New Map of the World

The Poetic Philosophy of Giambattista Vico

By Giuseppe Mazzotta


Copyright © 1999 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-00180-7



We are all familiar with the external circumstances that led Vico to write his Autobiography, whose title actually is Vita scritta da sè medesimo. An adequate account of its origin is available in the Autobiography itself: Count Gian Artico di Porcia had launched a "Proposal to the Scholars of Italy" (Progetto ai letterati d'Italia per scrivere le loro vite) in which he urged them to write their own autobiographies (or in the term Carlo Lodoli coined, "periautographies"). The overt impulse behind Porcia's editorial initiative was unequivocally educational. The aim of each autobiography, as he envisioned it, was to make intelligible a scholar's scientific practice and achievement and find a way, as Vico says, "da indirizzarvi con più sicurezza la gioventù nel corso degli studi, sulla vita letteraria di uomini celebri in erudizione e dottrina" (to promote a new method in the studies of the young, which would make their progress more certain and more efficacious) (p. 68). Had it been realized as a series, the project would have provided a map of the intellectual landscape of contemporary Italy by retrieving the more significant scholarly voices—indeed the spiritual energy --of the times.

Vico's Autobiography was the only one to be published in the series Porcia had conceived. He had just published his Universal Law, which had won him some recognition, but out of real or simulated modesty, he hesitated for a time in accepting the invitation to contribute the story of his life. Once he agreed to do it, however, he carried out his commitment with constancy. Not that by doggedly keeping his end of the bargain did he really think that the enterprise ever would (or could) be merely an unproblematic exercise in self-confession. Nor, even worse, did he think it an attempt at naive, deluded self-representation. Quite the contrary.

He saw it through, first of all, because he grasped that Porcia's invitation amounted to a much coveted, and for him long overdue, public recognition of his leading role within the turbulent and often melodramatic theater of Italian letters in Naples in the early part of the eighteenth century. Now he had a choice public forum—the savants of all of Italy (especially Venice) and Europe, which is where he believed his true interlocutors were to be found. To them he could explain himself as well as the presumed obscurities of his thought, that made his work seem intractable and altogether impenetrable to many readers. No doubt, in reaction to what he took to be a "vile impostura" (Vita, p. 73)—a base and false account—of the New Science, that appeared in 1727 in the Acta Eruditorum Lipsiensia, the bulk of the final section of the Autobiography becomes a fairly detailed commentary on the architectonics and substance of the New Science.

Vico understood that Porcia's invitation gave him a unique, historical opportunity to look at the self and at the question of the subject, its presuppositions and possibilities, in the light of the broader framework of ideas and principles he had been forging. He also understood that writing the story of his life for a wider national audience was necessarily going to be the story of how he came to be an author. Thus, he quickly grasped the opportunity to confront larger challenges, such as the structure of the self, the question of the self's (and his own) authority, and the problem that both encompasses and grounds them all, namely the relationship between philosophy and literary representation. The Autobiography addresses all these self-implicating issues in a detailed and deliberate manner.

Vico had already written biographical pieces, such as the oration for the death of Donn'Angela Cimmino, which is a eulogy on the woman's life and character. He had written the Life of Marshal Carafa, which is the celebration of a heroic character in modern times as well as a meditation on war. And he had written one powerful lyrical poem, "Gli affetti di un disperato," in which the lyrical "I" (which is not necessarily an empirical "I") descends to the innermost realm of the mind's anguishes. The Autobiography makes no reference to it, as if its dark core were a temporary aberrant posture. Composed in the mode of Dantesque and Petrarchan canzoni and shaped by Lucretian and Epicurean doctrines, the song draws a picture of the self with no essential bonds to anything around it: this self is tragically adrift, forever led to acts whose consequences remain opaque and unintended.

Vico never really completely bracketed the questions of biography, character, and subjectivity. He knew with great clarity that what is missing in the New Science is a precise, sustained discourse on subjectivity—how the self enters, shapes, and is itself shaped by the fabric of history. It is no wonder, then, that one should view his writing the Autobiography, which is carried out while he is revising the New Science, as a vehicle enabling him to reflect on the problematics of the self (its origin, the relation between contingent experiences and transcendent knowledge, the issue of whether or not the self can attain the vantage point from which it knows itself and knows the world, etc.) which the New Philosophy had long been disseminating.

The claims of the New Philosophy are crystallized in Descartes's conviction that a certain and indubitable basis of knowledge lies in the self-certainty of the knowing subject. Vico's specific, polemical reactions to this idea of the self will be documented as we go along. For now suffice it to say that for Vico the self is not an a priori given, no more than the cogito has an unalterable fixity: there is a history of the self and there is a history of the mind in that both steadily experience alterations and shifts. Consistently, he will write the Autobiography as a novel of a time-bound education of his mind, as an inventory or history of the sundry stages of his intellectual growth toward the virtue of self-knowledge. Vico's intellectual itinerary will providentially lead to the production of the New Science, so that the New Science makes him, gives him authority, at least as much as he makes the New Science. Or, to say it differendy, the Autobiography gives the genetic history and commentary of the New Science: by writing this book, Vico puts his signature as an author in the book of history.

This understanding of self as a succession of historical stages is, at least in part, both reflected and generated by the circumstances under which the text was composed. It was written and revised over a period of eight years: it was started in 1723; a subsequent section was added in 1728, and a final one in 1731. The desultory, temporally disconnected modality of the text's composition—one necessarily writes about oneself as one lives—sheds light on one of Vico's major insights into the structure of the self. The issue can be for now described in historical terms. In opposition to Montaigne's skeptical "Que sais-je?" the Cartesian model of subjective individualism, set forth in the Discours de la méthode, defines the self in terms of its timeless, innermost mental realm. Vico, who sees linked together both the Cartesian and the skeptical notions of self, dramatizes the historical consciousness of self as ceaselessly time-bound, shifty, and always in the process of being formed and reformed. And if in the Cartesian universe the self reaches a global understanding of itself by turning into a spectator and by disengaging himself from any active involvement in the world, Vico's first move is to show that the self is not given an essential or autonomous individuality, but it is radically constituted by his work. These issues are overtly staged from the very start of the Autobiography:

Il signor Giambattista Vico egli è nato in Napoli 1'anno 1670 da onesti parenti, i quali lasciarono assai buona fama di sè. Il padre fa di umore allegro, la madre di tempra assai malinconica; e così entrambi concorsero alia naturalezza di questo lor figliuolo. Imperciocchè, fanciullo, egli fu spiritosissimo e impaziente di riposo; ma in età di sette anni, essendo col capo in giù piombato da alto fuori d'una scala nel piano, onde rimase ben cinque ore senza moto e privo di senso, e fiaccatagli la parte destra del cranio senza rompersi la cotenna, quindi dalla frattura cagionatogli uno sformato tumore, per gli cui mold e profondi tagli il fanciullo si dissanguò; talchè il cerusico, osservato rotto il cranio e considerando il lungo sfinimento, ne fe tal presagio: che egli o ne morrebbe o avrebbe soprawivuto stolido. Però il giudizio in niuna delle due parti, la Dio mercè si avverò; ma dal guarito malore provenne che indi in poi è crescesse di una natura malinconica ed acre, qual dee essere degli uomini ingegnosi e profondi, che per l'ingegno balenino in acutezze, per la riflessione non si dilettino dell'arguzie e del falso." (p. 5)

(Giambattista Vico was born in Naples in the year 1670 of upright parents who left a good name after them. His father was of a cheerful disposition, his mother of a quite melancholy temper; both contributed to the character of their child. He was a boy of high spirits and impatient of rest; but at the age of seven he fell head first from the top of a ladder to the floor below, and remained a good five hours without motion or consciousness. The right side of the cranium was fractured, but the skin was not broken. The fracture gave rise to a large tumor, and the child suffered much loss of blood from the many deep lancings. The surgeon, indeed, observing the broken cranium and considering the long period of unconsciousness, predicted that he would either die of it or grow up an idiot. However by God's grace neither part of his prediction came true, but as a result of this mischance he grew up with a melancholy and irritable temperament such as belongs to men of ingenuity and depth, who, thanks to the one, are quick as lightning in perception, and thanks to the other, take no pleasure in verbal cleverness or falsehood.) (p. 111)

The main thrust of the exordium is to give both the chronography and topography of the self, the history of the self's origin in a world one has neither chosen nor can determine. In the opening sentence ("II signor Giambattista Vico egli è nato in Napoli l'anno 1670 da onesti parenti....") the apposition "signor," strategically placed at the beginning to suggest that even grammatically it sustains the organization of the sentence, would denote that Giambattista Vico is the subject of experience, as if he had lordship over the events of his life. But the presuppositions of the self as the subject of experience, as a self-grounding basis of occurrences and decisions, are dismantled both by the grammatical structure of the first sentence and by the conceptual movement of the paragraph. Never before or since in autobiographical narratives has the term "signor" appeared to be the hollow, institutional formula that in effect it is. This self has neither lordship nor power over his own world and, for that matter, over his own purposes. After giving his own name, Vico writes of himself in the third person singular. The technique is not unusual. A member of the Arcadia Academy, Chiabrera, had deployed it in his Vita di Gabriello Chiabrera scritta da lui medesimo. No doubt, Chiabrera's rhetorical model certainly had its impact on Laufilo Terio, which is the Arcadian mask of Vico himself. This procedure had been employed also by Hobbes in his short Latin autobiography. But for Vico the narrative technique turns into a basis for a rigorous epistemological argument: in his handling of it, the point of the third-person narrative is that I am forever another, that I am not now the person I once was, that I am what I have become or shall become, that I am always ahead of myself, for my past lived experience is foreign to my present reflective consciousness, and I am the object of my own thoughts.

The non-coincidence of the self to oneself is the result of one's time-bound life, and the temporal self-distance is crystallized by the fact that Vico now writes from the point of view of the author of the New Science. The narrative strategy he deploys deserves a close look. As the author (in a narrative that steadily seeks to determine how he himself comes to acquire authority), he looks back at the spiritual-intellectual foundations of his widening education and relates how his philosophical text comes into being. From this standpoint, the New Science is the real subject matter of the text: it is, at the same time, a symbolic event which, in retrospect, gives coherence, direction, and intelligibility to the apparent randomness of Vico's intellectual quest. It is for him the epochal achievement that justifies his casting himself as an author as well as a heroic, innovative individual whose work, however misunderstood, determines the inevitable paths of our knowledge. It is, furthermore, the perspective which allows him to present the strands of his fundamental thoughts and to show how his thoughts evolve into the discovery of a "new science."

Vico's narrative strategy of a doubling of self (the one who writes as author and the one who was a child) is bound to recall the parameters set by the archetype of all subsequent autobiographical novels, St. Augustine's Confessions. The reference is not arbitrary, for St. Augustine is Vico's patron saint, as he pointedly notes at the conclusion of the 1731 continuation of his Autobiography. St. Augustine writes the Confessions in the necessary mode of retrospection: the author, who writes in the first-person singular, looks back at his past with detachment as if he now were a different person from the one he once was. The assumption behind this narrative posture is that an authentic autobiography is a confession: it is a way of making sense of one's life, and, as such, it can be written only when one knows the end of his life. The knowledge of the end, which coincides with one's own death, defines and imparts a significance to the blurred contours of the chaotic events of daily living.

Vico's Autobiography marks a radical departure from the Augustinian autobiographical model in one crucial sense: he alters St. Augustine's structure of narrative retrospection. Unlike eighteenth-century memoirs and autobiographies (Spinelli, Giannone, Muratori, the Vite degli Arcadi illustri, etc.) or unlike Dante's autobiographical Vita nuova, which is stylized as a book of memory, Vico's Autobiography is told proleptically without a hint that the author already knows the end. And much like the Vita nuova and Petrarch's Epistle to Posterity, which end with an open-ended trajectory of the poet's visions of the future, Vico's Autobiography starts from the time of the protagonist's birth, relates his growth and ordeals, and it extends to an open-ended present. No doubt, from the start there is the intimation of a providential design to Vico's life; yet, as this work-in-progress unfolds, the narrator does not quite know the shape his life will take. Thus, the prolepsis, which is a technique whereby the memory of the past turns into a narrative of the future, is a trenchant critique of death and of retrospection. Life may only be understood backwards by an act of memory, but it must be lived forwards in a radical redirection of time to the future (as Dante's Purgatorio has it). The critique of death and of the cult of death is, more precisely, the dismantling of any possible belief that death is either the "conclusive" or the irreducible revelatory event in a person's life. That event is one's work.

The fiction of telling about one's past as if it were the future dramatizes Vico's essential point that life is a future-oriented project and that memory is a recollection-forward of the scattered fragments of one's existence. This idea of a historical time, within which one's life is represented as an open-ended adventure, is the standpoint from which Vico is sharply polemical against autobiographies written as documentary or naturalistic accounts of past events. A first clear sign of such a polemic is visible in the opening paragraph of the Autobiography, which seeks to place the subject within a network of firm facts or in what could be called the natural history of the self. It recalls the legal name of his natural family, Vico, and it goes on to state the place, the time, the parents' hereditary or humoral disposition, and the family circumstances of Giambattista's birth. From the start, then, the self appears placed within a social context to which he belongs and which shapes and defines his "naturalezza" (nature).

This pattern of self-location within the legality and history of one's family with the aim of grasping one's nature seeks to evoke—and quickly discard—the materialistic belief that the future destiny of the self is contained within a deterministic context of natural causes. (Cardano's De Vita Propria Liber, which is the story of a physician/natural philosopher, could be seen as belonging to this mode.) From this standpoint, the reference to Vico's own predominant humor, melancholy, is a discrete reference to Ficino's De Triplici Vita, in which melancholy, the humor that descends from Saturn, is the material mark of intellectuals and philosophers given to contemplation and destined to excel. Yet, this naturalistic pattern is disrupted by a number of textual details. The story of the seven-year-old child who has fallen down from the staircase, lost consciousness for five hours, and is expected by the attending physician to die or grow up "stolido" (not fully alert) stages Vico's polemic with naturalistic and generally Cartesian representations of self.


Excerpted from The New Map of the World by Giuseppe Mazzotta. Copyright © 1999 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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