Verene’s Philosophical Companion to Vico and further thoughts on Vico studies

A major moment in Vico studies, Donald Phillip Verene (Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia USA) has recently published Vico’s “New Science”: A Philosophical Commentary (Cornell University Press, Ithaca NY, 2015). That is Giambattista Vico (1668-1774), the Enlightenment thinker in Naples who should be placed alongside the Enlightenment thinkers of Edinburgh, Paris, and Königsberg. He is primarily the author of The New Science (three editions) which most obviously resembles Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws and also anticipates Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality, Smith’s Wealth of Nations and Ferguson’s History of Civil Society. 

The most scholarly edition of The New Science in English is still the Bergin and Fisch Cornell University Press, 1948 edition. It is available online in various forms for free, as far as I can see in perfectly legitimate forms. It cannot be ought of copyright yet, but as far as I can see Cornell University Press is tolerant of online versions circulating. Apologies to Cornell University Press if this is not the case, but online versions are remarkably easy to find if the Press is still asserting its copyright in ways which preclude this.

I have not got hold of the Verene Commentary yet and I would not have time to read it properly if I did. I will purchase a copy and blog on it fully when time allows, which is unlikely to be before the early summer, but if I can reasonably get into it before then I will.

The obvious model for this this book is Samuel Fleischacker’s On Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations: A Philosophical Companion (Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ, 2005), which is an admirable, detailed and fastidious examination of another great complex Enlightenment classic.

Verene’s status as the leading Vico commentator in the English language over many years in conjunction with the use of Fleischacker on Smith as a model makes the Vico book a work of high promise. At the very least it will provide the reader with the benefits of decades of work and commentary on Vico in what looks like the culminating publication of  longer career in philosophy, with major publications on Hegel and on Vico’s influence on James Joyce, along with the more stand alone scholarship on Vico.

I hope that the Verene companion will be a stimulation to Vico studies. While books are being published which give Vico a place in the history of philosophy (see Amazon website for recent publications where there is reference to Vico), there is very little, in fact nothing as far as I can see, on Vico as a major philosopher worthy of deep study , rather than as a worthy point of reference for comprehensive discussions of wherever Vico may be felt to have made a major contribution, which is a rather broad range of areas. I am under contract myself with Palgrave Macmillan to write a book on the Philosophy of the Novel, which will include discussion of Vico.

As Verene’s own engagement with Vico and Joyce suggests, it is perhaps the literary influence of Vico that is important, not only with regard to the way he is used by literary writers, but the way he has been used by some major figures in literary criticism.

Major figures in literary criticism who have used Vico in some significant way include Erich Auerbach, Haydn White and Edward Said. Moving to those philosophers who have had a big influence in literary criticism, amongst other things, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida discuss Vico briefly but importantly. I may discuss this issue further here when time allows and maybe later in print. James Joyce makes extensive reference to Vico’s New Science in Finnegans Wake in ways which parallel Homer’s Odyssey as a structuring source for Ulysses.

Benedetto Croce (1866-1952), a major figure in Italian Idealist philosophy wrote at length on Vico. Jules Michelet (1798-1874), a major figure in French historiography and republican culture translated Vico. He was certainly know to figures in the German Enlightenment, Idealist and Romantic currents, though at this point we run into difficulties about who knew about Vico’s thought, who read it, and who used it. It looks like Vico should have been read by such people in Germany and across Europe. Rousseau and Montesqueieu both spent time in Italy and both have ideas close to those of Vico, but never mention him and perhaps only resembled him in thought coincidentally.

The history Vico’s influence is a difficult topic as I have suggested above and I have restricted myself to the clearest cases of those who acknowledge an influence while also trying to allude at what was to some a degree a broader influence it is difficult to estimate.

In any case Vico deserves to be studied more than he is with regard to his work which cuts across philosophy of history, social philosophy, political philosophy, cultural philosophy, philosophy of literature, aesthetics, natural law jurisprudence, rhetoric in its philosophical and historical aspects, history of philosophy and so on. There is a growth in the study of Enlightenment and Early Modern thought with regard to the full scope of important work beyond the most obvious classics, including particular emphases on the rhetorical-literary aspect of political thought, and the continuing legacy of natural law, along with Epicurean and Stoic ethics and theories of nature. Vico has an important place just on that account and for many more reasons.

More on this when time and circumstances allow.

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