COLERIDGE AND VICO

Introduced by William Booth on 21 April 1998

‘Giambatista Vico (1668-1774). Arguably the most significant Italian philosopher, he was Professor of Rhetoric at the university of his native Naples.’ (Oxford Companion to Philosophy). His Autobiography and his " Scienza Nuova" influenced thinkers as different as Coleridge, Arnold, Yates, Joyce and Collingwood, and left an indelible mark in the writing of philosophy of history. Coleridge was introduced to Vico by the Italian revolutionary Gioachino de Prati.
(Victor Suchar)

Coleridge first opened the pages of Vico’s ‘Autobiography’ and ‘Scienza Nuova’ on May 2nd 1825 and his response was quick, hospitable and incisive. For Coleridge to read a book was a personal intimate encounter, an inner dialogue with his skilful attention .... ‘tendriling outward like the alert awareness of a solitary but gregarious person in the presence of a fascinating and reticent stranger.’ (George Whalley).
When he found he had been anticipated by the Italian in his own discoveries, rather than disappointed, he would be encouraged by the continuity of the ‘shaping spirit’, the poetic imagination within the abiding patterns of human thought. For the rest of his life and in his later writings Coleridge spread a gospel in praise of Vico, in parallel to his espousal of the German philosophers Schelling, Jacobi, Schlegel and Schleirmacher... all of them extended and deepened by his acquaintance with the Tyrolese revolutionary, Gioachino de Prati. Vico’s impact may be seen in the long passages quoted verbatim by Coleridge in his ‘Aids to Reflection’ and the 1834 ‘Introduction to the Study of the Greek Poets.’
In a letter to Hazlitt, Coleridge opined that his ‘Biographia Literaria’ was but a poor shadow of Vico’s ‘Autobiography’ and recognised that a new art had been born. Vico himself recognised the parallelism with Saint Augustine:
Confessions...........Autobiography
City of God ............Scienza Nuova.
Vico, however, goes beyond the Bishop of Hippo to produce a work that replaces any primacy in the genre given to Descartes, Pascal or Rousseau. Vico uses the principles discovered in the New Science to give a reflective structure to his autobiography. The analysis of even the first paragraph of the latter reveals the narrative and true ‘fable’ of his life.
Scienza Nuova Autobiography
Age of Gods............... Fables............Fall on the head, early education, autodidact
Age of Heroes............ Poetry............Return to Naples, loss of friends to the Inquisition, loss of university concourse, Anti-Cartesian, pedagogy, role of Providence Age of Humans ............ Philosophy ...... Philosophy and philology, the ‘Barbarism of Reflection’, an ancient among the moderns.
The commentary on the above is not an ‘explanation of text’ but only to suggest an outline of the radical novelty of his approach as a genuine part of his philosophy and not just simply a story of his life.

Summary of Vico’s principles:
1. Human nature not ever the same, static, unalterable and with no central kernel. ‘Humanity is its own creation.’
2. God made nature and so only he can understand it through and through.
3. Division between natural sciences and the humanities, including mathematics.
4. A pervasive pattern which characterises 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. Vico invented culture and historical development.
5. Speech, language, myths, fables, rituals. All natural ways of conveying a coherent view of the world of men at any stage. Relationship between philosophy and philology.
6. New type of aesthetics not based on universal norms but on uniqueness of each individual culture/civilisation.
7. To the traditional types of knowledge - a priori - deductive; a posteriori - empirical, the products of sense-perception and revelation - there must now be added that of the reconstructive imagination. Wm. Booth