giambattista vico, first philosopher of screen theory

Boundary language is philosophically based on two primary works, the critical philosophy of Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) and the critical psychology of Jacques Lacan (1901-1981). Boundary language makes clear that there are a number of significant affinities connecting these two historically and culturally distant thinkers; in fact, boundary language makes it clear for the first time that a case should be made that they are, in the world of intellectual fiction-writing, 'one and the same person'. Vico's radical materialization of cultural development depends on a division between the 'symbolic' (what people think they are thinking) and the Real (the surplus to this conscious view that is suture, in significant ways) into the symbolic system and the subject's cycles of desire/fear. This is a Lacanian characterization, but, equally, Vichian could be used easily to paraphrase Lacan's views and accomplishments. Vico has a lot to say, after all, about 'sliding signifiers', the time-space 'between the two deaths', and the role of ingenium (wit) in 'quilting' signifiers together in new ways (the hapax phenomenon).

In boundary language terms, Vico and Lacan are twins, separated at some remote birth in antiquity and reincarnated in various personalities throughout history. Lacan's 'interpreter', Slavoj Zizek, is remarkably unaware of Vico's genetic connections — but this is all for the better. There are no 'academic stakes' in connecting Vico with Lacan. The scholars who follow them, respectively, have nothing to gain by finding common ground. Only boundary language, where topology equals knowledge, does the middle ground become the terrain for the foundation of a new city, whose population is destined to remain under a thousand.

—From Donald Kunze, 'The Big Architectural Adventure of Giambattista Vico', Architecture and Other Disciplines, special issue of The Built Environment, ed. Beshir Kenzari (forthcoming):

Giambattista Vico’s big architectural adventure never happened, actually, but the ground was well laid; a few scholars loaded the prescribed ammunition; footnotes flew; conferences buzzed. Yet, the visions of this visionary 18th century Neapolitan philosopher of culture, historian, and creator of a “new science” whose scope and ambition has not been equaled by anything post-modernism has put forward — never reached the front lines of architecture theory or practice, despite some obvious opportunities. In the 1960s, Giorgio Tagliacozzo, a sociologist teaching at the New School for Social Research in New York, worked with Sir Isaiah Berlin and the Frank Lloyd Wright specialist Edgar J. Kaufmann, Jr., head of the Edgar Kaufmann Foundation, to revive scholarly interest in Vico with an international conference (Tagliacozzo, 1969). Papers were presented by authors who constituted a virtual Who’s Who of academia: Ernesto Grassi, Alain Pons, Sir Isaiah Berlin, René Wellek, Edmund Leach, Stuart Hampshire, and Sir Herbert Read — but no architecture theorists! This was perhaps because, except for Edgar Kaufmann, few architecture scholars had made a connection between Vico’s theory of culture and the exigencies of the built world.

This was ironic, for Vico in his own day was “an architect’s philosopher.” The Venetian architectural theorist, Carlo Lodoli, was so enthusiastic about Vico’s work that he was to have paid for the publication of the 1744 edition of The new science. The deal fell through, however, and the embittered Vico planned to publish the “scandalous” correspondence as a preface (Verene, 1987a). Friends persuaded him that this would be legally unadvisable. Left with some empty pages in the folios of the new edition, Vico claimed that he quickly formed a preface based around an image that would serve the reader as a “memory place” for the whole work. Much work has gone into deciphering this enigmatic emblem, which puts The new science into a spatial metaphor (Papini, 1984). The “architectural” relevance of The new science may become clearer, ironically, because of this “broken connection” with the architectural theorist, Lodoli.

The clearest accounts in English of the relationship of Vico and Lodoli have come from two architecture educators and theorists, Marco Frascari (1981) and Diana Bitz (1992). Many of Vico’s ideas were “in the air” of the Italian rinascimento. Secret societies managed to keep poetry and science alive beneath the stern gaze of the Spanish Inquisition. Vico wrote in his Autobiography (1725-28) that the depth of a prison cell was a measure of the quality of the poet or philosopher interred there. “Pagan” ideas borrowed from classical antiquity fueled such advanced programs of discovery and knowledge as Francis Bacon’s New organon (1620), a work Vico admired deeply. To avoid proscecution, Vico carefully excluded Hebrews and Christians from his account of a gentile “ideal eternal history,” a sequence of three cultural stages beginning with an “age of the gods” (nature as demonic); an “age of heroes” (nature as intentional; man as an active agent); and an “age of men” (nature as dead; human thought as instrumental).

The key to his new science of culture, Vico claimed, was the nature of mythic imagination. In a radical revision of the Cartesian account, Vico held that perception began with a transposing of the subject’s mentality to a position behind appearance. Ignorant of the true causes of things, the first humans “made themselves the measure” by establishing “gods” behind and within material reality. Thus the practice of divination became the basis of religion. With institutions such as marriage and ancestor worship to civilize their wild nature, the first humans restrained themselves directly through laws and customs and, indirectly, through language, the arts, and the built environment.

The center of Vico studies began to coalesce around the energetic networking of Tagliacozzo, and a second international conference was planned with the help of the philosopher, Donald Verene (Tagliacozzo and Verene, 1976). Verene (1981) began to advance his own ambitious and original program, effectively arguing that Vico’s idea of an “imaginative universal” (universale fantastico) was not only central for the development of The new science but was Vico’s most valuable gift to present-day theory. According to Verene, Vico has yet to be fully understood, let alone outdone, because his view of myth is “permanently original.” Indeed, it seems that many of Vico’s commentators have missed the fully radical nature of this single idea, which has proven more congenial to artists and poets than to philosophers and critics. Verene often worked with architecture students and faculty who, attracted by Vico’s comprehensive cultural theory, found it an intriguing alternative to the limited agendas of positivism, phenomenology, existentialism, or (later) deconstruction. Verene lectured at the Architectural Association in London (Verene, 1987b) and visited Daniel and Nina Libeskind at their Architecture Intermundium studio in Milan.

Verene’s teaching at Penn State University and Emory University attracted a cadre of young scholars in various fields (philosophy, art education, cultural geography, architecture), whose work began to incorporate Vichian themes. Frascari’s pupils at the University of Pennsylvania and, later, Georgia Institute of Technology (for example, Bloomer, 1993), sometimes overlapped with Verenes’. Verene and Frascari both played major roles in the “Commonplace Conference on the Philosophy of Place” held in 1986 at Penn State University.  Architecture scholars, many of them with an informed interest in Vico (David Bell, David Leatherbarrow, Mary Alice Dixon-Hinson, Bahram Shirdel, Daniel Libeskind, and Alberto Pérez-Gómez), joined philosophers for a comprehensive review of the idea of place (Black, Kunze, and Pickles, 1989). Mary Alice Dixon-Hinson had already published an engaging comparison of Vico and Duchamp (1985-1986); Leatherbarrow and Pérez-Gómez continue to refer to Vico in their writings; and Libeskind has quietly planted Vichian ideas and sentiments into his written and built works.

Still, Vico did not fare well in an age attuned to phenomenology and, later, deconstruction. Verene’s mentor, Ernesto Grassi (1980), wrote persuasively that Heidegger’s later philosophical ideas were sympathetic to Vico’s, but this advice was not strong enough to dislodge the line of thought now extending from Nietzsche through Heidegger to Derrida and, subsequently, Deleuze and Guattarri. Mark Wigley’s seminal study of Jacques Derrida (1993) laid out a clear path for a specifically architectural version of post-Modern deconstruction, reinforced through journals such as Oppositions and Yale’s Perspecta. Continental philosophy played almost no role at universities, such as Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, regarded as centers of architectural influence. Vico sounded old-fashioned in comparison to the new French thought, which was often less radical and certainly less original than Vico’s. Ever the melancholy stranger on the sidelines, Vico was the “dog that did not bark in the night.”

This failure seems manifestly unfair, given such firm endorsements as this one by Joseph Rykwert (1980, p. 281):

Vico’s deduction … was quite original and had the profoundest effect. If the objects of our knowledge, as far as the natural sciences are concerned, exist as part of divine creation, the objects of our historical knowledge are more “knowable,” since they are made by man in the first place. History must therefore be a more proper object of scientific investigation than physical nature.…

Yet … Vico was not a determinist; he did not think that one can “situate” oneself in a point and time and see how the cycles [of gods, heroes, and men] will “inevitably” develop. On the contrary, he saw the basic structure of the cyclic development of nations, tribes, and individuals constantly buffeted and modified by accident so as to produce an infinitely varied account of history.

Rykwert’s overt praise was backed up by genuinely sympathetic employment of Vico-like ideas, especially in The idea of the town (1976), However, no one has called Rykwert a “Vichian,” just as there has been nothing anyone could call a Vichian “movement” elsewhere in architecture.  Although secondary sources such as Rykwert’s have been enigmatically tantalizing, the primary sources — Vico’s own writings — have proved too difficult for general academic discussion or pedagogical retailing.

This persistent perceived difficulty was demonstrated with particular clarity in an article by a humanist geographer William J. Mills (1982). Mills’ genuinely hoped to find a new and imaginative basis for geographical theories of place, but Mills concluded that, while Vico had much to offer, he fell short of providing much more than sympathy for existing humanist approaches to the landscape. Mills’ perspectives flattened Vico’s contemporary relevance by finding him obscure (Kunze, 1983). Typically, Vico has been misread and misunderstood precisely by the scholars who are attracted to him. The tendency has been to treat misunderstanding with focused scholarship rather than broad revisionism. In contrast, Verene advocated a “generic” correction made by centralizing Vico’s of concept imaginative universality. This approach created a polemical divide with those who held that the epistemological principle, “verum ipsum factum” (that humans may perfectly know what they have made), was the most important feature of Vico’s thinking.

There is a more surprising source for potential Vico revisionism, however. Vico falsified parts of his Autobiography to create a “Saturnine background” for his ambitious project: an exemplar for how thinkers must relate to their theory (Kunze 1987, pp. 186-206). In The new science, Vico instructs the reader how to create the “new science” for himself. In a meditative state, the reader compares the “external” evidence of cultures to the “internal” evidence of the structure of his own mind. With a fractal-like logic of suturing microcosm to macrocosm, the reader is to achieve something akin to a spiritual state (Vico, 1744, §345). How we comprehend The new science, then, is not through Cartesian-style analytic evaluation or deconstructivist detachment, but, rather, through a reflective imagination that moves between reading and the book itself as one would move from dream to waking experience. The parable of the man who dreamed he was a butterfly and then wondered if he were not a butterfly dreaming he were a man is apt. The reader must dream a science amidst of a collection of images that retroactively dream the reader.

selected bibliography

Bacon F. (1620). Novum organum. Trans. L. Jardine, M. Silverthorne (2000) The New Organon. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Berlin, I. (1976) Vico and Herder: two studies in the history of ideas. New York: Viking Press.

Black, D., D. Kunze, and J. Pickles (1989) Commonplaces: essays on the nature of place. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.

Bloomer, J. (1993) Architecture and the text: (s)crypts of Joyce and Piranesi. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Bitz, D. (1992) Architettura Lodoliana: topical mathematics as architecture. Ph.D.dissertation, Emory University.

Dixon, S. (1991) The image and historical knowledge in mid-eighteenth-century Italy: a cultural context for Piranesi’s archaeological publications. Ph.D. dissertation, Columbia University.

Dixon-Hinson, M. (1985-1986). Vico’s discovery. Volume Zero: pp. 2-15.

Frascari, M. (1981) Sortes architectii in the eighteenth –century Veneto. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pennsylvania.

Frascari, M. (2004) untitled. Personal communication.

Frascari, P. (2004) untitled. Personal communication.

Grassi, E. (1980) Rhetoric as philosophy: the humanist tradition. University Park, PA: the Pennsylvania State University Press.

Hersey, G. (1983) Architecture, poetry, and number in the royal palace at Caserta. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Kaufmann, E., Jr. (1964) Memmo’s Lodoli. The Art Bulletin, 46(June): pp. [159]-175.

Kunze, D. (1983) Giambattista Vico as a philosopher of place: comments on the recent article by Mills, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, New Series 8, pp. 237-248.

Kunze, D. (1987) Thought and place: the architecture of eternal place in the philosophy of Giambattista Vico. Emory Vico Studies 2. New York: Peter Lang, 1987.

Kunze, D. (1990) Skiagraphy  and the ipsum of architecture. VIA, 11, pp. 62-75.

Lacan, J. (1973) Les quatre concepts fondamentaux de la psychanalyse. Trans. A. Sheridan (1981) The four fundamental concepts of psycho-analysis. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

Miles, J. (1995). God, a biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Mills, W. (1982) Positivism reversed: the relevance of Giambattista Vico, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, New Series 7, pp. 1-13.

Papini, M. (1984) Il geroglifico della storia: Significato e funzione della dipintura nella ‘Scienza nuova’ di G. B. Vico. Bologna: Capelli.

Rykwert, J. (1980) The first moderns: the architects of the eighteenth century. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Rykwert, J. (1976) The idea of a town: the anthropology of urban form in Rome, Italy, and the ancient world. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.

Sider, S. (ed.) (1979) Cebes’ tablet: facsimiles of the Greek text, and of selected Latin, French, English, Spanish, Italian, German, Dutch, and Polish translations. New York: Renaissance Society of America.

Tagliacozzo, G. (1993) The Arbor Scientiae reconceived and the history of Vico’s resurrection. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press International.

Tagliacozzo, G. and Verene, D. (1976) Giambattista Vico’s science of humanity. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Tagliacozzo, G. and White, H. (1969) Giambattista Vico, An international symposium. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Verene, D. (1981) Vico’s science of imagination. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Verene, D. (1987a) Vico’s “ignota latebat,”  New Vico studies, 5, pp. 79-98.

Verene, D. (1987b) Philosophical memory. AA Files, 16, pp.  57-62.

Vico, G. (1710) De antiquissima Italorum sapientia. Trans. L. Palmer (1988) On the most ancient wisdom of the Italians (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press).

Vico, G. (1744) Principi di Scienza nuava d’intorno alla communi natura delle nazioni. Naples: Stamperia Muziana. Trans. Bergin, T. and Fisch, M. (1968), The new science of Giambattista Vico. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Vico, G. (1725-28) Vita di Giambattista Vico scritta da se medesimo. Trans. M. Fisch and T. Bergin (1944) The autobiography of Giambattista Vico. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Wigley, M. (1993) The architecture of deconstruction: Derrida's haunt. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

(above) Ignota Latebat ("she who lay hidden"), Metafisica seated on the celestial sphere gazes into a mirror reflecting the image of the builder's square resting on a plinth. The triangle created by Metafisica's eyes and the reflection create the "anamorphic" view that separates the victim (direct view) from the fictim (reflected view). Metafisica's eyes, like those of Mithras, are averted.

(left) Frontispiece of Vico's New Science, showing within a ritual clearing in the forest, the first institutions of culture; Metafisica stands on the celestial globe and reflects the divine ray onto Homer, representing the first poet/priest/kings who ruled by interpreting divine signs


—From Donald Phillip Verene, 'Vico', The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory & Crtiicism,
ed. Michael Groden and Martin Kreiswirth,

(refer to original whenever possible)

Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) is one of the first modern thinkers to formulate a philosophy of mythology and to base both philosophical and historical knowledge on a conception of narration. Vico lived and taught in Naples throughout his life except for a nine-year period at the beginning of his career, when he served as tutor to the Rocca family on their estate a distance from Naples. Vico was professor of Latin eloquence, or what in modern terms would be understood as Rhetoric, at the University of Naples. In the last part of his career he was appointed royal historiographer.

Vico's major work is the Scienza nuova (New Science), which he published first in 1725 and then in a fully rewritten version in 1730. This second version, along with revisions he was making in the text for a third edition in the year of his death, 1744, has come to be known as the Scienza nuova seconda. Vico maintained that in the text of this second version he had placed practically all his ideas of any importance. His conception of his New Science and its leading ideas are developed in several prior works. In De antiquissima Italorum sapientia (On the Most Ancient Wisdom of the Italians, 1710) he states his principle verum ipsum factum, that the true is the same as the made, that is, "convertible" with the made, as part of a criticism of the metaphysics of René Descartes (ch. 1, sec. 1). In two Latin works and a set of notes on them which Vico grouped under the Italian title Il diritto universale [Universal law] (1720-22) he offers a first sketch of his conception of the new science, in a chapter entitled "Nova scientia tentatur" [A new science is essayed], and also states a principle of jurisprudence that may have shaped his conception of the method of the New Science--certum est pars veri, or, the certain is part of the true (bk. 1, ch. 82).

Vico says in his Autobiography (1725-28) and in the New Science itself that his "new science" is based on a nuova'arte critica. This "new critical art" is a means to elicit the "common nature of nations" (New Science, par. 348). In the De antiquissima Vico explains his principle the "true is the made" as applicable to mathematics; mathematical trues ("intelligibles") are such because they are made in accordance with the principles of mathematics, not because they correspond to some rational order of nature (ch. 1, sec. 2). Vico does not discuss this principle directly in the New Science, but he alludes to it, and his views generally presuppose it (par. 349). In the New Science it becomes a principle of history: that history is made by humans. In their creation of the things of the civil world humans make the trues or intelligibilities of history. The historical life of nations follows a common pattern in each nation. Because humans make history, a science that uncovers and expresses the principles of this making is possible. It can demonstrate the ways in which humans achieve trues or intelligibilities in their acts of making history.

This new science of history requires a new critical art of interpretation in which philosophy is joined with philology, in which the true (verum) is joined with the certain (certum) (pars. 338-60). Philosophy has by its nature always aimed at stating the forms of intelligibility common to all experience. Philology presents the "certains" of the human world, by which Vico means all the things that depend upon human choice, that is, the histories of the languages, customs, and deeds of peoples in war and in peace. This new critical art must apply itself to the philology of these certains in order to show how they involve various principles of intelligibility ordinarily understood only in abstract terms by philosophical analysis. Vico discusses the conception of the certain (il certo) and the true (il vero) in the New Science, but his thought is likely guided by his jurisprudential principle certum est pars veri, the sense that a certain instance of positive law formed by human choice is valid and can truly be regarded as law only when understood as part of universal or natural law, and the reverse, that law in a universal sense is forever abstract unless embodied in positive systems of law. Even more specifically, Vico's notion of the connection between the universally true and the individually certain may be grounded in the Roman conception of ius gentium, that part of ius naturale that is understood to be actually present in the civil laws of all nations and thus to be in fact common to them all.

Vico turns this jurisprudential principle of the true and the certain into a metaphysics of history such that, as he holds in the New Science, it shows what providence has wrought in history (par. 342). The new critical art of the philosophical examination of philology shows, in Vico's view, that all nations follow a common pattern of development. This pattern shows the providential structure of human events. A further dimension to the new critical art is Vico's axiom that "doctrines must take their beginning from that of the matters of which they treat" (par. 314). He says that the first science to be learned must be mythology (par. 51) and that the "master key" to his new science is the discovery that the first humans thought in "poetic characters" or "imaginative universals" (universali fantastici) (par. 34). All nations begin in the same way by the power of the imagination (fantasia) to make the world intelligible in terms of gods. This age of gods gives way to a second age, in which fantasia is used to form social institutions and types of character or virtues in terms of heroes. Finally, these two ages, in which the world is ordered through the power of fantasia, decline into an age of rationality, in which the world is ordered in purely conceptual and logical terms and in which mental acting is finally dominated by what Vico calls a barbarism of reflection (barbarie della riflessione) (par. 1106).

This cycle of ages of gods, heroes, and humans repeats itself within the world of nations, forming what Vico calls ideal eternal history (storia ideale eterna) (par. 349). The world of nations is typified by the corsi and ricorsi of these three ages. From the standpoint of Vico's conception of the metaphysics of history, the divine attempts to reveal itself over and over again in human affairs, but history never takes on this sense of progress typical of eighteenth-century thought.

Vico's New Science is a large and varied work that treats many subjects, of which only a few can be touched on here. Of particular interest to the scholar of literary criticism, in addition to Vico's conception of a "new critical art," are two products of this art: sapienza poetica, or "poetic wisdom," which is the title of the second and largest book of the New Science, and his "discovery of the true Homer," the subject of the third book. Put in modern terms, Vico's "poetic wisdom" is a conception of a science of mythology. He regards mythic narrative as having a logic of its own that is achieved through the power of imagination, or fantasia. Fantasia is a primordial power of the mind through which the world and human experience are first given order. In Vico's view, fantasia is an active power through which the things of the civil world are first made. Fantasia is a type of learning that precedes reason in the history of human affairs. It is this original form of the mythic that literature later attempts to recover. Vico's conception of myth as a primordial form of thought has affinities with various and diverse modern theories of myth, such as those of Claude Lévi-Strauss and Mircea Eliade.

Vico believes that one of the verifications of his New Science is his discovery of the true Homer, namely, the ancient Greek people themselves (par. 806). Through his new critical art Vico claims to prove that Homer's works should be regarded not as containing a hidden philosophical wisdom but as commanding a form of wisdom of their own, a poetic or mythic wisdom that is a summation of the fantasia of the ancient Greeks. Implied in this conception of Homer is a solution to Plato's ancient quarrel with the poets. Unlike Plato, Vico regards Homer not as in contest with philosophical thought but as embodying a form of thought that precedes philosophy and is required as a precursor to philosophy.

Vico's influence during his lifetime was not great, and it did not extend to the thinkers of northern Europe. He greatly desired their attention to his work, but it remained largely unknown to them. In Italy, there was a fairly continuous Vico tradition in criticism and literary criticism influencing, for example, the essays of Ugo Foscolo and, later, Francesco De Sanctis and Benedetto Croce. In Germany, J. G. von Herder knew something of Vico's ideas, but Vico did not directly influence Herder's work, although as Isaiah Berlin has shown, Vico and Herder taken together make a suggestive chapter in the history of ideas.

The first great revival of Vico's ideas occurred in France with Jules Michelet's discovery of the New Science in 1824 and his subsequent publication of his abridged translation and an exposition of Vico's ideas. It was from Michelet's translation that Victor Cousin derived his interest in Vico. The earliest English promoter of Vichian ideas was Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who was responsible for much of the interest in Vico among English writers in the latter nineteenth century. In a long and important footnote in Capital, Karl Marx discusses the possibility of applying Vico's conception of history to a history of human technology. Croce and Fausto Nicolini compiled the modern standard edition of Vico's works, the so-called Laterza edition, and Croce was the one philosopher in the contemporary period to base his conception of aesthetics and culture on Vico, merging Vico with Hegelian idealism. The most prominent figure to introduce Vico to twentieth-century readers was James Joyce, who used the New Science as the grid for Finnegans Wake. Joyce was especially interested in Vico's notion that "memory is the same as imagination" (la memoria e la stessa che la fantasia) and with Vico's notion of the cycle of the three ages of history. In the last two decades Vico's thought has undergone a renaissance of critical interpretation and application to various fields of literature and the humanities, largely among English-speaking scholars.