by Leon Pompa



Giambattista Vico was born in 1668 in Naples, the son of a bookseller.

He died in 1744, in the same year that the final and most complete version of his greatest work, the New Science was published. For most of his working life, i.e. from 1699–1741, he was a relatively unknown Professor of Rhetoric at the University of Naples, and although he wrote and had published a number of works on philosophy and history during this period, these never had any great impact.

In fact he was ahead of his time. He proposed a socially conditioned theory of history a 100 years before Marx and only in the 20th century did he begin to be afforded the recognition he deserved.

Unlike Marx he proposed that history was cyclical rather than progressive. This derived from his observation that contextual (social, historical, linguistic) conditions are what determines most of human history. Moreover, he believed that groups have their own energy and ethos which trump most claims to individuality. He believed that people ‘progress’ into larger and larger groups that initially show greater and greater forms of agreement and harmony. But eventually (due to many factors, an obvious one being that humans can only be conditioned so much before they rebel) these groups break down into what he believed was moral collapse and civil war. And then the process of civilisation begins again (with technological changes, perhaps, but, crucially, repeating the same social progressions.)

Leon Pompa gave one of the earliest talks at the Institute for Cultural Research in 1970. What follows is a substantial extract from his monograph on Vico that highlights what we can learn from this eminent Italian thinker many centuries after his death.

Reflections on Vico’s view of History

… I would like to point out the implication Vico’s theory has for our understanding of ourselves. If Vico is right, a certain belief about something, or a certain attitude towards something, is a phenomenon which is bound to occur whenever people live together in a certain kind of social situation and whenever society has reached a certain stage of historical or – for this is the way Vico treats this – mental development.

Now this conflicts with the way in which many of us ordinarily think of ourselves. It is probably true that most of us still think of ourselves in something like the way Descartes held, i.e. we think of our thoughts, our beliefs, our attitudes, as something which we produce individually from within ourselves.

Of course, we don’t believe we could think without, for example, being taught a language by means of which we can think. But we tend to look upon this language as an instrument which we can use well or badly according to our mental capacities, i.e. according to what is within each of us individually, and we think that the conclusions to which we come when we think about things depend solely upon these capacities which we have.

The language itself, that which we are taught, is simply a sort of neutral instrument on this view.

Well, Vico doesn’t want to deny that some people can think better than others, i.e. he doesn’t want to deny that there are some differences between individuals. What he would deny, however, is the idea that language is a neutral instrument.

For in his view the terms of a language are what is sometimes called “theory-loaded,” i.e. they are such that using them at all involves one in looking at things in a certain way.

In being taught to use a language, we are not being taught how to use a neutral instrument in order to deal with things as they seem to us individually; we are being taught how to look at things, i.e. we are being taught how things should seem to us.

So when we are taught how to use a language, something pretty serious is going on. We are not being handed an instrument simply to be used in accordance with capacities which God has given us or which can be explained by heredity, we are actually having certain very fundamental parts of our outlook formed for us.

We are acquiring a part of our human nature.

On this view, therefore, the effects of the sort of teaching we receive and the kind of upbringing we have are very much more drastic than we ordinarily think they are.

What Vico is saying is that there are within society a number of mechanisms for teaching people what they ought to think and believe, how they ought to feel about things, what they ought to do about them and so on.

And the differences between the thoughts, beliefs and feelings of different individuals are not to be explained by differences within their inner essences, so to speak, i.e. not by innate differences between the individuals themselves, but by the particular set of mechanisms to which they have been exposed in their upbringing.

I know it is fashionable these days to say that the aim of education is to teach people how to think. But if Vico is right, this is hardly possible. Despite appearances, people are taught what to think.

The first thing Vico’s theory suggests, then, is that we should pay very much less attention to individual factors in trying to understand ourselves and very much more attention to the general social situations in which we are brought up, in which we are taught not only how to think about things but also how to experience them. The second thing I should like to point out is a corollary of the general view I have so far outlined. In the ordinary way we generally think of our beliefs as being in some general sense rational. By this I mean that if two people hold, as they often do, different beliefs about something, each will try to show that his is the correct belief to hold about it, by producing some reason which is alleged to justify the belief in question. And so, in general, when we find ourselves believing in one thing rather than another we tend to look for reasons which will justify our belief, i.e. demonstrate to us what makes it a correct belief to hold.

Again, however, according to Vico, this is not the proper approach to take. What we should do is to try to understand the social situation which can make it natural for such a belief to arise. In other words, we think of beliefs as rational and try to explain our acceptance of them by finding a reason to justify them. But in Vico’s view they are socially conditioned, and what we should seek is not a justification for them but an account of the sort of social situation which can cause such a belief to arise, or of which it can be a part.

Now, perhaps some of us would be prepared to accept an account of this sort with regard to our moral, aesthetic and evaluative attitudes towards things. For example, we might be prepared to accept that the ways in which we think about the general political situation in Britain, the terms in which we think of this sort of problem, are really to be explained by the social and economic class structure of the nation. This conditions the sorts of view that are possible for us, while the actual view any of us takes depends upon the view our upbringing has conditioned us to take. And perhaps the same applies to our views on morality. We might, as I said, accept this because in these matters people do have different views and, as it is obvious that not all these views can be correct, it seems obvious also that the explanation why people adopt them can’t be that they perceive the truth of them.

But what about our beliefs about factual truths? What about our belief that, say, the sun is 92 million miles away? Here, surely, is a belief we all share and surely we share this because science can prove that it is true. Here, then, is a belief which is shared by people of all backgrounds, so that one can’t explain the arising of a belief like this by looking at the different social contexts in which people live.

Moreover, here is a belief the truth of which can be justified, even though we perhaps couldn’t all do the justifying ourselves. Isn’t this, therefore, something which can’t be explained by the kind of view Vico is putting forward?

Well, I don’t think it is. Although we think we can prove a fact of this sort we can only do so by assuming the standards of proof, and the kinds of scientific theory, current to our time, i.e. current within a given society. But the second of Vico’s points was that a society is historically conditioned. Consequently the kinds of scientific theory, and the standards of proof, it accepts are conditioned by the mental development of the people who are involved in it. Given our theories and standards, we have no option, if we can follow through the proof, but to accept that the sun is 92 million miles away. But given the theories and standards of another age, not only would such a thing have been entirely unprovable but the very proposition would have seemed silly. To a primitive, the suggestion that the sun is 92 million miles away would have seemed as silly and incredible as to us does the suggestion that it is about the size of a florin and is just out of reach in the sky.

What makes one credible and the other incredible at any given time is not the obvious truth of one or another view but the theories and standards current at the time which render one or the other obviously true to someone brought up to accept them.

“Well, that’s all right,” one might say, “and we know that our theories and standards are the correct ones, therefore we know that the sun is 92 million miles away and is not the size of a florin.” But if Vico is right, that our theories and standards are the correct ones is precisely what we can’t know. All we can say is that they are the kinds of theories and standards which a society at a certain stage of historical conditioning will come to develop and they will be assumed by all the reasoning performed within that society. But that, as they stand in this century, last century or the next century, any of these theories and standards have superior claims to correctness over any others, is something which can never be shown.

Next century or the century after people may look back at our science and our beliefs and think, “How quaint. How could they have believed that?” Just as we look back and think, “How quaint. How could they believe the sun was just on the horizon?” So on Vico’s view, though there may be – in fact must be – some beliefs which all members of a society share, this isn’t enough to give them any claim to objective truth nor to show that they are not also as conditioned as the beliefs about which we differ.

In fact, this is one of the real values of the study of history for us. If Vico is right, where we have a belief which seems to us obviously true, and which seems to all of us obviously true, we can come to see the conditioned nature of that belief only by studying history, or studying other societies at a different stage of historical development, and finding that in other historical times such a belief would have been either incredible or even inconceivable. Then, from the contrast, we shall be able to put our own most deeply held beliefs into a correct perspective and see them for what they are – the products of a long historical process.

Now this kind of historical determinism is something which people find very uncomfortable to face up to, and philosophers have made a number of attempts to show that there is something unacceptable about it.

For example, one objection which has been raised against it is that the theory is self-refuting. For if we accept that we are all so conditioned by our historical heritage that we can never know the absolute truth about anything, what are we to say about the theory which states that this is so? i.e. if there is no such thing as the objective truth, can the theory which involves this claim itself be claimed to be true?

Karl Marx, for example, considered this kind of objection against his particular brand of historical determinism and took it as a very serious objection. To defeat it he tried to argue that his theory, i.e. the theory of historical materialism, could be shown to be true because it involved a method, i.e. the scientific method, which was not itself the product of historical conditions and did not involve the application of historically conditioned modes of thought.

Well, this is a most inadequate reply to the objection, for a little study of history would soon show that the methods of science have varied widely over the ages – after all, witch doctors apply what is for them a certain conception of scientific method.

The methods which we accept, today, or those which Marx accepted last century, are different from those of the past and may well be different from those of the future.

So, if scientific method is historically conditioned one can’t defend the objectivity of a certain scientific theory by appealing to the method it uses.

But though Marx’s reply fails to meet the objection, it seems to me that the objection really has very little force in it. It may well be that, if Vico’s theory, or another like it, is accepted, we have to accept also that it is itself the product of its age and that it can’t therefore be thought of as offering an objective truth.

At best it states the truth as we – given the historical past which has conditioned us – see it. But that still leaves it in a better condition than other theories we might produce which fail even to do this. So the theory isn’t shown to be self-refuting because it can’t be objectively true – it can still remain the one which most recommends itself to people at our stage of historical and conceptual development.

In other words, the admission that a theory does not contain the final truth does not imply that it may not be the best theory we can produce and the one we ought to accept.

At the same time one would not want to deny that the recognition of this fact does put the theory, and all our thinking about things, in a certain perspective, as I have earlier tried to explain.

The attack against Vico’s kind of historical determinism has sometimes taken another form. It is often claimed that such a view is refuted by the facts of history themselves. For history shows that the personal qualities of certain individuals have been, to say the least, very important influences in determining the course of events.

For example, had there been no such individual as Hitler, with his particular qualities of character, there would have been no Second World War. Or had there been no such person as Churchill, with his particular qualities of character, Germany would have won that war.

Now, in making this suggestion, it is not being proposed that, say, Hitler was the sole cause of the war. It is recognized that Hitler could only bring about the war given certain already existent general conditions, such as the economic and social situation in Germany, the spirit of international hostility and the mutual suspicion which was an aftermath of the First World War, the fear of Russian Communism which at least acted as a check upon the willingness of some countries to declare war upon Germany and so on.

But, the objection goes, these conditions were not themselves enough to bring about the war. What was equally necessary was for there to be somebody in a position, so to speak, to press the trigger, and only a person of Hitler’s unique blend of fanaticism, megalomania, utter ruthlessness, and so on, could have done this.

So, without such an individual as Hitler there would have been no war. But, the objection finally states, it is simply an historical accident that such a person should be around at the time, and that he should get into the one position in which he could have wielded such an influence on events.

For if the appearance of a man with the personal qualities of character of Hitler in Germany in the first half of the 20th century was determined, it was certainly not determined by such factors as those adduced by Vico in his theory, which have all to do with the general structure of a society and the general modes of thought and belief which prevail in it.

In this way, therefore, it is argued that, although the context in which historical events occur is important in helping to explain their character, it is never possible wholly to do away with the decisions of individuals, and there are in part, at least, dependent upon the character of individuals, characters which are not determined in the same way as the more general context. So Vico’s account of the causes of historical change is inadequate.

In reply to this objection I would like to make two points. First that Vico himself would probably have accepted it to a certain extent. For, as I said earlier, he did not want to say that the personal qualities of individuals were completely unimportant.

For example, he himself was a great admirer of Augustus and he believed that had it not been for certain qualities of character which Augustus had, the decline of Rome would have taken place even more quickly than it did.

Certain qualities of Augustus’s character, however, enabled him to delay the eventual collapse of Rome, but that’s as far as it goes. The collapse came in the end, just the same. And that is because it was made inevitable by conditions operating at a much more fundamental level than those which can be influenced by the activities of any one man.

On this view, therefore, the success or the failure of the plans and ventures of the great depends upon the extent to which the aims involved in these are in harness with the underlying and quite inevitable general changes.

The great individual has some small amount of manoeuvre left him, but whether his exercise of this results in something of relatively permanent or something of merely temporary effect in history depends entirely upon whether what he does is in conformity with the inevitable pattern of change or whether it is in conflict with it.

Having said this, however, I should like to turn to my second point, which is that, though Vico undoubtedly did make this allowance about the way great men can affect the course of history, I don’t see why it should be thought of as an exception to a fully deterministic account. In this objection as I stated it, it is treated as an exception because the qualities of character of individuals are claimed not to be fully determined by the individual’s social environment.

What, for example, was different in the social and historical environment in which Hitler was brought up, which would have to be responsible, say, for his megalomania, from that in which thousands of his non-megalomaniac contemporaries were brought up?

And if we can’t produce such an element in the social and historical environment then we can’t say that Hitler’s character was fully determined by social and historical conditions. And if we can’t say that his character was fully determined by such conditions then neither can we say that those events which turned upon his discussions and activities were.

Now what this objection seems to overlook is that it is, strictly, misleading to talk as though the actions of any one individual are effective simply because they are his actions alone. Any ruler, no matter how absolutist or dictatorial, has to have some support for his policies. When he decides upon a policy or tries to have it effected, he has to persuade some people, at least, that this is what ought to be done.

Hitler didn’t act in isolation and in the face of the wishes of everybody in Germany. Somebody had to go along with him in it all, and his policies had to have some appeal to certain parts of German society.

Again, Churchill was effective as a leader in the last war because what he said and did struck a chord in the attitude of the British people. In a different people, or at a different time, the response might have been very different and Churchill consequently would have had none of his present fame.

So, if we say that Hitler was a megalomaniac and that only a megalomaniac could have done what he did, we have to recognize that his megalomania (if that’s what it was) was not a purely idiosyncratic feature but something which could develop in some fairly large section of the German people in the social and historical situation in which they were.

Likewise, if we say that only a patriot could do what Churchill did, again we have to recognize that he shared in a sentiment which was held by a large part of the population of Britain. But once this fact has been recognized, it seems to me to be increasingly improbable that the explanations or the actions of Hitler or Churchill are to be found in purely individual factors.

When one has found the social and historical conditions which produced the patriotism which Churchill shared with the British public, or which produced the megalomania in which Hitler and many Germans shared, one will have found the underlying reasons why history took the general course it did.

I come back to Vico’s original point, therefore, that when individuals have certain qualities of character and outlook, and so on, this is to be thought of as their coming to share in certain social phenomena – these qualities, attitudes, beliefs and so on, are the products of people’s being involved in certain social relationships in certain social and historical circumstances.

And if we want to understand either ourselves or the reasons why our activities take the forms they do, or why history takes the course it does, it is to these areas we must direct attention.

The Author

Leon Pompa was Professor of Philosophy, 1977–1997 (now Professor Emeritus), in the University of Birmingham. His many publications include: Vico: A study of the ‘New Science’ (Cambridge University Press, 1975; revised and enlarged, CUP, 1990); Vico: Selected writings, ed. and trans. (CUP, 1982); Human Nature and Historical Knowledge: Hume, Hegel and Vico (CUP, 1990; first paperback ed. CUP, 2002); Vico: The First New Science, ed. and trans. (CUP, 2002).