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Donald Phillip Verene,Vico’s New Science



Donald Phillip Verene, Vico’s New Science: A Philosophical Commentary, Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2015, 284 pp.
Alexander L. Gungov (University of Sofia)

Vico’s New Science—a treasure-house of historical erudition and
philosophical insights—has long been in need of philosophical commen-
tary, in particular for the last few decades of intensive studies of and in-
creased interest in the legacy of the great Italian thinker. Donald Phillip
Verene’s splendid book is more than just a commentary; it is an indis-
pensible introduction not only to Vico’s New Science but to the entire
intellectual world that Vico inhabited. Scholars devoted to the Neapoli-
tan sage as well as those new to the study of his writings will appreciate
this rich and instructive volume. I myself, after having toiled in the field
for more than twenty-five years, have found many extremely helpful
elucidations and suggestions in Verene’s interpretation.
The commentary goes chapter by chapter through the whole of the
New Science. The glossary of Italian terms is very useful even for those
familiar with the language. The list of secondary literature on Vico, rep-
resenting the most significant work published over the last hundred
years, offers a reliable guide for further reading. Several illustrations are
included in the volume: an engraving of Vico from the 1744 edition of
The New Science, the frontispiece, impresa, and Chronological Table
from the same edition, as well as the frontispiece of the 1730 edition and
the Tablet of Cebes, all giving a unique flavor to the book.
The reader is soon immersed in the fascinating characters and sto-
ries of Greco-Roman myths guided by Vico’s new critical art and
Verene’s clarifications of the original text; images of biblical history ap-
pear in a new light as they lead to the emergence of Vico’s foundational
giants after the universal flood; Homer is revealed as a poetic character
containing the ancient poetic wisdom before philosophers came on the
public scene. The trifold development of all gentile nations passes
through three ages: the age of gods, the age of heroes, and the age of
humans. Accordingly, it consists of three types of customs, three types
of languages, three types of characters, three types of jurisprudence, etc.
The famous Vichian barbarism of reflection marks the period of decline
of the corso of the ancient nations followed by a ricorso. Verene notes
that Vico omits the question of what comes after the ricorso and sug-
gests that an appropriate answer would be that yet another recourse fol-
lows the first and that the pattern of Vico’s cyclical history could be de-
scribed as “course and recourses.”
Verene’s book devotes special attention to the three principles of
the New Science: religion, solemn marriage, and the burial of ancestors.
Vico’s method is discussed in detail as the collaboration of philosophy
and philology, philosophy studying the universal and philology occupy-
ing itself with particulars, the latter depending on human choice. This
genetic method is based on the common sense of the human race and
operates by the means of narrative. Verene observes that il senso
comune differs both from Descartes’ usage of bon sens and the view es-
poused by the eighteenth-century Scottish common-sense school of phi-
losophy. Actually, it is “communal sense,” described in the New Science
as “judgment without reflection,” that conveys the presence of provi-
dence in all human affairs. Providence implants, behind the scenes, or-
der in the human world and transforms the seemingly arbitrary sequence
of events into an organized tendency in the divinely planned destiny of
humanity. The historical course of all gentile nations is structured ac-
cording to the pattern of ideal eternal history with the single exception
of the Hebrews, whose social life develops under the auspices of sacred
history and is not affected by profane turbulences. Common sense is an
amalgam of the certain (particular) and the true (universal). The true is
convertible into the made according to Vico’s verum factum principle.
Verene explains that “because the human beings make the certains of
history, they can make the trues that govern history.”
Thanks to its method, the new science is capable of presenting hu-
man history in a rational causal narrative. Vico’s rationality has little in
common with the Cartesian four-step method; it is rather an oratio in
which ratio is joined by narratio. Its predecessor is poetic wisdom (dis-
covered, along with ideal eternal history, by the new critical art) of the
fables relying on imaginative universals expressed through the tropes of
metaphor, metonymy, and synecdoche. The fourth trope, irony, indicates
that the transition to rational universals, i.e. concepts, occurs in the age
of humans. Irony is a double blessing since it is a mark both of new in-
tellectual opportunities provided by reflection and of eminent deception
and manipulation that spring from the same source.
This first philosophical commentary on the New Science is indis-
putably an expert analysis on Vico’s work, placing it in the perspective
of Italian Renaissance Humanism, the tradition of ancient and modern
rhetoric, as well as of the most significant achievements in the history of
philosophy and in the history of culture in general. Donald Philip
Verene is not only a connoisseur of all these fields; being an original
philosopher in his own right makes his book on Vico a genuinely phi-
losophical account.