Giambattista Vico and the emergence of historical consciousness

Bradley Nelson Seidel, Marquette University


The essay has two interrelated themes, historical and philosophical. The historical theme is not so much about one man, Giambattista Vico, as about the mental development of humankind in general. For I claim that the vision that enabled Vico to discover the truths of history imbedded even in myth was not part of human vision before his time, any more than rationality was a property of the minds that first established civil societies. To prove this thesis in the history of philosophy, I have examined the development of thinking about history. I follow this development in mythologists, philosophers, historians and theologians from Hesiod to Snorri Sturluson. Though I find latent elements of what is sought, elements open to further development, I do not find historical consciousness fully expressed in the West until the New Science of Giambattista Vico. The term "historical consciousness" is my philosophical watchword. The philosophical thesis relies on two examples of philosophico-historical writers in whom the structure of its activity can be discerned: besides Vico, there is Ibn Khaldun. My sketch of Ibn Khaldun's Mugaddimah reveals a movement from the perception of errors made by previous historiographers, to a hermeneutical canon for detecting such errors. When historians fail to realize how times have changed, they superimpose their times on the past. But as soon as this is realized, a positive program for understanding how times have changed becomes possible, indeed necessary. Ibn Khaldun carries this out, not only as positive hermeneutics, criteria of historical truth, but also as an independent science, called the "science of culture," with a philosophical content. Vico's New Science follows this pattern exactly. After examining his critique of seventeenth-century natural law theory (guilty of the error of superimposition just mentioned), the reciprocity between hermeneutics and philosophy at the center of Vico's philosophy of history is discovered. The interpretive logic of hermeneutics is unable, by itself, to erect a philosophy of historical universals; nor is philosophical logic able to determine the historical particulars upon which its universals must be founded. Because philosophical rationality is insufficient, historical rationality, with its interpretive powers, finally must emerge.

Recommended Citation

Seidel, Bradley Nelson, "Giambattista Vico and the emergence of historical consciousness" (1996). Dissertations (1962 - 2010) Access via Proquest Digital Dissertations. AAI9634104.