Vico’s Ideas On Imagination

Vico’s Ideas On Imagination

One of the most ignored and underestimated thinkers in Western history is Giambattista Vico (1668-1744). Here is a brief biography from the Wisdom Supreme:

Giambattista Vico (or Giovanni Battista Vico) was a Neapolitan philosopher, historian, and jurist.

Vico is famous for his concept of truth as an act, verum factum.

His major work is the New Science (Scienza Nuova), published in 1725 and, as a completely rewritten work, in 1730. His major idea — that truth is an act, is discussed in this work as a principle of history — that it is made by humans, and so humans are able to fully understand it, just like mathematics, which is product of human imagination.

Vico suggested study of tradition, mythology and language as methods for investigating history. He is believed to be the pioneer of ethnology. The historical life follows similar pattern — although not in details — in every nation, according to Vico. The first humans thought in mythical terms, universali fantastici or poetic characters. All nations begin by fantasia, the power of imagination and the age of gods which are needed to comprehend the world. After that, there comes a second age in which fantasia is used to form social institutions and heroes are used to inspire moral virtues. The third and final age is the age of rationality, in which humanity declines into barbarie della reflessione — barbarism of reflection. According to Vico, this is a cycle — gods, heroes and humans — which repeats itself within the world of nations, forming storia ideale eterna — ideal eternal history.

Vico was an isolated genius, who lived in near poverty and never met a thinker of equivalent magnitude. However, his views have influenced many philosophers in the nineteenth century. Karl Marx studied Vico, and owes much to him. Also, Vico’s notion verum factum anticipates pragmatism and pragmaticism of Charles Sanders Peirce. He was able to predict historical development of Europe with appalling accuracy. In the 20th century, his ideas of the myth and nation were embraced by James Joyce, as well as Edward W. Said.

Vico is important for a few ideas he introduced into Western philosophy. The one I would like to focus on is this notion that, historically, civilizations cycle through three periods. For the sake of brevity, here is a concise quote from the aforementioned website:

Historically, society evolves in cycles from one governed by imagination, superstition, and custom to one governed by rational understanding and that, in turn, declines into a society governed by imagination; in a parallel fashion, the political nature of society evolves from anarchy to oligarchy and then to democracy and monarchy, and finally declines to anarchy.

During the Renaissance, imagination prevailed and many wonderful things were accomplished. Since then, Western civilization has gradually devolved into what we see today. We are close to the next turning point, in my estimation. All societies undergo similar periods of evolution and devolution, as well.


The past few years, we have witnessed a plunge into societal pathology. The past decade has been a rough ride. We have strayed from the path of imagination onto one of barbarism and greed. War, corruption, and lucre have ruled the day. But don’t give up. Things always change. We are dynamic beings living in a dynamic world.

Vico was a man of vision. He realized that a society devoid of imagination would necessarily crumble. There is always hope, however. Things always cycle around again. Our civilization will eventually turn back to the Imaginal.

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