Vico and the Transformation of Rhetoric in Early Modern Europe

David L. Marshall

Giambattista Vico is usually thought of as an important figure in the early modern section of the rhetorical canon.  But historians of rhetoric have often struggled to account adequately for the distance between early works, like the Study Methods (where rhetoric was front and center), and later works, the New Science in particular, where rhetoric—as an explicit concern—had disappeared.  This book argues that Vico “sublimated” the rhetorical tradition by taking its terms and tactics out of the realm of oratory and applying them to the theorization of communicative systems in a broader sense.  As a professor of rhetoric, Vico was deeply invested in the explanatory power of the Greco-Roman tradition.  Yet as a historian of a failed coup d’état at Naples in 1701, he was also conscious of the differences between the eighteenth-century Neapolitan polity in which he lived and the classical exemplars—democratic Athens, republican Rome—that had so often fired the rhetorical imagination.  The book traces the transposition of originally rhetorical concepts onto new communicative practices: experimental science as performance, legal institutions as modes of collective writing, poetic improvisation as cultural code.



“Marshall's book on Vico is very original.  Almost every master concept of Vico’s thought is visited and interpreted in a personal way: the verum-factum principle, Providence’s meaning, ingegno, the art of etymology, degnità or axioms, poetic wisdom, and the true Homer.  Particularly interesting are the parts on the relation between orator and audience, the discovery of implicit parallels between ancient Rome and eighteenth-century Naples, and the role of the piazza.  Very impressive is Marshall’s thesis that Vico theorized the transposition of topics to experimental natural philosophy.  Usually Vichian scholars have always denied that, according to Vico, man can be said to know nature.  On this account, however, Vico's verum-factum principle is no longer incapable of being applied to the study of physical phenomena.  These audacious perspectives deserve great attention.”

—Andrea Battistini, University of Bologna

“In his landmark book Vico and the Transformation of Rhetoric in Early Modern Europe, David Marshall demonstrates that Vico is once again pivotal in a modern age broadly conceived, where sober sciences newly engage the irrationalisms of emotion, language, and human history.  We can now celebrate the first major, English-language monograph on Vico in more than a decade at the same time that we enjoy expert guidance through a range of concerns that traverse Vico’s work; Marshall's book serves as an excellent primer on the interlocking fields of modern epistemology after Descartes, the prehistory of Peircean pragmatism, early modern European intellectual history across four literatures (English, German, French, and Italian), and the history of rhetoric, which serves as a key to the rest.  This is a deeply responsible book that moves chronologically through Vico’s entire oeuvre, including some notable rediscoveries in the archives and beyond, at the same time that it honors the weirdness that makes Vico indispensable.”

—Daniel M. Gross, University of California, Irvine

“This book is one of a kind.  That Vico was a professor of rhetoric, wrote a textbook on rhetoric, and taught rhetoric throughout his long career is frequently forgotten as a key to understanding his work.  Although several authors have given significant attention to the rhetorical basis of Vico’s thought, none have placed Vico at the center of the development of rhetoric in the modern period, as Marshall’s study does.  The reader of this work gains a full, original, and rewarding account of Vico’s place in intellectual history that is not to be found elsewhere and done in a manner that is a pleasure to read.”

—Donald Phillip Verene, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Metaphysics and Moral Philosophy, Director, Institute of Vico Studies, Emory University