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Vico and the University


Few intellectuals of the seventeenth century produced their works from within the structure of an academic institution. Bacon, Hobbes, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibnitz-to mention the names of the epochal figures of that historical period-were deeply committed to a new way of thinking about knowledge. They even took part in its worldwide dissemination, but they shunned the politics and constraints, the antiquarianism and erudition of the universities as stifling any openness to the thought of the new. Bacon's Cogitata et Visa (1620) ponders on and sharply indicts the educational methods followed within the universities.

There were notable exceptions to this practice. One exception was Galileo; another was Comenius. Still another was Vico (1688-1744), who came later and who understood exactly why Bacon, for instance, would stay away from the university. Vico spent his entire life as a teacher of rhetoric and literature at the University of Naples, and he developed his major works both within, and in opposition to, the perimeter of Naples's academic structure. The University of Naples, as we gather from his Autobiography(1725-28), was certainly not a comfortable place for Vico. Most Italian universities (Padua, Modena, Reggio) came into existence out of a schism from the University of Bologna, which was one of the two parent universities of Europe. Similarly, the University of Naples was founded against the University of Bologna by the Emperor Frederick II, who needed, among other things, experts in statecraft, agents for diplomatic missions, and lawyers to settle sundry disputes. The University of Naples was the first state school of Europe, and it never lost the trace of its institutional origin-the political censorship of the professors. The professors' oaths of loyalty to the city removed all doubt as to who worked for whom. From a purely personal point of view, Vico had few reasons to harbor illusions about the ethics shaping the inner life of the university. He knew firsthand the power games academics play, and he even played some himself. His account of how he had been denied the prestigious Law Professorship that he had long coveted and had to settle for the lower-paying and less prestigious Chair of Eloquence occupies a prominent role in his autobiographical narrative.