Jun 232018

Today is the birthday (1668) of Giambattista Vico (Giovan Battista – i.e. John the Baptist, because today is the eve of the feast of John the Baptist — http://www.bookofdaystales.com/eve-st-john/ ). Vico is not exactly a name that springs to mind in the popular consciousness when conjuring up names of people who have changed the world, but he was a profoundly influential political philosopher and rhetorician, historian and jurist. He criticized the expansion and development of modern rationalism in the Age of Enlightenment, was an apologist for Classical Antiquity, a precursor of systematic and complex thought (in opposition to Cartesian analysis and other types of reductionism), and was the first major exponent of the fundamentals of modern social science and of semiotics. My professor for the study of the history of anthropology placed Vico in a pivotal position in the founding of anthropology as a rigorous social science. The Latin aphorism Verum esse ipsum factum (“What is true is, itself, made”), coined by Vico, is an early instance of constructivist epistemology (I’ll explain later). He inaugurated the modern field of the philosophy of history. Vico’s intellectual magnum opus is the book Scienza Nuova (1725) which attempts a systematic organization of the humanities as a single science, and also attempts to record and explain the historical cycles by which societies rise and fall.

Vico was the son of a bookseller in Naples. He attended several schools, but ill health and dissatisfaction with the scholasticism of the Jesuits led to his being educated at home by tutors. Evidence from his autobiographical work indicates that Vico was probably largely self-taught under his father’s guidance. His formal education was at the University of Naples where he received a Doctor of Civil and Canon Law in 1694 (aged 26). In 1686, after surviving a bout of typhus, he accepted a job as a tutor, in Vatolla, south of Salerno, which became a 9-year professional engagement that lasted until 1695. In 1699, Vico accepted a chair in rhetoric at the University of Naples, which he held until ill-health caused his retirement in 1741. Throughout his academic career, Vico aspired to, but never attained, the more prestigious chair of jurisprudence. However, in 1734, he was appointed historiographer royal, by Charles III, king of Naples.

The original full title of Scienza Nuova is Principi di Scienza Nuova d’intorno alla Comune Natura delle Nazioni, which may be translated as “Principles of a New Science Concerning the Common Nature of Nations” although many of the words in the title are ambiguous. The title hints at the broad scope of the work, and should tell you that Vico was on a path that was intellectually revolutionary, and much praised from his time to the present, even though you probably have to be a social scientist to know of Vico’s profound influence.

I have to be simplistic, as ever, in summing up Vico’s contribution to the study of social science.  The aphorism, “What is true is, itself, made” could be stated as “The truth is created,” and is of monumental significance. This idea is at the heart of constructivist epistemology which argues that scientific knowledge is constructed by the scientific community, which seek to measure and construct models of the natural world. Natural science therefore consists of mental constructs that aim to explain sensory experience and measurements. According to constructivists, the world is independent of human minds; knowledge of the world is always a human and social construction. Constructivism opposes the philosophy of objectivism which argues that a human can come to know the truth about the natural world not mediated by scientific approximations with different degrees of validity and accuracy. According to constructivists there is no single valid methodology in science, but rather a diversity of useful methods. Thus, truth is not some absolutely, objective thing, but the product of the way we construct our view of the world. Change worldviews and you change what is true.

Vico believed in a cyclical philosophy of history (where human history is, of course, a human construct). His term for the cyclical nature of history was “corsi e ricorsi” which is difficult to translate – maybe something like “travel and travel again.”  As societies develop, human nature also develops, and both manifest their development in changes in language, religion, folklore, economy, etc. Vico expressed an original organic idea that culture is a system of socially produced and structured elements. Hence, knowledge of any society comes from the social structure of that society, explicable, therefore, only in terms of its own language. As such, one may find a dialectical relationship between language, knowledge, and social structure. Relying on a complex etymology, Vico argues in Scienza Nuova that civilization develops in a recurring cycle (ricorso) of three ages: the divine, the heroic, and the human. Each age exhibits distinct political and social features and can be characterized by master tropes or figures of language. The giganti (giants) of the divine age rely on metaphor to compare, and thus comprehend, human and natural phenomena. In the heroic age, metonymy and synecdoche support the development of feudal or monarchic institutions embodied by idealized figures. The final age is characterized by popular democracy and reflection via irony. In this epoch, the rise of rationality leads to barbarie della reflessione (barbarism of reflection), and civilization eventually descends, only to rise again.Taken together, the recurring cycle of three ages – common to every nation – constitutes for Vico a storia ideale eterna (ideal eternal history). Therefore, it can be said that all history is the history of the rise and fall of civilizations.

You can look up tropes such as metonymy and synecdoche for yourself, as well as delve into the complexity of Vico’s ideas. The notion that empires (civilizations) rise and fall in predictable cycles is a mainstay of historical method and can be debated endlessly. You can, for example, follow any number of historians in arguing that great empires have a beginning period of growth, excitement, invention, and expansion, followed by a golden age, followed by a period of decay, decadence, and decline. Painting in broad strokes, such a theory makes a good deal of sense (with Western civilization being in the third stage at present). I’ll leave all of that to you to think about, and turn to my pots and pans.

Naples is famous for numerous dishes, not least of which is pizza. There are also a great many pasta dishes which can be found widely in Italy but with a Neapolitan twist, such as spaghetti alle vongole, spaghetti alla puttanesca, pasta e patate, timballo, and pasta e fagioli (pasta e fasule in local dialect, leading to pasta fazool in Italian-American). I am going to go with the Neapolitan version of timballo, a puff pastry “drum” filled with pasta, sauces, and vegetables. The pasta used varies. You can use spaghetti, bucatini, macaroni, ziti . . . whatever. The dish will be different, but what makes this timballo Neapolitan is the sauce. Remember, Italian besciamella is similar to, but not the same as French béchamel.

Timballo di pasta alla napoletana


500  gm ground beef
1 onion, peeled and diced
10 cherry tomatoes, halved
1 cup cooked peas
500 gm bucatini (or pasta of your choice)
200 ml besciamella sauce
200 gm grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
2 sheets puff pastry
1 egg yolk, beaten
extra virgin olive oil
white wine
salt and pepper


Make the sauce first. Heat a deep skillet over medium heat, add olive oil and sauté the onions until soft and translucent. Add the ground beef and brown in thoroughly. Add a few tablespoons of white wine and the tomatoes, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Cook over medium-high heat for 15 to 20 minutes, letting the ingredients all combine by stirring from to time, and letting the liquid reduce (but not dry out). Stir the peas into the sauce.

While the sauce is cooking, boil water in a large pot for the pasta. Cook the pasta until almost al dente. Drain the pasta, and keep it in the pot. Add the besciamella sauce and mix well. Add half the grated cheese, and stir to mix well. Ladle the tomato sauce into the pot slowly, stirring each time you add a ladleful.

Preheat the oven to 180° C.

Brush the pastry sheets with egg yolk.

Grease a large springform pan with butter, and line the pan with one of the pastry sheets. Fill the pastry with the pasta and sauce mixture, and sprinkle the other half of the grated cheese on top. Grind some black pepper to taste on top.

Cover the pan with the second puff pastry sheet, then trim the edges, and pinch them together so that the sauce is completely encased in pastry. Brush the top with egg yolk.

Lightly cover the top with baking parchment paper, and bake for 25 – 30 minutes. Remove the paper and bake of about 10 minutes more, or until the crust is golden.

Remove from the oven and let sit 15 to 20 minutes. Open up the springform and very carefully remove the timaballo. Slice and serve immediately.

Next time that Naples is my theme I’ll give you a recipe for a classic Neapolitan dessert.

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