Early Modern ‘New Sciences’: Inquiries into Ibn Khaldun and Giambattista Vico

In: Philological Encounters
Islam Dayeh Freie Universität Berlin

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Markus Messling Universität des Saarlandes PI ERC Minor Universality

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Living and writing in times of epistemic transitions, both Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406) and Giambattista Vico (d. 1744) were intellectual pathbreakers who advanced an understanding of the world based on consideration of human social and cultural production. Both Ibn Khaldun’s al-Muqaddima and Vico’s Scienza Nuova mark a significant moment in early modern philosophical and historical thought. But is it useful, even legitimate, to juxtapose such pivotal thinkers as Ibn Khaldun and Giambattista Vico under a common perspective? Were they not separated by roughly three centuries, living on opposite sides of the Mediterranean, and working in very different circumstances?

Despite such chronological and hermeneutical differences, there are several reasons that invite an entangled reading of Ibn Khaldun’s and Vico’s writings. First, in terms of their biographies, the two thinkers had similar careers: both were jurists, historians, rhetoricians, and talented writers who composed their own autobiographies. Furthermore, while critical of certain aspects of the scholasticism that characterized their contemporaries, both exhibited a high degree of knowledge of logic, history writing, rhetoric and casuistry, which they both put to use in their reflections on history and the conditions of human affairs, authority and knowledge. But perhaps most importantly, both expounded a philosophy of world history and universal time that drew on the epistemic paradigms of their times yet challenged them to open up new paths to understanding the position of human beings in the world.

These observations constituted the starting point for a symposium that we organised at the Villa Vigoni in June 2015. The symposium brought scholars together to engage in a comparative reading of the writings of Ibn Khaldun and Giambattista Vico on language, law and history.1 Despite the abundance of studies on Ibn Khaldun and Vico as individual scholars, there is very little systematic reflection on the historical, structural and philosophical relations between the two, although both are perceived as important founders of sociological and historical thought in modern scholarship. The symposium aimed to contribute to the study of intellectual exchange since the early modern period across the Mediterranean, and particularly between the Arab Mamluk polities, the early Ottoman Empire and the Italian Renaissance princedoms.

The articles presented in this issue offer fresh perspectives on the entangled histories, receptions and appropriations of Ibn Khaldun and Vico. Leonardo Capezzone’s article, “The City and the Law. Aspects of Modernity in Ibn Khaldūn’s Critique of the Philosopher”, offers a critique of modern orientalist engagements with the ideas of Ibn Khaldun, and argues that his intellectual innovation be sought in the judicial dimension of his thought. Raffaele Carbone’s article, “Difference, Migration, and Cultural Exchanges in Vico”, gives a broad overview of ways of understanding Vico in his 17th century Italian and Mediterranean context. Carbone suggests that Vico not only had an idea of world history but also the consciousness that his concept of world history is already embedded in an understanding of the world that transcends contemporaneous Catholic scholarship and includes Mediterranean history and scholarship. Markus A. Lenz’s article, “A Prophet of Divine Wisdom? Giambattista Vico and the Construction of the Pythagorean Myth”, explores 19th Century interpretations of Vico’s ideas about the early beginnings of humankind: whereas Vico claimed that Pythagoras had already met “oriental”, meaning pre-Greek, colonies of wisdom in Italy, in 19th Century intellectual debates this assumption becomes the battlefield on which Italian identity politics are fought, through tendencies of either purifying Italian origins or accepting Italy’s more complex Mediterranean relations. Markus Messling’s article gives a striking example of the latter. “A Bedouin Principle of Freedom for the Risorgimento d’Italia” explores the case of the 19th century Sicilian Michele Amari, a leading historian and philologist of his time and Italy’s first minister of public education. Messling considers Amari’s remarkable reading of Ibn Khaldun through Vico. Amari’s writings show the afterlife of this consciousness that traces back the ‘modern’ Vico-based philosophy of history to an earlier, specifically Islamic understanding of history as it is expressed by Ibn Khaldun. Because of its deeper historical experience of renewal through waves of different Islamic rulers, Amari’s Sicily is a prelude to the modern experience of freedom and historical development and thus a model for a free and unified Italy.

The intellectual outlook of the symposium, exemplified in the articles presented in this issue, raise critical questions regarding the potential and limits of the comparative method. How do we do comparative work? By which criteria? How do we approach common sources and legacies? Can it be assumed that Vico may have read Ibn Khaldun, or read sources that refer to Ibn Khaldun or works influenced by him? And in the absence of textual witnesses that document a historical connection, may we still explore common structures and patterns of thought?

A significant aim of this comparative exercise, however difficult and tenuous, was to move beyond the isolation of the disciplines in which the works of Ibn Khaldun and Vico are usually studied toward a more comparative and intercultural perspective. Such comparative work can take the form of conceptual, entangled and genealogical readings of philosophical and philological discourses, as attempted by the articles included in this issue. Another would be to carry out primary philological work on key texts, by editing and translating them. Participants in the symposium noted the absence of an Arabic translation of Vico’s Scienza and a translation of several of Ibn Khaldun’s works (e.g. Kitāb al-ʿIbar) into any European language. We hope that the articles assembled here contribute further to comparative research on early modern intellectual exchanges across the Mediterranean.

Islam Dayeh

Freie Universität Berlin

Markus Messling

Universität des Saarlandes; PI ERC Minor Universality


The symposium was entitled “Law, History and Philology. Exploring the Congruities between the Muqaddima of Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406) and the Scienza Nuova of Giambattista Vico (d. 1744)”, and convened by Islam Dayeh, Markus Messling and Elisabetta Benigni, and took place on 4–6 June 2015 at the Centro Italo-Tedesco, Villa Vigoni, Lake Como. Scholars who participated in the symposium but whose contributions are not published in this issue include: Stefan Leder, Vasileios Syros, Caterina Bori, Samuela Pagani, Avi Lifschitz, Jürgen Trabant, Ahmed Abdel Meguid, Marco Di Branco, Eleonora Pistis, Sabine Marienberg, and Pier Mattia Tommasino.

The symposium was generously supported by the German Research Foundation (DFG).

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