Historical Rhetorics/Rhetoric During the Birth of the Modern University/Bevilacqua, Vincent M. “Campbell, Vico, and the Rhetorical Science of Human Nature.” Philosophy & Rhetoric 18.1 (1985): 23-30.

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“No other philosopher-scientist of the eighteenth century looks to the lights of the poet’s fancy, to the vapors of the Pythan temple, as the source of humane knowledge. To do so, to eschew, after Descartes, Bacon, Newton, and Locke, ‘clear ideas’ and ‘experiment’ as enlightened means to knowledge, in favor of the fantasia and poetical speech of Aesop and Homer, is to court intellectual heresy” (27).

Bevilacqua begins with the Scottish Enlightenment thinker George Campbell, noting that the central problem in studying him for modern scholars is that his work “fails systematically to delineate the ‘philosophy’ of rhetoric its title promises” and “arises from a view of human nature which is neither stated nor elaborated” (23). Campbell looked to make a rhetorical and philosophical inquiry into the human mind, aided by the “lights which the poet and the Orator so amply furnish” (23) but does not elaborate or detail his epistemological or ontological beliefs much. Bevilacqua believes that if we read Campbell in light of Vico’s epistemology, it becomes far clearer. These rhetorical-poetic lights spoken of are not traditional or Aristotelian. They are, rather, “philological artifacts (particulars) suggestive of that essentially rhetorical propensity of human nature to common (sense) modes of verbal conception and expression which reflect a (universal) lingua mentale comune” (24). Vico’s epistemology founds itself in its investment in the inventive capacities of the human mind, of the mytho-poetic imagination, rather than scientific method or empiricism. Invention is how man creates both “his intellectual universe and his modes of language by which he expresses that world” (25). Both Vico and Campbell seek common sense/topoi/lingua mentale comune. Yet we need to understand Vico’s epistemology in order to understand Campbell’s drive for a rhetorical common/communal sense precisely because of its focus on imagination. Campbell could not escape rationality, could not escape the constraints set by Bacon, saying “philosophical matters are understood to comprehend: every principle of science which may be deduced by just and lawful induction from the phenomena either of the human mind or of the material world” (25). In this figuration, invention is the recollection of previously acquired matter, a view prevalent in the Scottish mindset, and invention becomes a key difference. Yet their notions of common sense is quite similar, as the power to recognize and create first truths, which Vico takes as the power of rhetoric. Vico thus sets up metaphor as the first trope and primary mental capacity of invention, as it is a theory of first thought, of understanding the unknown through use of the known. We should use Vico’s concepts as the epistemological basis by which to read Campbell’s rhetorical inquiries, as Bevilacqua finally says that such a scientific (here he means Baconian) study of rhetoric is “vapid and fruitless... delineat[ing] the measure of all things while perceiving the meaning and value of nothing” (28).


  1. How are we to understand common sense? Is it how we would normally think of common sense, or is it, as I have implied above, more of a communal sense, a capacity for finding first truths and a (Sophistic?) basis of rhetorical thought/action/epistemology?
  2. Back to the first quote that I highlighted: Is this still intellectual heresy (not just to us, but to the wider intellectual community)? If not, what is it, and what might be the value in committing such heretical thinking?