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A Note on Vico’s Concept of Knowledge

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Vico’s fundamental distinction, as everyone with the least acquaintance with his writings knows, is between verum and certum. Verum is a priori truth and is attained in for example, mathematical reasoning, where every step is rigorously demonstrated. Such a priori knowledge can extend only to what the knower himself has created. It is true of mathematical knowledge precisely because men themselves have made mathematics. It is not, as Descartes supposed, discovery of an objective structure—in fact the eternal and most general characteristics of the real world, but rather invention: invention of a symbolic system which men can logically guarantee only because men have made it themselves, irrefutable only because it is a figment of man’s own creative intellect. “Geometria demonstramus quia facimus. Si physica demonstrare possemus, faceremus.”1 “The rule and criterion of Truth is to have made it,” Vico said a year later, in 1710.2 Faceremus: but this is not possible: men cannot make the physical world. “Physica a caussis probare non possumus, quia elementa rerum naturalium extra nos sint.”3

Only God can know these elementa, because he has made them all. This includes the “Zenonian” metaphysical “points,” of which the attribute is conatus, the conatus and motus which make the world go round, whereby flamma ardet, planta adolescit, bestia per prata lascivit, and so on. None of this is wholly transparent to us, for we did not make it; and, since this is not factum by us, it is not verum for us. So much is clear. There is no assumption of continuity between natural forces of this kind, on the one hand, and human activity, intellectual or imaginative, on the other.

Other thinkers—Herder, Schelling, the Naturphilosophen, and the Romantics—believed in such continuity, and perhaps they counted earlier thinkers among their ancestors—Renaissance scientists and mystics and a tradition which stretches back to the Greeks and forward to modern theologians and metaphysicians. But this is not what Vico believed. He did not identify, but on the contrary sharply distinguished, natural processes, which are more or less impenetrable, from human volitions, thoughts, images, forms of expression, which we “create” ourselves. We do not know the natural processes per caussas, for we do not enter their workings. Hence, for us they are not a form of verum. Vico’s dualism cuts across the metaphysical map in a different direction from that of Descartes, but it is no less dualistic, with its obvious debt to Plato and to the Christian separation of spirit from matter.

What else, besides mathematics, falls on the scienza-verum side of the great division? That which earlier Renaissance thinkers—Manetti, Pico, Campanella—had spoken of—all that we had wrought ourselves: “houses, towns, cities, pictures, sculptures, arts and sciences, languages, literatures, all are ours,” said Manetti in 1452; and Pico, Bouelles, and Ficino had spoken of man’s autonomy. Vico echoes this. “Tandem deus naturae artifex: animus artium, fas sit dicere, deus.”4 This is Vico’s position in, say, 1709-10, the period of De nostri and De antiquissima. He has broken the spell of Cartesianism from which he had begun. Descartes is severely taken to task for recommending application of the geometric method to regions for which it is unsuitable, for example, poetry and rhetoric. The narrowing educational influence of the Cartesian insistence on the deductive method as the sole path to knowledge is condemned; it is denounced as a kind of pedagogic despotism which suppresses various other faculties and methods of mental development, especially the imagination.

Nicolini is surely right in stressing that Vico was particularly opposed to Descartes Discours de la méthode. with its fanatical monism and especially its contempt for scholarship and humane studies. But at this stage mathematics is still described by Vico as being “like a divine science, since in it the true and the made coincide.” There are two types of knowledge: scienza, knowledge per caussas, which can give complete truth, truth one can have only of what one has made—for example, of logical, mathematical, poetical creations; and conscienza, the knowledge of the “outside” observer of the external world—nature, men, things, motus, conatus, and so on. Here Vico is undoubtedly influenced by Bacon and Hobbes, by experimentalism, the possibility of understanding processes and objects that we can to some degree reproduce artificially in the laboratory, and perhaps also by the Neapolitan empiricists of the seventeenth century.

All this is novel enough. But his boldest contribution, the concept of “philology,” anthropological historicism, the notion that there can be a science of mind which is the history of its development, the realization that ideas evolve, that knowledge is not a static network of eternal, universal, clear truths, either Platonic or Cartesian, but a social process, that this process is traceable through (indeed, is in a sense identical with) the evolution of symbols—words, gestures, pictures, and their altering patterns, functions, structures and uses—this transforming vision, one of the greatest discoveries in the history of thought, was still in the future. Descartes in a notorious passage in La recherche de la vérité observed that “a man needs Greek and Latin no more than Swiss or Bas-Breton; to know the history of the Roman Empire no more than of the smallest country there is”5 , or in the Discours complained about the idle exaggerations of historians as a mere loading of the mind with superfluous information. On this Vico as yet has nothing to say. In 1709 he still accepts Descartes’ gibe that all that classical scholars can, at most, hope to discover is what was known to “Cicero’s servant girl.” History is not rated higher than physics: the study of certum—conscientia—is entitled to a province of its own, which scientia or geometric methods must not invade, but it is an inferior discipline.

No doubt Vico had been deeply impressed by Lucretius and his account of the bestial beginnings of men; by Bacon’s stress on the part played by myth and imagination in human progress (as expounded in De augmentis, that “golden book”); by Hobbes, not only on account of his doctrine of experiment as an imitation of—and thereby a means of insight into—nature, but also by his view that “civil philosophy,” that is, political science, is demonstrative and belongs to the realm of verum, because “we make the Commonwealth ourselves,” not historically but as a rational, deliberate pattern, an intellectual artifact. And Tacitus delighted him with his sharp insights into individual character in action, as he delighted Machiavelli. But none of this coalesced, none of it would have come to life in the new synthesis, the new conception of philosophy as the consciousness of the cumulative experience of entire societies, without the central principle which is Vico’s ultimate claim to immortality: the principle according to which man can understand himself because, and in the process, of understanding his past—because he is able to reconstruct imaginatively (in Aristotle’s phrase) what he did and what he suffered, his hopes, wishes, fears, efforts, his acts, and his works, both his own and those of his fellows. With their experience his own is interwoven, his own and his and their ancestors’, whose monuments, customs, laws, but, above all, words, still speak to him; indeed, if they did not, and if he did not understand them, he would not understand his fellows’ or his own symbols, he would not be able to communicate or think or conceive purposes, to form societies or become fully human.

Enough has been written on Vico’s historicism, on his idea of a culture (a notion of which, if he was not the original begetter, he was the first to grasp the full importance for historians and philosophers alike), to make it unnecessary to stress its salient characteristics. Nor would this be an easy task: Vico had not (as Heine once observed of Berlioz) enough talent for his genius. Too many new ideas are struggling for simultaneous expression. Vico is trying to say too much, and his notions are often mere sketches, inchoate, ill-formed; he cannot keep a cool head in the storm of inspiration; he is at times carried away by the flood of disorganized ideas, and differs greatly in this respect from such great intellectual organizers and architects as Descartes or Leibniz or Kant or even Hegel. Vico’s exposition often attains to rhapsodic, at times volcanic, power; but this does not make for coherent exposition. There are, as his critics have not been slow to point out, many obscurities and contradictions.

In what sense, we may well ask, do men “make” their history?6 Conscious effort, deliberate attempts to explain the world to oneself, to discover oneself in it, to obtain from it what one needs and wants, to adapt means to ends, to express one’s vision or describe what one sees or feels or thinks, individually or collectively—understanding, communication, creation—all these could be described as kinds of doing and making. But this omits too much: unconscious and irrational “drives,” which even the most developed and trained psychological methods cannot guarantee to lay bare; the unintended and unforeseen consequences of our acts which we cannot be said to have “made” if making entails intention; the play of accident; the entire natural world, by interaction with which we live and function, which remains opaque inasmuch as it is not, ex hypothesi, the work of our hands or mind—since we do not “make” this, how can anything into which it enters be grasped as verum? how can there be a scienza of such an amalgam?

Furthermore, what is the relationship of the altering categories and the forms of symbolism which embody them—the procession (the fact that it is cyclical is not relevant here) from the dark caves of the grossi bestioni to the divine, the mythopoeic and the heroic, poetic, metaphor-creating cultures, and from them to the humane, prose-using democracies? What is the relation of these changing forms of vision to creation, to the eternal laws, the storia ideale eterna, and the principles of the “civil theology” to which all cultures are subject? Since not we but God made the everlasting laws of the corsi e ricorsi, how can we know them? What kind of a priori intuitions are being claimed? And is the Renaissance parallel between the microcosmic and macrocosmic self evidently valid? Is it really so obvious that phylogenesis—the history of the tribe—can be deduced from ontogenesis—our individual recollections of our own mental and emotional growth? What guarantees this a priori historical phenomenology? By what faculty do we divine it? And what is the role of Providence in the storia ideale? If men make their history, does Providence “make” them create it as they do? If Providence turns men’s bestial lusts, terrors, vices, into means for social and moral order, security, happiness, rational organization, what part is played in all this by men’s own motives, purposes, choices? In what sense are men free, as Vico maintained? And, whatever the answer to this ancient theological puzzle, how do we know that it is indeed a providence that shapes our lives? What, if any, is the relation of Vico’s undoubted Christian faith, his Catholic orthodoxy, to his anthropological, linguistic, historical naturalism, or of his teleology to his belief that to each order of culture belongs its own peculiar modes of consciousness, not necessarily superior or inferior to its predecessors or successors?

I do not know if answers can be found to such questions which historians of ideas have not settled; perhaps Vico himself has not left us sufficient means for solving them; they arose again with the German philosophers of history and, in new guises, remain to plague us to this day. Be that as it may, the claim for Vico that I wish to make is more circumscribed. It is this: that he uncovered a species of knowing not previously clearly discriminated, the embryo that later grew into the ambitious and luxuriant plant of German historicist Verstehen—empathetic insight, intuitive sympathy, historical Einfühlung, and the like. It was, nevertheless, even in its original, simple form, a discovery of the first order.

To apply the old medieval maxim that one can fully know only what one has made to such provinces as mathematics, mythology, symbolism, language, is evidence enough of philosophical genius (although we have had to wait till our own time to realize its full import), a genius on which the cultural anthropology and the philosophical implications of new linguistic theories have cast a new and extraordinary light. But Vico did more than this. He uncovered a sense of knowing which is basic to all humane studies: the sense in which I know what it is to be poor, to fight for a cause, to belong to a nation, to join or abandon the Communist party, to feel nostalgia, terror, intimacy, the omnipresence of a god, to understand a gesture, a work of art, a joke, a man’s character, that one is lying to oneself.

How does one know these things? In the first place, no doubt by personal experience; in the second place because the experience of others is sufficiently woven into one’s own to be seized quasi-directly, as part of constant intimate communication; and in the third place by the working (sometimes by a conscious effort) of the imagination. If a man claims to know what it is like to lose one’s religious faith—in what way it transforms the shape of one’s world—his claim may or may not be valid; he may be lying or deceiving himself, or misidentifying his experience. But the sense in which he claims to know this is quite different from that in which I know that this tree is taller than that, or that Caesar was assassinated on the Ides of March, or that seventeen is a prime number, or that vermilion cannot be defined, or that the king in chess can move only one square at a time. In other words, it is not a form of “knowing that.” Nor is it like knowing how to ride a bicycle or to win a battle, or what to do in case of fire, or knowing a man’s name, or a poem by heart. That is to say, it is not a form of “knowing how” (in Gilbert Ryle’s sense).

What then is it like? It is a species of its own. It is a knowing founded on memory or imagination. It is not analyzable except in terms of itself, nor can it be identified, save by examples, such as those adduced above. This is the sort of knowing which participants in an activity claim to possess as against mere observers: the knowledge of the actors, as against that of the audience, of the “inside” story as opposed to that obtained from some “outside” vantage point; knowledge by “direct acquaintance” with my “inner” states or by sympathetic insight into those of others, which may be obtained by a high degree of imaginative power; the knowledge that is involved when a work of the imagination or of social diagnosis or a work of criticism or scholarship or history is described not as correct or incorrect, skillful or inept, a success or a failure, but as profound or shallow, realistic or unrealistic, perceptive or stupid, alive or dead.

What this capacity is, the part that it plays in the understanding of the simplest communication addressed by one sentient creature to another, and a fortiori in the creation of adequate vehicles of expression, of criticism, above all in the recovery of the past not as a collection of factual beads strung on a chronicler’s string (or of “ideas,” arguments, works of art, similarly treated by the taxonomists and antiquaries of the humanities), but as a possible world, a society which could have had such characteristics whether it had precisely these or not—the nature of this kind of knowing is Vico’s central topic. The past can be seen through the eyes—the categories and ways of thinking, feeling, imagining—of at any rate possible inhabitants of possible worlds, of associations of men brought to life by what, for want of a better phrase, we call imaginative insight. There must exist a capacity for conceiving (or at least a claim to be able to conceive) what “it must have been like” to think, feel, act, in Homeric Greece, in Rome of the Twelve Tables, in Phoenician colonies given to human sacrifice, or in cultures less remote or exotic, but still requiring suspension of the most deep-lying assumptions of the inquirer’s own civilization. It cannot be otherwise if one is to begin to achieve any understanding of the “inner” structure of something outside one’s immediate range of vision whether or not it is real or a dream. This remains true, whatever view one takes of the great controversy about the methods of the natural sciences as against those of the humane studies.

The identification of this sense of “knowing,” which is neither deductive nor inductive (nor hypotheticodeductive), neither founded on the direct perception of the external world nor a fantasy which lays no claim to truth or coherence, is Vico’s achievement. His program for the “new” approach to the human sciences is founded upon it. His claim may be extravagant: to call something knowledge which is so obviously fallible and needs empirical research to justify its findings may be an error. But he did uncover a mode of perception, something entailed in the notion of understanding words, persons, outlooks, cultures, and the past.

When did he conceive this? When did he move from criticism of the unhistorical, indeed antihistorical, approach of Descartes, and of Grotius and Selden (whom he had admired so deeply), to his new conception of historical method? Perhaps not much before 1720, when in the De uno^7 the first bold application of the verum-factum principle to human history is made, an application which later will be fully formulated in the celebrated passage of the last edition of the Scienza nuova,8 which is dedicated to the effort to show how the findings of “philology” can at last be united with “philosophy”—the eternal principles revealed through reason planted in us by God and developed with the help of his providence, the path from certum to verum, the pure Platonic vision from which Vico all his life drew inspiration. Yet the rudiments of this thought already appear in 1710, in the second chapter of De antiquissima, where we are told that “historici utiles non qui facta crassius et genericas caussas narrant, sed qui ultimas factorum circumstantias persequuntur et caussarum peculiares reserrunt.” This undoubtedly reflects the influence of Bacon, but the emphasis on the concrete and the unique in the writing of history is a presage of what is to come ten years later. Leibniz also tried to formulate a doctrine of a priori definitions of individual entities by purely rational-logical methods, a path which, unlike Vico’s, proved to be philosophically absurd.

No one understood the full originality of Vico in his lifetime or for nearly a century after his death, not even those few who actually read him: neither his fervent Neapolitan and Venetian admirers in the eighteenth century nor the famous men who commented on him later so superficially—Goethe and Jacobi, Galiani and Chastellux, Hamann and Herder (who arrived at similar ideas themselves), Joseph de Maistre and Ballanche; no one before Michelet seems to have had an inkling that Vico had opened a window to a new realm of thought, still less that those who made the effort to unravel the terrible tangles of his immensely suggestive but often dark ideas would never again be able to return to their beginnings—to the blissful simplicity and symmetry of Descartes or Spinoza, Hume or Russell (or even Kant), still less to that of the Positivist historians and historical theorists; not, at any rate, without an acute and constant sense of the defectiveness of their conceptions of the mind and its powers, and consequently of what men are and how they come to be what they are. Not until the days of Dilthey and Max Weber did the full novelty of the implications for the philosophy of mind and epistemology of Vico’s theses about the imaginative resurrection of the past begin to dawn upon some of those who, in their turn, resurrected him.

  1. 1

    De nostri temporis studiorum ratione, edited by F. Nicolini (Bari: Laterza, 1914), Section IV.

  2. 2

    De antiquissima Italorum sapientia, edited by F. Nicolini (Bari: Laterza, 1914), Chapter I, p. 62.

  3. 3

    Ibid., Chapter III, p. 76.

  4. 4

    Opere, Vol. I: Le orazioni inaugurali, Il de Italorum sapientia, e le polemiche, edited by G. Gentile and F. Nicolini (Bari, 1914), p. 7.

  5. 5

    Oeuvres de Descartes, edited by C. Adam and P. Tannery, (Paris: Cerf, 1897-1913), X, 503.

  6. 6

    Mr. Bruce Mazlish has formulated some of these difficulties in his interesting essay on Vico, in The Riddle of History: The Great Speculators from Vico to Freud (New York: Harper & Row, 1966).

  7. 8

    (Naples, 1744), Par. 331.

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