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.”

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.” This is Vico’s position in, say …

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