Sunday, August 03, 2008

The reduction of all facts to mathematical knowledge is a form of "conceit"

Vico argues, modern education suffers unnecessarily from ignoring the ars topica (art of topics) which encourage the use of imagination and memory in organizing speech into eloquent persuasion. The result, Vico argues, is an undue attention to the "geometrical method" modeled on the discipline of physics (DN, 21ff.), and an emphasis on abstract philosophical criticism over poetry. This undermines the importance of exposition, persuasion, and pleasure in learning; it "benumbs...[the] imagination and stupefies...[the] memory" (DN, 42), both of which are central to learning, complex reasoning, and the discovery of truth. Combining the methods of both Ancients and Moderns, Vico argues that education should aim ideally at cultivating the "total life of the body politic" (DN, 36): students "should be taught the totality of the sciences and arts, and their intellectual powers should be developed to the full" so that they "would become exact in science, clever in practical matters, fluent in eloquence, imaginative in understanding poetry or painting, and strong in memorizing what they have learned in their legal studies" (DN, 19).

This defense of humanistic education is expanded in the Orations, directed "to the flower and stock of well-born young manhood,"[5] where Vico makes a case for modern humanistic education and focuses on a certain kind of "practical wisdom" or prudentia which the human mind, with the appropriate discipline and diligence, is able to attain. This theme is continued in De Antiquissima, where Vico traces the consequences of his insight that language can be treated as a source of historical knowledge. Many words of the Latin language, Vico observes, appear to be "derived from some inward learning rather than from the vernacular usage of the people."[6] Treated as a repository of the past, Latin might be investigated as a way of "seek[ing] out the ancient wisdom of the Italians from the very wisdom of their words."(DA, 40)...

The reduction of all facts to the ostensibly paradigmatic form of mathematical knowledge is a form of "conceit," Vico maintains, which arises from the fact that "man makes himself the measure of all things" (Element I, §120, p.60) and that "whenever men can form no idea of distant and unknown things, they judge them by what is familiar and at hand" (Element II, §122, p.60). Recognizing this limitation, Vico argues, is at once to grasp that phenomena can only be known via their origins, or per caussas (through causes). For "Doctrines must take their beginning from that of the matters of which they treat" (Element CVI, §314, p.92), he says, and it is one "great labor of...Science to recover...[the] grounds of truth-truth which, with the passage of years and the changes in language and customs, has come down to us enveloped in falsehood" (Element XVI, §150, pp.64-5)...

The text of The New Science then constitutes Vico's attempt to develop a method which itself comes to be in the course of applying it to human experience, and this takes the form of a history of civil society and its development through the progress of war and peace, law, social order, commerce, and government. "Thus our Science," Vico says near the beginning of the work, "comes to be at once a history of the ideas, the customs, the deeds of mankind. From these three we shall derive the principles of the history of human nature, which we shall show to be the principles of universal history, which principles it seems hitherto to have lacked" ("Poetic Wisdom," §368, p.112). Accomplishing this task involves tracing human society back to its origins in order to reveal a common human nature and a genetic, universal pattern through which all nations run. Vico sees this common nature reflected in language, conceived as a store-house of customs, in which the wisdom of successive ages accumulates and is presupposed in the form of a sensus communis or "mental dictionary" by subsequent generations.

Vico defines this common sense as "judgment without reflection, shared by an entire class, an entire people, and entire nation, or the entire human race" (Element XII, §145, pp.63-4). It is also available to the philosopher who, by deciphering and thus recovering its content, can discover an "ideal eternal history traversed in time by the histories of all nations" (Proposition XLII, §114, p.57).The result of this, in Vico's view, is to appreciate history as at once "ideal"-since it is never perfectly actualized-and "eternal," because it reflects the presence of a divine order or Providence guiding the development of human institutions. Nations need not develop at the same pace-less developed ones can and do coexist with those in a more advanced phase-but they all pass through the same distinct stages (cursi): the ages of gods, heroes, and men.

Other Internet Resources Giambattista Vico Home Page
Institute for Vico Studies (Philip Verene, Emory University; Alexander Bertland, Hastings College)
Vico's Scienzia Nova (at the Giambattista Vico Home Page)
Related Entries a priori justification and knowledge Aristotle Bacon, Francis Descartes, René Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Heidegger, Martin Hume, David idealism Kant, Immanuel Plato Ricoeur, Paul Scottish Philosophy: in the 18th Century Spinoza, Baruch
Copyright © 2008 by Timothy Costelloe <>

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