Vico on Probable Knowledge


About a week or so ago, Rod Dreher, writing at his blog at the American Conservative website, recorded some of his observations from a lecture presented in New York by Philip Blond.  Dreher called particular attention to an insightful comment offered by one of the audience members following the lecture, to the effect that a civil community requires the possibility of citizens “asserting things they can’t prove.”  Reading this, I was reminded of a short work by Giambattista Vico, called On the Study Methods of Our Time, in which Vico argues for the inescapably probable nature of our knowledge concerning human affairs, and the importance of educating youth in a way that prepares them to accept verisimilitude as a proper standard for political and ethical debate.  It is a work that is highly relevant to our own intellectual predicament, not least because it effectively explains why we now find it impossible to assert things which we cannot prove, and why, as a result, our public arguments continue to be so sterile and discordant.

The specific target of Vico’s criticism in his brief essay – actually, an academic oration delivered before the Viceroy of Naples – was the undue emphasis placed by educators of his time on the then-novel methodology of science.  He had in mind things like Antoine Arnauld’s highly influential Port-Royal Logic, which was grounded in the geometrical, apodictic reasoning of Descartes, with its criterion of a “clear and distinct idea” applied to any assertion.  For Vico, this fascination of schoolmasters with the new method of science was likely to have grave consequences.  First, and most obviously, absorption in the natural sciences would distract students from other, more immediately relevant, subjects of study:

“But the greatest drawback of our educational methods is that we pay an excessive amount of attention to the natural sciences and not enough to ethics.  Our chief fault is that we disregard that part of ethics which treats of human character, of its dispositions, its passions, and of the manner of adjusting these factors to public life and eloquence.  We neglect that discipline which deals with the differential features of the virtues and vices, with good and bad behavior-patterns…and with the art of seemly conduct in life, the most difficult of all arts.”

More seriously, by exalting the Cartesian standard of truthfulness into a universal standard, teachers were effectively undermining their students’ ability to reason on matters of an ethical or political nature, where the neatness and conclusiveness of science can never be reproduced.  Human life is a realm of unavoidable contingency, an arena where “choice and chance” rule, where “prudential behavior,” and not “the inflexible standard of abstract right” is the goal.  Those who carry the Cartesian standard of truth into this realm will find little or nothing answering to this standard; as a result, they will eventually conclude that no true statements made be made about anything of an ethical or political purport: “those whose only concern is abstract truth experience great difficulty in achieving their means, and greater difficulty in attaining their ends.  Frustrated in their own plans, deceived by the plans of others, they often throw up the game.”  Over time, this program of study unfits its pupils for life in a civil community: “Our young men, because of their training, which is focused on these studies, are unable to engage in the life of the community, to conduct themselves with sufficient wisdom and prudence; nor can they infuse into their speech a familiarity with human psychology of permeate their utterances with passion.”  According to Vico, the antidote for this miseducation can be found in the study methods of the ancients, that is to say, by re-instituting the primacy of the traditional humanist program, with its emphasis on literature and rhetoric.  Such a course of study always had as its first purpose the formation of citizens capable of assuming their place in a rationally-ordered polis.

Needless to say, Vico’s argument could not have been more futile.  Since his time, education in the Western world can accurately be characterized as one long, and blindly enthusiastic, implementation of all the erroneous methods which he decried.  We now live in an era where the majority of high school graduates possess the merest vestiges of literacy, where instruction in the humanities at the university level has become a running joke, and yet nearly every voice of public influence – from politicians to pundits – clamors day and night for improved test scores in science and math.  We evince, as a nation, an almost perfect indifference towards the quality of the literary or historical instruction offered to our students.  Who can possibly be surprised, then, that our political discourse exhibits everywhere such perfect imbecility?  As Vico argued, humanist instruction was the prerequisite for fruitful political debate; it taught the habits and passions of the mind, the vicissitudes of life, maxims of prudence, all of which need to be accounted for in any viable political counsel.

Most importantly, humanist education taught a standard of truthfulness that was appropriate to human affairs, a standard which has nothing to do with the geometrical precision of Descartes’ “clear and distinct ideas,” but rather rested on the assumption that probable truth – contestable, inconclusive truth – was the best that could be achieved in ethical and political matters.  It is the absence of such a standard in our society which makes it impossible for any of us to “assert things we cannot prove.”  Exactly as Vico feared, we take the scientific standard of truth to be the sole and universal standard of truth; whatever is not scientifically verified, we assume, is not really true.  One symptom of this intellectual disease is that the modern mind indulges in the recurrent fantasy – played out every day in Psychology and Sociology Departments across the land – that an application of scientific methodology to human experience will somehow provide us with conclusive and substantive knowledge about ourselves.  And when this delusion falls apart, as it inevitably does, we swing just as wildly to the opposite extreme and declare that nothing true can be asserted regarding ethical or political topics.  Thus we oscillate endlessly between positivism and relativism – between sociobiology on the one hand, and post-modernism on the other – without ever discovering the grounds on which to establish some form of civil agreement. What is missing is a conception of truth arising directly from our experience in the world, a conception of truth as prudential reasoning or traditional wisdom.  What is missing are dialectical and rhetorical standards of verification, which are not “proofs,” but which are no less conducive to the truth for all that.

Liberalism depends crucially on this state of affairs, for when it seeks to neutralize theories of a “common good” – as it must – it relies on arguments of a relativistic tenor, but when it seeks to justify the political arrangements which it imposes on the community – as again it must – it appeals to arguments of a positivistic, technical nature.  The defeat of liberalism thus requires toppling the scientific paradigm of rationality from its pride of place in the modern mind.  James Kalb, the political theorist, is wonderfully lucid on this point.  In a speech posted at the First Principles website, (found here: Kalb argues that “political modernity is the application to social life of the modern understanding of reason, which has become technological reason.”  According to Kalb, an authentic conservatism, a conservatism that has some hope of success, will aim to replace this paradigm of rationality with one better matched to the realities of human social existence.

I would submit that the new conception of rationality we need is really the old one, the humanist one.  That conception of rationality has been ably described and vindicated in the past; I am thinking of books like Gadamer’s Truth and Method or Ernst Cassirer’s Logic of the Cultural Sciences. We ought to be turning to these works now with serious attention.  More basically, our task is simply the revival of humanist scholarship, in the schools especially, but in the broader culture also.  We must become regular readers again of Sophocles, Thucydides, Petrarch, Cervantes, Racine, Johnson, and Tolstoy, because a mind that is acquainted with their works will find it absolutely ridiculous to suppose that such authors do not state truth. Where such reading habits are inculcated, people grow accustomed to speaking of the human in human terms, to thinking of duties and laws in a manner appropriate to these topics, with relevant standards of truth.  They will never expect their neighbors to verify their ethical and political opinions scientifically, but neither will they then believe that the content of those opinions is not subject to affirmation or critique.  They will grow used to asserting things without proof, and over time, through debates that proceed laboriously, sloppily, always imperfectly, they may find themselves asserting many of the same things.  From such concord, the roots of communal life grow.


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Mark Anthony Signorelli is an essayist, playwright, and poet, who is committed to reviving the old ways of writing essays, plays, and poems.  He has spent a very large portion of his life producing work in such highly unfashionable genres as the traditional "fourteener" ballad and blank-verse tragedy (which may, in part, explain why you have never heard of him).  He currently serves as a Contributing Editor for the New English Review, a web journal, where he has written on the poverty and absurdity of contemporary philosophical materialism and on the need to return to the broad tradition of humanist, literary learning.  He lived for five years in the seaside town of Ocean Grove, NJ, one of the most charming and distinctive locales on the east coast, where he frequently sat on his very non-figurative front porch, and conversed with his neighbors sitting on their adjacent and equally non-figurative front porch (this is probably his only real qualification to write for FPR).  He now resides elsewhere in central Jersey with his wife - like Penelope, a woman of great arete. Visit Mark's website to see more of his writings!


  1. I teach adolescents, and this comes very near to the conclusions I’ve reached. “Lost in Transition” is a new sociological study that exposes the collapse of moral reasoning among emerging adults–it confirms what I’ve already experienced. It should be read and thought about by many people concerned with what’s happening in our culture. I’m finding Plato’s “Gorgias” to be a useful and delightful text to get at these issues with young people.

  2. Splendid. Truest thing I have read in a year of lurking here. I have often thought that university history departments should change their name to “Department of Human Nature.”

  3. Respectfully, I don’t understand this.

    “Our intellectual predicament … we now find it impossible to assert things which we cannot prove, and …. our public arguments continue to be so sterile and discordant.”

    In regard to the biggest questions of our time — does the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob live and reign? Do the laws of Nature and Nature’s God apply in the womb? Can the American Republic endure? — the argument is under way, the adversaries engaged, the consequences within sight.

    If those who would answer yes to each question are disadvantaged, is their predicament related to the intellectual basis of their cause or their tactics in advancing it?

    An island cannot rule a continent. Tom Paine made the assertion look easy, and he was phenomenally well subscribed in doing so. Given what Greece and Rome accomplished from their peninsulas and what Britain had by 1776 and Japan would later accomplish from their islands, how was Paine’s assertion to be proved except by means of tactics martial?

    As to God, what is the intellectual predicament? Has the mind of man changed since the time of Abraham and the time of Caesar Augustus and the time of Thomas Aquinas such that new methods of reasoning are required? Does the Holy Spirit no longer serve? Or do we need more sandals on the ground?

    Granted, today’s public argument is discordant. But what’s so bad about discord in the sense of merely hurling invective?

    To stop at slander would have seemed sublime in the days of Pericles and Alcibiades. The Qin emperors buried disputatious scholars alive. Philip’s son learned by Aristotle and persuaded by the sword.

    What were the behavioral extremes of public debate under the Hans; the Guptas; the Pharaohs and the Ghanaians; the Olmecs, Mayans, Toltecs and Aztecs; the Caesars; the Carolingians, Capetians and Bonaparte; the Normans and the Stuarts; the Iroquois, Cheyenne and Lakotas; the Democrats in the post-Reconstruction South; the czars, Bolsheviks and Communists; the Nazis and the fascists?

    What form will public argument take after the European Union? After America?

    As for today’s public argument being sterile, where is the sterility? All I see is teeming, fecund potential.

    The central political debate of our day is as meaningful as the Founding, the second founding, and the slavery question that defied resolution by words. The main question coming into sharp focus is whether the Constitution of 1789 shall stand on its foundation of negative rights, a shield against the many things the federal government may not do and an enumeration and containment of the few things it may do. Or shall the supreme law of the land recognize the vision expressed by President Obama and others – how many? — that the Constitution codify positive rights and impel the federal government to provide jobs, homes, medical care, meals, and more to the inhabitants of the country?

    Which framework will prevail? Will words alone suffice to decide the question? What conditions will attain upon resolution either way?

    I don’t see the sterility. What am I missing?


  4. For a direct refutation of Cartesian rationalism consult Vico’s DE ANTIQUISSIMA ITALORUM SAPIENTIA (ON THE ANCIENT WISDOM OF THE ITALIANS).

    Vico’s contention is encapsulated in the expression verum-factum. Man, Vico holds, can only know what he makes. Man didn’t create nature, therefore he can’t truly know it.

    Man however is the creatore of civil society. Because he creates society, he can know it intimately.

    Attention: Vico’s philosophy doesn’t necessarily mesh with Christian thinking on these subjects. This is one reason I personally find him so compelling. Any self-professing Christian who finds value in Vichian thinking may not have read or understood him properly.

  5. To Earl: Respectfully, I don’t understand your point either. Are you answering that all politics and public discourse=force+the Holy Spirit, in the end? If not, then what is your definition or description of functional public discourse? Is there any particular education propaedeutic to it? Whatever the case, I’m afraid you’re not just putting yourself against Mr. Signorelli and Vico on this one, but against the Philosopher himself, Aristotle: all Vico’s arguments (at least on this point) are straight out of the Nicomachean Ethics and Rhetoric, and it is folly to thumb your nose at them.

    To Sempronius: excellent points, though your caveat in the final sentence is strange. Because a Christian might disagree with some of Vico’s thought, he had better toss out the whole of it? If Christians had always behaved thus, the streambed of Western thought would have dried up many centuries ago.

  6. Sempronius,

    Funny. I remember your witty comments from other websites.

    Christians will change what they don’t like, such as Aristotle’s: pride = virtue; humility = vice.

    I actually was a Christian at one point, but the anti-Western / pro-immigration tone of contemporary Christianity drove me away. I’ve returned to one of our indigenous occidental religions (asatru).

  7. Mr. Lindley,

    I appreciate your comments. What I was hinting at was that what Mr. Signorelli’s essay was unintentionally misleading. It goes well beyond disagreeing with “some of Vico’s thought.” Vico’s concept of corso and ricorso, which is germane to his epistemology (and not in full agreement with Christian teaching), is integral to his critique of Cartesian rationalism (Descartes was educated by Jesuits, by the way) praised by all and sundry.

    It isn’t easy to separate out Vico’s conclusions with the un-Christian sources they are derived from.


    I didn’t know I had a following! 😉

    (Christians aren’t always a very edifying sight, are they?)

  8. Michael Umphrey:

    May I ask where and in what institution do you teach adolescents using Plato’s “Gorgias”?!

  9. Precisely diametrically lethally incorrect.

    The PROBLEM with science, the PROBLEM with economics, the PROBLEM with politics, is that everyone asserts things that cannot be proven. All of our institutions are running into the ground because all of our experts are following “theories” that can be DISPROVED in a few seconds, or at best theories that can never be proved or disproved. Global warming, neoclassical economics, American exceptionalism, the value of diversity, egalitarianism, evolution, the Big Bang.

    The last two (evolution, Big Bang) are untestable and thus should not be considered as bases for thought. The others have been conclusively and absolutely disproved by plain old FACTS.

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