CEPA eprint 1344 (EVG-054)

Vico (1668–1744): An early anticipator of radical constructivism

Gash H. & Glasersfeld E. von (1978) Vico (1668–1744): An early anticipator of radical constructivism. The Irish Journal of Psychology 4(1): 22–32. Available at http://cepa.info/1344
Table of Contents
Vico’s Theory
Vico and Piaget
Vico’s constructivist epistemology is compared with that of Piaget with a view to clarifying Piaget’s theory of knowledge. Piaget’s interpreters often show a lack of concern with the metaphysical foundations of cognitive structures. Vico’s emphasis on the limitations of human knowledge, therefore, is helpful in avoiding interpretive inconsistency. In Vico’s and in Piaget’s radical constructivism, knowledge is non-ontological in the sense that no claims may be made about the relation between cognitive structures and reality. Structural adequacy is derived from the consistency of the self-referencing cognitive system.
Giambattista Vico was appointed Professor of Rhetoric at the University: of Naples in 1699. He is perhaps best known for his cyclical theory of history, and in Ireland for his influence on James Joyce; however Vico also investigated the foundations of cultural phenomena (1744) and human knowledge (1710). It is the originality of Vico’s epistemological views which may have made it so difficult for his contemporaries to understand him, and Berlin (1976) has recently noted that it was not until the twentieth century that his revolutionary mathematical ideas could begin to be assimilated.[Note 1] The purpose of this present paper is to discuss Vico’s theory of knowledge with a view to broadening our understanding of what is involved in, and implied by his constructivist epistemology:
In contemporary psychology Jean Piaget’s theory is a successor to this tradition. Modern interpreters of Piaget, however, have emphasized the psychological aspects of his theory, and consequently certain philosophical implications have been ignored. The way in which these philosophical implications have been misinterpreted can be seen to be a direct result of some of the assumptions made by many contemporary psychologists. These assumptions derive from the scientific tradition as interpreted by many twentieth-century psychologists, a tradition which has placed great emphasis on objectivity in psychological experiment. In contrast to this emphasis little effort has been expended on the question of the meaning of stimuli in experiments. For example, it has been assumed generally that problems of objectivity are met when stimuli can be defined accurately. Questions concerning the meaning of stimuli appear to have been regarded as philosophical and so of no importance for scientific psychology. The irony is, as Shotter (1975) neatly put it, that psychology adopted the methods of nineteenth-century physics at about the time when the greatest physicists were beginning to understand the limits of their notions of objectivity and abandon them.
In a psychological theory in which there is an explicit statement about the constructed nature of knowledge it is hard to avoid questions on the nature of objectivity. Yet Piaget’s interpreters have managed to avoid this sort of question for years. Part of the problem is that Piaget himself gives the appearance of avoiding questions on the relation -between what we know and reality, though his most recent statement on the problem (Piaget 1976) is entirely consistent with the view presented in this present paper.
Vico’s theory of knowledge is useful for at least two reasons. First, it is an early example of a consistently constructivist epistemology. For this reason it will be interesting to compare Vico’s theory with that of Piaget – particularly with reference to their interpretation of the environment. The way in which Vico regards knowledge of the external world is invigorating because it stands in strong contrast to the interpretations of well-known cognitive developmental psychologists such as Kohlberg (1968) and Beilin (1971). Second, Vico is obscure. Because of this obscurity Vico’s message will not be so easily assimilated to existing misinterpretations of Piaget’s theory.
In the case of startlingly novel epistemological ideas it is extremely difficult to avoid over-assimilation. The cognitive tradition that has accustomed us to expect ‘knowledge’ to be a sort of reflection or replica of an independently existing reality is a tradition of enormous weight and power, and it tends to make us reluctant even to consider the possibility that knowledge and the activity of knowing could- be investigated from alto-gether different premises. Yet, if we want to understand the constructivist epistemology and its implications for psychological research, this is precisely what we shall have to do.
Vico outlined a theory of knowledge that puts him more than two centuries ahead of his lime and places him in the company of the great physicists Heisenberg (1955), Schrödinger (1964), and Bridgman (1964), of philosophers of science of the school of Norwood Hanson (1965) and Thomas Kuhn (1970), and of contemporary cyberneticists such as Humberto Maturana (1970), Heinz von Foerster (1966), and William Powers (1973). Though Vico arrived at his conclusions by way of altogether different studies and considerations, what he says foreshadows in the most extraordinary way the epistemological conclusions of the constructivist thinkers of our time.
Vico’s Theory
Vico’s theory of knowledge is explicitly constructivist. In his book On the Study Methods of our Time (1709) he laid the foundations of this theory. He said that we are able to demonstrate geometrical propositions because they are human creations, and further, that to the extent to ;which we can reproduce phenomena in physics – to that extent only can we claim to know them (Vico, 1709/1965, p. 23). One year later, in 1710,, Vico developed these ideas much more fully in an epistemological treatise entitled On the Ancient Wisdom of the Italians, a work known as the De Antiquissima. The basic formula in Vico’s etymological analyses of Latin was verum ipsum factum, which implied that the true was identical with the made (Vico, 1710, ch. 1, 1: Nicolini p. 248, Parenti p. 191).[Note 2] Vico discussed this formula in a number of places throughout the De Antiquissima and his meaning only becomes clear after these different discussions have been synthesized. The following quotation is perhaps most apt in this context: “As a matter of fact, knowing is tantamount to possessing the general idea, the conceptual pattern (or mode) according to which the object was created – being aware, instead, may be defined as the ability to apprehend objects whose general idea (or mode), presiding over their origination, is impossible for us to demonstrate” (Vico, 1710, ch: 1, 3: Nicolini p. 258, Parenti p. 196). To put Vico’s criterion more simply, to know something entailed being able to provide the cognitive operations by which the idea was made. In the absence of the necessary operations one could admit to awareness but not to knowledge.
Vico was asserting the importance of a developmental analysis of the origins of ideas and therefore viewed science as an account of the genetic process through which the object of knowledge is brought into existence. “So that seen from this viewpoint, science, or knowledge is the account of the genetic- process, or the way, the mode by which the object comes into existence” (Vico, 1710, ch. 1, 1: Nicolini p. 249, Parenti pp. 191–192). The parallel here with Piaget’s genetic epistemology is striking. In fact - Genevan research could be characterized as a continuing search for more adequate descriptions of this genetic process for different schemes and conservations.
The insistence that man must recognize the manner in which ideas are put together as a necessary step in assessing their truth is close to the spirit of Bridgman’s discussion of operationalism in The Nature of Physical Theory (1964). Bridgman was appealing to physicists to attend to the operations by which phenomena were produced and recorded in experiments. His principal concern was that the structure of language did not accurately reflect the dynamic nature of the phenomena which he was observing. He reasoned that by attending to the operations involved in the production and observation of phenomena he could avoid distortions in his description of any experiment. However, Bridgman seems to have been sure only of information derived from experiments with well specified physical operations. That is to say with operations which could be specified in sufficient detail to be repeated in a scientific experiment. Mental operations, Bridgman thought, always required verification in experiment. What is implied here is that meaning is dependent on the operations which are coordinated in understanding. The possibility of a calculus of mental operations does not appear to have appealed or occurred to Bridgman. It must be emphasized that this interpretation of Bridgman is not consistent with the interpretation of Bridgman as usually presented in psychology textbooks.
Vico held that the possibility of complete knowledge and truth in mathematical and geometrical statements derived in part from the accessibility of the operations in their construction, and in part from their being wholly human inventions (Vico, 1710, ch. 1, 2: Nicolini p. 253, Parenti pp. 193194; and Vico, 1710, ch. 4, 2: Nicolini pp. 270-271, Parenti pp. 206- 207).Points and lines are defined in ways which cannot correspond to objects in everyday geometrical experience. In geometry textbooks, for example, points have location but no extension, and lines are equally unreal having length but no extension. In a similar manner what one considers a unit is not to be found in everyday experience unambiguously. Whether two sets of three sheep are regarded as such, or as six sheep, depends on the person describing them. It depends on how this person organizes his experience of them.
Vico was not concerned exclusively with mathematical knowledge, though in this area he has been thought to have made an immense contribution (Corsano, 1969; Berlin, 1976). Rather his constructivism was a general theory of thought. Vico’s analysis of one etymological fragment illustrates well the generality with which he wished to apply his analysis of the genetic origins of concepts. This concerned the interchangeable character of two Latin phrases: quaestio nominis and quaestio definitionis (Vico, 1710, ch. 1, 2: Nicolini p. 254, Parenti p. 194). From this identity Vico inferred that the Latins “thought that they were seeking a definition whenever they investigated what happens in the mind of an average person when a particular word is uttered”. When this inference is -taken in the context of Vico’s constructivism, “what happens in the mind” becomes something which has been made by the thinker. Not stopping with what we might agree to call conceptual items, Vico’s etymological analyses of the faculties of sense provided for the construction of all qualities of objects (Vico, 1710, ch. 7, 1: Nicolini pp. 292–293; Parenti p. 221). Vico put it this way:
If our senses are faculties, i.e. productive agents, the qualities of objects are our own creations. In other words we create colours by our sight, savours by our taste, sounds by our hearing, coldness and warmth by our touch.
In short for Vico in 1710 everything we experience is initially a personal construction.
Vico’s emphasis on the analysis of conceptual structure, stating the importance of looking at the operations involved in constructing objects of knowledge, was counterbalanced by his warnings about the limitations of human thought. In Vico’s (1710) Conclusion we find him asserting that his metaphysics is attuned to the impotence of human thought (Nicolini p. 307, Parenti p. 230). Human thought was limited because there are problems with the validity of the elements in thought. That is, with the way the elements do not correspond to things in themselves. In mathematics and geometry the constructions with unassailable truth were abstractions or fictions with no ontological constraints. In any investigation of a phenomenon experienced in nature man is studying something which is outside of himself. For this reason he can no longer be sure of complete certainty in his investigation. In addition, in studying natural phenomena rational thought proceeds by analysis which necessarily produces information about less than the thing in itself. Vico argued that the Ancient Italians held these views because the word minuere meant both to divide and to diminish (Vico, 1710, ch. 1, 2: Nicolini p. 252, Parenti p. 193).
Well: it is exactly for this reason that man, who sets about investigating the nature of physical phenomena, finally realizes that it is impossible for him to understand Nature at all. The conviction grows upon him that he does not possess the elements of which the things of Nature are made up. This disadvantage of the human mind is due to its limitations, and to the fact that all objects are external to it (Vico 1710, ch. 1, 2: Nicolini p. 253, Parenti p. 193).
This corresponds to an early form of the Gestalt principle – the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Put another way, in knowing the object is analyzed into parts, but there is more to the object than the sum of its parts, so the object is not fully known. Further, the Ancient Italians in comparing human with divine reason held that only God was in full possession of reason: man, in his turn, could grasp things in the act of thinking but could not fully understand them (Vito, 1710, ch. 1, 1: Nicolini p. 249, Parenti p. 191). Vico’s thesis on human knowledge and its limits could be summarized in two statements. First, phenomena created by God and not man can be known probabilistically but not with complete assurance by man. Second, man can be completely sure of phenomena which he has constructed himself. It is important to note that Vico did not assert that truth was guaranteed by virtue of the construction of a set of concepts, rather truth could be assessed through an investigation of the way in which the cognitive operations had been put together. This is a stark short summary, but necessarily so in the context of the aims of this paper.
It is most interesting to note that in his discussion of the reconstruction of physical phenomena Vico argues that the crucial aspect of this reconstruction is the process involved. Vico held that this process should be entirely analogous to that used in geometry (Vico, 1710, ch. 7, 4: Nicolini p. 296, Parenti p. 223; Vico, 1710, ch. 7, 5: Nicolini p. 304, Parenti p. 227). Now Vico had objected to the geometrical method as it was advocated by Descartes. The crucial difference between Vico’s formulation and that of Descartes was the creative and synthetic character of Vico’s geometry: in the Cartesian analytic method Vico saw only a technique for explaining an event once it was understood (Vico, 1710, ch. 7, 5: Nicolini pp. 302-303, Parenti pp. 226-227). Vico argued that the Cartesian analysis was quite inadequate as an explanation of novelty. Peirce regarded abduction as covering all the operations by which theories and conceptions are engendered, induction being the operation producing an assent, and deduction including any attempt at mathematical demonstration (Peirce, 1901/1957, p. 237). An integral feature of abduction, also, was the novel character of abducted ideas. This emphasis on both genesis and novelty in Peirce’s ideas on abduction makes Vico’s criticisms of Descartes – and his resolution of these difficulties – seem quite like Peirce’s ideas on abduction.
Vico’s epistemology is an early example of a constructivist theory of knowledge. A constructivist epistemology is one in which knowledge is constructed, or built up, through interactions between existing cognitive structures and experiential elements. These structures are sets of operations with particular types of organization. In deciding whether a theory qualifies as radical, following von Glasersfeld (1974b, 1975), the way in which the term environment is used is crucial. In order to qualify as radical the theory must hold that the elements of experience are themselves constructions. In this event rational knowledge is regarded as one good match between an organism’s cognitive structures and experiential elements. The adequacy of the knowledge is assessed by its consistency. No assumptions may be made about the relation between the cognitive structures and ontological reality. This is because any effort to match cognitive structures with reality must be made via these same cognitive structures and so cannot be successful. This idea has a long history. It is what George Berkeley implied in the first decade of the eighteenth century, at about the same time as Vico, though it is not clear that Berkeley was understood generally. (It is not known whether Berkeley and Vico met during Berkeley’s Italian travels. In Berkeley’s Italian Journals (1717, Luce and Jessop, 1953, vol. 7, p. 241) the phrase “So far Signor Giam. Battista” is found. Thus Berkeley knew about Vico but so far no account of a meeting between the two has been discovered.)
Radical constructivism is difficult to communicate today for similar reasons to the ones which led to misinterpretations of Berkeley’s theory. That is, its implications go against common sense. Even constructivism in a weak form, that children construct what they know of the world, has been described recently as ‘absurd’ by Hamlyn (1973). Part of Hamlyn’s interpretation is that the child cannot learn from others because others are part of the world which the child must construct. Certainly it would be fair to describe this interpretation of constructivism as absurd! One is reminded of those critics of Piaget who claim that he fails to take account of the type of environment or culture in which children live (e.g. Riegel, 1975). In both cases these critics have not understood the unusual status of environment terms in theories of this type. In any constructivist theory the environment is understood by any person within the limits imposed by his existing cognitive structures. Much is learned about the world in social settings from other people. What is learned, however, and how it is learned are regarded as falling under a personal process of construction.
Yet in what sense is Vico’s epistemology accountable? Quite simply, hypotheses are confirmed by data which are themselves cognitive productions. For Vico the system of operations out of which theorems are formed is constrained by organizational criteria. These constraints appear to be very similar to those operating in Piaget’s equilibration theory. Vico .pointed to the etymological identity of scientia (science) and scitum which he interpreted as meaning ‘aptly fitting’ (Vico, 1710, ch. 7, 4: Nicolini p. .296, Parenti p. 223). “The identity of the origin of scientia and scitum is .perhaps due to the fact that human knowledge consists of the ability to contrive, to arrange, things in such a fashion as to make them correspond in a symmetrical proportion.” [Note 3] In Vico’s theory this fit is a cognitive one, in More modern terms it is the match between existing cognitive structures and current experience. It is clear that it is not a match between reality and what is known cognitively.
Mathematical theorems and scientific theories are constructed, therefore, so that the operations involved cohere consistently or handsomely. At first glance this may seem more poetic than rational. Yet Piaget’s account of intrapersonal autoregulative processes require just this type of balance between assimilative and accommodative aspects of thinking. This balance, or dynamic equilibrium, is a best fit between the existing cognitive structures and the new experience. The difficulty in explaining the constraints under which constructivist theories are built stems from the widespread assumption that theories must be tested with real data. Real in this case implies a correspondence with reality, and all the unanswerable ontological assumptions are entailed. In a constructivist theory no such data are admitted though the process of testing the adequacy of the construction remains similar. In short, the problem seems to be that people are simply not used to the self-referencing processes required by this type of theory – though commonplace in cybernetics (e.g. Powers, 1973).
Vico and Piaget
How can Vico’s epistemology shed light on that of Piaget? In the first ‘instance Vico’s emphasis on the impotence of human thought places the ‘metaphysical limits of a constructive operationalism in sharp focus. Piaget has been interpreted too often by psychologists who have been insensitive to philosophical issues. In Vico’s epistemology it is quite clear that mathematical and geometrical theorems are true because they are not constrained in an ontological sense, that is, because they do not refer to aspects of the environment. It is not evident, however, that this view is common amongst Piaget’s interpreters, e.g. Beilin (1971), Flavell (1963), and Kohlberg (1968). Indeed, a multitude of examples could be given of the way in which Piaget has been interpreted as having an interactionist theory in which the organism interacts with the environment. This interpretation is bound to lead to confusion in experiments because it is out of line with a consistent constructivism. In the same vein Strauss (1972) has claimed that in cognitive developmental theory a person’s actions on the environment structure the form but not the content of experience. If Piaget’s theory is understood as a radical constructivism, as Vico’s theory must be understood, then both. the form and the content of experience will depend on the knower’s activities. The form will correspond to the organizational rules, i.e. the concrete and formal operational ‘reversible’ structures, and the content will correspond to figurative structures which are built up from sensorimotor coordinations. In this case the elements of all imagery will be analyzable, in principle, by means of operational conceptual analyses.
The idea of analyzing thinking into its constituent operations is latent in Vico’s thesis on truth. This idea has been developed extensively by an Italian Silvio Ceccato, who began a series of papers and books on operational analysis in the 1940s. The technique seems to have much to offer in the study of cognitive development and language. Publications in English include Ceccato (1960), von Glasersfeld (1974a, 1974b), and Tomasallo and von Glasersfeld (1975).
There are implications which may be drawn for a theory of education. Vico’s contribution to education has been identified occasionally with the insistence that there must be a balance between the study of science and the study of the humanities. Understanding Vico’s views on education requires more than this balance. It requires understanding why this balance is necessary. The reason lies in appreciating the generality of Vico’s account of the process of knowing rationally. This is implied by the epistemological views presented in this paper. His account of the origins of concepts applies not only to mathematical and scientific concepts but also, in his later work, to historical and literary concepts. The conceptual precision of science may be absent in poetic communication. Yet in both cases it is the operational patterns in the person’s thinking which define the person’s rational, experience. An approach to education based on a theory of epistemic activity will inevitably transcend the type of dualistic categorization which so often pervades our understanding of both the nature of science and literature.
In summary the simplicity with which Vico expressed his epistemology and its metaphysical limits offers both historical insight and clarification to some of Piaget’s interpreters. It is characteristic of Vico’s: genius that he gave an outline for such a theory in 1710, and indicative of his obscurity that the De Antiquissima has never been published in English.
An earlier version of this paper was presented by the first author at the annual meeting of The Psychological Society of Ireland at Cork, November 1975.
The authors would like to express their appreciation to Professor Elio Gianturco who permitted the use of his English translation of the De Antiquissima.
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“Vico’s life and fate is perhaps the best of all known examples of what is too often dismissed as a romantic fiction – the story of a man of original genius, born before his-time, forced to struggle in poverty and illness, misunderstood and largely ignored in his lifetime, and (save among a handful of Neapolitan jurists) all but totally forgotten after his death.” Sir Isaiah Berlin (1976).
Quotations from First English Translation of the Latin Text by Elio Gianturco, Unpublished and undated. Page references are given for both Nicolini’s (1953) Italian translation and for the Parenti Edition (1972) of the original Latin text.
Here Gianturco translates “pulchra proportion” as “symmetrical proportion” in „agreement with Nicolini’s Italian “bella simmetria”. This is surely quite misleading. A better ,,translation of “pulchra” would be “handsome”, or “shapely”, or “beautiful”, or “satisfactory”, but not “symmetrical”. This is important because it shows that Vico was aware science requires consistency of constructs, and not correspondence with reality.
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