CEPA eprint 3768

Vico’s theory of knowledge and some problems in genetic epistemology.

Gash H. (1983) Vico’s theory of knowledge and some problems in genetic epistemology.. Human Development 26(1): 1–10. Available at http://cepa.info/3768
Table of Contents
Vico’s Constructivist Epistemology
Vico and the Problem of Objectivity in Psychology
Vico’s Operationalism and Piaget’s Formalist Emphasis
Two aspects of Vico’s constructivist epistemology are germane to contemporary cognitive developmental psychology. These aspects are Vico’s account of cognitive operations and of the limits to human knowledge of the world. Drawing on Vico’s epistemological treatise, and on contemporary commentary on Vico, it is argued that this eighteenth-century constructivist epistemology is useful in two ways. First, by being a consistent, and so radical, constructivism it may be helpful in clarifying the meaning of the environment in Piaget’s theory. Second, the description of mental operations may provide a way of overcoming objections to the overly formal quality of Piaget’s basic concrete-operational structures.
Key words: Cognitive development, Genetic epistemology, Piaget, Realism, Theory formulation, Vico
There has been a recent resurgence of interest in Vico. Vico’s theory of knowledge has been discussed to a certain extent in these works, and many similarities between Vico’s theories and those of Jean Piaget have been mentioned with varying depth of treatment (e.g. Blasi, 1976; Gardner, 1976; Manson, 1969; Mora, 1976a, b; Tagliacozzo, 1976; Wartofski, 1971; White, 1976). In some of these cases the similarities are mentioned briefly during the course of the argument as in the cases of Hanson, Wartofski, and Tagliacozzo. In other cases, the comparisons have been considerably more extensive and analytic as in the cases of Blasi, Gardner, and Mora. Gardner in comparing the theories of Vico and Piaget finds common to the two theories only a steadfast conviction in the unity of the scientific enquiry and a fealty to the developmental point of view. Gardner’s conclusion depends in part on his strict definition of structuralism and in part on his interpretation of Vico’s view of science. Blasi’s article documents many similarities in the theories of Vico and Piaget as do those of Mora. Yet, it is certainly Mora’s articles which document most extensively the many points of identity between aspects of the works of Vico and of Piaget. None of these articles, however, do much more than mention Vico’s constructive operationalism as dealt with in the De Antiquissima Italorum Sapientia (1710). In considering the articles mentioned above it is Mora (1976a) who seems to go furthest towards recognizing this aspect of Vico’s epistemology, with frequent references to the De Antiquissima. In contrast, neither Gardner nor Blasi make reference to the De Antiquissima. In this article it will be my purpose to outline briefly what is meant by a constructive operationalism, leaning heavily on the De Antiquissima, and then to look at a number of issues in contemporary genetic epistemology in the light of this interpretation of Vico’s epistemology.
Vico’s Constructivist Epistemology
There are two features of Vico’s epistemology which have received scant attention in comparisons of Vico’s and Piaget’s theories but which seem to have great significance as components of a constructivist epistemology, properly understood. First, there is the account of cognitive operations which recurs throughout the De Antiquissima. Second, there are Vico’s pessimistic statements about the limits of human knowledge, namely, that ontological knowledge is in principle impossible. More specifically, the purpose of this article is to show that these two features of Vico’s epistemology are germane to contemporary problems with psychological studies on conceptual development.
It is well known in Vichian scholarship that Vico’s etymological analyses of the ancient Italian language revealed that the verum was identical to the factum. It is also well known that Descartes’s method of providing certain knowledge by clear and distinct ideas and deductive reasoning was anathema to Vico’s sense of what constituted good argument and to his understanding of classical rhetoric. Vico’s alternative was to attend to the manner in which ideas are constructed. As put in chapter 7 of the De Antiquissima: ‘…I am advocating that demonstrations should result from the construction of elements, and truth should not be discovered but made, i.e., constructed, by the mind itself.’[Note 2] There are a number of different quotations in the first chapter of the De Antiquissima concerning very similar ideas. The following quotation is phrased to associate science with the construction of concepts: ‘Thus science is knowledge of the genus or mode by which a thing is produced; and by this very knowledge the mind makes the thing, because in knowing it puts together its elements’ (Vico, 1710; chapter I, Nicolini, p. 249, Parenti, pp. 191, 192). This statement of Vico’s constructivism bears a startling resemblance to Piaget’s account of the development of the object concept.
The central idea here is what is known has been constructed by the knower, by means of cognitive operations, and that any evaluation of knowledge must take this process into account. If the construction is without flaws then the knowledge is acceptable. There were important qualifications to this because the sort of object which was constructed influenced the sort of truth the object could have. Since these qualifications have to do with the limits of human knowledge, I shall deal with them later.
The spirit of Vico’s analysis and the consequences which follow from it seem alien to much of modern epistemological scholarship. Ceccato (1951) has argued that this type of analysis of knowledge (which Vico described in the De Antiquissima) entailed a break with an epistemological tradition stretching back for 2,000 years and more. Philosophers have been concerned with relationships between appearance and reality, and with the grounds of knowledge, but to an extraordinarily large extent they seem to have assumed that we know what knowledge is.
Vico says little in the De Antiquissima about the constraints under which knowledge is constructed. What he does say makes reference to considerations of balance and harmony. Consider, for example, Vico’s (1710) etymological conjectures on the words scientia and scitum. The identity of the origin of scientia and scituin is perhaps due to the fact that ‘human knowledge is nothing but making things in the mind correspond to themselves in beautiful proportion which only outstanding wit can do’ (chapter 7, 4, Nicolini, p. 296, Parenti, p. 223).
Considerations of symmetry and balance may not sound like adequate guidelines in judging the adequacy of concepts. Yet when Vico’s constructivism is pursued further and when it is clearer what is entailed by his epistemology, and what is constructed, a meaning becomes clear.
Vico (1710) held that ‘For if the senses are faculties; we make the colors of things by seeing, flavor by tasting, sound by hearing, and heat and cold by touching’ (chapter 7, 1, Nicolini, pp. 292-293, Parenti, p. 221). When the various fragments are pieced together in the De Antiquissima it becomes quite clear that Vico has a new approach to the classical epistemological questions concerning appearance and reality, or concerning the nature of matter independent of one’s perception of it. Such questions cannot be answered along the usual lines because ontological reality is something of a mystery in Vico’s theory.
In fact, Vico (1710; chapter 1, 2, Nicolini, p. 253, Parenti, p. 193) moves the classical, and unanswerable, ontological question out of philosophy into theology because it is quite clear that for Vico only God has knowledge (scientia) of reality. In a constructivist epistemology concepts cannot be checked with reference to reality when what we know of this reality is itself a construction. If we are seen to be constructing reality then there cannot be any simple comparison between our concept and reality, for such a concept of reality is the observer’s concept. Hopefully it will be the culture’s concept of reality too, and so intersubjective, though if the observer is a specialist of some sort, i.e., a philosopher or a physicist, one can reasonably expect his or her concept of reality to be very much more sophisticated than that of the non-specialist. Our common sense notions of the environment or reality seem too hopelessly abstract and amorphous to be of any use whatsoever to a person interested in how a child comes to understand space, or class inclusion, or length, or what is good behavior. Yet at the same time the concept environment is so concrete and acceptable that it seems to block off or impede questioning. Perhaps this is why psychologists generally back away from metaphysical questions. Yet one cannot have an epistemology without answering metaphysical questions, and in a similar manner one cannot deal adequately with cognition without being honest about the status of thoughts and images and their relation to the environment.
To compare our concepts with reality would be, in terms of a constructivist research venture, to compare our concepts with something outside our senses, and so quite impossible within strictly rational guidelines. (I do not wish to preclude the possibility of irrational or of mystical experiences, but regard such types of experiences as falling outside the terms of this article.)
The second aspect of Vico’s epistemology which has received scant attention concerns Vico’s pessimism about human knowledge of the world. While Vico and Piaget both emphasize the active process of constructing ideas as being central in their respective epistemologies, it is Vico who is more clear about the boundaries or limits to the resulting constructed knowledge. ‘… For this reason, then, when man embarks on investigation of the nature of things he realizes at length that he cannot arrive at that nature by any means because he does not have within himself the elements from which composed things are constituted, and that this lack arises from the limitations of the human mind’ (Vico, 1710; chapter 1, 1, p. 253, Parenti, p. 193). And also Vico (1710) says that his metaphysics is attuned to the limitations of human thought (Conclusion, Nicolini, p. 307, Parenti, ). 230). In mathematics and geometry the constructions with unassailable truth are abstractions or fictions with no ontological constraints. Points and lines, for example, are defined in ways which mean that they cannot correspond to objects in everyday experience. in geometry textbooks, for example, points have location but no extension, and lines are equally unreal, having length but no extension (Vico, 1710; chapter 4, 2, Nicolini, pp. 270-271, Parenti, pp. 206-207; chapter 1, 2, Nicolini, p. 253, Parenti, pp. 193-194). Recognition of this unreal quality of geometrical figures prompted Abbott (1884/1952) to write a delightful account of worlds with varying numbers of dimensions.
Solipsism is perhaps too strong a word to apply to Vico’s theory since in modern philosophy solipsism entails the possibility that there may be no real world in the sense that one is the author of one’s own experiences. This is clearly not Vico’s position. Vico’s position is that knowledge is a construction, and that we can know fully only what we have made. In the De Antiquissima Vico described the limits to human understanding of the physical world, and provided a constructivist account of mathematical truth which is very modern (see Calder, 1979). Later, in the Scienza Nuova, Vico (1744/1968) extended his constructivist epistemology to include mythical, poetic, historical, and cultural knowledge. If knowledge is a construction, it is implied that different cultures and different people within a culture may have different constructions. The way to understand other people, then, is to try to recreate the concepts which others use or used in understanding events. Berlin (1969) has argued that we owe Vico much credit for providing an analysis of this experience. There must always remain an element of uncertainty about the adequacy of such entering into other persons, for the most that we can do as human beings is to try hard to recreate this type of experience. Strictly speaking, solipsism means being shut up in our own subjectivity. By dwelling on the cognitive operations of the knower and by emphasizing the limited nature of human knowledge Vico highlights the central importance of subjective human action in knowing. The sense in which Vico’s constructivism is not solipsistic is that the individual is not creating the world itself, but only knowledge of the world. The world itself is always beyond our senses. We know only our constructions and can only modify them when they do not fit our experience. For these reasons the word solipsist might profitably be used in describing Vico’s theory in order to draw attention to its radical quality.
To return to Vico’s notion of balance, it clearly cannot be a balance between ideas and reality in any classical or commonsense way. Rather it is a balance between differently created cognitive items. In Piaget’s theory this balance has been made a central feature of the cognitive system. Piaget’s theory being a principal constructivist epistemology today. When Piaget (1968) considers the how of thinking, his answer is framed in terms of equilibration. Equilibration is the process by which any organism keeps itself in a state of dynamic equilibrium with its experience of its environment. This dynamic balance is maintained by means of assimilation and accommodation. Assimilation is the filtering of experience in terms of existing mental operations (cognitive structures are like programs of operations); and accommodation is the change which occurs in the cognitive operations as a result of any novel features of the experience. Assimilation and accommodation are part of any interpretive act.
Child cognition provides many examples of operations which over time become more adjusted to their experience. Consider the 3-year-old girl whom I observed lick carefully the index finger of her left hand while preparing to turn the page of her book with her right hand; or the same child who said to her mother ‘when I grow up you’ll be a baby and I’ll buy you diapers’. (Piagetians will note that in pre-operational thought reversibility can sometimes work too well.) Or consider the 6-year-old girl who asked would she go to school two hours early when the time went back one hour in the fall; or the same girl who wondered when her cousins in Australia were going to have Christmas because it was summer there in December.
Generally, and in these examples, assimilation of events is always in terms of what the child knows, and initially in these examples the assimilation of the events is different from that of adults. These children are applying different mental operations to their experience. It is often useless to tell children that they are wrong, as for example in cases where they do not possess the mental operations necessary to make an adult’s way of looking at an experienced event. When children do realize that there is something wrong with their constructions, then one has the possibility of accommodation, because then imbalance is experienced, an imbalance which provides the impetus for a new construction. If the imbalance is too great between what is known and experienced then new structures cannot be constructed. This may happen at conference presentations which are too novel to assimilate at the rate (words per minute) at which they are presented. This is what happens when we cannot follow a closely reasoned paper and also when an interpreter swears at the speaker, or trails off into silence politely. Alternatively, if a conference talk is given too slowly, or if the material is too familiar then there is insufficient conflict and the listener’s cognitive system switches off.
I do not pretend to give a thorough analysis of Vico’s epistemology in this article. Elsewhere other writers including McMullin (1976) and Pompa (1976) have dealt with Vico’s philosophical ideas and with his philosophy of science. It seems that there has been only slight emphasis on Vico’s account of cognitive operations and on his radical constructivism, radical here being used, following von Glasersfeld (1978), to indicate that not only is all knowledge viewed as a construction but this construction is initially a personal construction and is non-ontological. As the child grows up, the construction becomes interpersonal but remains non-ontological. This distinguishes it from various interactionisms, and Piaget is sometimes referred to as an interactionist in the sense that cognitive growth comes about through the interaction between the cognitive structures and the environmental structures.
Vico and the Problem of Objectivity in Psychology
In this century psychology has been very concerned with being objective, a concern which in many cases assumed a passive subject in psychological experiment. As Kessen (1966) put it, the implicit epistemology in most psychological experiments is naive realism. Yet unqualified references to the environment creep into the writing of leading neo-Piagetians frequently, making it all but impossible for the reader to appreciate the radical nature of the epistemology implicit in neo-Piagetian psychology, or genetic psychology following Piaget and Inhelder (1969).
It is extremely difficult to avoid loose phrasing. It is customary to speak about things and objects and somehow unsettling to talk about sense experience instead. We have built our constructions over the years and are used to the feel of them. Most of the time we are not in the habit of regarding our ideas as constructions and so it is that much more difficult to communicate the radical nature of the theory.
One way in which the radical nature of the constructivist epistemology may be concealed is by unqualified references to the environment. In Piaget’s theory the way in which people relate to the environment is explained through the concept of equilibration. The way in which assimilation and accommodation are described, therefore, provides an index of the sensitivity of authors to the radical nature of a constructivist epistemology. A recent review by Berzonsky (1976) is typical; he states that the continual interaction between subject and object ‘made possible by the processes of assimilation and accommodation, ceases when the subject’s structures match the causal structures existing in the world’. There is nothing here to arouse surprise or discomfort, our habitual common sense notion of reality is clearly present. Piaget (1968) too discusses assimilation and accommodation in the context of the subject’s own activity as follows: ‘… i.e., to assimilate the external world into the structures which have been already constructed, and secondly to readjust these structures as a function of the subtle transformations, i.e., to accommodate them to external objects’. Again, there is nothing here to suggest the radical nature of the theory. Beilin (1971) describes assimilation as involving ‘the incorporation of environmental data (through physical and mental activity) into existing cognitive structures’. The claim cannot be made that cognitive-developmental psychologists all write about the environment all the time in naive realist terms. There are instances in which the naive realist phrasing is muted. Consider Strauss (1972), who claimed that a person’s actions structure the form but not the content of experience. Also, Kohlberg (1968)argued that basic mental structure is the result of certain organismic structuring tendencies and the structure of the outside world, rather than reflecting either one directly. In these last two cases it is clear that cognitive structures do not reflect the environment, but it is still not clearly stated that everything perceived and thought is a construction.
There are, of course, striking examples of the radical nature of the theory. Consider the phrasing in the following quotation from Piaget (1968, p. 9):
‘At eighteen months to two years this sensorimotor assimilation of the immediate external world effects a miniature Copernican revolution. At the starting point of this development the neonate grasps everything to himself – or, in more precise terms, to his own body – whereas at the termination of this period, i.e., when language and thought begin he is for all practical purposes but one element or entity among others in a universe that he has gradually constructed himself, and which hereafter he will experience as external to himself’ (My italics.)
Until the radical nature of the theory is effectively communicated it is hard to see how interdisciplinary cooperation can be productive. A number of philosophers, for example, have become interested in genetic epistemology, and it goes without saying that their skills and criticisms are both welcome and necessary. Yet in some cases they have had extreme difficulty in getting a hold on the theory that they have tried to criticize. Hamlyn (1973) finds it absurd to conceive of a child constructing a world which includes others who will help the child construct this world. Hamlyn’s difficulty would appear to be in understanding how to use the term environment in a constructivist epistemology, or to put it in another way, in seeing what sorts of limits there are on the term environment in a constructivist epistemology. Here Vico’s epistemology is most useful. We have just seen Vico’s analysis of the limits of our ways of interpreting the environment. What we know of any environmental object is the result of our experience of that object and can be analysed into the operations yielding the object. What a child can learn about any object, therefore, depends on the operations available to the child. This would be true not only for environmental phenomena but also for mathematical phenomena which are not under the same type of ontological constraints. So, returning to Hamlyn’s (1973) puzzle, certainly the child will construct knowledge of the world from other people, as indeed the child will gradually construct an understanding of other people. What is learned, what is constructed, however, will depend on the cognitive operations or structures which are available when the child has an opportunity to learn. Perhaps if neo-Piagetians were clearer in their writing about the phenomena that they describe, such misunderstandings would be less frequent. One thing which seems certain is that Vico, who is the earliest constructivist I am familiar with, is starkly consistent about his theory of knowledge, something which neo-Piagetians are not.
It may be argued that this changes the meaning of Piaget’s notion of adaptation to the environment. Such an interpretation, however, reflects a naive realist interpretation of what is involved in adaptation. When adaptation is interpreted as adaptation to experienced features of the experienced environment, rather than to an unqualified naive realist environment, then and only then will Piaget’s constructivism be consistent. From a theoretical point of view it makes little sense to try to assess the theory unless it is treated as a consistent constructivism since recent statements by Piaget (1978) show that he regarded it as radical in this way.
Vico’s Operationalism and Piaget’s Formalist Emphasis
In a recent article, Smedslund (1977) made a critical appraisal of Piaget’s contribution to psychology. A recurrent problem in Piagetian studies, which Smedslund argued has been answered inadequately, is that of horizontal decalage. This phrase is used to describe the fact that individual children may be successful at solving one type of task, and at the same time unsuccessful at solving another task with identical structural characteristics. This type of inconsistency for individual children who are given different tests is a painful fact of research practice. In the theory such discrepancies are described as being instances of horizontal decalage; in other words the child has not generalized the cognitive rules, or mental operations, necessary to the solution of the problem. When a child can be described as ‘having’ the cognitive structure in question, according to the theory, the structure should be applicable to many different problems. Smedslund argued that Genevan efforts to account for the existence of horizontal decalages of this type have been inadequate. The reason for this type of difficulty in Piagetian theory, Smedslund reasoned, is a direct result of the abstract nature of Piaget’s fundamental cognitive structures. Flavell (1963, p. 430) has also expressed uneasiness about the logical emphasis of Piaget’s structures; and Kessen (1971) has taken structuralists in general to task for their fascination with ‘contentless structures’. A problem, then, is to try to use alternative ways of specifying cognitive structure. Piaget’s structures must be seen as constructions in two senses: first, in the sense that structures are constructed out of mental operations; second, in the sense that such cognitive structures are but one way of describing cognitive behavior. Other descriptions are possible, and following McMullin’s (1976) phrasing, the Piagetian concrete operational structures are but one way of modelling the child’s construction of reality during the 7- to 11- year age range. One must not mistake one’s constructions for reality. When the constructions are inadequate one searches for new ways of organizing one’s experience. Enormous quantities of research have been performed on Piaget’s concrete-operational structures; and the bibliographies alone of relevant chapters of such works as Carmichael’s Manual of Child Psychology (Mussen, 1970) are sufficient to permit any conscientious bibliophile to generate a sense of panic. Yet there is nothing ontological about Piaget’s constructions. They have been useful as descriptions of some of the regularities in children’s organization of their experience of the world. Yet one should not, as Smedslund ( I 977) has, worry about the existential status of Piaget’s structures. Many Piagetians would agree with Smedslund that we do need ways of modelling children’s thinking which are not ‘content free’. The neo-Piagetian strategy of presenting problems representing milestones in the child’s understanding of reality needs to be supplemented by more naturalistic studies of children’s understandings. What is necessary is what is implicit in Vico’s description of the role of operations, namely to search for the operations the child uses to understand events. There is much in common here with Riverso’s (1976) suggestion that Piaget’s sensorimotor operations be used to analyse meaning, things, and facts. However, the basic Piagetian sensorimotor operations, developing before the second birthday, may be too abstract in the same way as the concrete operations which develop between 7 and 11 years have been too formal. Models which draw on Vico’s theory of meaning have been developed in the 1940’s by Ceccato (1961) and more recently by his collaborator von Glasersfeld (e.g., 1972, 1974). Such models of cognitive operations may hold a solution to the difficulties which neo-Piagetians have experienced with their content-free structures.
In conclusion, much has been written recently about Vico (see Crease, 1978). Those writers who have described the relations between Vico’s ideas and those of Piaget have not emphasized two aspects of Vico’s thought, two aspects which it seems profitable to emphasize in relation to Piagetian research. First, there is Vico’s radical constructivism, the thesis that what is known is made and that the pieces from which knowledge is made are themselves constructions. This is not clear in much Piagetian and neo-Piagetian writing. One consequence of this is that certain philosophers, at least, have found it difficult to discover – to construct – what it is that Piaget has been saying in his constructivist epistemology. Vico has been very consistent about this in the De Antiquissima and in this consistency is his value. Second, there has been a certain amount of dissatisfaction with the overly logical nature of Piagetian cognitive structures, and the type of operationalism which is described in the De Antiquissima appears to provide an alternative method of modelling mental operations.
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A shortened version of this paper was presented at the Vico/Venezia conference which was organized by Dr. Giorgio Tagliacozzo, Director of the Institute for Vico Studies, in collaboration with the Fondazione Giorgio Cini of-Venice, and which took place at the Isola di San Giorgio. Venice, in August, 1978. The paper was revised while the author was a visiting faculty member of the Psychology Department of California State University at Chico.
Vico (1710). Quotations are from the English translation of the Latin text by Lucia Palmer (Cornell University Press, in press). Page references arc also given for Nicolini’s Italian translation and for the Parenti edition of the original Latin text. This quoted passage is found in chapter 7 section 5 (hereafter chapter 7, 5), Nicolini p. 303. Parenti p. 227.
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