I have started reading On the Most Ancient Wisdom of the Italians by Giambattista Vico. It is a book on the early philosophy of Vico, something I have been intending ever since I read the criticisms of him by the Critical Buddhists (Hakamaya et al). To paraphrase my as yet rudimentary understanding...

Vico was a professor of rhetoric in Naples. In his time, Descartes became very popular and this led to a disparaging of rhetoric and related social (and, therefore, humanistic and imprecise) studies. Vico's philosophy was a repudiation of Descartes and an assertion of classical principles. However it is very different in tone and substance from modernist attacks on Cartesianism or from contemporary Buddhist ones.

Descartes had concluded that the only thing that he could not doubt was that he was thinking and that, therefore, he, the subject, as a mental substance, must exist and, secondly, there must be matter to think about that must nonetheless be more dubitable but which could be known by observation by the indubitable mind. Thus he arrives at a dualism in which mind, being indubitable, is primary, and matter is secondary – as food for thought. This supports an ethic of human domination.

Vico, philosophising in a similar frame, comes to different conclusions. Going somewhat at a remove from his line of reasoning, we can say, the things thought about must be prior to the mind that thinks about them. The foundation of those things being mysterious, there has to be a foundation or origin that the mind cannot know. Christians call this God and His works. Buddhists call it the Dharmakaya or the Unborn. The Buddhist concept is less 'personal', but in any case, we are talking about what cannot be known, therefore such differences of concept are not greatly significant.Indeed, it is an assertion of Vico that argument about such matters itself constitutes a fault since it implies a belief in ability to know what cannot be known.

The Critical Buddhists reject Vico and espouse Descartes because they do not want to admit the idea of a 'dhatu' or 'foundation'. They are probably right to resist the reification of the dhatu, but to deny it altogether is probably going too far. In Buddhism, the Unborn is a cornerstone, albeit, as Vico insists, unknowable.

To know it one would have to be God. Therefore, Vico says that Descartes makes man's mind into his own God and so claims to know more than is knowable and so falls into what Vico calls 'dogmatism' – the claim to know definitely what cannot be known. Descartes is, therefore, from a Viconian point of view, putting human knowledge upon a higher pedestal than it warrants. (This is the origin of the ethic of justification of actions by reason of their capacity to yield knowledge that lies behind, eg. Humboldt's investigations, vivisection, and the whole trend of modern thinking that, arguably, has generated the ecocrisis. We cannot, however, put this down entirely to post-Cartesian modernism, since man's hubris is an age old fault. Modernism is simply that same hubris armed with technological sophistication. Descartes' contribution was to provide a philosophy that justified it.)

Modern criticisms of Descartes are often couched in a 'nondualism' frame, but I think that these criticisms tend to leave the original doctrine unscathed since it is impossible to live - certainly impossible to think - nondualistically, so that, by default, the 'nondualist' is somebody who holds to nondualism merely intellectually with no real practical effect whereas Vico's philosophy is not nondualistic yet leads in an opposite direction to that of Descartes. Where Descartes puts the human mind in a supreme and fundamental position, Vico leads us to the conclusion that the human mind is just one thing among the many, itself a product of the unknowable source. This is a quite different kind of dualism in which the mind reduces in importance in proportion to the extent to which we truly appreciate the nature of the situation. The wiser we are the less we are. This corresponds neatly with the Buddhist ideal of diminishing ego and with 'Buddha' as the egoless ideal of one who is completely awake to how things are.

Thus, it is possible to live more and more in tune with the Dharmakaya even though it remain unknowable. To live in accord with what is beyond our grasp is called faith. To have the understanding that makes this possible is called wisdom. The ethic that flows from it is one of self-abnegation and compassion - compassion because one realises that we are all in the same boat of ignorance.

Descartes' over valuation of mind and of certainty through observation gave support to empiricism yet neglected the fact that empiricism requires constructivism. We may measure something, but then we try to make sense of the measurement. The concept of a measurable aspect (eg. height) is a first step in abstraction. The second step is the actual measuring (eg. this mountain is such and such metres high). The third step is the attempt to derive meaning by asking questions about the data (eg. Why are there no mountains more than 10 thousand metres high? How does a mountain get that high? etc.).

Answering such questions requires the generation of a context-providing model. However, the model is only a model – it is a construction. Science, therefore, is the construction of abstractions. The grandest theories are those at the widest scope of abstraction. These constructions model a perfect world that does not actually exist empirically. Nonetheless, they provide valuable navigational charts. The chart, however, does not tell one where to go, only how to get there. Scientific construction cannot, therefore, yield morals. It therefore does not deal directly with the matters that are of greatest human concern.

Vico has a principle of 'verification by construction'. According to Wikipedia... “Vico is best known for his verum factum principle, first formulated in 1710 [In the book I am reading].... The principle states that truth is verified through creation or invention and not, as per Descartes, through observation:

The criterion and rule of the true is to have made it. Accordingly, our clear and distinct idea of the mind cannot be a criterion of the mind itself, still less of other truths. For while the mind perceives itself, it does not make itself.”

This criterion for truth would later shape the history of civilisation in Vico’s opus, the Scienza Nuova (1725), because he would argue that civil life – like mathematics  – is wholly constructed.”

The mind can observe mind, but cannot create it. So what science 'knows' is what science has 'created' by the application of its method. This does not mean that it is false, but it does suggest that an infinite number of creations are possible, some better than others.

Wikipedia: “Descartes's insistence that the "sure and indubitable" (or, "clear and distinct") should form the basis of reasoning had an obvious impact on the prevailing views of logic and discourse. Studies in rhetoric – indeed all studies concerned with civic discourse and the realm of probable truths – met with increasing disdain.”

This also meant that when sociology, psychology and similar subjects came back into vogue in the 20th century they were in a subordinate position and in order to gain any respectability had to make themselves appear to be 'scientific' in the cartesian mode which, in the nature of the material, was a project that could never be entirely satisfactory.

Wikipedia: “Vico's humanism and professional concerns prompted an obvious response that he would develop throughout the course of his writings: the realms of verifiable truth and human concern share only a slight overlap, yet reasoning is required in equal measure in both spheres. One of the clearest and earliest forms of this argument is available in the De Italorum Sapientia, where Vico argues that

to introduce geometrical method into practical life is "like trying to go mad with the rules of reason," attempting to proceed by a straight line among the tortuosities of life, as though human affairs were not ruled by capriciousness, temerity, opportunity, and chance. Similarly, to arrange a political speech according to the precepts of geometrical method is equivalent to stripping it of any acute remarks and to uttering nothing but pedestrian lines of argument.

Wikipedia: “Vico's position here and in later works is not that the Cartesian method is irrelevant, but that its application cannot be extended to the civic sphere. Instead of confining reason to a string of verifiable axioms, Vico suggests (along with the ancients) that appeals to phronēsis (φρόνησις or practical wisdom) must also be made, and likewise appeals to the various components of persuasion that comprise rhetoric. Vico would reproduce this argument consistently throughout his works, and would use it as a central tenet of the Scienza Nuova

I like the point that “ the realms of verifiable truth and human concern share only a slight overlap, yet reasoning is required in ... both”. This is what fails in the position of the 'new atheists' (Dawkins et al.) who think that science can yield a system of morals. Science dervives from the application of certain quasi-moral principles (derived from Descartes) and its resulting know-how can assist in the application and actualisation of a moral (or immoral) course, but science cannot create the moral itself except arbitrarily leaving a structure of ideas that falls apart at the first challenge. Almost any iniquity can be scientific if it yields knowledge or utility and all do.

I also like the point about being driven mad by reason by trying to go in “ a straight line among the tortuosities of life”. Vico had a sense of bombu nature, that life is "ruled by capriciousness, temerity, opportunity, and chance" and believed that this had to be included in our studies. Cartesianism tends to produce a pure abstract, satisfying to the all-holy human mind. However, reality is something else.

I enjoy the fact that Vico takes on Descartes on his own ground, as it were, and points out the facts of human nature. I might go even further and refer to that fact that even the inanimate elements in the world never exactly conform to our abstractions either. I shall read some more and see what else I get out of it.

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