Giambattista Vico - Response To The Cartesian Method

Response To The Cartesian Method

As he relates in his autobiography, Vico returned to Naples from Vatolla to find “the physics of Descartes at the height of its renown among the established men of letters.” Developments in both metaphysics and the natural sciences abounded as the result of Cartesianism. Widely disseminated by the Port Royal Logic of Antoine Arnauld and Pierre Nicole, Descartes’ method was rooted in verification: the only path to truth, and thus knowledge, was through axioms derived from observation. Descartes’ 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.

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."

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 phronêsis or practical wisdom must also be made, as do 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.

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