Wisdom and Eloquence in the Tacit Dimension: Vico and Polanyi on Knowing and Making
Craig E. Mattson Endnotes
1 Miner summarizes the principle this way: “if cognition attains a verum, and factumis interchangeable with verum, then cognition may also be described as attaining a factum. But a factum is attained only through some process of making. Therefore cognition may be understood as essentially a process of making” (97).
2 As for abstraction, Vico thought it had its place, but that it achieved a lower form of knowledge than that he sought with his new science (Miner 105). Against futurity, or the conviction that “the future becomes a primary orientation for both imagination and activity” (Berger 73), Vico proposed a cyclical view of history Page 9 (New 483-489 1097-1106). Against radical individualism, he emphasized the importance of tradition (Miner 115). Note, too, that Vico refers to a “barbarism of calculation,” a peculiarly modern selfishness resulting in societal breakdown that lasts until the survivors of decadence once again “naturally become sociable” (New 488 1106). I am indebted for this insight to Verene’s introduction to On Humanistic Education, where he connects Vico’s phrase “barbarism of calculation” to modernity (Humanistic 11) As for secularization, the New Science situated Vichian ideas in a metaphysics of providence (Miner 124-125). After modernism’s “barbarism,” he hoped for a return to the “religious, truthful, and faithful” (New 488-489 1106).
3 Some of Vico’s contemporaries, for example, were so committed to Cartesian methods of teaching and learning as to ignore the role of freedom in the creation (Study 33).
4 It all began with a thunderstorm. Early humans heard thunder and interpreted it as the rhetoric of Jupiter, the god of the sky. And though it wasn’t entirely clear what the thunder god was saying, “divine providence allowed humankind to be deceived into fearing Jupiter as a false deity who could strike them with lightning” (New 150 385). Men started dragging women to caves to hide their sexual acts, and thus marriage was created, “which we may define as a carnal union modestly consummated in fear of some divinity” (208 505). Lawgivers then arose, claiming to have deciphered the rhetoric of the god, and they founded nations (New 150 385). Eventually, the Gentiles, for whom “providence was the divine teacher of a common wisdom,” came to understand natural law (Autobiography 172).
5 Managing this tension gives him a remarkable generosity towards the intellectual habits of different eras. “In the hope of escaping censure, I ask you to give thought to the fact that my purpose is not to criticize the drawbacks of the study methods of our age or of those of antiquity, but rather to compare the advantages afforded by the study methods of the two epochs” (Study 5).
6 Richard Rorty might sum up Vichian thought by shrugging and calling it another entry in the longstanding “quarrel between poetry and philosophy, the tension between an effort to achieve self-creation by the recognition of contingency and an effort to achieve universality by transcendence of contingency” (Contingency 25). What else, after all, could Vico do? Privilege science, and he would lose the freedom of the humanities. Privilege poetry, and he would lose the rigor of science. Indeed, either choice offers unpredictable results. “It is ironic,” writes Roger Lundin, “that in their zeal to establish irrefutable arguments and unshakeable evidence for the truth, Descartes, Spinoza, and others made possible the relativism and nihilism of our present century” (246). Following Miner’s interpretation of Vico, the present essay tries to highlight the ways that Vico manages to avoid an easy dualism between science and poetry—an accomplishment that Polanyi managed as well.
7 I shall have more than one occasion in this essay’s comparison of Vico and Polanyi to remark that the two thinkers do not enjoy complete affinity. Vico is perhaps the readier to identify differences among ways of knowing than Polanyi, who was concerned to identify what was at least functionally common to human knowing across time.
8 To deny that Polanyi is concerned with wisdom may imply the conviction that fact ought to be
compartmentalized from value. After all, a chemist and philosopher would supposedly be more interested in facts than values. But this a division that Polanyi says cannot be reconciled with the “personal co-efficient, which shapes all factual knowledge” (PK 17).
9 Interestingly enough, Polanyi refers to this renovating self-investment as “a manner of disposing ourselves” (61), a term which shares some kinship with an ancient rhetorical concept for the arrangement of an argument, “disposition.” Further research might be done to develop a genealogy of this term to show its connections with the rhetorical tradition. But the fact that Polanyi uses a rhetorical term does not alone establish its connection with the Ciceronian rhetorical tradition.
10 He cites Aristotle’s famous dictum that “[n]othing is found in the intellect which was not found first in the senses” and sees this as a corroboration of his notion that poets, “the senseof mankind,” practice a knowing that is discrete from the epistemology of the philosophers, the “intellect” of the race (136 363).
11 Admittedly, though Vico considers mimesis inferior to more modern ways of knowing, he argues that their poetic constructions were divinely guided for the establishment of civil societies. He holds that “the fables are true in their form, but false in their matter” (Miner 111). Another way to cast this is to say that while primitive eloquence was admirable, it did not lead to wisdom.
12 He would not deny that providence has worked with such primitive minds for the common good of humankind, and perhaps he would allow that the barbarities of positivism might also conspire with the divine in order to find some measure of truth.
13 As Polanyi writes, “The process of selecting facts for our attention is indeed the same in science as among Azande; but I believe that science is often right in its application of it, while Azande are quite wrong when using it for protecting their superstitions” (PK 294). I am grateful to Phil Mullins for reminding me of the importance of Polanyi’s fallibilism at this point in my exposition.
14 I am grateful for this insight to Nothstine, Blair, and Copeland for their discussion of Sonja K. Foss’s textbook on rhetorical criticism. Her step-by-step procedure for writing criticism “is a crucial effort; each of the four moments she describes constitutes at least a locus for the choices that the critic must make” (54).
15 Granted, Vichian eloquence is aural in that it acknowledges the role of the audience, especially when he emphasizes the importance of probability, imagination, and memory in making persuasion possible (Study 13-14).
16 Other confirmations of this privileging of the aural appear in Polanyi’s continual contrasting of
observation with indwelling (PK 378-379); his use of examples that diminish the importance of sight (SFS 22-24); his associating of positivism with mere observation (PK 9); his relativizing of perception (PK 96-97); and his insistence that knowledge is rooted, not in the mind watching the world through the eyes, but in the whole of the body (99). I should like to add that I first encountered the insight that Polanyi deemphasizes visualist epistemology in Jerry Gill’s fine book, The Tacit Mode.
17 It is peculiar that Luft, who painstakingly develops a non-genetic, non-linear, non-eidetic reading of Vico, nonetheless argues that scholars who overemphasize Vico’s metaphysics in On the Most Ancient Wisdom neglect the fact that the New Science, which she insists offers a completely different approach to metaphysics, came twenty years later. To emphasize the New Science over the On the Most Ancient Wisdom simply because it came two decades later is a markedly genetic, linear, and eidetic sort of scholarship.
18 Despite Luft’s insistence that Vico came to love the primitive’s poetic constructions, the opposite actually seems to be the case: Vico was not very impressed with what Miner calls the “mythopoesis” of the primitives. Despite Luft’s argument that primitive poets created as God creates—that is, by speaking things into existence out of nothing—Miner points out “that Vico takes the creativity of poetic man to fall infinitely short of divine creativity” (112). In fact, Miner continues, the Vichian project of developing a scienza nouva is to identify how human truth-seeking and truth-making can participate in divine creativity by means of an intellection that is more like that of the geometer than of the poet (113, 116, 124-125).
19 Western theology has tended either to overemphasize the dependence of the created order, thus minimizing human creativity and discouraging a genuinely empirical science, or to stress the independence of the created order in such a way as to suggest that it is self-supporting and self-interpreting, and thus entirely comprehensible by means of humanly devised sciences (Gay 127).