Tag Archives: Giambattista Vico

Vico helps “Develop the Intellect”

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In my last blog post, I critiqued the fragmentation of knowledge in our schools and promised another post that would better answer what it means to “develop the intellect.” This is part one in my attempt to fulfill that promise.

In 1708, the humanist philosopher and rhetorician, Giambattista Vico, wrote the book, On the Study Methods of Our Time. I think if there should ever be such a thing as a teacher training course (and that’s a big “if”), this book should be required reading.  In the book, Vico says,

“…(the) capacity to perceive the analogies existing between matters lying far apart and, apparently, most dissimilar. It is this capacity which constitutes the source and principle of all ingenious, acute, and brilliant forms of expression.”

Connecting things “far apart and, apparently, most dissimilar.” Notice that Vico’s point is backed up by near universal teacher experience. When does the teacher get most excited? When a student finally gets the lesson? I don’t think so. I think it is when the student makes a connection from the lesson that the teacher never thought of; that’s when he really gets excited!

That teachers and Vico both get excited about these kinds of connections make sense. Surely “developing the intellect” does not just mean having a lot of knowledge, but rather being able to do something with that knowledge, namely, making a connection that adds to the previous knowledge held. Aristotle addresses this early on in his Topics.

“Now reasoning is an argument in which, certain things being laid down, something other than these necessarily comes about through them.”

So as a teacher, you teach the student A and B. Hopefully the student understands A and B, but more importantly, can the student come up with a C? That derivation of C is the challenge of the educator because that’s real reasoning by the student. That’s an intellect being trained. And if Vico is correct, (and I think he is) the farther away C is from A and B, the more impressive the accomplishment. (Sadly, this derivation of a far away C is rarely encouraged in our schools today.)

Why is this kind of thinking so important? Because the individual, in order to survive and flourish, must be a value creator. The individual must take what is given (and A and B), and create something better (a C). Then, he can enjoy the benefits of the better thing he produced, or he can trade it with others and enjoy the values that others have created. Developing the intellect to do this kind of thing is what I call, “getting ready for adult life.”

Notice, this success is not just on an individual level; it is the story of mankind’s success to date. Mankind was given raw nature: rocks of various kinds, trees, bushes, dirt, other animals, etc. From these materials, mankind has created things so “far apart and apparently most dissimilar” that most people in history would consider them magical — things like airplanes, laptops, air-conditioning, space ships, etc. These are the products of the value creator mentality.

So developing the intellect involves reasoning, getting a C from an A and a B; and it involves analogical thinking, “perceiving analogies existing between matters lying far apart and apparently most dissimilar.” That gives a rough idea of what a developed intellect is, but how does one promote such a thing in education? That is the subject of the next post.

Leporello Teaching

One ancient test for the canonical remains fiercely valid; unless it demands rereading, the work does not qualify. The inevitable analogue is the erotic one. If you are Don Giovanni and Leporello keeps the list, one brief encounter will suffice.

Harold Bloom – The Western Canon (page 29)

Leporello from Mozart's Don Giovanni
Leporello from Mozart’s Don Giovanni

For those of you who don’t know, in Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni Leporello sings a really funny aria (sometimes called the “Catalogue Aria’) explaining the book in which he keeps track of all of Don Giovanni’s “encounters.”

So how do we apply Leporello and Don Giovanni to education? In Texas we are told we must cover the TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills). Each class has a list (usually a very long list) of things that should be covered for that class throughout the year. I think this is ok in itself. But notice how that duty is often performed.

The TEKS for many become the curricula. Each day, like Don Giovanni, we conquer a few more TEKS, Leporello records them in the book, and that’s that. In all fairness, before the test all the TEKS are (frantically) reviewed.

But education shouldn’t be presented to the student as a set of skills he must master one after the other (which it will certainly appear to be if that is the guide the teacher uses). This is disintegration with a vengeance, the opposite of what education should try to achieve. Education should in the end give the student a sense of knowing an integrated whole so that he “gets” science, “gets” math, “gets” writing, etc. That sense of getting a subject isn’t achieved once he gets a certain percentage of TEKS mastered, it is achieved when he understands the subject as a whole, as a one.

This is nothing new. Giambattista Vico back in the early 1700s uses the term “barbarism” to refer to the unnatural fragmentation of knowledge. According to Vico, the “arts and sciences, all of which in the past were embraced by philosophy and animated by it with a unitary spirit, are, in our day, unnaturally separated and disjointed.” I daresay since Vico’s time this has become worse.

Creating lessons rich in interesting content that integrate the “many” into the “whole” with opportunities to prompt critical and creative thinking should be first priority. If you are teaching science, math, writing, or history, design the course such that the student has the best opportunity to “get” science, math, writing, or history. Then, if you find you have missed some TEKS, find a way to incorporate them. Don’t be a barbarian. Don’t be a Leporello.