poetic/scientific knowledge (vico)


Vico seems to draw a distinction between poetic and scientific knowledge. While poetic knowledge is built out of ignorance and is a way for humans to orient themselves in a world they cannot control, scientific knowledge provides reasoned explanations of natural phenomena and is a hallmark of civilization. And yet, such apparent opposition gives way to a more complex relationship.

The relationship between poetic and scientific knowledge is historical: the two forms of knowledge are predicated on each other and cannot quite be thought apart, even if poetic knowledge is for Vico the “first” kind of knowledge. Poetic knowledge by projecting anthropomorphic imaginative descriptions distorts things as they are, but marks the necessary sensorial moment out of which further elaborations may proceed. The more scientific knowledge becomes, the less poetic (and sensorial). The refinement of knowledge determines increased complexity, but also loss of the embodied and imaginative aspects of knowledge.

Vico’s historical process is not unilinear, it is characterized by comings and goings (corsi e ricorsi), and cannot be described as properly dialectic, even if it has been often characterized this way. Poetic and scientific knowledge do not clash in a superior synthesis, but rather intertwine like waves on a sea shore.

To the extent that they can be conceptualized as separate, poetic and scientific knowledge are not two distinct forms of rationality, each occupying a separate domain (the famous “two cultures”). Nor are they two forms of the same thought (mythical and scientific thought in Levi-Strauss). They are historically contingent human productions whose difference and repetition structures the relationship humans have with the world. This is not to say that the world is made by humans in their image (anthropocene). On the contrary, both poetic and scientific knowledge are ways to make sense of a world that follows its own path. (For Vico, this path was God).

Like philology (the knowledge of languages and cultures) and philosophy (the study of concepts), poetic and scientific knowledge are never quite the same, nor entirely different. Only their shifting combinations, the terrain of history, provides a new science.

Today the distinction between humanities and sciences is the expression of a certain political economy. Something akin to the dictum: divide et impera.