Vico: The First New Science

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But her task will be made considerably easier by the availability of an English edition of the version. There are some flaws of the translation that a second edition will want to correct. Pompa mistranslates the titles of Book 2 and Book 3. Vico is perfectly capable of using su or intorno when he wishes to. Although careless at times in other ways, Vico does not make these sorts of mistakes.

In other places, Pompa undertranslates. It is a public proclamation or vow. The First New Science does not meet the highest standards of philological accuracy.

Imagination, Hermeneutics, and Historicism in Vico's New Science [Lucian of Samosata Wiki]

This is perhaps surprising in a work published by Cambridge University Press and which appears in a series that has Quentin Skinner for a co-editor. But its actual outcome is an assertion of scepticism or agnosticism, tinged, however, with a trace of mysticism. God's knowledge is the complete sphere of knowledge, the unity of which man's is but a series of fragments. God knows all things because he contains in himself all the elements of which he makes them: man tries to understand them by taking them to pieces.

Human science is a sort of anatomy of the world of nature; it divides man into body and soul, and soul into intellect and will: from body it abstracts figure and motion, and from these existence and unity. Of these metaphysics studies existence, arithmetic unity and multiplication, geometry figure and its measurements, mechanics the motion of the circumference, physical science the motion of the centre, medicine the body, logic the reason, and ethics the will.

But this anatomy meets with the same fate as that of the human body. In the latter case, the greatest physiologists doubt whether, owing to the effects of death and of dissection itself, it is possible at all to discover the true position, structure, and function of the organs. Existence, unity, figure, motion, body, intellect, and will are one thing for God, for whom they coalesce into one, and another for man, to whom they remain distinct.

For God they live, for man they are dead. The clear and distinct perception is a proof not of the strength but of the weakness of the human understanding. Physical laws appear self-evident just until they are subjected to comparison with metaphysical. The Cogito ergo sum is absolutely conclusive when man considers himself as a finite being; but when he includes [Pg 18] himself in God, the one true being, he realises that in truth he does not exist at all.

By means of extension and its three dimensions we believe ourselves to establish eternal truths; but in fact coelum ipsum petimus stultitia, since the eternal truths exist in God alone. The axiom that the whole is greater than the part may seem eternal, but if we go back to the beginning, we find that it is false: we see that the centre of the circle contains in itself as much capacity for extension as the whole circumference. Wherefore, Vico concludes, "he has advanced in metaphysics who in the study of this science has lost himself.

To hold, as some have done, that these words show Vico a simple Platonist or a follower of the traditional Christian philosophy, would entail denying any importance whatever to his first theory of knowledge. It would be a confession of adherence to the fallacious method of philosophical criticism and history which looks only at the general conclusions of a system and ignores the particular content which alone gives it its true individuality.

No doubt, any philosophy must always in its ultimate conclusions be either agnostic, mystical, materialistic, spiritualistic, or the like: in other words, it must have its place in one or other of the eternal categories in which thought and philosophical inquiry move. But to expound philosophers in this one-sided manner can only serve to perpetuate the mistakes repeated over and over again in the history of thought, when it passes fruitlessly from one error to another, leaving the old only to adopt the new, itself perhaps an old one born again or painted with the colours of youth.

The Platonismi agnosticism, or mysticism of Vico is in the fullest sense of the word original, because it forms the accompaniment of doctrines not only not inferior to the average of contemporary thought, but greatly in advance of it. The first of these doctrines is the theory of knowledge as the conversion of the true with the created, Vico's substitute for the otiose criterion of the clear and distinct perception.

2. Vico’s Early Works

Though this conversion represents for Vico an ideal unattainable to man, it yet does not bring with it an exact definition of the condition and character of knowledge, the identity of thought and being, without which knowledge is inconceivable. The second is the revelation of the nature of mathematics, as unique among the forms of human knowledge in origin, rigorous because arbitrary, wonderful but unfit to rule over and transform the rest of our knowledge.

Finally, the third doctrine is the vindication of the world of intuition, empirical knowledge, probability, and authority, all those forms of experience which intellectualism ignored or denied. In these points Vico the agnostic, the Platonist, the mystic, was neither agnostic nor mystic nor Platonist. He achieved a threefold advance upon Descartes, and upon all these three heads criticised him conclusively. The one thing in which Descartes was still in advance of Vico was precisely that dogmatism of which Vico would have none.

Descartes, whether he succeeded or not, projected a perfect human science deduced from the internal consciousness. Vico, on the other hand, considering the French philosopher too confident and despairing of the success of his project, proclaimed the transcendent nature of truth, took his stand upon revelation, and contented himself with producing a metaphysic worthy of man's weakness, humana imbecillitate dignam. His was a philosophy of humility, as the Cartesian was one of self-confidence. Now Vico could not advance even to this position without relaxing to some extent part of his humility, and taking over something of Descartes's confidence: without introducing into his Catholic turn of mind some [Pg 20] trace of the leaven of that Protestantism he thought so dangerous, and venturing to conceive a philosophy rather less worthy of man's weakness and correspondingly more worthy of man, a creature at once strong and weak, at once man and God.

This advance is to be seen in the next phase of his thought.


Windelband draws attention to this thought, Gesch. The will to believe, which in Vico's case was very strong, and the complete sway which the Catholicism of his country and age held over his mind, bound him firmly down to the Christian Platonic metaphysic and theory of knowledge; a theory whose inherent contradictions were prevented by the above psychological facts from coming explicitly before his mind.

The idea of God at once dominated and supported him; he neither had the audacity nor realised the necessity to probe to the bottom such problems as the validity of revelation, the conceivability of a God apart from the world, or the possibility of affirming the existence of God without in some sense demonstrating and therefore creating him. For Vico to open up and partially traverse a new path, which should lead the human mind to transcend that of the Christian Platonists, providence—to use for the moment an idea of his own which we shall explain later on—had perforce to deceive him; to lead him by a long and circuitous way to the commencement of the new path without letting him suspect where it would end.

The writings in which Vico expounds his first theory of knowledge, De ratione studiorum and De antiquissima Italorum sapientia, together with the polemical works bearing upon them, belong to the four years from to In the following decade Vico was gradually led to devote [Pg 22] himself more and more to research in the history of law and of the State. He read Grotius as a preparation for writing the life of Antonio Carafa, and plunged into the controversy on Natural Rights. He pursued his studies of Roman law and the science of law in general, in order to fit himself for a chair of jurisprudence at Naples University.

He pondered upon the origins of languages, religions, and states, out of dissatisfaction with his own historical theories as set forth in the Be antiquissima ; perhaps also his convictions were shaken by a well-directed criticism by the editor of the Giornale dei letterati. His profession, the teaching of rhetoric, gave him continual opportunities for meditating upon the nature and relations of poetry and the forms of language.

Thus even if it is inaccurate to say that Vico was led to his later position culminating in the Scienza Nuova by a philological, not a philosophical process since clearly a philosophical position can only come into being through a process no less philosophical , it is at least certain that the material and stimulus for his new thought were supplied by philological studies.

These studies seem to have impressed upon him a fact of great importance; namely, that this subject-matter could only be and had actually been worked over by his thought through the aid of certain necessary principles, appearing on every page of the history which he had chosen for investigation. He had once believed that the moral sciences, as compared with the mathematical method, took the lowest place as regards certainty. But now, in his daily acquaintance with these sciences, he had come to hold the opposite view; namely, that nothing could be firmer than the foundation of the moral sciences!

This certainty was not the simple self-evidence of Descartes, in which the object, however internal it is said to be, remains extrinsic to the subject. It was a truly internal certainty, reached by an internal process. In [Pg 23] the assimilation of historical facts, Vico felt himself to be making more truly his own something that already belonged to him; to be entering into possession of what was his by right.

Giambattista Vico

He was reconstructing the history of man; and what was the history of man but a product of man himself? Is not the creator of history simply man, with his ideas, his passions, his will, and his actions? And is not the mind of man, the creator of history, identical with the mind which is at work in thinking it and knowing it? The truth of the constructive principles of history then comes not from the validity of the clear and distinct idea, but from the indissoluble connexion of the subject and object of knowledge. The importance of this new discovery, the discovery of the truth which Vico now recognised in the moral sciences, lay in the realisation of a new implication of the theory of knowledge laid down by himself in the former period of his speculations; namely, the criterion of truth consisting in the "convertibility of the true with the created.

Connected as it thus was with his earlier view, the assertion of the possibility of the moral sciences did not, to Vico's own mind, present the importance and bring with it the consequences of a revolution entirely overthrowing the structure of his ideas, and compelling him to adjust them afresh. On the one hand, this assertion seemed to him a confirmation of his former doctrine, a new example to be added to those he had already collected of perfect knowledge; namely, God's knowledge of the universe and man's of the world of mathematics.

On the other hand, it seemed to be an extension of the field of knowledge, whose boundaries for definite boundaries still [Pg 24] existed had at first been too narrowly drawn. Formerly he had described a small luminous sphere in the centre of a vast and dimly lighted field; now the luminous sphere underwent a definite increase in size, and the penumbral region a corresponding diminution.

This increase involved no sort of conflict with his religious beliefs; in fact, it seemed to support them and to gain support from them in turn. For did not religion teach the liberty, responsibility, and consciousness which man has in respect of his own acts and creations? Thus Vico did not feel obliged to write a new treatise on metaphysics. It seemed enough to add a mere post-script to his former work, and to correct to some extent his earlier assertions. His new theory of knowledge, while adhering strictly to the criterion of truth enunciated by him in opposition to that of Descartes—the principle, that is, that only the creator of a thing can know it—divided the whole of reality into the world of nature and the world of man.

But, while it laid down that the world of nature is created by God and that therefore God alone knows it, it restricted its agnosticism to this field. It asserted, on the other hand, that the human world, being man's creation, is known by man. In this way it raised the knowledge of human affairs, formerly considered merely approximate and probable, to the rank of perfect science; and it expressed surprise that philosophers should so laboriously endeavour to attain to science of the world of nature, which is a sealed book to mankind, while passing over the world of man, the science of which is attainable.

The cause of this error he traced to the ease with which man's mind, involved and buried as it is in the body, feels bodily things, and the labour and pains it costs it to understand itself, as the bodily eye sees all objects outside itself, but in order to see itself requires the help of the mirror. In everything else his system remained unchanged. Beyond the perfect knowledge which man could have of himself lay the metaphysic of Christian Platonism, now reduced to impotence, but continuing none the less to embarrass mankind.

The natural sciences were now, as before, regarded as incomplete forms of knowledge: mathematics as a system of abstractions, absolutely valid in the abstract but in face of reality powerless. The Aristotelian syllogism, the Stoic sorites, and the Cartesian geometrical method were pursued with the same hatred as before; and the same enthusiastic praise was lavished upon the induction advocated and illustrated in his Organum by Bacon, that "great philosopher and great statesman," and fruitfully employed by his countrymen in experimental philosophy.

Vico's frequent claim to have constructed the science of human affairs on "a strict geometric method" might seem to indicate a change of opinion as to the applicability of that method. But his continual warnings, during the same period and in the same works, against the use in physical and moral questions of the mathematical method, which, "where there are no figures either of lines or numbers, either gives us no conclusiveness, or else, instead of demonstrating the truth, may often give an appearance of demonstration to falsehood," would flatly contradict the supposed change of front were it not that we could interpret it so as completely to restore the coherence of Vico's thought.

This interpretation is quite simple. Once the power of converting the true with the created is seen to attach to the moral sciences no less than to geometry, these sciences could and indeed must develop on a method analogous to the synthetic method of geometry, the method which proceeds from a truth to its immediate consequence.

In this manner they follow the progress of the world of man from its ideal [Pg 26] origin to its perfect development; so that the student must not hope to be able to investigate these sciences per saltum, but must traverse them from beginning to end in detail, without refusing to accept unforeseen conclusions any more than he can refuse to do so in geometry; but concentrating his attention on the firmness of the bond between premisses and conclusion.

Thus the method could be called geometric by analogy or synecdoche; in fact, however, it was essentially speculative, and not to be confused with the application of mathematics to questions of morals, of which the Cartesians and Spinoza have left examples. Nor can we agree without reservation to the opinion of certain commentators that Vico, in asserting the existence of a single science of man, to be studied in the modifications of the human mind, was retreating to the position of a follower of Descartes.

This opinion is often reinforced by another statement of Vico's, namely, that to conceive his New Science it would be well to return to a state of absolute ignorance, as if no philosophers, philologists, nor books had even existed in the world. It is true that with the new form of his theory of knowledge Vico himself joined the ranks of modern subjectivism, initiated by Descartes. In a sense, indeed, he had already done so in his activistic doctrine of truth as the reconstruction of the created.

In this quite general sense Vico might himself be called a Cartesian. Nevertheless, if he was still behind Descartes in making his subjectivism a principle not of the whole of knowledge but of the knowledge of the world of man only, in another way he was ahead of the French philosopher, in that for him the truth attained in the world of man was not static but dynamic, not a discovery but a product, not consciousness but science.

As for the advice that one should proceed as if there were no books, no philosophical or philological doctrines [Pg 27] in the world, its meaning is merely the necessity of ridding oneself of all prejudice, of all common habitual assumptions, of all accretions of memory and fancy, in order to attain "the state of pure understanding, empty of every particular form," which is necessary for the discovery and apprehension of any new truth.

So far removed is this advice from the Cartesian or Malebranchian renunciation of learning and authority, that—to mention one fact only—in the very passage to which we have just referred we find the warning that the New Science presupposes a comprehensive and varied mass both of doctrine and of learning, the truths of which it takes over as already known, and uses them as terms in its new propositions.

In a word, Vico in his new theory of knowledge became not more Cartesian but more Vician—more himself. Descartes seemed to him not even a serviceable path by which to attain proof of the possibility of constructing the science of mind by means of the mind. The true path was Vico's own criterion of truth, brought into relation with its author's observations made in the course of his historical studies. If we wish to look for precedents in the history of philosophy for Vico's theory of knowledge in its second form, the division between the two worlds of reality and the two spheres of consciousness, and the preference for moral as compared with natural studies, would lead us back to the position adopted by Socrates as against the "Physiologists" of his time, and the feeling of religious mystery which brought the Athenian philosopher to a standstill in face of the natural world and directed his efforts to the study of the mind of man.

Again, as to the superior transparency of the moral sciences, as dealing with objects created by man himself, we might recall the Aristotelian division of the sciences into physical, treating of motion external to man, and practical and "poietic," which deal with man's own [Pg 28] creations. The distinction passed into the philosophy of the schools: Thomas Aquinas speaks of nature as "an order which reason contemplates but does not create" ordo quem ratio considerat sed non facit , and of the world of human activity as "an order which reason creates by contemplation" ordo quem ratio considerando facit.

But no such reference is made by Vico, fond as he was of expressing the debt of his own thought to the ancient philosophers; and admitting that the doctrine had some force before his time, the divergence between this earlier view and that of Vico on the knowableness of the world of man is as great as that between the assertion of the omniscience of God the Creator and the theory of knowledge which Vico was able to draw from it.

Of this theory, his doctrine of the moral sciences was neither more nor less than the first legitimate application. Both its author and the majority of his commentators are using inaccurate language in describing it as a simple extension of the previous applications—a second instance, added to that of the mathematical sciences, already examined. In the mathematical sciences, the principle of the conversion of the true with the created had been applied in appearance only.

The principle itself was original and sound: so was the theory of mathematics. But the connexion between the two truths was altogether artificial and false. What was lacking was, unless we are mistaken, an effective relation between the concept of God who creates the world and, as creating it, knows it, and that of the man who arbitrarily constructs a world of abstractions, and in doing so either knows nothing at all, or else, when he ceases to be a geometer or arithmetician and becomes a philosopher, when he is composing not Euclid's Elements but the theory of knowledge in the De antiquissima, knows merely that his procedure is arbitrary.

If the mathematical sciences construct [Pg 29] their concepts as they please, if they produce not truth but definitions, they are as a matter of fact not sciences at all, nor any form of knowledge, and cannot be compared with the divine knowledge, the knowledge of actual reality. In mathematics, says Vico, "man, holding within himself an imaginary world of lines and numbers, operates in this world by abstraction just as God operates in the universe by reality.

In the moral sciences, on the other hand, the comparison is so entirely logical that it should frankly be called coincidence. Human knowledge is qualitatively identical with divine, and knows the world of man equally well; it is, however, quantitatively more restricted, and does not extend like the divine to the world of nature. In the human field we no longer find the expedients of weakness, definitions and falsifications; knowledge is here at its highest point of concreteness. Man creates the human world, creates it by transforming himself into the facts of society: by thinking it he re-creates his own creations, traverses over again the paths he has already traversed, reconstructs the whole ideally, and thus knows it with full and true knowledge.

Here is a real world; and of this world man is truly the God. It seems undeniable, then, that the application of the "verum-factum" made in the New Science is the only one which corresponds to the criterion previously formulated. The earlier attempt at an application of it to mathematics, though important in other respects and well calculated to free the mind from mathematical prejudice, cannot be considered a true or strict use of it.

It is possible that Vico was sometimes vaguely conscious of the difference between the two applications, the strict and the metaphorical, which as a rule he confused and treated as identical. The science of the world of man, he says, proceeds exactly as does geometry, which while [Pg 30] it constructs out of its elements or contemplates the world of quantity, itself creates it; but with proportionately greater reality, since order has no connexion with human affairs, containing as they do neither points, lines, surfaces, nor figures.

Another indication of his gradually dawning consciousness that he had now for the first time in his doctrine of the world of man discovered a true and proper knowledge, not a mere fiction of knowledge, may perhaps be seen in the much greater conviction, warmth, and enthusiasm with which he now uses the epithet "divine": quite a different thing from the chilly, if not absolutely ironical, ad Dei instar of the De antiquissima. The proofs of the New Science, he says more than once, with fervour, "are divine in their nature, and should give thee, Reader, a divine joy: since in God knowledge and creation are one.

The conversion of the true with the created was bound to react upon the treatment of certitude in one, perhaps the chief, of the various meanings in which Vico uses the word, namely, historical fact: the peculiare, certum, as opposed to the commune or verum. This forms the other important section of Vico's second theory of knowledge. In the former theory these cognitions were, as we saw, legitimised and protected by being put on a level with all other kinds of knowledge, all of them equally weak or equally strong, being all alike founded on probability or authority, whether of the individual autopsy or of mankind.

But now that the knowledge of the human mind and its laws was rescued from the region of authority and probability, historical fact, although still in a sense, by its very nature, founded upon authority, was placed in a new light. The certain must enter into a new relation, confronted as it now was not by another certainty, that is, mere probable knowledge of the human mind, but by a truth, a piece of philosophical knowledge. This relation is also called by Vico the relation between philosophy and philology: the former dealing with necessities of nature, necessaria naturae, and contemplating the reason from which issues the science of truth; the latter with decisions of the human will, placita humani arbitrii, and following the authority whence comes knowledge of the certain.

With Vico the distinction is not so clearly expressed: in fact, authority as opposed to reason sometimes, according to him, becomes a part of reason itself, or is confused with the knowledge of the human will as opposed to that of rational volition; but the general sense is none the less quite plain. By philology Vico means not only the study of words and their history, but, since words are bound up with the ideas of things, he means also the history of things.

Thus philologists should deal with war, peace, alliances, travels, commerce, customs, laws and coinage, geography and chronology, and every other subject connected with man's life on earth. Philology in a word, in Vico's sense, which is also the true sense, embraces not only the history of language or literature, but also that of events, philosophy, and politics. It is true that philology, the truth of fact or certitude, had not always been so brutally treated as it was by the Cartesians.

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Grotius had given evidence of immense historical learning employed on behalf of his doctrine of natural right. Gravina, Vico's contemporary and fellow-countryman, demanded as necessary to the student of law not only "the art of reasoning" ratiocinandi ars but "skill in the Latin tongue" Latinae linguae peritia and "knowledge of history" notitia temporum.

And Leibniz, whom we have just named, reasserted the value of learning as against the Cartesians, and extended his patronage, en grand seigneur, to the varied collection of historical [Pg 32] anecdotes which he scattered freely over his pages. But Vico observed that the philosophy and philology of his time always remained external to one another, as they had been almost entirely in Greece and Rome.

All the quotations from historians, orators, philosophers, and poets accumulated by Grotius were a mere embellishment. Perhaps Vico would have passed the same judgment upon the liberal use made of history by Leibniz, if he had known of it and expressed his opinion. In reading the works of philologists he was conscious of such a sense of vacuity and weariness in the unintelligent jumble of historical observations, that he was almost led to agree with Descartes and Malebranche in their hatred of scholarship: for a time, in fact, he did entirely agree with them. But these two philosophers—so his later thought ran—ought, instead of despising erudition, rather to have asked whether it were possible to reclaim philology to philosophical principles; and the philologists for their part, instead of marshalling facts for a display of learning, ought to strive to make them the aim of science.

Philology must be reduced to a science. This was Vico's idea of the relation of certitude to truth, or philology to philosophy. What was the meaning of reducing philology, or history, which is the same thing, to a science or philosophy? Strictly speaking, the reduction is impossible: not because they deal with subject-matter different in kind, but because their subject-matter is in point of fact homogeneous.


History is already essentially philosophy. It is impossible to make the most insignificant historical statement without moulding it with thought, that is with philosophy. He was bound, in other words, to rescue history from its condition of inferiority, where it was a mere slave to caprice, vanity, moralising and precept-making, and other irrelevant aims, and to recognise its own true end as a necessary complement of eternal truth.

Philosophy nowadays is full of and intimate with historical fact: and this gives it greater breadth and a more lively sense of dealing with concrete reality. This is no doubt one meaning of Vico's formula concerning the union of philosophy and philology, and the reduction of the latter to a science. It is, however, certain that in propounding this formula he had in view a further and, as often happened, a different meaning.

This other meaning might be most simply illustrated by comparing it, as Vico himself did with Bacon and his "more certain method of philosophising": that method which Bacon expressed in the title of his work by the words Cogitata et visa, and Vico proposed to "transfer from the natural to the human or political world. Thus the ideal [Pg 34] construction would acquire certainty from the facts, and the facts truth from the ideal construction: authority would be confirmed by reason and reason by authority.

He demanded a science which should be at once a philosophy of man and a universal history of nations. Now this structure which he required—something intermediate between cogitare and videre, thought and experience, this mixture of the two processes—is intrinsically different from the unity of philosophy and philology, in so far as that is a philosophical interpretation of factual data. Such an interpretation is living history: the other is neither philosophy nor history, but an empirical science of man and society, drawing its materials from schemata which are neither the extra-temporal categories of philosophy nor the individual facts of history: although it can never be constructed without philosophical categories and historical facts.

It is an empirical science; and as such, neither exact nor true, but only approximative and probable, and subject to verification and correction from the side both of philosophy and of history. It would be impossible to decide either which of these two meanings of philology reduced to history is that of Vico himself, since both are included in his thought: or which is the prevailing one, since in point of fact now one, now the other prevails: although the second, or empirical, signification is the more often formulated.

We might even say that when Vico entitled his treatise Scienza Nuova, the principal meaning he attached to this "invidious" name referred precisely to this empirical science, the science, that is, which was to be at once a philosophy and a history of man: the ideal history of the eternal laws which govern the course of all nations' deeds in their rise, progress, points of rest, decline and fall. The fact is, Vico did not and could not unify the two different meanings; he maintained the duality which, simply because it was never made explicit, [Pg 35] presented an appearance of unity.

Thus each of the tendencies shown by his interpreters is partially justified: one group of whom maintain that Vico laid down and employed the speculative method; another, that his procedure was both in intention and in effect empirical, inductive and psychological: the former believing that he aimed at a systematic philosophy of man, the latter that he was bent upon a scheme of sociology or social psychology.

Both views are one-sided, but the second more so than the first. If there actually were in Vico elements both of Bacon and of Plato, of the empiricist and the philosopher, yet when we look at his intellectual personality as a whole, when we penetrate into the depths of his mind and share in his difficulties and his colossal labours, we must recognise that whatever he meant and believed Vico was of the stuff of a Plato and not a Bacon: that even the Bacon of whom he speaks is in part his own invention, a Bacon tinged with Platonism: and that the New Science seemed so new to him fundamentally, not because it was an empirical structure on Bacon's lines—indeed in that case no science could be older: we need only cite Aristotle's Politics and Machiavelli's Discourses, —but because it was impregnated throughout by a new philosophy, which did in truth break into it on every side, through all his empiricism.

The lack of clearness on the relation of philosophy to philology, and the failure to distinguish between the two quite different ways of conceiving the reduction of philology to a science, are at once the consequences and the causes of the obscurity which prevails in the "New Science. The New Science, agreeably to the various meanings of the terms philosophy and philology and of the relation between them, consists of three groups of investigations, philosophical, historical and empirical. Altogether it contains a philosophy of mind, a history, or group of histories, and a social science.

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