In recent years a new movement in the philosophy of education has arisen. It flies the banner of “constructivism, ” taking its name, Ernst von Glasersfeld tells us, from comments of the eighteenth century Neapolitan philosopher Giambattista Vico. Vico was an admirer of the work of René Descartes, the seventeenth century philosopher, mathematician, and scientist, who offered rational explanations of a wide range of natural phenomena, for which he is famous to this day. Unfortunately, Descartes’ writings had been banned by the Church, suffering the same fate as those of Copernicus and Galileo. And that region of the Italian peninsula was then ruled by a Spanish viceroy, who, like the king he served, had little tolerance for ideas that might be seen as challenging religious authorities. For this reason, Vico faced a difficult problem in publishing his philosophy of history, which sought rational and historical explanations of the origin of human cultures from early primitive beginnings to the complexities of European states of that day. Such explanations might seem to conflict with the conventional wisdom that human societies were the work of Divine providence, being properly ruled by kings responsible only to God. His solution was to tell us that, as God had created the world, only He could truly know it. The best that mere humans could do was to construct their own ideas about it, without pretending that these could ever reach the stature of His knowledge. By putting matters in this way, Vico was successful in getting the publication of his work permitted by the Church, and his philosophy of history stands today as a historical landmark on its own.
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