Vailati, Giovanni (1863–1909)

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Giovanni Vailati, the Italian analytical philosopher and historian of science, was born at Crema, Lombardy. He studied engineering and mathematics at the University of Turin, where he later became an assistant to Giuseppe Peano (1892) and Vito Volterra (1895) and lectured on the history of mechanics (18961899). In 1899 he resigned his university post to be free for independent work, earning his living by teaching mathematics in high schools. By the end of his life Vailati's ideas were internationally recognized; some of his writings had been translated into English, French, and Polish, and he was personally acquainted with many of the important scholars of his time. He was forgotten after his death, however, and only since the late 1950s has he received renewed attention.

The main feature of Vailati's thought is his methodological and linguistic approach to philosophical problems. Rather than propounding anything resembling a doctrine, Vailati presented concrete examples of how to apply his new methods. He left no complete book, but only some two hundred essays and reviews on a great number of problems in several academic disciplines. The best way to indicate the range of his philosophical interests is, therefore, to report the titles of his most important essays in philosophy. In chronological order, they are "The Importance of Investigating the History of the Sciences" (its bearing on the understanding of scientific method); "Deductive Method as a Tool for Inquiry"; "Questions of Words in the History of Science and Culture" (on semantical problems); "The Difficulties that Impair Any Attempt Rationally to Classify the Sciences"; "The Logical Bearing of Brentano's Classification of Mental Facts"; "The Applicability of the Concepts of Cause and Effect in Historical Sciences"; "The Most Modern Definition of Mathematics" (Bertrand Russell's); "The Role of Paradoxes in Philosophy"; "The Tropes of Logic" (in which the important point is made that induction cannot be grounded, because if it were grounded, it would become deduction); "The Hunt for Antitheses" (an attack on the philosophical tendency toward unification and a defense of analysis); "The Distinction between Knowing and Willing"; "The Search for the Impossible" (which contains an assessment of G. E. Moore's Principia Ethica and an acceptance of his method); "Pragmatism and Mathematical Logic"; "Toward a Pragmatic Analysis of Philosophical Terminology"; "A Handbook for Liars" (a review of Giuseppe Prezzolini's The Art of Persuading ); and "The Grammar of Algebra" (containing a comparison of the syntax of ordinary language with that of algebra).

Vailati's next important work, "Language as an Obstacle to the Elimination of Illusory Contrasts," is possibly his most concentrated inquiry into the relation between speech and thought and into the influence of speech on thought. Finally should be mentioned the papers Vailati wrote with his pupil, Mario Calderoni"The Origins and Fundamental Idea of Pragmatism," "Pragmatism and Various Ways to Say Nothing," and "The Arbitrary in the Operation of the Mental Life." To all these articles Vailati brought a sense of humor; independence of judgment; a mind as cautious, matter-of-fact, and candid as one could wish for in a philosopher; complete control of mathematics, symbolic logic, and the history of the subject being examined; and an extremely concentrated style.


For Vailati, philosophy is no superscience that can teach scientists what they should do. It cannot make discoveries; it can only prepare the intellectual climate and furnish some of the necessary tools. It is a neutral enterprise that can receive contributions from people holding different personal beliefs and conceptions. It should avoid the struggle between systems which, "let us hope, will some day end like the reported fight between the two lions who ate one another up leaving only their tails on the ground" (Scritti, p. 652). As it has no special field of its own, philosophy should not construct any special language or resort to any jargon but should take into account what is already present in language. When a philosopher wants to ban a problematic term to avoid a related problem, he deludes himself; and when he substitutes for an ordinary-language term a technical term of his own or one drawn from a special science, his policy reminds one of "the advice given to children in jest that one can catch a bird by putting salt on its tail" (ibid., p. 315). The right policy consists in correcting the use of the ordinary termin using it "technically," if you like, but in a technical use as near as possible to its ordinary use. On the other hand, Vailati denounced as misleading similarity in verbal form or in grammar as contrasted with similarity in thought. He defended the independence of the philosopher with respect to usage as such.

Vailati wrote his most rewarding pages on such subjects as definitions, the difference between statements and other types of sentences, the logic of dispositional expressions versus categorical ones, axioms and postulates, deduction and induction, and the use of experiments. Also of importance are several papers on analytical ethics.

Vailati held that "opinions, whether true or false, are always facts, and as such they deserve and require to be made the object of research and verification" (ibid., p. 65). Semantically, this is possible because we can understand and talk about sentences of which it cannot be said that they are either true or false. Indeed, "the question of determining what we mean when we propound a given proposition is entirely different from the question of deciding whether it is true or false " (ibid., p. 923). On the other hand, mere understanding should not be confounded with scientific method, nor does the study of all that can be significantly said supply us with criteria for assessing truth and falsity. One cannot even begin to deal with the question whether a sentence is true or false before settling the question of what is meant by it. But to decide truth or falsity one must connect present and future experiences in terms of prevision, and propositions and facts in terms of intersubjective verification, both in science and in philosophy. In both "it must be demanded of anybody who advances a thesis that he be capable of indicating the facts which according to him should obtain (or have obtained) if his thesis were true, and also their difference from other facts which according to him would obtain (or have obtained) if it were not true" (ibid., p. 790).

Vailati's "Pragmatism"

Vailati was a liberal analytical philosopher of the kind that has flourished in England and the United States since World War II. However, he is usually referred to as the chief Italian "Peircean," or "logical," pragmatist. He was indeed one of the first to read Charles Sanders Peirce correctly and to carefully distinguish his thought from William James's. But Vailati's thought was too complex and his acquaintance with the history of ideas too thorough, and the concept of pragmatism is itself too manifold, to call him only a pragmatist. Although he stressed the importance of Peirce, he traced Peirce's ideas back to George Berkeley and even to Plato's Theaetetus, claiming that Socrates was presented in that work as "defending against Protagoras the thesis now supported by Peirce under the name of 'pragmatism'" (ibid., p. 921). If Vailati was impressed by Peirce's criteria for meaning and truth, he was equally impressed by Peano's work in mathematical logic, Ernst Mach's principle of the economy of thought, Moore's approach to ethics and Russell's to mathematics, Franz Brentano's classification of mental phenomena, the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz revival (to which Vailati contributed), and James's conception of consciousness.

Vailati did not possess Peirce's speculative power and overwhelming originality, but neither did he share the American's ontological troubles and commitments, and he gave his own researches a more empirical and methodological bent. By "pragmatism" Vailati meant mainly a new freedom of thought, a refusal to subscribe to any given doctrine, a willingness to use new intellectual techniques, and a cooperative attitude toward philosophical problems. He possessed new methods and new ways of thought which were neither positivistic nor idealistic; and he needed a new banner under which to fight his intellectual battle within Italian philosophy, which was then in the process of passing over from nineteenth-century positivism to the neoidealism of Benedetto Croce and Giovanni Gentile. Vailati's very individual position within that process helps to account for the long silence about his work, some other reasons being the scattered nature of his publications, the fact that he was in advance of his time, and the intervention of World War I and Italian fascism.

Historical Work

As a historian Vailati dealt chiefly with mechanics, logic, and geometry. He made important contributions to the study of post-Aristotelian Greek mechanics, of Galileo Galilei's forerunners, of definition in Plato and Euclid, of the influence of mathematics on logic and epistemology, and of Gerolamo Saccheri's work in logic and in non-Euclidean geometry. He gave a remarkable representation (much more than a translation) of Book A of Aristotle's Metaphysics. He was particularly interested in the dialectic of continuity and change, in how "the same" problems are faced and solved in different ways in different periods; which, owing to his constant interest in language, meant that he traced the history of the relations between concepts and terms.

Vailati's work as a historian and as an analytical philosopher were closely interwoven; they are two applications of the same attitudes and methods. He saw the difference between theoretical and historical research not so much in their subject matters as in their approach to their subject matters. Philosophers and scientists, he held, should cooperate in historical research and remember that no history is complete unless the social background of ideas is taken into account. In science, past results are not "destroyed" by new ones, for new results make old ones even more important in the very process of superseding them. "Every error shows us a rock to be avoided, while not every discovery shows us a path to be followed" (ibid., p. 65). By his awareness of the importance and his command of the methodology of historical research, Vailati avoided the abstract ahistorical atmosphere and the scientifically biased attitude of many logical positivists.


Vailati wrote some early papers in symbolic logic, but he was chiefly interested in the function of logic within philosophy. He attacked confusions between logic and psychology and between logic and epistemology.


Vailati's thought cannot be completely evaluated until the hundreds of letters he wrote to Mach, Brentano, Peano, Croce, Volterra, Giovanni Papini, Prezzolini, Giovanni Vacca, and many others, are published. Many concern topics not dealt with in the Scritti. These letters constitute one of the last large scientific correspondences of the eighteenth-century kind. They will throw new light on the intellectual history of Europe around 1900 and possibly establish connections hitherto unnoticed or only suspected.

See also Berkeley, George; Brentano, Franz; Croce, Benedetto; Galileo Galilei; Gentile, Giovanni; Geometry; Induction; James, William; Language and Thought; Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm; Logic, History of; Mach, Ernst; Moore, George Edward; Papini, Giovanni; Peano, Giuseppe; Peirce, Charles Sanders; Plato; Pragmatism; Propositions; Scientific Method; Semantics; Socrates.


Vailati's manuscripts (some still unpublished) and many of the letters he received are in the Institute for the History of Philosophy of the State University of Milan. The only almost-complete edition of his papers is the Scritti (Florence, 1911), which was followed by two anthologies: Gli strumenti della conoscenza, edited by Mario Calderoni (Lanciano, 1911), and Il pragmatismo, edited by Giovanni Papini (Lanciano, 1911). Il pragmatismo includes a completion of Vailati's notes for a book on pragmatism. Some of his best essays were first reprinted in Il metodo della filosofia, edited by Ferruccio Rossi-Landi (Bari, 1957), and in Scritti di metodologia scientifica e di analisi del linguaggio, edited by M. F. Sciacca (Milan, 1959). Complete collections of the philosophical papers and of the correspondence are in preparation.

The first contemporary scholar to point out Vailati's importance was Eugenio Garin, in 1946; see his Cronache di filosofia italiana (Bari: Laterza, 1955), Ch. 5, Sec. 5. See also Ferruccio Rossi-Landi's introduction to Il metodo della filosofia ; Rossi-Landi's "Materiale per lo studio di Vailati, in Rivista critica di storia della filosofia 12 (1957): 468485 and 13 (1958): 82108, with extensive bibliographies and an attempt to classify all of Vailati's papers; and Rossi-Landi's "Some Modern Italian Philosophers," in Listener 17 (1450 and 1451) (1957): 5961 and 9798. The most complete study is a special issue of the Rivista critica di storia della filosofia 18 (1963): 273523, which contains essays by twenty authors.

Ferruccio Rossi-Landi (1967)