Vailati, Giovanni

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(b. Crema, Italy, 24 April 1863; d. Rome, Italy, 14 May 1909)

logic, philosophy of science, history of science.

Vailati’s parents were Vincenzo Vailati and Teresa Albergoni. After attending boarding schools in Monza and Lodi, he enrolled in the University of Turin in 1880, graduating in engineering in 1884 and in mathematics in 1888. Then followed a period of independent study in which he especially studied languages (his writings show a proficiency in Greek, Latin, English, French, German, and Spanish); this was interrupted by the offer of an assistantship at the University of Turin by his former teacher Giuseppe Peano, professor of infinitesimal calculus. Vailati was Peano’s assistant from 1892 to 1895, when he became an assistant in projective geometry and later honorary assistant to Volterra. In 1899 he requested a secondary school appointment and was at first sent to Syracuse, transferring to Bari in 1900, to Como in 1901, and to Florence in 1904.

Vailati came of a Catholic family but lost his faith during his early university years. Throughout his life he had affectionate and devoted friends; he never married. His premature death was attributed to heart trouble, complicated by pulmonitis.

Vailati’s first ten publications, dealing principally with mathematical logic, were published in the Rivista di matematica, founded by Peano in 1891. He also collaborated, especially with historical notes, in the Formulario project announced by Peano in 1892. Vailati gained international recognition with the publication of three essays in the history and methogology of science, originally given as introductory lectures to his course in the history of mechanics at the University of Turin (1896–1898).

Vailati was always concerned with tracing ideas back to their origins, and his intimate knowledge of Greek and Latin was invaluable. (In the analytical index to the Scritti, “Aristotle” has twice the space of any other entry.) His work in this area will perhaps be his most lasting contribution.

Vailati received most attention during his life-time as the leading Italian exponent of pragmatism. After his transfer to Florence in 1904 he collaborated, along with his friend and disciple Mario Calderoni, in the publication of the journal Leonardo, founded the year before by G. Papini and G. Prezzolini. His philosophical position was closer to that of Charles Sanders Peirce than to the more popular William James, but it remained distinct, individual, and original.

Vailati’s wide range of interest included, at various periods, psychic research, economics, and political science (in which he took socialism seriously, but opposed Marx’s theory of value.) In all of these areas his acute critical sense allowed him, as was often said, “to succeed in saying in a few words what others had succeeded in not saying in many volumes.” When the occasion seemed to call for it, he did not hesitate to criticize sharply the opinions of even eminent scientists (for example, he critcized Poincaré’s views on mathematical logic).

Finally, Vailati’s pedagogical activities must be noted, in recognition of which he was appointed a member of the commission for the reform of the secondary schools. For the work of the commission he established his residence in Rome in 1906, dividing his time between there and Florence, but in 1908 he voluntarily returned to teaching in Florence.

After his death, Vailati’s reputation quickly suffered an eclipse; this was partly the result of the form in which his writings appeared. He never published a book-length monograph. Indeed, many of his original ideas appeared in critical reviews, which occupy, by page count, approximately 43 percent of the Scritti. After 1950 there was a revival of interest in his work, centering mainly on his philosophical views, but hindered by the general unavailability of his writings. Vailati also carried on a wide correspondence, which is mostly unpublished. Projects announced in 1958 for the publication of his correspondence and a new edition of his writings were not carried out.


I. Original Works. With very minor exceptions the published writings of Vailati were collected in the Scritti di G. Vailati (1863–1909) (Leipzig-Florence, 1911). The article “Sulla teoria delle proporzioni,” appeared posthumously in Questioni riguardanti le matematiche elementari, F. Enriques, ed., I (Bologna, 1924), 143–191. There have been three short anthologies, Gli strumenti della conoscenza, M. Calderoni, ed. (Lanciano, 1911); II pragmatismo, Giovanni Papini, ed. (Lanciano, 1911); and II metodo della filosofia, Ferruccio Rossi-Landi, ed. (Bari, 1957; repr. 1967).

II. Secondary Literature. The Scritti contains a biography by Orazio Premoli. Calderoni’s preface to Gli strumenti . . . (1909) is also valuable. Essential for any study of Vailati is F. Rossi-Landi, “Materiale per lo studio di Vailati,” in Rivista critica di storia della filosofia, 12 (1957), 468–485; and 13 (1958), 82–108.

An entire number of the Rivista critica . . . , 18 (1963), 275–523, contains papers presented by twenty authors for the centenary of Vailati’s birth.

Hubert C. Kennedy