Verum Factum


“…to know something means knowing how to make it.” -Fragrant: The Secret Life of Scent by Mandy Aftel

I read these words on a twitter post (who says twitter isn’t profound!) and I got goosebumps (and of course immediately purchased the book — one of my favorite books ever is Essence and Alchemy by Aftel. It’s about being human, not just about perfume, but I digress).

She was referring to the verum factum principle, a philosophic theory by Giambattista Vico:

The verum factum principle

Vico is best known for his verum factum principle, first formulated in 1710 as part of his De antiquissima Italorum sapientia, ex linguae latinae originibus eruenda (1710) (“On the most ancient wisdom of the Italians, unearthed from the origins of the Latin language”). The principle states that truth is verified through creation or invention and not, as per Descartes, through observation: “The criterion and rule of the true is to have made it. Accordingly, our clear and distinct idea of the mind cannot be a criterion of the mind itself, still less of other truths. For while the mind perceives itself, it does not make itself.” This criterion for truth would later shape the history of civilization in Vico’s opus, the Scienza Nuova (The New Science, 1725), because he would argue that civil life – like mathematics – is wholly constructed.


Wow. I have more poking around to do about verum factum, but this makes (!) so much sense to me. It was so revelatory to read this as the last few months have been so much not only about making, but about being told, “Try it and see what happens!” instead of being given directions. From seeing if a certain bone would make good knitting needles, if a certain paper would fold well and take watercolor, what might happen after leaving a bread dough in the refrigerator overnight, even right down to making gauge swatches and altering sweater patterns after realizing my gauge was completely different from the pattern maker’s — and then trying it and realizing it still wasn’t working — and trying again. Verum factum works perfectly in my philosophy of Make. Do.

I’ve been more willing to make mistakes right now than any time in my life. The secret — they are not mistakes. They are what you do to know, really know. Why isn’t this part of our educational system instead of ever-growing standardized testing and learning to the test? (Don’t answer that! It’s obvious they don’t really want most citizens to figure out how to truly know!)

I was going to tell you all about my tool making workshop, and what I’ve been doing in book arts class . . . but I think all that I want to tell you is to experiment with, experience, turn inside-out, handle, deconstruct, play with, and otherwise know something(s).

(image: my tool making workshop! Look at us working hard 🙂


  1. There’s lots of education theory based on knowing through doing. When I am teaching, I get my learners to explore and build on their existing knowledge – to discuss solutions with other learners and to construct meaning in a social context. Of course I am lucky enough to teach adults and not to have to work towards standardised tests or a specified curriculum. The feedback I get is always positive. Sadly, it’s not an approach that teachers within the (non-private) school system are allowed to take.

    1. Yes, I’m talking about the average American elementary through high school. I should have made that clear 🙂 I’ve learned by doing lots in college.

  2. This is so true! And, alas, our educational institutions (mostly now businesses that aim to churn out “young adults ready for the market”) have no way of accommodating this.

    I had the privilege of studying Latin & Greek and it always stayed with me that Homer associated ‘sophia’ (the Greek word for wisdom) with artisanal skills. As a kid who “spent too much time in her head” but also “made stuff” I understood this, long before I could articulate why.

    I also count myself lucky to learnt a few manual skills, at school and home, alongside the academic ones. As the years have passed, this has allowed me to rediscover dormant skills and has given me the confidence to delve further and explore new ones! Shortly after my dad’s death, one of my girlfriends shared a conversation she had with him. Dad was very proud of my achievements, of my language and legal skills, but he was particularly animated when discussing my welding skills with this friend. As a classics student and an engineer he obviously grasped the reality of “wisdom”!

    1. That’s a great story about you and your father. Wise, the both of you! My grandparents had the working class baggage where they didn’t want their children to get their hands dirty — I didn’t do housework or carpentry work — but I was observant. It doesn’t replace doing — as I found out once I moved out of their house!

      Back in my day they had Latin in the average school — just a smattering — but it helped me so much with understanding the roots of words and I think made me the etymology freak I am today 🙂 I was just talking about it with a coworker who is my age. Our coworkers who are just a little younger than us didn’t have Latin.

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