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 🙂


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