We do not often think about how knowledge is gained or transmitted. We simply take it for granted that some idea or morsel of information crosses our path, which we then incorporate into our storehouse of knowledge.
Or do we? Is this really how information is, or should be, passed on?
I had a chance to think more about this subject while reading the works of a little-known Italian logician and scholar named Jacobo Zabarella (1533-1589). A new edition of his Latin works has been recently released, and they have provided me with an unexpected level of interest. The names of the treatises are On Methods and On Regressus.
The translator of Zabarella’s books, John P. McCaskey, seems to have spent twenty years in the computer industry, and then abandoned it to seek a Ph.D. in history. I found this fact intriguing; I am always inspired by stories of men having the courage to take their lives in radical new directions.
Zabarella lived the quiet life of the scholar, never leaving Padua, the city of his birth. In this he reminded me of the great Marsilio Ficino, who seems also to have spent his entire life confined to Florence. Yet despite these geographical limitations, their minds burst the bonds of contemporary thinking, and sought out higher truths.
Unlike most of his contemporaries, Zabarella was perfectly fluent in Greek, and so was able to access Aristotle directly, without the filters of medieval Latin translators of his works. He spent his entire life as a teacher, philosopher, and logician.
One of the tantalizing questions that arise from a study of Zabarella is the degree to which he may have influenced other more well-known thinkers who came after him. Rene Descartes published his landmark Discourse on Method in 1637, and this event is often (and rightly) portrayed as a watershed moment in the history of scientific thought.
We do not know to what extent Descartes was influenced (if at all) by Zabarella, but the odds are in favor of the possibility.
Great men rarely germinate spontaneously from nothing; they stand on the shoulders of those that came before them, and they are helped in a thousand ways by men whose names have been covered up by the silt of history. Zabarella seems to have been one of those names. It is well-nigh time that he has received his due.
What were Zabarella’s main ideas? Let us give him his fair hearing.
He begins On Methods (De Methodis) with a clear and logical statement of fact, no doubt reinforced by years of experience in teaching:
It is clear that every branch of knowledge (omnem scientiam), every art, and every discipline is passed on by some method, and cannot continue without this method. No one can teach any field of knowledge well, except by laying out all its constituent parts, and declaring its foundational principles, and by making use of some way of revealing knowledge of hidden things.
His first and perhaps most important point is that, in teaching knowledge, we must go from “universals” to “particulars.” That is, we should begin with generally accepted propositions, and from these infer more specific information. It sounds like common sense, but it is not. In Zabarella’s day there was some debate on whether universals were more well-known than particulars. Unsurprisingly, he comes down squarely on the side of Aristotle in holding that universals are, in fact, more well-known.
“Order” and “method” are more than just mere words. The sequence in which things are taught, and the ways in which they are taught, are critical principles in the transmission of knowledge. A related point is the distinction between perfect and imperfect knowledge. The former is clear, and the latter is more uncertain. It is a mistake, he believes, to think that we can teach science by proceeding from effects to more general causes. For the sciences, we must go from causes to effects.
Regarding method, there are two types: demonstrative and resolutive. Demonstrative deduces cause from effect, and resolutive deduces effect from cause. Resolutive method can be further divided into two types: demonstration ab effectu (“from the effect”) and induction.
Is Zabarella right?
His views on the acquisition of scientific knowledge are not exactly those held by us today; Francis Bacon’s invocations to scientific research (i.e., starting with observable phenomena) have yielded more fruit than Zabarella’s argument that making inferences from known premises is the only way to learn scientific knowledge. He did better as a general guide to teaching new subjects: here it seems clear that the beginning must be with the universal, rather than the particular.
Nevertheless, there is at least an honest attempt here to grapple with the inner workings of the learning process. His criticisms of the ancient Greek medical authority Galen are well taken. Zabarella’s value lies in his contributions to the art of teaching. As a philosopher of science, he is less convincing.
His book On Regressus deals with some of the finer points of induction and deduction: his goal here is to refute those who claim that his methods are a form of circular reasoning. His arguments here are complicated, but basically come down to drawing a distinction between a “demonstration because” and a “demonstration because of what.”
For those who are interested in how the thinking process works, how subjects should be taught, and how syllogistic reasoning proceeds, Zabarella is a reliable guide. We must not expect flights of eloquence here–logic has never inspired fireworks–but he is nevertheless performing a critical service by forcing us to think about the reasoning process.
What is this service? It is this: the very act of thinking about knowledge stimulates the brain to greater achievement. Simply by seeking to learn the truth about science, advances science. Many of his views are not those we hold today, but this is irrelevant.
For whether he knows it or not, Zabarella is weighing, testing, evaluating, incorporating, discarding, and synthesizing knowledge.
And this, when all is said and done, is the essence of the scientific method.
 Omnem scientiam, omnem artem, omnem disciplinam methodo aliqua tradi et absque methodo consistere non posse manifestum est. Nullam enim facultatem bene docere aliquis potest, nisi et in illius partibus disponendis et in singulis theorematibus declarandis, tradendaque rerum absconditarum cognitione methodum aliquam servet. [De Methodis 1.1]