If we are lucky we are able to cobble together some rules to govern what constitutes a personal sense of making sense. With some determination it is possible to refine this sense over time throughout one’s life.
I explore this a lot through coaching. I try to add what I learn to my coaching as I refine my own sense of how to make sense. Among the touchstones that I have been fortunate to find is Giambattista Vico thanks to a class on this obscure 17/18th century historian and philosopher that I took a long time ago during my first go at a graduate degree.
The tragic events of the first week of January 2020 when we witnessed the storming of our U.S. Capital by an undemocratic mob were shocking, but not surprising to me. I wonder about the motivations and would need to be convinced that the intention was not to overthrow the government, even if there was no plan for how to do that after disrupting the simple, formal process of recognizing the outcome of the presidential election. If there was no long-range plan it would seem to fit with President Trump’s style, of dividing to engender chaos rather than leadership through promotion of psychological safety.
It is one thing to be comfortable being uncomfortable, but in times of crisis where do we turn to make sense of things beyond our control so that we are okay and can feel that there is some solid ground down there somewhere. One of the things that helps me is remembering Vico.
To refresh myself I turned to a couple of brief texts found through a bit of search. One is titled, “Vichian Theories of Language, Genius, and History in Goethe’s Faust” written by Thomas Prendergast at The University of Chicago. The full text can be read here (https://www.cmlt.uga.edu/news/stories/2013/vichian-theories-language-genius-and-history-goethes-faust) but what stuck out to me was the following line:
“Language itself delineates the boundaries of our knowledge.”
This rings true and even more so when I consider that in Vico and Goethe’s time there were no photographs or video. Written words were possibly even more important than they are for us today. The ability to read and write was a privilege in 1700 and set those who had the ability apart, and above those who could not. The technology that we use to communicate has changed and literacy is less of a privilege, but the impact of speaking to others has not changed. When we speak to others the words count, but how we say what we say including our tone and gestures add volume, literally, to the words themselves.
This simple sounding statement, “Language itself delineates the boundaries of our knowledge.”, is what I think about when I see and hear the words used at the rally on the morning of January 6, 2020 by the President before the attack on our Capital.
The other text is a summary of the life and work of Vico from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. I pulled the following parts directly from the Vico entry to summarize and highlight what I have found important to me as far as making sense goes.
This first passage introduces Vico:
“Giovanni Battista Vico (1668–1744) spent most of his professional life as Professor of Rhetoric at the University of Naples. He was trained in jurisprudence, but read widely in Classics, philology, and philosophy, all of which informed his highly original views on history, historiography, and culture. His thought is most fully expressed in his mature work, the Scienza Nuova or The New Science. In his own time, Vico was relatively unknown, but from the nineteenth century onwards his views found a wider audience and today his influence is widespread in the humanities and social sciences. “ (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/vico/)
This second quote reminds me that we are generally ignorant of our own history, if not full of contempt for the historical knowledge we could use to help guide us. As a result, every generation needs to learn lessons for itself through its own experience.
“The reduction of all facts to the ostensibly paradigmatic form of mathematical knowledge is a form of “conceit,” Vico maintains, which arises from the fact that “man makes himself the measure of all things” (Element I, §120, p.60) and that “whenever men can form no idea of distant and unknown things, they judge them by what is familiar and at hand” (Element II, §122, p.60).” (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/vico/)
What would make us think that just because the United States has been around for nearly 250 years that this current generation has escaped from its past. It is not enough to celebrate ideals and achievements. There is an imperative to be vigilant regarding our failings.
But to me this does not mean that there is no hope. As Vico proposed we can do better.
“Although from a general point of view history reveals a progress of civilization through actualizing the potential of human nature, Vico also emphasizes the cyclical feature of historical development. Society progresses towards perfection, but without reaching it (thus history is “ideal”), interrupted as it is by a break or return (ricorso) to a relatively more primitive condition. Out of this reversal, history begins its course anew, albeit from the irreversibly higher point to which it has already attained.” (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/vico/)
And this idea that when we are challenged and need to start fresh led me to search for contemporary voices that offer a way forward by expressing views like the following from Columbia University historian, Eric Foner, who I quote from his recent New Yorker interview when speaking about one way to view the result of the Georgia Senate runoffs wherein a Black man and a Jewish man were elected from a state with a terrible historic record in terms of racism and antisemitism.
“We teach history, but history is not determinism. We don’t have to just relive our history over and over again. It’s possible to move beyond it, and I think what happened in Georgia is a little step in that direction.” (https://www.newyorker.com/news/q-and-a/learning-from-the-failure-of-reconstruction)
Foner is a foremost expert on Reconstruction which lasted from 1867 until 1876. The failure of Reconstruction, as Foner points out, is that it ended too soon. Its end came as part of a Faustian bargain. We sold out in the 1876 presidential election. There was genuine fraud in the election of 1876. The settlement made by the unique election commission of representatives, senators, and supreme court justices which numbered eight Republicans and seven Democrats awarded the presidency to the Republican, Garfield, in exchange for the end of Reconstruction. If the Democrat, Tilden, had been awarded the presidency, the outcome would have been the same. The appetite to continue to fight for the things won in the Civil War was gone. There would be no “course anew” and instead there was a return to a “more primitive condition.”
Perhaps we can follow up on our 1960s civil rights era second Reconstruction with a third Reconstruction. I sincerely hope so and think that to do so we will need to remember not to make ourselves the measure of all things and instead remember our failings as much as our successes in order to start anew from a higher point. Unity can come from strength and maintaining the courage of our convictions not to capitulate as our forerunners in 1876. Those who have sought to tear things apart need to bear responsibility and unity means recognizing that all of us, everyone, across the spectrum of society and culture deserve the same respect and opportunity no matter our heritage or color.
Maybe it sounds silly to think that these ideas should animate coaching. But how can they not? If a coach can be egalitarian and treat all of his or her students fairly it is also entirely possible that a coach can come with a prejudiced perspective.
Don’t be that coach. Make the choice to be open and have the courage to be fair.