Posts Tagged ‘Information retrieval’

What Cicero's servant girl knew

Tuesday, September 15th, 2009

Descartes is reputed to have remarked that the best that historians of Ancient Rome could hope to achieve was to know what "Cicero's servant girl knew"; the point of the jibe being to contrast science's steady progress with the fruitlessness of the humanities. (That I can tell, the phrase itself is Vico's paraphrase of Descartes' beliefs, cited in the course of Vico's defense of the humanities; see Croce, "The philosophy of Giambattista Vico", (1913), p. 292.) In fact, today's historians would view Descartes' description more as an ideal than an affront; an account of daily life by Cicero's servant girl would tell historians much that they would like to know. It is a commonplace that historical sources rarely say directly what you want to know: you have to wring the information out of them by careful interpretation.