About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Fish against curiosity

Readers of this blog may begin to think that I have a personal antipathy for New York Times editorialist Stanley Fish. I don’t, really. Don’t even know the guy. And yet, somehow he manages to get criticized in writing by yours truly more often (and certainly more harshly) than Richard I-don’t-know-what’s-wrong-with-Bill-Maher-but-I’ll-endorse-his-award Dawkins.

What has Fish done now? In his latest inanity for the Times he wrote a column against curiosity. Yes, you read correctly: if unchecked, curiosity, for Fish, is a major scourge of humanity, bringing us the atomic bomb and vivisection, while at the same time turning us away from god. Now, if these were the rants of a fundamentalist preacher from Alabama (or Mississippi, or Georgia, or Tennessee, you pick) then it would hardly be worth bothering about. But this is a professor (“distinguished,” no less) of law at Florida International University in sunny Miami (and formerly at the University of Illinois-Chicago). But of course Fish is also a postmodernist, and herein lies the bullshit.

Fish begins by quoting, and then criticizing, James A. Leach, the new chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Leach’s sin is to have said in a recent speech that “a right to be curious would have been a natural reflection of [Thomas Jefferson's] personality ... [Because] the cornerstone of democracy is access to knowledge, the curious pursuing their curiosity may be mankind’s greatest if not only hope.” Radical stuff, as you can see, which deserves a rebuttal in the New York Times before a pandemic of curiosity hits the country, resulting in the death of innumerable cats.

Fish reminds his readers that curiosity is not a universal value, or an unqualified benefit. Let us parse these two claims. The quintessential example — to which the good professor devotes an entire paragraph of his column — is of course god’s prohibition to Adam from eating of the fruit of knowledge. The idea, apparently, was to test Adam’s faith and ability to self-impose limits. Disobedience was interpreted by god as human arrogance, with the results we all know. I always thought this tale was one of the best reasons not to be a christian: there it is, folks, right at the beginning of your so-called sacred book, god is despotic, narcissistic, engages in arbitrary and cruel punishment, and — of all things — prohibits you from learning. Need anything more be said?

Apparently, yes. Fish goes on quoting Thomas Aquinas as chastising human curiosity as a form of pride, and even the obscure 16th century churchman Lorenzo Scupoli, who contemptuously said “They make an idol of their own understanding,” all the way to the contemporary author Jonathan Robinson, who disapproves of curiosity and labels it a (apparently despicable) pursuit of “every conceivable subject that takes our fancy.” And what, exactly, is wrong with that, esteemed churchmen and assorted religious apologists?

Paul Griffiths, author of Reason and the Reasons of Faith explains: “Late modern societies that are fundamentally shaped by the overwhelming presence of electronic media and the obscene inundation of every aspect of human life by pictures and sounds have turned the vice of curiosity into a prescribed way of life. ... “In a world where curiosity rules, unmasking curiosity as a destructive and offensive device ... amounts to nothing less than a ... radical critique of superficiality and constant distraction.”

Wow! In other words, curiosity is bad because it distracts us from worshiping and studying god (Fish’s words), and even from our secular obligations because our minds are obsessed by it and find no time for anything else. Perhaps Fish and his buddies are confusing pornography for curiosity, because I’ve never encountered a “secular” person so obsessed with curiosity that he/she became dysfunctional in everyday life. On the other hand, I have encountered plenty of religious bigots whose utter lack of curiosity about the world leads them to incredible fits of mental gymnastics aimed at denying evolution (basic science) or that condoms are crucial in the fight against AIDS (applied science).

But of course Fish has an ace up his sleeve, because you see, it is not curiosity per se that is the problem, but unbound, unchecked, curiosity. That’s the monster that pushes scientists to ignore the pain of animals on which they experiment and, well, good old Stanley immediately runs out of examples there, so he has to deploy fictitious ones: “Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”

Of course, anything in excess is not a good thing, as Aristotle taught us 24 centuries ago. Even too much water is bad for you, because you can drown in it or die from an imbalance of electrolytes. But to accuse people of worshiping “curiosity — sometimes called research, sometimes called unfettered inquiry, sometimes called progress, sometimes called academic freedom” is the quintessential example of the twisted post-modernist mind. If this country and the world is suffering from something, it is too little curiosity (about the world and about other people), too little critical thinking (including among the editors of the Times that keep publishing this rubbish), and too much post-modernism. Curiosity may be lethal to a cat, but it is a source of freedom and knowledge for a human being.


  1. "Anything in excess is harmful" says it all. As for curiosity, it can not be termed as a bad thing. Just as many good things are born out of curiosity as bad things. The result of curiosity determines whether that curiosity was good or bad.

  2. People like Fish tend to be quick to bring up the 'negative' byproducts of curiosity (or scientific research, which is what 'curiosity' seems to be code for here), like the atomic bomb or other weapons of war, yet they seem to ignore the fact that curiosity alone does not tend to produce things like the Manhattan Project. I doubt many scientists would create an atomic bomb out of curiosity alone (excessive or otherwise), and it is deceitful to leave out the roles of politics and commerce in turning a scientist's idea into a usable weapon.

    It's true that 'knowledge for the sake of knowledge' can be turned towards nefarious ends, but it would be ludicrous to suggest that we should hold back on our curiosity because it might lead to another atomic bomb. What if it instead leads to a cure for cancer? As for Adam and Eve...well, I'm inclined to agree with the interpretation of the story that finds God at fault.

  3. I would have read this article, but I decided it was safer to stifle my interest in order to protect myself from any information it might contain.

    I hope those of you who chose otherwise will see the error of your ways, and accept (but not learn) your lesson.

  4. Nothing new under the sun:

    "There is another form of temptation, even more fraught with danger. This is the disease of curiosity... It is this which drives us to try and discover the secrets of nature, those secrets which are beyond our understanding, which can avail us nothing and which man should not wish to learn."

    St. Augustine

  5. This guy has no right to be a teacher.

  6. Fish seems to see the world as Pandora's Box. Don't dare peek inside, there might be something bad in there.
    I hope he doesn't influence anyone.

  7. The most incredible thing about post-modernists is that anyone pays them any attention at all. They could at least have the grace to fly up their own bellybuttons in private, or when gathered in incurious groups of like kind.

  8. Fundamentalists and bigots live in a carefully constructed, simplistic alternate reality that they want to impose on the rest of the world and cannot tolerate any intrusion that contradicts their lobotomized fantasy. Thus they vehemently hate curiosity, facts, knowledge and education.

  9. Importantly, even the "fictional examples" of Shelley and Goethe do not offer anything remotely like the "avoid curiosity" lesson that Fish wants to draw from them. Dr. Frankenstien's error was not in his curiosity, it was in his abdication of responsibility for his creation, his total refusal to see his actions as having consequences to which he must be responsive.

    This insistence that mythology and classical literature are somehow opposed (in principle) to learning and exploration can only deepen the widely-held, harmful, and incredibly mistaken belief that science and the humanities are fundamentally opposed.

  10. Huh. I read that piece as being ironic. I figured nobody could really think, in this day and age, that curiosity was Meddling With Things Man Wasn't Supposed To Understand, and so it was a reductio against the theological proscriptions he cited.

  11. How is it possible that someone with such idiotic ideas, if Fish is actually being serious and not just a troll, can be a professor, of all things?

    Anyway, if he's really a post-modernist he will have to concede that his opinion on the value of curiosity is as good as mine on Fish's intellectual capabilities. :-)

  12. I wish Pigliucci would quit writing about guys I've just read in my lit crit class--makes it hard to take my education seriously. Oh, and Fish doesn't consider himself a postmodernist. He prefers "antifoundationalist," forgetting his foundation in the book of Genesis I guess. His claim to fame was his "reader reception" treatment of Milton, who was also fond of that old yarn about the talking snake.

  13. Gary Larson knew all about the dangers of curiosity:

    "Notice all the computations, theoretical scribblings and lab equipment, Norm .... yes, curiosity killed these cats."

  14. It doesn't surprise me at all. It was curiosity which led to the Fall, after all. The Fruit of the Knowledge of Good And Evil was too tempting a fruit for Adam and Eve. They were curious, and not satisfied with having all of their needs tended to by God.

    Curiosity is the reason that women menstruate. With cramps.

  15. John,

    well, sometimes the charitable interpretation is too charitable. If you look at Fish's writings you will easily see that he wasn't being ironic at all...


    sorry to spoil your lit-crit class!

  16. I hadn't heard of him before. Now I know...

  17. I'm *curious*, what/who killed more cats--curiosity or Schrodinger!

    A very humorous article, Massimo! Thoroughly enjoyed reading it!

  18. Gee, I've heard of the fallacy of "argument from ignorance, but it seems Fish is making the "argument FOR ignorance." Fascinating, but not really surprising. I imagine anyone who is advocating a world-view that wouldn't stand up to empirical inquiry, to at least implicitly discourage curiosity inspired investigation. In a way, the fact that Fish does is so explicitly is kind of refreshing.

  19. "I'm *curious*, what/who killed more cats--curiosity or Schrodinger!"

    The answer to that is uncertain.

  20. Curiosity is more or less an indication of the presence of a mystery and so I can't imagine why thinking that way would necessarily turn people away from God. If there is a problem, there is one of the will plain a simple. One can be curious and choose to seek God. One can be curious and turn his findings in as evidence against God.

    But it is "curious" how it kind of has to be one way or another, isn't it.

    "The secret [things belong] unto the LORD our God: but those [things which are] revealed [belong] unto us and to our children for ever, that [we] may do all the words of this law." Deu 29:29


  21. Sorry, I can't pile on Fish's column. I think you're confusing his elucidating the historical and philosophical argument against unbounded curiosity with his personal opinion about its virtues (which, by the way, he doesn't deny!)

    In other words, you're conflating Fish's recounting of OTHER'S arguments with his own.

    I found his column fascinating... I was unaware of the strength of the tradition of an anti-curiosity philosophy.

    His point, in my reading, was that there are well-argued downsides to unbounded curiosity. But that's like saying there are downsides to the Internet -- it's not an argument against having one, but something important to keep in mind and not to be overlooked. Fish is pointing out that the downsides to curiosity are being overlooked, since it's commonly conceived as an undiluted virtue.

    Fish likes to be provocative like this, because he knows that people will conflate the conclusions most easily drawn from the arguments he presents with his personal views. This lets him chide people in follow-up columns for mixing up the message with the messenger and failing to distinguish rhetoric from polemic. He certainly got a rise out of this blog!

  22. Well, I think you are reading him *way* too charitably, and I'm long past the time while I was willing to do that with Fish.

  23. "Perhaps Fish and his buddies are confusing pornography for curiosity, because I’ve never encountered a “secular” person so obsessed with curiosity that he/she became dysfunctional in everyday life."

    In terms of narrow curiousity, (secular) people with Asperger's would fit that category.


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