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
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.