Unreal Nature

August 24, 2012

Prudence, On the Other Hand

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:06 am

… ‘Curiosity is the investigation of matters which have nothing to do with the thing being investigated or which have no significance for us.’

‘ … there can be no philosophy of particulars.’

This is from Curiosity: How Science Became Interested In Everything by Philip Ball (2012):

… curiosity does not mean and has never meant just a single thing. Even if we accept the modern definition of ‘eagerness to know or learn something,’ there are many ways to be curious. One can flit in gadfly manner from one question to another, acquiring little bits of knowledge without ever allowing them to cohere and mature into a real understanding of the world’s mechanisms. One can store up snippets of information like a miser, never putting them to good use. One can pose questions idly or flippantly, with no plan for coherent enquiry into nature. One can be curious about matters that really are none of one’s business, such as the sexual habits of one’s neighbors. But one can also seek knowledge with serious and considered intent — and may then do so either in the manner of Isaiah Berlin’s fox who would know many little things, or as the hedgehog who knows a single thing profoundly. One can be curious obsessively, or passionately, or soberly, or with clinical detachment.

… The imperative of pious humility was what commended wonder to Augustine at the same time as it indicted curiosity. There was nothing frivolous or hedonistic about wonder. It instilled awe, reminding us of our powerlessness and insignificance before the glory of God. That is why wonder in the face of nature’s splendour was seen as the educated response, and a willingness to believe in marvels and prodigies was not only praiseworthy but virtually a religious duty. Curiosity, like skepticism, was a sign that you lacked devotion and faith.

… Even some of the most innovative thinkers [of the Middle Ages] found it expedient to detach learning from curiosity, which they regarded pace Aristotle as an aimless wish to pry into trivial matters, distinct from true devotion to learning (studiositas). ‘No wrongful curiosity can attend intellectual knowledge,’ Aquinas insisted, while Albertus Magnus wrote that:

Curiosity is the investigation of matters which have nothing to do with the thing being investigated or which have no significance for us; prudence, on the other hand, relates only to those investigations that pertain to the thing or to us.

It is curiosity, Albertus said, that led to an inappropriate fixation on details and particulars rather than the true objective of identifying Aristotelian generalities. When he wrote about plants and animals he tended to describe what is ‘typical,’ and only at the end to list specific features. It is, he admitted condescendingly, ‘pleasurable for the student to know the nature of things and useful to the life and preservation of the cities’ — but that is hardly the concern of the philosopher. When he lists particular species of plant in his De vegetabilibus, he makes it clear that he is merely ‘satisfying the curiosity of students rather than philosophy, for there can be no philosophy of particulars.’

By this means, scholastic learning could be maintained on a higher intellectual plane than the knowledge of the untutored folk. Craftspeople, labourers and farmers generally knew far more than philosophers about plants, animals and minerals, but that didn’t count, because they knew only the secondary, superficial details. The philosopher did not need to explain why the world is as we find it, but rather, to extract from it (and most importantly, from what the ancients had said about it) universal truths which they would pass on to students.

Oh dear.

Happily, things have changed since then.

My previous post from Ball’s book is here.

-Julie

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