Stanley Fish on Intellectual Hubris
Sep 16, 2009 at 1:38 PM Thread Starter Post #1 of 4

catachresis

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Curiosity, Cats, Death

I identify myself with what is sometimes declaimed as "the evidence-based community," but I know history well enough to recognize that our present unbounded enthusiasms for progress, discovery, scientific advancement, and the right "to go where no man has gone before" [cue music] are only as old as about the 1630s. Before that, most scholars and nearly all people were confident that the high-point of human knowledge had been in The Garden, or in Jerusalem during Christ's lifetime, or in Socratic Athens, or in Augustan Rome. Due to our sin, or our greed, or our pride (think Faust)--nearly all agreed--what had been an originally perfected knowledge had deteriorated over the centuries. The task of learned people was to *recover* truth that had been lost. That's why it was understood to be a Re-formation and, later, a period of Re-naissance.

Nobody thought to produce *new* knowledge. The fundamental understanding was that *new* knowledge was delusional fiction in the best case scenario and diabolical lies in the worst.

Now I am profoundly glad that the paradigm of Scientific Advancement has reached ascendancy. I am a happy beneficiary of penicillin, gore-tex, combustion engines, and binary-based information models. But--like many people--I wonder whether our eagerness for discovery becomes an infatuation with novelty, and whether a thing like the internet which I allow to eat up too much of my time is not a persistent opportunity for 'conspicuous consumption' of 'news', which goes down so fast that I barely register it any more as I search for updates. I wonder if this model of naturally unrestrained consumption of whatever is new feeds the upgraditus that currently has me stymied in deciding whether I should get more Beyers, or another AKG, or go back to trying Grados next--or whether I should spend the spare-cash/credit on one of any number of other collecting hobbies, or even (less likely) save the money.

So I wonder: if new news is always better than old news, does that devalue what we have learned? If fashion--the intrinsic recognition that your old stuff can't satisfy you for long--suggests that I'll never stop upgrading my headphones, or my stereo components, or my camera, or my computer, is it the continual purchasing that takes priority over any actual enhancement of my quality of life?
 
Sep 16, 2009 at 3:19 PM Post #2 of 4

VicAjax

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a fascinating thought. i'm also a friend of the evidence-based community.

however, i don't know that one follows the other. the quest for knowledge and the hunger for novelty may have overlap, but they aren't the same and i don't think one drives the other.

i do think that, on a macro-cultural level, the hunger for novelty is driven by the speed and quantity of information delivery. it's very much a product of pop culture, where manufacturers of all stripes are constantly seeking to produce the New New Thing. we see it in celebrity, in television, in publishing, even in politicking. appetites are ephemeral and the patrons have a short attention span.

science, on the other hand, even in the search for novelty, requires astonishingly long attention spans, and information is absorbed to be processed, reprocessed and analyzed ad infinitum. the new always serves to understand, reorder or enhance the old... rarely to outright replace it.
 
Sep 16, 2009 at 5:25 PM Post #3 of 4

Zaubertuba

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Very interesting read. The premise that "curiosity becoming a god unto itself" is duplicable with really any human pursuits. That is to say, anything, taken to extremes, can become an addiction. I certainly wrestle with that in a number of areas, not the least of which is this forum.
rolleyes.gif


I always like the comments, made by the wise and level-headed on here, about "just stop worrying, sit down, and enjoy the music." It is a constant reminder to me there are other things in life more important than chasing down the latest, greatest headphone or diy build.
 
Sep 17, 2009 at 2:04 AM Post #4 of 4

catachresis

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The old moral-metaphysical paradigm--the one that Newtonian (Baconian) science, Lockeian government, and Smithian Capitalism replaced--argued that *reason* connects us to Truth, but all passions disrupt this attunement and sink us utterly into the myopic world of appetite. The passions are like hydras, the ancients said, because when you satiate one, two more sprout up in its place.

Which I could totally understand, because I knew ever since I was a kid that the problem with Lays Potato Chips is You can never eat just one.

Old Adam Smith scored big when he established that his Free Market system was so systematically rational that it could take limitless selfish and irrational desires and personal interests and transform them (lead into gold) into rational macro market behavior. Never trust the punter to think of the global goals of society--just keep your eye on the Invisible Hand. But Smith's more formidable mentor, David Hume, supposedly died despairing because he saw that 'monopolies' inevitably unbalanced all free systems of exchange. His boy Adam wasn't listening--I think he was busy pursuing an exclusive patent for manufacturing nails.

Science-wise, I'm a Baconian, and Bacon had a lot of patience for conserving the phenomena. He also wisely feared how passionate expectations caused scientists to rush their hypotheses to the Dorian pedestals reserved for unexceptionable axioms. But everybody knows that for every pharmaceutical patent due to expire, there are two that have been applied for that simply shuffle the molecules, or buffer with calcium, or make the old formula 'extended-release'. It wasn't Isaac Newton but Adam Smith who saw the future of technology. Try explaining to the stockholders that scientific proof requires impassive patience.

Meanwhile, I'm here in the tub with everybody else, enjoying a jobless recovery. Good thinking, Zauber. Times like these call for a lot of, Brubeck's Time Out, The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society and the first Modern Lovers lp. 'Gotta remember that I'm in love with the Modern World. But then I still love the Old World.
 

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