Saturday, August 2, 2008

Hans Blumenberg, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, Part III, Chapter 10, "Curiosity and the Claim to Happiness:Voltaire to Kant"

Descartes' objectivization of theoretical curiosity, turning it into an impersonal process, severs the link between the quest for knowledge and individual happiness. The search for knowledge takes on, for the individual (as Nietzsche was later to insist), the character of renunciation. Descartes still saw the process of inquiry itself as discovering the conditions for human happiness in the near future, since he envisioned the totality of knowledge as finite. But the relation becomes more problematic when, as in Voltaire, possible knowledge is taken to be unlimited: then knowledge can be seen as never providing a complete material basis for happiness, which in any case is primarily a matter of correct behavior rather than total knowledge.

Maupertuis was the exponent of an organized and aggressive curiosity. He conceived and organized research projects of vast scope. He envisioned curiosity driving not just the collecting and recording of unusual things and events, but also the creation of them. He also proselytized against limits to investigations, even urging experiments on human beings.

Maupertuis' cosmology, like Leibniz's, views the world as a continuum of beings. But for Maupertuis this order has been destroyed by losses and extinctions. Maupertuis theory of curiosity follows from this. If the continuum of beings still existed and was accessible, then knowledge of the nature of reality would be immediate and observational. Man's insatiable curiosity is the consequence of this lack of immediate accessibility of the order of beings (and also of the inaccessibility of all things in time because of man's finite existence).

For Rousseau, the conflict that Voltaire sees between man's happiness and his unlimited pretensions to knowledge simply does not exist in man's original state. He depicts a natural condition that is not afflicted by curiosity, where consciousness is so immediate that the level of knowledge required for curiosity does not exist. There is a mystery here about what could disturb this equilibrium and begin the spiral of curiosity and knowledge. In any case, it is a picture that lacks critical force because Rousseau acknowledges that the process of curiosity, once set in motion, is irreversible.

Rousseau's pragmatic view of truth -- taking off from Democritus' image of truth having taken up hiding in a well -- there are many paths to error, so the pursuit of truth is more likely to fail than succeed, and it is likely that the truth would not be well used in any case.

Hermann Reimarius gives positive value to truth's lack of perspicuousness. He holds that this encourages effort and work to make discovery, which is better for man's character. Similar s Hume, who sees the exertion involved in the pursuit of truth as productive of pleasure in its own right, more than any result from the pursuit.

Lessing, following this path, holds out ceaseless striving for truth rather than contemplation as the ideal of human fulfillment. Curiosity (along with ambition) is the stimulus for this striving, and thus premature revelation of truth to others, which stunts their curiosity, is an actual hindrance to fulfillment.

Lichtenberg sees man as adapted to asking and pursuing causal knowledge of nature, but unable to grasp ultimate nature either of the external world or himself. The value of the pursuit of knowledge lies in the discovery of this boundary and the use of this discovery to orient understanding to the things over which man can actually have power.

Kant takes the boundary or limit of reason as itself the pre-eminent object of reason. The appetite of reason takes it beyond the limit of what it is capable of knowing (this is 'passive,' which is to say uncritical, reason). Enlightenment consists in the self-imposition on reason of limits to its aspirations, to exclude objects that are outside its grasp. At the onset of his critical phase, Kant is optimistic about a fairly rapid triumph of public enlightenment. He comes to see this expectation as premature, and increasingly accommodates himself to a public regulation of reason.

Kant demolishes the Augustinean dichotomy between self-knowledge and theoretical curiosity. He sets the understanding of the bounds and conditions of human knowledge itself as the object of theoretical curiosity.

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