Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Dead-End of Disinterestedness

~by James Matthew Wilson in First Principles. James teaches at Villanova's Department of Humanities and Augustinian Tradition. The Treasonous Clerk is his regular column and he writes about academia and the challenges of being faithful to philosophy.
The intellectual life is anything but disinterested. It should not be disinterested, but passionately engaged. As Aquinas argued, our intellects may well be blank slates at our birth; everything that comes to fill the mind comes from the outside. We become knowledgeable (possessing the intellectual virtue of “science”) when our mind is well filled with information. If that information is merely tendentious, confused, or deceptive, then we cannot say we know anything—we cannot say that what our intellect contains “adequates” to the realities in and around it. Because we do not wish to “know” falsehoods, but to know the truth, we hope that those who presume to tell us the truth will go about their work with a certain “disinterest.” But all this really means is that we hope they do not lie.

If the mind is blank at birth, the will is already calling for the light. It is a verifiable part of human nature to desire to know the truth. Friedrich Nietzsche famously critiqued this “will to truth” in Beyond Good and Evil. But there are only two plausible reactions to that critique. The first—far from “distinterestedness”—is “uninterest.” Those persons who are complacent with what they know, or for convenience’s sake do not wish to be very wise, may greet Nietzsche with a sigh of relief. If one cannot rely on the will to drive one toward truth, one need not believe any longer that there are truths (which, of course, would itself be a truth); under such circumstances one can go about a life of libertinism more shamelessly than otherwise.

The second possible reaction is scandal and initial despair. “If we cannot rely on the natural desire of ourselves and of all persons to know what is true, then how can we trust any of our perceptions to be more than the mere expression of our will?” asks such a person. Behind that question lurks another: “Is it really true that most people do not want to know the truth as much as I do?” Barring distraction, complacency, or turpitude, one will then be driven to find out the true answer to this question. And that drive can only be understood as itself the will to truth.

Here we reach the foundation after which I have been digging. Each of our minds call out for the Good, the True, and the Beautiful in themselves. Before the intellect knows these things even slightly, even partially, it is already desiring them. The will drives the intellect toward its proper food, however falteringly, even as an infant’s hunger drives him to his mother’s breast. The act of the intellect in speculation, which may in isolation be “disinterested,” is fueled by a practical movement of the will, to which only images of the deepest hungers and most erotic passions can approximate. Moreover, it has a practical end. Our wills do not simply compel us to seek the truth, we desire to possess it, and we finally desire to conform our lives to it.

Learning and living are bound to each other, just as truth and goodness are one with each other. Unless we appreciate the principal role of the will in our seeking after truths on the road to the True, after diverse goods as we hunt out the Good, we cannot understand why the contemplative life, in which formal education plays a central role for most persons, is so valuable. We wish to know truths not as part of a disinterested exercise in search of facts, but because the deepest appetite within us drives us toward them. And, of course, it is the symptom of a limited (but perhaps highly specialized) mind to have its appetite slaked by mere facts.

In the age of “disinterestedness” it has become an old canard to say, “You only think such-and-such is true because you want it to be true.” Fair enough. The undisciplined will can get the better of the intellect, causing it to gnaw the (sometimes rather tasty) bones of partial truths rather than quest on for the absolute banquet. But, actually, shouldn’t our desiring something to be true be one of several tests of its veracity? If my intellect whispers to me that it is not true that one can kill children and still be a good person, my will inclines to accept the verdict. When my intellect tells me I need to eat more vegetables, my will usually assents, because it inclines toward both the Good and the living of a good life. If someone tells me theft is good, my intellect soon concludes otherwise, driven in part by my will’s revulsion from the idea.

Many of us, appetites whetted, have wills so deeply enthralled by the True that we can be said to love it. Conservative talk of “disinterestedness” leaves such hunger unsatisfied and leaves such love cold. We should be calling on leftist intellectuals not to give us less, not to settle for mere facts, but to respect the beautiful, even erotic, nature of the intellectual life. We should demand that education conform not to the imperatives of the politics of the moment, but to a deep and ineluctable human need. If they reply that such talk is just “so much ideology,” we can safely presume they are overly, rather than inadequately, disinterested regarding truth. They have taken a bone for the banquet. They are like the poor old miser, clutching his gold coins, biting them to reconfirm their pure material worth, simply because he never had a chance to fall in love. And that would be cause for sorrow, for the halls of academe, however decayed, are places where knowledge should tryst freely with affection. Our swords should rise in their defense.
Read the complete article.

No comments: