Intellectual Appetite: A Theological Grammar
by Paul Griffiths
CATHOLIC UNIVERSITY OF AMERICA, 235 PAGES, $24.95
All men desire to know, said Aristotle at the beginning of his Metaphysics. Paul Griffiths, with his new book Intellectual Appetite, has set out to discipline and deepen that fundamental human longing for knowledge. The key, he thinks, is for us to overcome the distorting influence of the concept of ownership, an approach to the intellectual life that encourages us to desire knowledge as a possession.
While it is richly rewarding and full of fresh insights, it is hard to say that this loose-limbed but sharply argued book succeeds at fully explaining intellectual appetite. As Griffiths works his way through perversions and misdirections of desire, he falls a little too far under the spell of his metaphor of ownership: He overemphasizes the prideful impulse that tries to turn knowledge into something we control. It’s true, of course, that we often try to possess and exploit knowledge. But, owned by the knowledge we set out to control, we can also turn our minds into slavish receptacles—and we end up serving pet theories, caught by our gullible tendencies to give ourselves over to the imagined sufficiency of what we’ve learned. And sometimes we turn knowledge into neither a possession nor an idol but instead trivialize our intellectual appetite, gravitating toward pleasing distractions, gossipy tidbits, and mental bric-a-brac that grab our attention but remain existentially inconsequential.
Griffiths begins his analysis with the traditional distinction between curiositas, the ancient and medieval term used to identify a vicious intellectual appetite, and studiositas, which designates the most general form of intellectual virtue. Curiosity and studiousness are the obvious English translations, but it tells us something about how differently we now view the life of the mind that contemporary culture tends to reverse the connotation. As Griffiths notes, folk wisdom retains a memory of the older tradition: “Curiosity killed the cat.” Yet, for the most part, the word curiosity has taken on a positive meaning: mental alertness, natural inquisitiveness, a willingness to press beyond conventional wisdom. By contrast, the word studiousness conjures up negative images of thick-glassed students slavishly memorizing the periodic table or Latin declensions.
The obvious strategy would be to work against this modern reversal of moral censure by returning to premodern sources. But Griffiths sets aside this approach. He recognizes that readers are often seduced away from the hard work of conceptual analysis by the pleasures of the now so common what-went-wrong narratives of modernity, to say nothing of the savory prospect of ingesting tasty philological and historical facts. He also knows himself as someone tempted by a common professorial need to display erudition—a habit not entirely free from prideful assertions of expertise—and a desire to dominate readers and intimidate potential critics.
Instead, Griffiths uses Intellectual Appetite to outline the basic dynamics of the intellectual life: a “grammar,” as he puts it. Borrowing freely from various philosophical and theological traditions, and minting his own terminology when necessary, he sets out to revitalize the traditional meanings of curiosity and studiousness by giving an account of what makes for a perverted desire for knowledge—and what constitutes a well-trained intellectual appetite.
At first glance, it does not seem hard to come up with examples of intellectual vice—the pompous professor who compulsively draws attention to his own publications, the scientist who chooses research projects for their marketable patents, the scholar who tolerates sloppy work by famous colleagues. The possibilities of distortion, perversion, and diminishment of the intellectual life are as varied as the human tendency toward sin.
Griffiths recognizes, however, that pride and greed and sloth—among the usual human sins—are not intellectual vices, strictly speaking, any more than justice or magnanimity or fortitude are intellectual virtues. Although our virtues and vices influence each other, people can be curious and nonetheless use their compromised knowledge justly, as studious people can suffer for a degree of sloth and greed. These combinations are possible because the vice of curiosity and the virtue of studiousness concern the way we desire knowledge, not what we do with the knowledge we have.
This is a subtle but significant point, one central to Intellectual Appetite. We desire knowledge, but our desire must be tutored and shaped (“catechized,” as Griffiths puts it) to want or expect knowledge in the right way. Our intellectual lives are influenced by what we want truth to be, but we are also influenced by what we want knowledge to be like. The prideful soul wants truth to be self-complimenting, the greedy soul wants it to be profitable, the slothful soul wants it to be anodyne, and so on. The crucial step, however, comes next: To satisfy these perverted desires, we train ourselves to acquire knowledge in convenient packages that we can easily manipulate.
“Enclosure by sequestration,” Griffiths calls it. We take a piece of truth captive and detach it from other truths. The gain for a soul corrupted by other vices is clear: Atomized pieces of knowledge are more readily manipulated, controlled, and used. Facts, theories, ideas, and all the other elements of the intellectual life become delicious morsels carefully trimmed off from truth as a whole. This mental habit of trimming is the fundamental form of curiosity: a habitual desire for knowledge in conveniently enclosed and sequestered packages.
With this account of curiosity, Griffiths can explain how intellectual virtue turns our desire for knowledge in the opposite way. The studious seek “to participate lovingly” in knowledge. To know something about the genetic mutation of frogs, or the Battle of Waterloo, or the principles of logic certainly provides a specific competence. But these items of knowledge and areas of expertise also open toward something more: toward the genetics of other animals, toward the insight into the vagaries of human history, toward the limitations of argument. They also tend toward reflection on what it means to be a knower and even toward contemplation of the source of existence itself. Thus, Griffiths envisions studiousness, the virtue most relevant to the intellectual life, as the human desire to know catechized toward embrace rather than enclosure, toward wonder rather than possession.
The first half of Intellectual Appetite provides a metaphysical analysis (or, more accurately, the grammar of a metaphysical analysis—Griffiths operates as formally as possible to encompass a wide range of metaphysical options) that allows us to explain why, for a Christian, the basic move of “enclosure by sequestration” trains the mind to be false to reality. The world is not made up of tiny little bits of disconnected reality, all just waiting for our mental appropriation. Everything is saturated with the sustaining power of God’s creative will. Nothing merely exists, because everything comes into being and endures in the shimmering light of the divine gift of existence.
Griffiths insists that, with this grammar, he is not blurring the distinctions between particular entities. The discrete reality of my existence is not absorbed into a generic ocean of humanity, and God does not become the world (or the world become God). Instead, drawing on the concept of participation—which Griffiths thinks unavoidable for any satisfactory Christian metaphysics—he observes that reality participates in God and the truth, beauty, and goodness that shine from God. “Enclosure by sequestration” thus cuts against the grain of the participatory nature of reality. When we seek only discrete propositions (“The facts, ma’am, nothin’ but the facts”), we are wrongly training our minds to desire the disconnected and the inert.
In this and other ways, a great deal of what modern intellectual life prizes as virtue turns out to be vice. Our educational culture has long been romanced by the ideal of an exhaustive and indubitable account of reality, which Griffiths designates the mathesis universalis, the universal metric or method for attaining knowledge. Descartes’ Discourse on Method provides an obvious instance, as does Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Although quite different in details, both hope to identify a universal, rigorous method for acquiring reliable knowledge, and both ask us to boil down our basic beliefs to bare facts or clearly distinct ideas that can be scrupulously examined and verified. Just such an approach trains intellectual desire in the direction of enclosure by sequestration: Fence off nuggets of certainty from the polluting world of inherited prejudice and unreliable assumptions.
Few philosophers endorse the fantasy of a mathesis universalis anymore; a genial skepticism and broad pluralism predominate these days. Nonetheless, Griffiths is correct to suggest that a great deal of intellectual training continues to encourage the habits of mind dear to Descartes and Locke. He points out, for instance, that most academic disciplines put a premium on methodology, which focuses the desire for knowledge on a limited set of formal properties. Similarly, many disciplines tend toward taxonomies, thereby forcing phenomena into a limited range of defined categories so that the subject matter can be managed more effectively. In both cases, we train our minds to sift, limit, and atomize.
Along the way, Griffiths launches a polemic against the presuppositions behind modern laws of copyright and intellectual property—presuppositions he takes to be characteristic of an intellectual culture that pictures knowledge as detachable theories, creations, and discoveries, all readily available to be harvested, processed, and marketed. I have no great love for our present concepts of intellectual property, which in any event seem to have become both absurd and unworkable—or perhaps unworkable because absurd. But Griffiths’ digression gives the false impression that the recondite realm of contemporary jurisprudence and its arcane definitions of property exercise a significant influence over our intellectual habits.
Far more influential in academic culture are such things as standards for admission, criteria for hiring and tenuring, the allocation of grants, and the rhetoric of excellence, although Griffiths leaves these unanalyzed. One wonders, for example, whether the maligned Old Boy system of academic patronage may not have had its strong points. After all, intellectual virtue inheres in persons, not in the lists of publications that promise more objective standards of merit. Our current ideologies of democratic access to knowledge—in concert with meritocratic justifications of academic hierarchies and gatekeepers—exert far more influence than copyright law. At faculty meetings, I’ve endured arguments about how many articles equal a book for the purposes of tenure. It’s a corrupting professional mentality that encourages us to think of the intellectual life in terms of objective, quantifiable achievements.
For that matter, the preoccupation with property and ownership leads Griffiths to make overly quick connections between the vice of curiosity and the intellectual techniques of modern science. Yes, Francis Bacon, that early seventeenth-century advocate of the scientific method, emphasized the power and control that knowledge provides. He consistently pictured the scientist as a well-armed investigator who conquers nature and takes possession of her mysteries. But the practice of modern science, however misinterpreted or wrongly privileged, actually proves, rather than contradicts, Griffith’s account of intellectual virtue.
When scientists toggle back and forth between theoretical formulations and experimental data, they are treating what they know as translucent rather than definitive, participatory rather than sequestered. Newton developed calculus to give formal expression to his theory of gravity. This allowed him to see an intimate connection between the elliptical orbit of the planets and the parabolic arc of an arrow traveling toward its target—a stunningly clear example of two seemingly remote phenomena participating in the same truth. And Newton’s strategy is typical rather than exceptional. In many disciplines, graphs and tables of data bring out correlations. A well-drawn graph can illuminate possible links between economic growth and birthrates, between immigration patterns and religious affiliation, between soil acidity and corn production.
In each of these instances, the intellectual practice of mathesis that Griffiths associates with curiosity actually presumes and reveals the participatory character of reality. Indeed, the approach Griffiths takes throughout Intellectual Appetite has its own formal qualities: no accounts of past views, a new technical vocabulary, phenomenological analysis. Not surprisingly, this formalism encourages the same fruitful results one encounters in other uses of the techniques of mathesis. Griffiths’ theological grammar draws attention to the patterns present in diverse metaphysical accounts and different moral theories, illuminating the ways in which they participate in a common truth.
This is not to say that the tendency toward curiosity in modern academic culture may not find encouragement in the methods of modern science (as well as in the methods of phenomenology and the formalism of theological grammars). The sheer intellectual fruitfulness of the experimental method can so mesmerize the mind with its power that we can become blindly dismissive of other ways of acquiring knowledge. But the same holds true for poetry and other approaches to knowing. In my experience, compulsively objective scientists are evenly matched, or even outmatched, by shamelessly subjective humanists. More than once I’ve been shocked by colleagues who seem unable to grasp that richly elaborated accounts of personal experiences do not refute claims about statistical tendencies.
Here we begin to see more clearly the consequences of overly emphasizing the notion of ownership. It distracts Griffiths from a sufficiently nuanced account of the role of modern scientific techniques—and it positively blocks him from considering the full range of our tendency toward intellectual vice. Think of the political scientists tempted by conspiracy theories, the theologians in the thrall of elaborate apocalyptic calculations, and the literature professors swept into the latest fashions of cultural studies. The dynamics of ownership may explain some of this. Like Gnostics, preening with pride that they possess the secret key to all knowledge, we can be tempted to fix our minds on one theory or insight. Yet there are other, equally powerful explanations—explanations that help us see how knowledge can function more like an idol than a piece of property.
Griffiths himself introduces a fashionable concept of great relevance, the notion of spectacle. He gives examples: public torture, executions, and staged sexual performances that arrest the gaze of the viewer. Other, less dramatic examples come to mind: reality-television programs that fascinate viewers with visions of destruction, humiliation, and shameless aggression; political rallies that sweep participants up into feelings of world-historical significance; head-turning crash scenes by the roadside.
In his Confessions, St. Augustine provides a particularly vivid account of the power of spectacles. He reports that his close friend Alypius, though possessing a good and cultured character, became addicted to the bloody, violent games that provided civic entertainment in the ancient world. At first, Alypius “held such spectacles in aversion,” Augustine writes. One day, some friends persuaded him to go. Alypius steeled himself, closing his eyes to avoid participating in the barbarism. At the crucial moment, as the blood gushed and the crowd roared, “he was overcome by curiosity,” and “he opened his eyes.”
But Augustine’s account does not turn toward ownership, as the phenomenology preferred by Griffiths suggests. On the contrary, all the images Augustine uses point in the opposite direction: “He was struck in the soul by a wound graver than the gladiator, whose fall had caused the roar.” “His eyes were riveted.” He “was inebriated by bloodthirsty pleasure.” He becomes addicted and captivated. It isn’t that Alypius owns the spectacle. The spectacle owns Alypius.
“We yearn for mastery,” as Griffiths notes. Yes, but we also yearn to be dominated and controlled. Because genuinely participatory knowledge is so existentially involving—one feels acutely the need to follow a train of thought, to repent of a past transgression, to prepare for a future responsibility—the self-protective side of our fallen personality leads us to desire to be transfixed, arrested, compelled, and possessed. The spectacle releases us from the participatory structure of reality, and this existential freedom brings feelings of relief.
We should not underestimate the pervasive role of a similar dynamic in the intellectual life. Who does not know a quite intelligent person who has given himself to an arresting thesis or compelling theory? I’ve met some who are utterly convinced that nominalism is the root of all the perversions of modernity, or that the analogy of being is the Antichrist, or that private property is the source of social injustice, or that reducing carbon emissions is the singular moral imperative of our time. These are instances of what the French call an idée fixe: the almost sacred idea that comes to dominate the mind.
The appeal is not hard to understand. Who would not want to serve an idea or theory or principle that promises to deliver us from the arduous (and endless) work of discerning how to live faithfully and responsibly? Who wouldn’t want to have an arresting, time-freezing conviction about where to focus moral energies and intellectual efforts? In the twentieth century, not a few American communists and fellow travelers believed in Marxism because they wanted a fail-safe way to serve the interests of the poor. Today, we find platoons of professors in the humanities who exalt this or that dimension of human reality to a supreme interpretive role—sexual identity, economic class, social status—and they do so with the conviction that the whole world opens along this one seam.
The problem is not that the ardent nature of the conviction corrupts, as if believing anything with fervor and intensity counts as intellectual vice. (Indeed, the generic notion of fundamentalism counts as a contemporary idée fixe.) As Griffiths makes so clear, intellectual vice concerns how we seek knowledge. The vice is found in the shape our desires give to truth. The idée fixe encourages enclosure by sequestration, the basic form of curiosity. A perfectly plausible and accurate insight; a perhaps important, even necessary, idea or theory; a richly developed school of thought—these or other elements of an otherwise virtuous outlook are suddenly isolated and exalted into the position of a cure-all. They take on the role of the spectacle: arresting, commanding idols promising to deliver our willingly submissive minds from the agonies of participatory knowing.
The manipulative and acquisitive dimension that Griffiths identifies certainly has a role to play, even among the gullible. Nonetheless, because of his overemphasis on ownership—an overemphasis that may stem from the exaggerated tendency among postmodern scholars to externalize the travails of the soul and interpret them in terms of social forms—Griffiths fails to give an account of our desire to be arrested by knowledge. Truth turned into a spectacle removes us from our temporal destiny of participatory knowing, which is but the intellectual dimension of our vocation of love.
In my experience, the most ardent empiricists and narrow-minded scientists have exactly the opposite mentality that Griffiths ascribes to them. Yes, their intellectual appetites are hopelessly bewitched by the intrinsically sequestering methods of modern science, a bewitchment that virtuous scientists avoid. But they want to be owned by their little tidbits of knowledge, not the other way around. They are eager to submit themselves to the Empire of Facts. Richard Dawkins is better described as the Temple Eunuch of Scientism than as the Robber Baron of Knowledge or the Field Marshal of Data.
At root, the vice of curiosity is always to be found in the nonparticipatory dynamic of enclosure by sequestration, of which ownership and idolatrous worship are but modes, and not even the most common ones at that. We often hear the prefatory comment or caveat that such-and-such a position or idea or article comes from a “white, middle-class, American background.” Like the fact-bewitched empiricist, the postmodern relativist cordons off knowledge and takes it into captivity, carefully limiting and controlling its power. This evasion does not feed a desire for possession, and it certainly does not encourage us to fall down before what we study with an attitude of submissive worship. Instead, the sequestration by politically correct categorization creates an atmosphere of existential freedom. With such categories (race, class, gender, sexual orientation, etc.), we atomize culture, neutralizing the soul-commanding dimension of knowledge. Aristotle or Augustine or Thomas Aquinas are not speaking about a human condition we share; they are mouthpieces for their class or unconscious representatives of their gender, figures to be critiqued, not heard.
Plutarch was among the first ancient figures to isolate and discuss curiosity, and he sheds light on our postmodern impulse toward atomizing culture into politically correct categories so that our intellectual vocations are no longer vulnerable to knowledge tensed with moral and spiritual consequence. In an essay on curiosity, he draws attention to an envious, ill-tempered habit of mind that takes pleasure when learning bad things about other people. We want to be “in the know” because it fills our heads with ephemeral and titillating bites of information that feed our sense of self-importance and offer opportunities for manipulating others. But, more fundamentally, this prying curiosity entices because it distracts. The curious, writes Plutarch, “fly from the light of their conscience, and cannot bear the torture of reflecting thought on themselves; for when the soul, being once defiled with all manner of wickedness, is scared at its own hideous deformity, it endeavors to run from itself.”
Shelves by grocery-store checkout counters are full of magazines that promise delicious inside information about movie stars: their waistlines, their trips to rehab, their affairs. Television gives us a full diet of sound bites and political punditry. Lecture halls ring with talk of “subtexts,” “alterity,” and “power relations.”
As Plutarch suggests, perhaps we find these distracting uses of the mind so appealing and satisfying because such knowledge serves as a false substitute for often painfully demanding knowledge about ourselves. Faced with a relentless desire to know, we find ourselves unsettled by the prospect of truth. Like the rich young man who was saddened when Jesus told him what he wished to know, like the Israelites who cowered at the base of Mount Sinai, like generations of Christians who have recoiled from the Sermon on the Mount, we want knowledge in all its participatory fullness—and we don’t want that knowledge. We want intimacy with the plentitude of reality—and we don’t. We want our minds to be saturated with the light of truth—and we don’t.
Our sin-sick souls fear the sharp, healing scalpel of an involving knowledge that will cut and shape and circumcise our hearts. Thus, our lust for tidbits of local gossip; for reassuring (or irritating) sound bites of political opinion; for views we can categorize by race, class, and gender; for well-defined areas of scholarly expertise; for long bibliographies and endless facts; for legally defined intellectual property; and even (as St. Augustine reports of his own vulnerability to distraction) for picturesque scenes of dogs chasing rabbits across open fields.
These forms of atomized, sequestered, and isolated knowledge can satisfy our desire to know, at least for a time; they grant the relief of feeling full while remaining empty. In this way, distraction is perhaps the most perfect form of intellectual vice, because it serves to protect us in our self-deceptions, self-deceptions necessary for sustaining the unsustainable projects of prideful possession and supine idolatry. Distraction pleasantly promises to deliver us from what might otherwise be a painful experience of genuine, participatory knowledge, the sort that implicates our fragile egos in something we would rather not find out about ourselves, about our world, about God.
Thus does curiosity give us our most cherished, most postmodern convenience—knowledge that leaves us alone.
R.R. RENO, senior editor at large of First Things , is a professor of theology at Creighton University.