Do all Men by Nature Desire to Know?

Michael Sullivan has an interesting article on his blog at the moment. 

http://monadology.net/archives/philosophical-slant/utrum_philosophia_pro_omnibus.php

He wants to know if “philosophy is for everyone.”  At some points, people responded by saying that some people may not have the mental capacity for abstract thinking in general, let alone philosophy. 

In some cases, I have no doubt this is the truth.  There are some people who do not have the necessary gray matter to process a topic so detached from the imagination.  But I tend to think these people are much rarer than most would think.  I don’t think people are uninterested in philosophy because they are incapable of it, but because they never developed their natural sense of wonder they had when they were children.  I remember when I first started philosophy.  While I do have a good work ethic, I am not the smartest man ever created.  I am able to grasp philosophy because I have worked extremely hard to develop my mind in a way as to understand philosophy.  I started by taking baby steps, and after many baby steps I am able to walk.  If someone of my slightly above average mental capacity can do philosophy, I think most people would be capable of it too if they set their minds to it. 

Then why don’t they set their minds to it?  Do all men by nature really desire to know?  I know that I desire to know:  I remember hating science classes in high school, but after taking philosophy I suddenly have a desire to know how things work:  how do planes fly?  What makes tall buildings stand up?  How do cars work?  All of these things suddenly seem very interesting to me, and I would certainly study them if I didn’t find certain things e.g. philosophy, more interesting.

Practical people do not concern me:  I see nothing wrong with setting aside one’s wonder because one has to put food on the table.  I am confident that many of these people would seek to know if they didn’t have to worry about paying the bills, etc.  But unfortunately, even these practical folks seem somewhat rare.  In some of my college courses (some of which are 101 courses), many of the students could care less about whatever subject they are taking.  My Calculus I class this past semester was shocking in this regard:  homework was optional, but for every homework assignment you turned in, you got 2% added to that test grade.  Given that we had over 10 homework assignments per test, it was possible to get a 65% on a test and get an A- in the class, as long as you bothered to do your homework.  Plus, our professor dropped the lowest test score, and he allowed you to apply the extra credit you would have earned for that test onto another test.  

Unfortunately, students still didn’t even both doing their homework.   Every day I heard them complaining that the class was too difficult, and that the teacher wasn’t a very good teacher (hence they were not responsible for their low grades).  Nevermind the fact that when our professor announced how much extra credit each person earned for that test, the majority of students had 0 points, meaning they didn’t even do their homework.  And instead of paying attention in class, these same people would be talking about how drunk they were going to get that weekend or which girl they exploited the previous weekend.  ISTM that even if one is not interested in mathematics, one should realize how much mom and dad are paying to send him to school to learn that material, and he owes it to them to learn the material.  But so many of these students showed no desire to learn whatsoever.

Do these students refute Aristotle?  I hope not.  Maybe we just live in a culture where the natural desire to know is never nurtured.  For example, whereas my grandparents entertained themselves through reading books, my generation entertains itself through mindlessly watching MTV or listening to rap music or getting wasted on the weekends.  None of these things require much mental stamina.  If our kids do by nature desire to know, that nature is being covered by a thick layer of sensualism at a young age.  If kids are unable to develop the intellectual virtues at a young age, they a) probably won’t see the value of those virtues when they grow older, and b) will not have the requisite background to understand higher level thinking even if they wanted to because they were never taught to think abstractly as children.

Perhaps I just have too much hope for humanity.   I just don’t think that most people are stupid by nature.  Those that are stupid are stupid by upbringing, and if those stupid, sensationalists had been brought up differently, they could have been taught the value of the intellect over the value of the sensual. 

Even if I am frustrated with what I see among my peers, I don’t think this necessarily reflects badly on human nature.  I derive much of my hope from one empirical observation:  little children are naturally filled with wonder.  From the moment they are able to ask questions, they begin asking them.  This one little fact gives me hope that Aristotle may be right, and that the lack of wonder we see in America today is not a lacking in our nature for higher thinking, but of our nurturing. 

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2 Comments on “Do all Men by Nature Desire to Know?”


  1. Mr Hamilton, I’m flattered that you considered my reflections worth such a thoughtful response. As I said in my own comments section, I think it’s very reasonable.

    I’m even more flattered to see Monadology on your blogroll in such distinguished company! I’d point out that of the three contributors to that site, only I am a grad student at Catholic. One of the others is a law student at Georgetown, and the third is an internet design professional. We all went to college together and went through the same course of study, at St John’s in Annapolis.

    I didn’t know until I read it here that you’re a Basselin scholar–congratulations! When I was still doing my coursework a couple of years ago I knew several of the Basselin guys at the time and liked them very much. I hope we can meet one of these days.

  2. phamilton Says:

    Thanks, Mr. Sullivan. After you began commenting somewhat regularly over at Sacramentum Vitae, I decided to check out your blog. I especially enjoyed your piece on political abstention; after I read that piece, I started reading regularly.

    I just started the Basselin program this year, so I’ll be in town for at least the next three years. I hope to see you around.


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