[lit-ideas] Re: What, then, is wanting to know?

  • From: Robert Paul <rpaul@xxxxxxxx>
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Mon, 26 Feb 2007 14:18:19 -0800

John McCreery writes of Foucault's notion of 'the will to knowledge,' and quotes him thus.

"For Aristotle, there was direct relationship between pleasure and
sensation, and therefore between the intensity of pleasure and the
quantitity of knowledge supplied by sense perception. The desire for
knowledge was a variant on the natural search for happiness and 'the
good'. For Nietzsche, knowledge is a product of a play of conflicting
instincts or desires, and of a will to appropriate and dominate.
Always provisional and unstable, it is always a slave to primal and
violent instincts."

I don't know what to make of this. Aristotle does not think either that pleasure is a kind of sensation or that pleasure only arises from sensations (e.g. sexual pleasure, a soothing massage, or inhaling the aroma of some ridiculously overpriced wine). One can take pleasure in doing something well, and although this might be true of various activities related to my first example, it will also be true of having completed the Nicomachean Ethics (I'll pretend it was a unified work and not a compilation of lecture notes). The pleasure of having done this doesn't arise from any sensation, even if seeing the work complete makes one's scalp tingle.

But I've admitted that I don't know what Foucault means. At the beginning of the Metaphysics, Aristotle says, or W. D. Ross says he says

'All men by nature desire to know. An indication of this is the delight we take in our senses; for even apart from their usefulness they are loved for themselves; and above all others the sense of sight. For not only with a view to action, but even when we are not going to do anything, we prefer seeing (one might say) to everything else. The reason is that this, most of all the senses, makes us know and brings to light many differences between things.

'By nature animals are born with the faculty of sensation, and from sensation memory is produced in some of them, though not in others. And therefore the former are more intelligent and apt at learning than those which cannot remember; those which are incapable of hearing sounds are intelligent though they cannot be taught, e.g. the bee, and any other race of animals that may be like it; and those which besides memory have this sense of hearing can be taught.

[lengthy passages omitted]

'Again, we do not regard any of the senses as Wisdom; yet surely these give the most authoritative knowledge of particulars. But they do not tell us the 'why' of anything-e.g. why fire is hot; they only say that it is hot.'

As one can see, the knowledge got through the senses will take one only so far. And of course Aristotle argues at length in the NE that happiness is not pleasure, as some of his fellow Greeks had argued.

Why do you want to know things, in general? is a strange question. Why do you want to know how to change a light bulb, or what the conjugation of 'savoir' won't ordinarily be puzzling. Why do you want to know anything at all? seems hopeless.

Robert Paul
Reed College

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