Aggravation and Humiliation: Notes on the End of a Semester from Hell

Here’s a message I wrote for my Phil/Crim 380 students, “Philosophical Issues in Criminal Justice,” while waiting for their final papers. I wrote it after one student emailed me to ask where the readings were located–nine days after the official end of the semester:

Remember that you’re supposed to come to class on Tuesday the 20th (3:15) and hand in a hard copy of the paper.

I would like to think that by now you all know where the readings for the class are located. You might want to use some of your own research skills before sending me an email asking where they are. An email of that kind basically says: “I haven’t done anything in this class so far, so why start now?” It’s a good question, but it’s not mine to answer.

Honestly, if the work I got from this bunch of students is any indication of the future of American law enforcement, American law enforcement has no future (feel free to take a look for yourself by clicking the link at the top). My only hope is that the antecedent of the preceding conditional is false–not that I’d bet on it.

This isn’t the voice of end-of-semester despair, by the way, but of mid-career acquiescence to reality (well, I’m assuming it’s mid-career). I don’t think I’ve ever taught a 300-level course that felt more like teaching ninth grade. But every semester has come to feel like this, alas: my institution may have gone from college to university in name, but it seems to me to have gone from college to high school (or junior high school) in fact. I somehow doubt that I’m alone in this sentiment,* and wonder how long this state of affairs can last. How long can we continue to teach students who are uninterested in learning–and who spend tens of thousands of dollars learning next to nothing?

For all of the ink spilled on the “root causes” of the problems with higher education, I wonder how much has been written on student attitudes as among the most fundamental of those causes. Could it be that students have something to do with student academic performance? Perhaps Meno should have asked Socrates not whether virtue can be taught, but whether the desire to learn can be. Standing in front of a classroom of zoned-out zombie-students day after day after day, I find myself wanting posthumously to ask Aristotle why it is that if all men desire by nature to know, so few of my students follow nature’s dictates. Are my students a counter-example to the Aristotelian principle, or an instantiation of it? If I were to accept Aristotle’s principle, would I have to deny their humanity–or declare them monsters?

Functionally speaking, my students are tabulae rasae: they can’t read, write, think, or make a cogent public speech; they know no math, natural science, social science, literature, history, law, or philosophy. And they don’t seem particularly eager to change any of that. Unsurprisingly, the task of educating them seems more Sisyphean than Socratic: the harder I seem to work at it, the less I seem to accomplish. I guess I’m just giving anecdotal expression here to what “the literature” has said in a more formal vein (see this as well), but I wonder how a person 22 years into the profession is supposed to respond to that situation, except to find a way out of it.

As The Temptations put it decades ago: “Nobody’s interested in learnin’–but the teacher.”

*My agreement with this essay is limited to the short paragraph on the “high schoolization” of college. Much of the rest of it strikes me as nonsense.

13 thoughts on “Aggravation and Humiliation: Notes on the End of a Semester from Hell

  1. You’re right, of course. I had the same response to my students at Centenary. I can deal with underprepared students, even dull-witted students, even wise guys. What I can’t abide are the lazy, unfocused, incurious types–those who have little desire to learn. Trump, like W. before him, will not help this problem. I continue to believe that about 15%–20% of the population has the aptitude and desire for academic work. The rest, many of whom may be very intelligent, can only be fulfilled and productive doing other kinds of work. See Crawford, SHOP CLASS AS SOUL CRAFT (2010).

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    • I had the same response to my students at Centenary.

      Since we’re comparing notes: My experience of students at Felician and Montclair State has been very similar: apathy, laziness, incuriosity, and really bad attitudes. But both FU and MSU differ from The College of New Jersey and John Jay. TCNJ students had their problems, but not these ones; John Jay students had their own problems, but not these ones. Both sets of students were more motivated to learn than the ones I have now. Even the students I’ve taught at county colleges (e.g., Mercer, Middlesex) have been better than the ones I’ve taught at Felician or MSU, though perhaps the word “even” is inapposite there: it could be that students at county colleges have a particularly strong reason to be motivated. (Also, many of the county college students I’ve taught have been adults in the post-21-year-old sense.)

      Princeton and Notre Dame students were (I suppose obviously) in a different category altogether.

      Some of my students at Al Quds University have been remarkably like my Felician/MSU students, but many of them were completely engaged, so the overall classroom experience was different (i.e., better).

      My own rule of thumb at Felician has been that 10% of any given class is engaged. I’ve checked and re-checked that figure over and over, and it comes out the same every time. That means that in a class of 30 students, I’m really teaching 3; meanwhile 27 are either tuned out or constitute a classroom management problem. My average class size is around 26 (usually three sections around 30 + or -, and one around 10).

      I don’t think George W. or Obama added or subtracted at all from what happened in the classroom, but I’m inclined to agree that Trump will adversely affect things. Ignorance and philistinism are empowered and on the march in this country, and that doesn’t bode well for higher education. Just today he’s reported as saying that he wants to put America first–and wants to create safe zones in Syria that have nothing to with the isolationism implied by “America first.” One policy or the other might have some sense to it, but both policies at once are just incoherence normalized. Prediction: the more he normalizes incoherence, the more it will start to become normalized in the rest of the culture. Somehow, he’s set the country’s cultural agenda in a way that most politicians have not.

      I haven’t read Crawford’s book, so thanks for the recommendation: it’s on my proverbial reading list. But I’m skeptical that the problem I’ve described can be solved by channeling pre-existing energies in a different direction. What if there are no energies to channel? There are, no doubt, students made restless by college because they have pre-existing energies that need to be diverted in a different direction. But I think it’s a piece of right-wing mythology to think that this is the fundamental problem we face in the classroom.

      Another possibility to consider (involving a different demographic) is that America’s suburbs have served up a cohort of comfortable, entitled children who have never done a day’s work in their lives, and don’t particularly want to. It’s not that they don’t want to do schoolwork; it’s that they don’t want to work. We’ve gotten so used to discussing the aversion to work in the context of debates about welfare (themselves typically debates about the subculture of “the black inner city”) that we seem to have trouble facing the more obvious and proximate problem of aversion to work in the rest of our culture or country.

      The problem is not distinctively racial. It’s an equal opportunity problem, and to some degree, I suspect that it’s a function of a culture that prizes immediate gratification and creature comforts. I’m not a Stoic, but a national population of coddled sub-adults constitutes a problem in need of a solution. What solution? I don’t know. I wish the solution were as easy as “have them do other kinds of work.” The problem is, other kinds of work is still work. And if we’re talking about a cohort of students that has trouble with work, well…that won’t work.


  2. As a dual criminal justice and philosophy major, I empathize with you. The former field is populated with very vacuous, uneducated students. It’s particularly devastating since the career doesn’t even require a Bachelor’s, yet the students that pay to earn one don’t even take it seriously.

    On a side note, I’m very interested in your class per its name. I think I’ll check out your syllabus.

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    • Thanks for the comment. One of the ironies about criminal justice majors is that in my experience, they have no real grasp of what police work really demands of its practitioners. Police work is law enforcement. To enforce the law, you have to understand it. To understand it, you have to be able read it, and remember what you read. Then you have to apply it. You not only have to apply it “on the street,” but when you write reports and testify in court. That in turn means that you need relatively good writing and speaking skills. It also helps to have skills in basic statistics and social science: how else to read and respond to reports of racial profiling within your department–or understand how affirmative action works? Or understand crime statistics?

      But all of this appears to be lost on criminal justice majors, at least in my experience, who literally believe what they see on TV: law enforcement is about wearing a uniform, having a gun and a badge, driving a cop car (while talking on your cell phone), and hunting for “bad guys.” That attitude is what gives rise to incidents like this one.

      At some point, I’m going to write a blog post specifically on the issue of the intellectual skills required to write a cogent police report. I’ve been collecting anecdotes of people involved in the criminal justice system (lawyers, crime victims) who have complained that the police reports they deal with are either legally or literally illiterate, or at least of very low quality and low informational value. But the importance of police reports can hardly be overstated. They play an enormous role not just in the criminal justice system, but in journalism, mental health, and the insurance market. This fact doesn’t play the role in criminal justice programs that I wish it did. (In fairness, I don’t focus on it in my classes, either. Perhaps I should.)

      Here’s the syllabus for the criminal justice class. Here’s the syllabus for a separate ethics class I teach.


  3. Are my students a counter-example to the Aristotelian principle, or an instantiation of it?

    I think they’re not even apparent counter-examples. They do desire to know, and enjoy knowing; they just find learning difficult, and hence unpleasant, and hence something to be avoided. That, and they don’t have any particular interest in knowing the sorts of things you’re teaching. They’re all about εἰδέναι, just only the forms of it that don’t require much work.

    I am lucky to have students who are willing and able to work even when they aren’t very interested, and are usually pretty interested, if not as interested as I’d like. For now, anyway. For better or worse, Aristotle was also right that change is real.

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    • I’m not convinced of that. What is it that they’re desiring to know? I realize that you don’t know my students in particular, so I mean the question hypothetically and generically: what would students like mine be desiring to know?

      Possibilities: they want to know when the next occasion will present itself to smoke some weed and have yet another drunken, half-consenting hook up; or more benignly (and charitably) they want to know who will win this weekend’s game; or they want to figure out what they’ll be doing this weekend; or they want to know how much it costs to fly to Cancun; or they want to know whether they’ll skate by in a class for which they’ve done almost nothing; etc.

      If that’s what the Aristotelian principle means, then I suppose it’s true but relatively trivial. It amounts to saying something like: “All men desire to know, but some of those men desire to know stuff that’s really banal, and even that desire to ‘know’ is so casual that the desire is compatible with just drifting from event to event until the sought-for ‘knowledge’ effortlessly flows into one’s head.” I can see why he didn’t open the Metaphysics with the qualified version of the claim, but if the qualified version is what he meant, I’m tempted to respond: OK, fine, I’ll give it to you–but so what? What’s the point of avowing a claim so trivial? (Not a rhetorical question. This is Aristotle we’re talking about, so I don’t doubt that there was a heavy-duty point to the ‘desire to know’ thesis. I’m just confessing in public that I don’t know what it could be.)

      My deeper skepticism about (your interpretation of) the Aristotelian thesis: that effortless image-wallowing counts as knowledge (“They’re all about eidenai, just only the forms of it that don’t require much work”). If effortless image-wallowing was knowledge, fantasies, daydreaming, and free association would count as knowledge. So would random beliefs dredged up in a semi-random way by random images. I don’t even mean to be denigrating these activities; they have their place in life. But it’s a stretch to call them knowledge. Knowledge is a success word for an epistemic achievement, but image-wallowing is not an achievement (except perhaps in the outlying case of the person who, for psychological reasons, has trouble accessing that part of his mental life, and on therapeutic grounds has to work to gain access to it).

      I suppose the Aristotelian principle could be interpreted as saying that image-wallowing isn’t itself knowledge,* but the desire to engage in image-wallowing is a gateway to knowledge. Maybe, but that’s a pretty specific empirical proposition, and prima facie, it doesn’t seem true.

      A variant of what I said to John above, regarding the Crawford book: I think we have to confront the radical possibility that some people don’t desire to know, full stop, at least in a non-trivial sense of “desire to know.” It’s not just that they don’t have a desire to know what I’m teaching them. They don’t seem to have a desire to know what anyone’s teaching them, or what anyone could teach them. I realize that that’s short of lacking a desire to know, but what prevents us from entertaining the possibility that they do lack the desire to know altogether? Or if you don’t like that way of putting it, what if they lack a desire for knowledge? With all due respect to Aristotle, it seems possible–and it would certainly explain a lot.

      I’ve had students who were willing and able to work (see my comment to John above). I just don’t have them now (with allowances made for the worthy 10%). It’s an interesting question what explains the discrepancy. I don’t claim to know. But I’d sure like to.

      *More precisely: the agent engaged in image-wallowing doesn’t have knowledge qua image-wallower.


      • I think Aristotle’s claim is weaker than you’re taking it to be, but non-trivial. I also suspect you’re working with a more Platonic than Aristotelian conception of hum-drum knowledge. When I first reflected on this years ago, I thought about my stepfather. He was not what anyone would call an intellectual. He never even appeared to resemble what anyone would call an intellectual. He spent much of his time accumulating what you (and I) would regard as banal knowledge: he would sit at the kitchen table reading local newspapers and telling us about some uninteresting local events, he would watch talk shows, would inquire about gossip; as an avid eBay salesman, he would find out what was hot on eBay even when he had no intention of buying or selling it; as a former trucker, he liked to hear and tell stories about experiences on the road. He was not interested in anything one might think of as theory, or even really all that interested in anything one might think of as detailed facts — he sometimes watched the history channel, but his knowledge of history was, well, spotty — and while he was never the sort of anti-intellectual that derided my pursuits, he never had any interest in it or anything like it, either. But for all that, he wasn’t just living a mindless life; even though he spent an awful lot of time sitting around not doing anything that I would regard as intellectually engaging or rewarding, he was in fact sitting around most of the time exercising his cognitive faculties — and not just the sorts of cognitive faculties that we share with dogs and gorillas, but the kind of higher-order rational faculties required for understanding narratives and economic trends and the like. He spent much of his time acquiring propositional knowledge – even if the knowledge was of trivial stuff and often just knowledge about what some person said. If we had required him to spend several days not seeking out and acquiring this kind of knowledge, he would have found it very unpleasant.

        I think very many people are like this, and very few are not at least this interested in knowledge. Kids I know who have no interest whatsoever in academic subjects nonetheless seek and acquire loads of knowledge about their favorite music or movies or sports or whatever. Yes, it’s trivial, but it’s not — at least not from an Aristotelian epistemological point of view — mere image; or, if it is, images are nonetheless parts of the world about which we can gain some knowledge, not merely a distorted reflection of really real reality. Most human beings really do spend a great deal of time pursuing and enjoying knowledge of this sort; if they were somehow prevented from operating above the sensory level, they would themselves find it extremely unsatisfying.

        I think that’s all Aristotle is claiming in the beginning of Met. A. For one thing, to know as εἰδέναι is not necessarily to know anything complex, sophisticated, or more than banal; it’s not scientific knowledge or theoretical understanding, it doesn’t require especially abstract subject-matter at all. Second, and relatedly, notice how he illustrates the claim: “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.” Humans express their desire to know even in just looking around and grasping what it is we’re looking at, and doing that even when there is nothing further to be gained by acquiring that information.

        I think this is non-trivial for two reasons. First, because it seems to be true that human beings, perhaps not uniquely but distinctively, pervasively seek to exercise our cognitive faculties for their own sake and not merely for the sake of getting food, sex, shelter, protection, or some pleasures to which thinking is a mere instrumental means. Not all of these exercises of our cognitive faculties need be aimed at knowledge even of the hum-drum variety — my step-father also liked to play certain sorts of moderately challenging computer games, and the point of that was not to gain any knowledge, but the enjoyment definitely came from exercising the cognitive skills required to meet the challenge — but much of the time it does. As one of the things that distinguishes human beings from most, if not all, other animal species, I can’t regard that as trivial. Second, because it is the basis for Aristotle’s argument — I’ll set aside whether it’s a good argument or not — that the more sophisticated, abstract, comprehensive forms of knowing that he calls ἐπιστῆμαι and the intellectual pursuit and contemplation that they involve are at the center of a flourishing human life. I’m not sure I want to buy Aristotle’s version of intellectualism (it’d help if I could figure out just what it is), but he seems right that the cultivation of our minds and the pursuit of knowledge and understanding for their own sake are a crucial part of a good human life, and that part of what makes this the case is that they most fully actualize the same capacities that my step-father was exercising when he read the local newspaper or that the bored kid in the back of my classroom is exercising when he’s learning detailed advanced analytics on every major player in the NBA.

        That’s not to say that there aren’t important differences of kind between hum-drum knowledge and the kind of knowledge that your students seem completely uninterested in. But the seeds of interest in the higher sorts of knowledge and understanding really are there in those students, at least provided that they aren’t cognitively impaired (and hence not functioning φύσει to begin with). Maybe neither you nor I nor Aristotle himself could manage to get those seeds to sprout. But the last person who would be surprised to learn that many people lack the relevant disposition to become philosophers is Aristotle.

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        • I can agree with you for cases like that of your stepfather, but that wasn’t the kind of case I had in mind. What’s essential to your stepfather’s case is that he desires hum-drum knowledge and takes pleasure in the exercise of his distinctively human cognitive faculties. Fair enough. But I’m considering a case in which the person in question doesn’t even desire hum-drum knowledge and takes no pleasure in the exercise of his distinctively human cognitive faculties–indeed, regards the exercise of those faculties as a burden to be escaped.

          You’re right to say that the epistemic account I’m relying on is more Platonic than Aristotelian. I don’t think the Aristotelian account handles the case I have in mind particularly well (alternatively: I don’t know how to handle it very well in an Aristotelian way). But Republic X gives us a compelling account of it: the mindless person is an image-addict who clings to images in an effort to escape the burden or responsibility of ascending to anything higher. (The first part of Republic X gives a vivid and plausible account of addiction, whether to substances or behaviors.) I take Plato’s account to be a precursor of similar thoughts in Freud, Sartre, and Rand: for Freud, it’s the id’s desire to escape the reality principle; for Sartre, it’s bad faith; for Rand, it’s the desire to flout the primacy of existence (or as she puts it somewhere, the wish to “escape the responsibility of cognition”). In any case, the person I have in mind doesn’t seek out any particular kind of knowledge; she seeks to escape the need to acquire knowledge as such.

          Maybe such people are ultimately impossible; maybe I’m misdescribing them. But if they exist, I don’t see how Aristotle can account for them. They aren’t desiring knowledge or seeking to exercise their distinctively human cognitive capacities. In fact, they simply don’t desire knowledge, and are looking to escape the need to exercise their distinctively human cognitive capacities. They desire not to know. Maybe there is some Scholastic way of reconciling a desire not to know with a desire to know (e.g., the desire not to know is really a perverted form of the desire to know), but it’s not obvious to me how to produce such an account, and also not obvious to me that it would have any real plausibility.

          As a paradigm, consider someone who spends as much time as possible smashed or stoned. Such a person doesn’t take delight in his senses; he’s looking to numb his senses. He can’t desire to exercise his cognitive capacities in that state, either; they won’t work in that state, and he knows it. Even sex in this state becomes forgettable by morning. Imagine that you tell this person that by taking a certain drug, they’ll get high as a kite, but incur permanent cognitive disabilities. Now suppose that they take the drug anyway on the premise, “So what? What am I going to use all that cognitive shit for, anyway? Whereas getting high feels really good in the here and now.” I see how to account for that on the model of Republic X, or on Freud’s account (or Sartre’s, or Rand’s), but not on Aristotle’s. If “all men desire to know,” what is going on here?

          My imagined paradigm case is, of course, an oversimplification designed for ease of exposition. I’m not saying that my students are literally drugged-out zombies. (More precisely: I’m not saying that 90% of them are.) But suppose that drugged-out zombiehood can be decomposed into n dimensions, the “sum” of which constitutes drugged-out zombiehood. I’m saying that many of my students resemble the drugged-out zombies by scoring high on a similarity scale along several of the n dimensions that constitute drugged-out zombiehood. And perhaps they do this by getting “a little help from their friends.” But they do it, all right. And if they do, they are at least an apparent counter-example to Aristotle’s claim.

          My hypothesis for why we’re coming at this so differently.

          1. Perhaps I am exaggerating.
          2. Perhaps you are being overly charitable.
          3. Perhaps you’ve typically taught a higher caliber of students than I have, and therefore lack experience with students of the kind I’m describing. (I’m familiar enough with people of the sort you’re describing, so that isn’t the issue.)
          4. Perhaps some combination of (1)-(3) is the case, in varying degree.

          My claim is: if (1) is false, Aristotle is wrong about this one.

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          • I think (1) is true (and that you may be underestimating the cognitive dimensions of the aesthetic appeal of certain drugs), but that Aristotle is right even if (1) is false. Aristotle doesn’t say that this is the only desire that people have, that it is the strongest desire or a dominant desire, or even that it is very strong at all. Most importantly, he not only doesn’t deny, but emphatically affirms, that upbringing and circumstances can shape a person’s character in such a way that he does not exercise the capacities that are natural to human beings, and perhaps even loses those capacities, at least in effect: he says that human beings are by nature political, too, but he thinks that large swaths of human beings do not live in a polis. Not living in a polis may not even be statistically unusual on his view. But neither is it statistically unusual for acorns not to become oaks. By contrast, it probably is statistically unusual for human beings to show no desire to know. When we find such people it will be the absence of that desire that demands special explanation, and that absence will be something we recognize as something like a malfunction. The desire to know isn’t like the desire to listen to AC/DC — something that very many human beings have but that some otherwise perfectly normal people don’t (we are perfectly normal!); it’s the sort of thing the near or complete lack of which is a serious deprivation in human life. If Aristotle were wrong, your students would just be like kids who don’t like AC/DC. Granted, people like that shouldn’t show up for classes on AC/DC, but I take it that your complaint about them is not just that they have bad taste, but that they fail to care about something they should care about.

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          • I may be exaggerating, I’ll grant you that much. But if so, I’m exaggerating about my students. In other words, the account I give of my students may be false of them, but there’s no reason to deny that it could be true of someone else.

            Setting aside the particular case of my students, suppose that a hard-core form of misology or epistemophobia is possible. In that case, if Aristotle’s thesis remains true even of epistemophobes, I’d say that it’s trivial. If we all desire to know, but our universal desire to know is very, very weak, and can be satisfied by a desire for any kind of knowledge, so that even knowledge-averse zombies desire to know (i.e., desire to know what it’s like to be in a drug-intoxicated stupor that causes you to pass out and forget whatever it was that you “knew”), I no longer see the point of the thesis. For one thing, the knowledge in question doesn’t seem the product of an exercise of the agent’s cognitive faculties. Nor is the epistemophobe’s desire for knowledge strong enough to motivate a desire for any other kind of knowledge: Aristotle aside, no one would say that drugs are a gateway drug to episteme. Nor is the desire for knowledge so construed essential to a flourishing life. So it seems to me that the thesis has been saved, but at the price of its having any clear rationale or application.

            The only thing I’ve read on this is the first chapter of Jonathan Lear’s Aristotle: The Desire to Understand. After quoting the passage from the Metaphysics, he writes:

            Aristotle is attributing to us a desire, a force, which urges us on toward knowledge. Of course, for some this desire does not exercise great influence; but for some of us it plays an important role in our lives. Aristotle no doubt believed it was this desire that motivated him to do the research and thinking that led to his writing the Metaphysics, and he trusted in this desire to lead others to study it. It this desire that is responsible for your reading and my writing this book.

            How did Aristotle know that we have this desire? …(p. 1)

            I’m a big Lear fan, but the first paragraph doesn’t help de-trivialize the thesis, and the second one (most of which I’ve omitted) doesn’t really answer the question with which it begins. Surely Lear, a practicing psychiatrist, knows of obvious (apparent) counter-examples to Aristotle’s thesis, but he makes no attempt to square them with the thesis itself. There’s a fine line between “for some this desire exercises no great influence,” and “indeed, in those in whom the desire exercises the least influence, the desire may well be thought, for all practical purposes, to have been extinguished–thereby presenting at least an apparent counter-example to Aristotle’s over-confident claim all men desire to know.”

            And though Aristotle wasn’t a psychiatrist, and the ancient Greeks didn’t have access to the drugs we have,* he knew enough about substance abuse and pathology to face the sort of counter-example I’m raising.

            Anything else worth reading on this? Am now curious.

            If Aristotle were wrong, your students would just be like kids who don’t like AC/DC.

            You’re awfully cavalier about that.

            *But cf. my forthcoming (but long-delayed) book, Athens on Acid: A Revisionist History (Cambridge, 2017).


          • I’m still not convinced that even the cases you have in mind — actual or hypothetical — are really best understood as cases in which people have no desire for knowledge, or indeed cases in which the people do not act for the sake of knowledge on a fairly regular basis. But even if I’m wrong about that, I still don’t see how the thesis is trivial. The thesis doesn’t require that every human being have this desire any more than the thesis that acorns by nature develop into oak trees requires that every acorn develops into an oak tree; that thesis doesn’t even require that every acorn has the capacity to develop into an oak tree in the kinds of conditions that ordinarily enable acorns to develop into an oak tree – such acorns can and do exist, but they’re malfunctioning or defective acorns. So too, that there are human beings in whom any non-instrumental desire for knowledge has been extinguished is not a counter-example to the thesis; such people can exist, but they are malfunctioning or defective human beings.

            For what it’s worth, here is a potentially relevant piece by some psychologists who think that Aristotle’s claim is true (‘desire for knowledge’ is one of the 16 ‘basic motives’ they identify as universal) and attempt to explain why some people of whom it is true nonetheless enjoy doing inane things like watching reality television. I don’t necessarily endorse any of it (I’ve only read through it quickly, and it strikes me as having many of the usual philosophical problems of social science), but it’s at least interesting to consider that empirical psychologists think Aristotle was basically right in Met. A (and that they found no connection between enjoying reality television and lack of curiosity):



  4. Aristotle, as I understand him, explained the world of our experience in terms of causation. The privileged term of his four causes is “final,” the end that is implicit in any entity. The word for this implicit end is “entelechia.” If “all men by nature desire to know” is to be parsed, we need to focus on “by nature.” A “man” in that he is a “natural” man is a being that desires to know. When Aretha sings to her man, “you make me feel like a natural woman,” she is implying that while she is a “natural woman,” she doesn’t feel like one. She has within her the potentiality to be wholly what she can be in actuality, but it takes a natural man to bring that potentiality to fruition, just as it takes water and sunshine and a nutritive medium for a seed to germinate and become a plant.
    So, unless a human being has some basic defect (e.g., neocortex removed), the “natural” desire for knowledge may linger in its potential state until the required material and efficient causes are present.
    I think Irfan’s concern is quite realistic, and that our coddled nation with its cornucopia of fabulous supermarkets** and 24-hour cable tv entertainment and cell-phone-Internet-hand-held-computers-with-headsets–all dedicated to ENDLESS PLEASURE–has set the stage (the artificial environment, as opposed to the natural environment) for a Brave New World dystopia in which only the Alphas have the potentiality of “a desire to know” because the rest have been virtually lobotomized.
    I think Irfan’s right that with Trump and the normalization of nonsense (startling with language, moving to incoherent policy, moving to contradictory actions), this tendency to make politics into entertainment (that Trumpster! what will he say/do next?!) will accelerate the degradation of our already degraded political and social life (did it begin with the televised Kennedy-Nixon debates, where “cool” JFK exploited his good looks and sang-froid on a “cool medium” at the expense of sweaty, dark-jowly RMN?).
    I tend to agree with dir and uphold Aristotle’s claim, but I tend to agree with Irfan that it sure looks like most of our fellow-creatures seem to be basically content just watching the shadows on the wall; and if they engage in any kind of dialectic at all, it’s over the patterns of the images.

    **A couple weeks ago I experienced a Whole Foods supermarket for the first time. I wasn’t stoned, but I almost felt as if I were. The sheer volume, the sheer variety, and the amazing quality of everything on display kind of “blew my mind.” But then, every now and then, I am astonished by a long-distance telephone call, speaking to someone on the other side of the country but who sounds right next to me. “These are the days of miracle and wonder/This is the long distance call/The way the camera follows us in slo-mo/The way we look to us all.” [Paul Simon, “The Boy in a Bubble.”]

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    • I guess what I’d say to you overlaps with what I just said to David, but I have trouble seeing the point of Aristotle’s thesis if it’s compatible with something like Huxley’s Brave New World. Of course, Aristotle’s thesis is about human beings prior to any major biological adjustments of the sort that arise in that novel, but my point is that you can get major adjustments via drugs (and drugs play a role in the novel as well). I wouldn’t dispute that some version of Aristotle’s thesis ends up being true, but I’d dispute that the true version ends up explaining anything or having a point.

      One thing that David is right about, however, is that academics and intellectuals have a tendency to underestimate the desire for knowledge that non-academics and non-intellectuals do have, often by demoting non-academic or non-intellectualized forms or objects of knowledge. I’m making a conscious effort to avoid that tendency, but some elements of it have probably crept into some of what I’m saying.

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