Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Martin Jay: Briefly on Blumenberg's Trial of Theoretical Curiosity

One of the greatest influences on my thinking in the early years of my long 'gradual' study at Berkeley was the thought of intellectual historian Martin Jay, whose influence impressed itself upon me in the several graduate seminars that I took under him, and although I was certainly not a brilliant student, he nevertheless took a personal interest in helping my intellectual development, and I owe him a great debt of gratitude for two things, a grounding in European intellectual history and a sharpening of my critical skills.

Jay has also written the occasional passage on Hans Blumenberg's study of curiosity's trial and afflictions. In his book Downcast Eyes, Jay writes:
One of the preconditions for the arrival of the scientific revolution, as Blumenberg has suggested, was the long process of liberating human curiosity from its pejorative status as a frivolous distraction from man's meditation on the wisdom of the past, divinely or classically inspired. Augustine's hostility to ocular desire exemplified a general distrust of the temptations of "idle curiosity" and the appetite for dangerous new experiences it whetted. Once what Blumenberg calls the "trial of curiosity" was over and the defendant acquitted, the unleashing of the mastering, exploring, scrutinizing potential in sight meant that modern science could begin -- for that science was a far more active and interventionist enterprise than the contemplation of the ancients. As such, it roughly paralleled those other great exploring ventures of the early modern era, the voyages to unknown lands, which were themselves fueled in large measure by visually charged curiosity. The mapping impulse, which Alpers has linked to the Dutch art of describing because of its valorization of flatness, can also be seen as a more active search for controlling and dominating the earth, not very different from the imposition of the Albertian grid on visual space in paintings. (Martin Jay, Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), page 63)
Jay's focus on Blumenberg's argument concerning how the trial of theoretical curiosity ended in declaring the "defendant acquitted" and thereby unleashing human curiosity's "scrutinizing potential" for modern science interests me, given my background in the history of science, but between 1994, when Jay's Downcast Eyes was written, and 2006, when Jay published Songs of Experience, his view on the trial's result may have shifted somewhat:
Augustinian inner experience was, to be sure, not yet directed at encounters with the profane world -- in fact, his abhorrence of the sin of curiositas led to the opposite outcome -- and memory could be marshaled in the service of a more impersonal Platonic anamnesis. Although there were certainly medieval movements that implicitly valued experience over following rules, such as the communal order of Franciscans who imitated Jesus's life of poverty and humility, they were still relatively isolated occurrences, often losing out in the struggle against dogmatic church authority. It was not really until the dawning of what we now like to call the modern age that the "trial" of experience, like that of the curiosity whose comparable valorization is traced by Blumenberg in The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, ended in an acquittal for the defendant, or more precisely, with a hung jury that continues to debate its merits to this day. With the erosion of trust in Scholastic rationalism, the loss of the Catholic Church's corner on spiritual power, and the reversal of the hierarchy of the Ancients and the Moderns, modernity sought a new ground of legitimacy. As Jürgen Habermas has put it, "Modernity can and will no longer borrow the criteria from the models supplied by another epoch; it has to create its normativity out of itself." (Martin Jay, Songs of Experience Modern American and European Variations on a Universal Theme (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), pages 19-20)
In Songs of Experience, Jay speaks of two trials stemming from Augustine's thinking, a trial of experience and a trial of curiosity, and may imply that both trials ended in a "hung jury" -- though I'm not certain how far he wants to take the analogy. Perhaps I'll ask him.

Meanwhile, on this dark, early, mid-December morning, with the northern nights lengthening and the semester drawing to a close, I leave you to experience your own curious thoughts as I head off to prepare my day...

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