… Another alternative would have been to give you what’s called a popular scientific lecture, that is a lecture intended to make you believe that you understand a thing which actually you don’t understand, and to gratify what I believe to be one of the lowest desires of modern people, namely the superficial curiosity about the latest discoveries of science.
This quote is from the beginning of Wittgenstein’s “A Lecture on Ethics” or whatever the untitled transcript of the talk he gave to The Heretics Society is called. I’ve seen this part of the lecture omitted; admittedly it has little to do with his later arguments. However, I always felt that this barb was something interesting.
The quote has little force as an argument: it is merely his opinion that a superficial curiosity about the latest discoveries of science is bad. No contradictions or other nonsense is pointed out, nor does it even evoke a parallel between those he is disparaging and some accepted foul thing.
But it is clear, concise and otherwise totally unlike everything else that Wittgenstein is known for, while touching upon the topics of belief, understanding, science, and desire. Odd, no?
What the quote is, is a smear; it is an insult: Calling something a lowest desire, without reason, is merely to insult it. What’s going on here?
Say I have a superficial curiosity about the latest discoveries of science. So what? If the latest scientific research has little to do with my profession, say I’m a restaurateur, then what harm is there in having a passing interest in what other smart people do? It might even be considered commendable that I make such an effort.
Now Wittgenstein is saying that my earnest effort is nowhere near commendable, but all the way at the bottom, the basest, of desire. Since he accusing “modern people” it is not just ‘me’, but everyone. This is insulting and unwarranted.
However, this isn’t exactly what Wittgenstein was after: he disliked superficial curiosity in scientific discoveries not because of the impulse of people to learn and take interest in others, but because it made people believe that they understood a thing which actually they didn’t understand. Understanding difficult things is an accomplishment, and scientific research is difficult. In enjoying a superficial curiosity about the latest discoveries of science, he is accusing us of feeling a sense of accomplishment when we have done nothing to merit it: he is accusing us of mental masturbation. Ouch.
We can also now understand why this criticism is “modern”. Before modern times, there was no way to have a “popular scientific lecture”: only in the last century or so have we had the communications technology and an available public which allows for such a thing. You couldn’t expect feudal peasants to leave their farms or be educated enough to appreciate such a lecture. But by November 1929, the date of this lecture, mass media was in full swing with the wide distribution of newspapers and books, and the start of national radio broadcasts. Only with widespread media distribution did the danger of popular science becoming a narcotic exist.
Wittgenstein saw that with the modern increase in information distribution capability came a danger of intellectual drugging of the population. It disgusted him that people would take pleasure from the feeling that they understood difficult theories with which they only had the most superficial engagement. Unfortunately he had no argument or solution to prevent this, and so he resorted, as we all do when we are out of good arguments, to insults.
One can only think that the internet has made this an even more pervasive problem. It blows our information distribution capability off the charts. And we are, unsurprisingly, completely addicted to it. It’s too bad dear Ludwig never really commented more on modernity, he seems to have been rather perceptive.