Books

Intellectual Appetite: A Theological Grammar by Paul J. Griffiths (Book Review)


Intellectual Appetite: A Theological Grammar by Paul J. Griffiths is a carefully written exploration of two kinds of intellectual appetite: curiositas (curiosity) and studiositas (studiousness). The author, largely booting off Augustine, contrasts curiosity, an “appetite for the ownership of new knowledge,” with studiousness, an “appetite for closer reflexive intimacy with the gift.”

As these definitions indicate, the curious and the studious approach the world with very different postures.  The studious view the world and everything in it as gifts of God to be received, participated in, wondered at, and given again to others (in whatever ways are appropriate to the nature of the particular goods given). The curious, in contrast, view the world and everything in it, as objects to be sequestered, mastered, possessed, and owned. “Curiosity wants possession, studiousness seeks participation.”

But where do these postures come from? What is the catechesis that forms each one? What are their characteristic habits? This book explores these questions and much more, first by setting curiosity and studiousness in contrast to one another (chapters 1 and 2), and then by backing up to systematically construct an understanding of the nature of the world and its objects (ch 3), damaged by the fall (ch 4), yet given to us by God (ch 5), and inviting our participation (ch 6). The author then explores the nature of intellectual appetite (ch 7) and contrasting features of curiosity and studiousness (chs 8-13).

Here are a few key quotes:

“The world appears as gift. Or, more exactly, the world, being light shot through with darkness, appears in part as gift and in part as its opposite. To the extent that light is obscured, the world appears not as delightful gift, but as constrictively repetitive burden whose days and nights pass with the rapidity and numbing sameness of the weaver’s shuttle, a region of desolation and hunger composed in equal measure of pain and boredom. But the world of light, harmony, and liberating order, the real world, that is, rather than its negative image, its dark twin, appears as gift that delights when it is welcomed and embraced.” (p. 51)

“the cosmos and everything in it participates intimately with its giver: it is, from beginning to end, saturated with God’s glory, radiant with God’s light, made beautiful by God’s caress, given to its gives with entreaty to see it and to rejoice in it for what it is” (p. 73)

“This fact of damage, and its depth, means that the image of God in the cosmos has been shattered. It is now the vestige, the trace, hard to discern, insubstantial: the fabric of being from which God wove the cosmos is now tattered, almost shredded, by the threads of nonbeing woven into it.” (p. 74)

“The appetite for knowledge, proper as it is to all ordinarily-equipped human beings, can work well or badly, and whether it does the former or the latter depends very largely upon how potential knowables are construed, and how, correspondingly, the appetite for knowing them is formed and ordered. If you learn to construe every knowable as a beautiful but damaged gift; the cosmos as an ordered ensemble of such gifts shot through with chaos; and the knowledge of any particular, and of the chaotically-ordered whole, as possibly only when a potential knower seeks intimacy with the gift and thereby with its giver; - then, your appetite for knowledge will be provoked, moved toward a horizon it can never reach, and thereby intensified.” (pp. 137-138)

“The curious seek to own what they know; the studious seek to act as stewards of what they know.” (p. 140)

“the deep tendency we humans have to divinize ourselves by thinking that we can be owners as God is an owner needs constantly to be checked by recalling that our ownership is not a matter of sequestration’s power of control, but rather one of grateful receipt (and, as a matter of aspiration, stewardly use) of gift.” (p. 156)

“The novelty, once found, is immediately no longer new; therefore, it can only fail to fulfill the desire that sought it. The gaze temporarily frozen to its glittering surface will at once slide away from it toward the next new thing, the next novelty. This obvious enough in the economic sphere: the mini-orgasm of purchase prompts, often at once, desire for another purchase. It is perhaps less obvious in the cognitive sphere but just as real: there too, cognitive intimacy with the new will, as soon as achieved (or apparently achieved, for it can never really be achieved), prompt a desire for more of the same. In academia, those especially subject to this sickness are likely to be rewarded for it because the academy is the place where curiosity is taught as a virtue.” (p. 212)

As these quotes show, this is a difficult, philosophical text, with very close reasoning that is sparse on illustration. Almost every word is carefully defined, nuanced, and used in a technical way. But it’s also a compelling book that presses into the heart of reality, as understood from a Christian perspective. I agreed with much of it, and found it convicting, instructive, and even in places liberating. However, I strongly disagree with distinctively Roman Catholic presuppositions (about, for example, Mary and the Eucharist) that frequently surface in the book.

Five stars for its basic argument and careful reasoning. Two stars for its Roman Catholic presuppositions. Hence, my (cautious) four stars.  

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