Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Curious Nose

I remember when I was a first year student in secondary school having a very young teacher for science who informed us that we should all develop "a curious nose."  Curiosity is one of the greatest motives in the pursuit of knowledge.  What naturalist or scientist has ever not been curious?  Curiosity stands to reason in that profession.  Likewise, any good teacher, writer or psychologist will likewise be curious.  Needless to say the good traveller, according to De Botton, will needs be curious.

And so our author begins chapter four, entitled "On Curiosity" with an account of a trip to Madrid with a book of the great scientist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt as a vade-me-cum.  Alexander von Humboldt ( 1769 – 1859) was a German naturalist and explorer whose quantitative work on botanical geography was foundational to the field of biogeography. Between 1799 and 1804, Humboldt travelled to Latin America, exploring and describing it in a manner generally considered to be a modern scientific point of view for the first time.  As a consequence of these and other explorations, von Humboldt described many geographical features and species of life that were hitherto unknown to Europeans, and indeed many species of plant and animal life as well as geographical features were named after him.  To see a list of these hit the following link: AvH List.  De Botton comments on the achievements of this great genius thus:

In the summer of 1799, this 29 year old German set sail from the Spanish port of La Caruna...on a voyage of exploration of the South American continent... Humboldt was to be away from Europe for five years.  On his return, he settled in Paris and over the next twenty years published a thirty volume account of his travels...He transformed the state of knowledge and travelled 15,000 kilometres around the northern coastlines and interior (of South America) and, on the way, collected 1,600 plants and identified 600 new species.  He redrew the map of South America...and he gave the first account of the rubber and cinchona trees... (De Botton, 104-106)

This gives one just a taste of what he did, as he also achieved so much else.  Our friend Humboldt was a sort of Renaissance man.  Charles Darwin even learnt large swathes of his work by heart because it was so good.

While our scientist here was a great collector of facts and a really brilliant observer of nature, De Botton goes on to quote Nietzsche who had an interesting take on facts and items of knowledge.  On the one hands facts can be cold and clinical (my words) - what Nietzsche calls the academic facts of the explorer or scientist.  This he praises as somewhat more than worthwhile as it advances the knowledge of mankind.  However, he also pointed out that civilised humans likes their facts also to be 'life-enhancing.'  Here is what De Botton has to say with respect to this distinction:

[Nietzsche] distinguished between collecting facts like an explorer or academic and using already well-known facts for the sake of inner, psychological enrichment...  The real challenge was to use facts to enhance 'life.'  (Ibid., 112)

In the work of Nietzsche we find suggested a second kind of tourism to that of von Humboldt viz., a type of tourism by which we can learn how our own society and our own identity have been formed by the past.  In this way we can acquire a sense of belonging and a sense of continuity.  Our author stresses the fact that for the learned scientist and explorer the question had been, "Why are there regional variations in nature?"  Then for the traveller called Alain De Botton or any of us on our trip to Madrid, when standing, say, outside the Iglesia de San Francisco El Grande, the question might be, "Why have people felt the need to build churches?" or even, "Why do we worship God."  (See ibid., 124)

I'll finish this post with a quotation from von Humboldt himself nearing the end of his long life:

People often say that I'm curious about too many things at once: botany, astronomy, comparative anatomy.  But can you really forbid a man from harbouring a desire to know and embrace everything which surrounds him?  (Quoted ibid., 125)

This rhetorical question needs no answer - obviously!


To be continued.

Above I have placed a copy of a portrait of Humboldt when he was 37 years of age by Friedrich Georg Weitsch, 1806

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