chapter  11
7 Pages

Presuppositions of Curiosity

It is commonplace to hold that interrogative sentences have presuppositions. Various accounts have been put forth in the literature on the topic, but interestingly none of them, to my knowledge, contains any discussion of how this issue relates to curiosity. This, of course, will be my main concern here. Some have held that for an interrogative sentence to pose a meaningful question, its presuppositions have to be true. An early advocate of this position seems to be Knight, who holds that “inquiry presupposes (1) an unknown based on fact, (2) a desire to know the unknown, (3) faith that such knowledge exists and can be acquired, and (4) courage to accept the consequences of attempting to know”.1 He then goes on to argue that, “questions . . . such as ‘When did you stop beating your wife?’ or ‘Who is the Tsar of Contemporary Russia’? violate the fi rst principle”, and he concludes from this that “any question which violates one of the presuppositions of inquiry is meaningless for that purpose”.2 This would then seem to have the implication that one cannot start an inquiry to fi nd out who the Tsar of Contemporary Russia is, nor could one be curious about it. Why not? Because, there is no such Tsar? But why should that be the case? If one is convinced that present Russia has a Tsar, or at least does not know that it doesn’t, then he could ask this question and be curious to know the answer. Or if you think that the man you are talking to in fact beat his wife in the past and then stopped doing so, you could meaningfully pose the question, “When did you stop beating your wife?” or simply start an inquiry to fi nd out the truth. What is most important for our purposes is that someone in these kinds of situations could genuinely be curious. As I have discussed earlier, some inostensible terms that arouse curiosity may in fact be expressions that fail to refer. All that is needed for such a term to be inostensible for the speaker is that he does not know that his term has no referent. It seems clear to me that some scientists were genuinely curious about the referent of the term “the planet perturbing Mercury” when in fact there was no such planet. Their inquiry was not meaningless at all as Knight appears to claim, and furthermore we should expect that some of these scientists were genuinely curious about a certain planet, which later turned out not to exist. Such curiosity of course was not de re, but it was curiosity all right.