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Notes from Underground

Important Quotations Explained

Quotes Important Quotations Explained

Quote 3

Who wants to want according to a little table?

The Underground Man asks this question of his imagined audience in Chapter VIII of “Underground,” after his audience has explained to him that his argument about the primacy of the human will is flawed. His audience has brought up the idea that scientific rules and formulas can explain the origins of and reasons for human desires. By this argument, if there is a scientific formula for human happiness, that same formula would also explain man’s desire to exercise free will, and would explain the reason for the existence of free will in the first place. Therefore, it is absurd to assert that a scientific formula for human happiness limits the rights of man to exercise free will. The Underground Man’s response to this argument is paradoxical. If science can explain why human beings desire anything, it can certainly explain why human beings would or would not desire “to want according to a little table.” The Underground Man’s assertion, however, is incontestable. No matter how much science manages to explain about the nature of human desires, it cannot change the fact that those desires exist. Furthermore, no matter how strong the evidence that human beings do “want according to a little table”—that is, according to a set of rational, predictable formulas—most humans treasure the idea that their desires are independent and unique. Hence, they would not appreciate the idea that their desires are completely predictable. The contrast between the image of a tiny, well-regulated, boring little multiplication table and the great urgency and power of the word “want” is very effective in proving the Underground Man’s point. No matter how the numbers add up, describing human desires in terms of a “little table” seems like the worst kind of oversimplification, and makes even the most sensible people want to rebel against reason and go running headlong into a stone wall.