Curious Times


Pollen grains, Asteraceae
Photograph: Maurizio De Angelis/Wellcome Images

In his blog post of August 7, 2012 on In the Middle, entitled “Curiosity, Mars/Venus, and Chaucer,” Jonathan Hsy discusses how a medieval understanding of curiosity helps us to think about the art of translation, as well as the role of curiosity and wonder in scholarship and the classroom more generally. I want to return to this issue here because of some thoughts I’ve been having about curiosity in the past year or two – thoughts which began initially because of conversations I was having with students and with colleagues about the role of curiosity in academia at this moment in time.

Curiosity is frequently invoked by educational institutions and by scholars themselves as a desirable trait – one that cannot be done without. In this, they echo the ideas of the “Positive Psychology” branch of psychology, one of whose practitioners, Todd Kashdan, wrote a book dedicated to curiosity in 2009, whose title, Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life, indicates the crucial place awarded to curiosity.

In historical studies of curiosity, the Middle Ages are often represented as utterly opposed to such a positive assessment, as a time during which curiosity was on “trial” rather than triumphant (to borrow from Hans Blumenberg). Yet, as scholars such as Richard Newhauser and Edward Peters have shown, such an assessment involves a lack of awareness of the nuances attendant on the term: “curiositas” in the Middle Ages could be good, bad or neutral, depending very much on context, approach, and discipline.

It is also the case that a suspicion of curiosity – understood as a powerful human desire for novelty, including different kinds of new knowledge – is evident in most times, even if it exists alongside other, more positive, understandings. Thus, for instance, in Kashdan’s book, Chapter 8 is concerned with “The Dark Side of Curiosity: Obsessions, Sensational Thrills, Sex, Death, and Detrimental Gossip” (what better way of ensuring the reader’s curiosity will lead her straight there?). Not all curiosity is to be encouraged; curiosity still has its negative sides – referred to as “diversive curiosity” in some studies, or “morbid” curiosity if the objects that arouse it are perceived to be particularly dangerous (to the individual or others), transgressive or destructive. (Thomas Aquinas distinguished between “studiositas” – what one could think of as “good” curiosity – and “curiositas” for similar reasons.)

One of the central concerns that is evident in medieval religious discussions of “curiositas” – alongside a refusal to accept limits on one’s desire to know – is how the curious individual uses her time: the fear that a pursuit of “vain” objects of interest distract from the truly important concerns that should be occupying her instead. In such examples, it is often associated with wasted time (idleness), with the “this-worldly” (the temporal rather than the eternal), or with regression. The Latin term bears within itself a sign of this troubled temporality: “cura”, with its sense of duty, of attentive care, designates a “good” or “proper” use of time, while excessive “cura” indicates its waste.

For some thinkers, such as Thomas of Aquinas and St Bonaventure, curiosity was akin to acedia, in that it suggested a kind of mental wandering, focused not on the important things (such as the necessary requirements for salvation) but tracking hither and yonder in pursuit of pointless knowledge. In this understanding, curiosity designated an intellectual superficiality – an inability to distinguish between the truly important and the merely incidental. Martin Seel concludes that what is being described in such assessments is someone who, interested in everything, is interested, finally, in nothing. Edward Peters notes that Alexander Nequam “summed up a century of criticism” in his expostulation: “O inutilis curiositas.” Whether work, intellectual or otherwise, was considered “curious” in a positive or negative sense relied to a great extent, then, on its perceived utility, which in turn was defined with reference to the individual’s social and religious relations, as well as to his temporal understanding and orientation. Curiosity could provoke the suspicion that the individual exhibiting it was resisting, or withdrawing from, authoritative understandings of how he or she should be intellectually and temporally disposed.

From my conversations with colleagues, many of whom feel pressed for time and pressured to guarantee the “outcomes” of their research, it seems to me that curiosity – precisely because of its fraught relationship to temporality, which often also translates into a particular relationship with authority – has actually never stopped being troublesome. The ambivalence surrounding the term, and debates about its role and value, reveal it to be at the heart of an ethics not just of thought but also, far more fundamentally, of the question of cognitive engagement with the world. The issue that arises time and again is how individual engagement with the world relates, or fails to relate, to the requirements – be they social, political, religious, moral or economic – posed by the larger structures within which the individual exists and acts out this engagement.

In his 1939 article, “On the Usefulness of Useless Knowledge,” Abraham Flexner, the founding Director for the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton University, draws a picture of intellectual curiosity which many academics might still subscribe to today, but would not perhaps feel was high on the agenda in educational policy, with its emphasis on measurable and quantifiable “outcomes”: “[T]hroughout the whole history of science most of the really great discoveries which had ultimately proved to be beneficial to mankind had been made by men and women who were driven not by the desire to be useful but merely the desire to satisfy their curiosity.” Flexner argues that it is precisely the unpredictability of curiosity that must be maintained and which “[i]nstitutions of learning should be devoted to.”

This kind of approach, however, requires time – both in teaching and in research. In her recent study of the modern university, Ruth Barcan has argued that it is a chimeric institution, consisting of a “palimpsestic overlay of three types of institutions, each with its own exigencies, temporalities, and forms of expertise.” Barcan argues that the auditing mechanisms with which universities “try to capture sign of productivity … tak[e] no account of the temporality of thought…, research…, writing, or publication.” The “slow time” required by “teaching, reading and writing” does not fit easily within this understanding and cannot easily be rendered quantifiable. The latter in particular is “antithetical to the ethos of open-ended curiosity-driven investigation, with its historical recognition of the importance of false starts, wrong turns, serendipity, accidents and slow progress to the development of new, original or complex ideas.” The problem is not even one of utility. As Helen Small has argued, the Humanities can easily be shown to have a practice value, and their value can even usefully be discussed in terms of utility; the problem is not utility but instrumentality, specifically economic instrumentalism.

Looking at the long (and unbroken) tradition of suspicion of curiosity helps us to approach the complexities of the situation today. Despite the repeated valorisation of curiosity, there is an often-unacknowledged suspicion of its unpredictability. On the one hand we have a valorisation of curiosity by educational institutions; on the other, it is precisely curiosity that can be inimical to the way such institutions function.

In 1994, George Loewenstein noted in his survey of psychological studies on curiosity, that it is both potentially superficial (“in the sense that it can arise, change, focus, or end abruptly”) and “can exert a powerful motivational force.” Curiosity is “approach” rather than “goal” oriented: “When we are curious, we are doing things for their own sake, and we are not being controlled by internal or external pressures concerning what we should or should not do.” He warns that “[d]espite the appeal of simplistic models of the benefits of curiosity,” it is a complex issue that demands more nuanced investigation – something that medieval thinkers were well aware of.

Anke Bernau is Senior Lecturer in Medieval Literature and Culture in the School of Arts, Languages and Cultures at the University of Manchester.