My most recent Canberra Times column was published today: 'Here's cultivating curiosity... Why's that, you ask?' A sample:
David Hume, in his Treatise of Human Nature, argued that curiosity is the thrill of mental exertion. This is why those who are curious find no joy in simple addition or the recitation of historical facts: it's not that 40 + 29 doesn't equal 69, or that Caesar didn't cross the Rubicon, but that reception of these truths alone is unchallenging.
Hume also pointed out that curiosity often seeks important truths. Not because these are somehow more exciting, but because this sense of worth aids concentration. "When we are careless and inattentive," Hume wrote, "the same action of the understanding has no effect upon us, nor is able to convey any of that satisfaction". These truths may not actually be epic or greatly practical, and the curious person might be highly misanthropic. But the idea of importance is enough to keep them occupied. The student tells himself his studies of late Heidegger are vital for civilisation but his chief motive is a rightful fascination with the nature of art, for example.
Curiosity, in this light, is neither professional duty nor principled discovery. Certainly someone curious might also be a fine scholar or social reformer: Leonard Woolf comes to mind. But, if Hume's right, curiosity need not have any relationship to professional competency or justice. It is simply a disposition to finding pleasure in mental labour. Sometimes this leads to novels or medicines, other times to a life of quiet but unproductive poking about.(Image: painting by Allan Ramsay)