Friday, March 13, 2015

On curiosity

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)

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Nicely said, Damon. I've often considered curiosity an underrated attribute, and hadn't come across Hume on the subject, so thank you for that. I can imagine a very interesting discursive history of curiosity being written: portraits of notably curious denizens, how it differs among cultures, the effects of its presence or absence on society at large, etc.

My sense is that there is a strong curiosity gradient between cultures and that, sadly, Australian mainstream culture is at the lesser end of the scale. My outsider-immigrant observation has been that Australia is marked very deeply by incuriosity, which accounts in part for the notable lack of satisfying conversation to be had in this country. In your article you remark on the totalitarian mindset as being one in opposition to curiosity, which is true enough. But more pertinent to us might be complacency, a duller but more locally widespread opponent, perhaps?