Perry Zurn and Arjun Shankar
Curiosity is a many-splendored thing. In contemporary U.S. culture, for example,1 its references are as wildly disparate as they are insightful. There is the Curiosity Mars Rover, launched in 2011 and still wandering the surface of the red planet, searching for evidence of life. There is the “Curiosity” Discovery Channel series and Curiosity.com, each of which collates bite-size bits of information, uniquely packaged to enhance precisely what is strange and exciting about them. The term “curiosity” appears, over and over again, in educational philosophies and university mission statements, and in talk of innovation and creativity across the business and technology sectors. And, of course, it appears in everyday conversations, more times than we realize: “I’m curious,” “I’m just curious.” Across popular culture, curiosity is largely defanged and commodified. There is Curious George, Curiosity Cola, and Steel Reserve’s 2018 ad for its 8 percent alcohol energy drink Blue Razz: “Curious Is Calling.” Not to mention Britney Spears’s 1999 hit, “I’m So Curious.” As such, curiosity is often taken as a mere superficial interest. Even in its most banal moments, however, curiosity is something more. From science, technology, and education to the consumption of goods and media icons, curiosity somehow consistently drives us to take risks, pushing past what exists to stand on the precipice of the possible.
Perhaps this is why Barack Obama, in his first inaugural speech, identified curiosity—alongside honesty and courage—as an American value on which the country’s success depends.2 At its best, curiosity fuels an openness to difference and a drive toward innovation that together equip us to pursue a more intellectually vibrant and equitable world. Unfortunately, many assess our present political milieu to be markedly, and increasingly, “incurious.”3 The Trump administration’s resistance to different perspectives, scientific inquiry, and the habit of asking deep, transformative questions has arguably reinforced some of the worst sorts of sexist and xenophobic rhetoric, policy, and behavior.
Given such high stakes, we, the editors and contributors of Curiosity Studies: A New Ecology of Knowledge, find the study of curiosity to be of urgent importance. Curiosity is not an empty, untethered cultural feature of our contemporary era but one of the most important political tools we have at our disposal. There is, in fact, a logic evident in its material and discursive, linguistic and praxiological appearances. That is, despite its various forms and distinguishable types,4 its simulations and its knockoffs, curiosity is a coherent and powerful phenomenon. It therefore constitutes a proper object of study all its own. Here we bring together fourteen scholars with disparate expertise to establish curiosity studies as a unique field of scholarly inquiry. Drawing authors from philosophy, history, literature, ethnic studies, gender studies, education, anthropology, psychology and psychoanalysis, ecology, biomedicine, neuroscience, physics, and visual art, this book stages a transdisciplinary conversation about what curiosity is and what resources it holds for human and ecological flourishing. As such, the book is the first Anglophone, broadly cross-disciplinary interrogation of the concept and future of curiosity.5 In an age in which human curiosity is at a crossroads—at once more powerful, and yet systematically hypercommodified and curtailed, than ever before—not to mention an age in which the reality of animal curiosity and the possibility of artificially intelligent curiosity is increasingly felt, this book equips us to live critically and creatively in what might be called our new Age of Curiosity.
In what follows, we intervene in the long history of the study of curiosity to propose curiosity studies proper. Such a field, we argue, traverses the many disciplinary and experiential contexts in which curiosity appears, in order to generate theories, analytics, and practices of curiosity that are as complex and ubiquitous as the phenomenon of curiosity itself. Assuming an ecology of knowledge framework, which expressly resists academic silos and intellectual monocultures, we envision curiosity studies as an unbounded inquiry built on three simple principles: (1) Curiosity is multiple; its markers shift across history, geography, species, social identities, institutions, contexts, and circumstances; therefore it requires immensely flexible analytic attention; (2) Curiosity is praxiological; far from something that is simply felt, curiosity is something that is done, expressed in behaviors, habits, architectures, and movements across physical, conceptual, and social space; and (3) Curiosity is political; its manifestations within sociocultural worlds are marked by inherited hierarchies of value among scientific methodologies, people groups, and ideologies. And yet, precisely because it is multiple, praxiological, and political, curiosity bears a keen subversive potential. It has the capacity to upend what we know, how we learn, how we relate, and what we can change. Curiosity has the capacity to become radical, to get at the root of things. We therefore propose curiosity studies not only as a field of scholarship but as a way of reimagining the world, both within the classroom and far beyond it.
A Brief History of Curiosity
While curiosity studies might be new, the study of curiosity is thousands of years old.6 In the Western tradition, beginning in the ancient period, curiosity was, by turns, celebrated for its capacity to generate knowledge and castigated for its tendency to fuel merely meddlesome inquiry. The Greek terms polypragmosune and periergia—later translated into the Latin as curiositas—first carried this dual meaning, referring both to an interest in what is beyond oneself (e.g., other people and the natural world) as well as to what is outside one’s proper purview (e.g., the private, the secret, the forbidden, the foreign).7 Thus while Seneca claimed that curiosity about nature is of critical importance in one’s own ethical development,8 Plutarch insisted that curiosity, particularly when directed at other people’s business, bankrupts the soul.9 Similarly, Aristotle recommended that one be studious about one thing (monopragmosune) rather than interested in many things,10 while Plato argued that curious people, whose appetite for knowledge often rules them, suffer from an imbalance in the three parts of their soul: reason, spirit, and appetite.11 Over time, this ambiguous or two-toned assessment of curiosity was largely bifurcated into a medieval concern with curiosity as a vice and a modern embrace of curiosity as a key instrument in social and scientific advancement.
The medieval period was marked by a robust suspicion of curiosity, as a source of social fissures and spiritual fragmentation. Saint Augustine set a Neoplatonic, Christian tone for the era when he catalogued curiosity as a “lust of the eyes,”12 active on both the sensual and intellective registers. For him, this devilish curiosity attaches to the natural (whether the principles of nature or the behaviors of natural creatures), the supernatural (astrology, necromancy, religious signs and wonders), and the aesthetic (fashion, fantasy, theater). Against the vice of curiositas, he recommended the virtue of studiositas,13 or the careful application of oneself to well-circumscribed intellectual work. Isidore of Seville and Gregory the Great would later taxonomize the vice of curiosity—a wandering mind—as a descendant of melancholy or sloth.14 And later still, Thomas Aquinas would taxonomize studiousness as a form of temperance, marking its superiority over an intemperate curiosity.15 The weight of these classifications led, on the one hand, to twelfth-century Benedictine Bernard of Clairvaux’s advice to renounce curiosity, having instead one’s “head bent and eyes fixed on the ground,”16 and, on the other, to fourteenth-century priest Richard de Bury’s treatise Philobiblon, a painstaking defense of his own curious habit of collecting books, which had garnered him intense critique from the church.17
Particularly at its inception, the modern period was characterized by a suspicion of tradition, a need for independent thought, and a renewed commitment to the secular pursuit of human progress. Here, the first sense of ancient curiosity—as natural and studious—resurfaces with a vengeance. While Réné Descartes still thinks of curiosity—with its interest in minutiae—as fundamentally scholastic, he insists that a certain wonder is necessary for the work of reason, knowledge, and the good of humankind.18 For the most part, other modern thinkers recognize “curiosity” as that intellectual instrument crucial to the service of human development and civilization. Thomas Hobbes, for example, defines curiosity as “the love of the knowledge of causes.”19 For David Hume, curiosity is “the love of truth.”20 For John Locke, curiosity is an “appetite for knowledge,”21 to be nurtured in young and old alike. While for Jean-Jacques Rousseau, curiosity is “a principle natural to the human heart,” which must be carefully trained to achieve its promise.22 And what is that promise? In the modern era, curiosity becomes not only rational, disciplined, and controlled, but also useful, productive of scientific knowledge and civic good.
Today, in post-Enlightenment Western culture, curiosity is largely understood and studied in a modern sense. Educators, psychologists, and neuroscientists consistently explore curiosity as the cornerstone of inquiry and innovation. And yet, with the rise of digital technologies and social media, we are also seeing a renewed concern with curiosity’s propensity for distraction and superficiality, reminiscent of ancient and medieval insights. Increased political turmoil on both the national and global stage, moreover, has generated fresh interest in curiosity’s capacity to undermine the status quo, and therefore the power of the powerful, especially when curiosity is wielded by those who are otherwise perceived as disempowered.
Given both the long tradition of studying curiosity and the fact that age-old questions regarding curiosity’s function and value are alive and well today, we believe curiosity studies is best undertaken as a collaborative venture with historical and political sensitivities. It must begin by recognizing that the conceptualization and mobilization of curiosity in our present era is rooted in material conditions and legacies. And it must proceed with a multiscalar analysis through cross-disciplinary, pluri-vector conversations. As various fields deepen their analysis of curiosity along these tracks and begin to draw from one another, a new ecosystem of curiosity can flourish, accountable to historico-political and transdisciplinary ecologies of knowledge.
An Ecology of Knowledge Framework
The term “ecology of knowledge,” popularized by Charles Rosenberg in the 1970’s,23 refers to the way in which knowledge functions in and as a dynamic, multilayered environment. Developing in concert with systems thinking, complexity theory, and network science, the knowledge ecology framework refuses to consider the production of knowledge in isolation—limited to a particular scientist, lab, discipline, or research vector—but rather analyzes it through interaction: the interactions among languages, histories, materials, institutions, publishing norms, funding sources, social groups, the natural environment, and the like.24 While there is a debate over whether the term “ecology” functions here as a metaphor or an analogy,25 scholars agree that the term does provide a helpful analytical model. Ecology, stemming from the Greek words oikos and logos, refers to the study of habitation, both where one dwells and what habits mark that dwelling. When applied to the study of curiosity, the ecology of knowledge framework attends less to what curiosity is than to how curiosity is practiced, when and where it gets problematized, and why its features change. As such, an ecological view of curiosity aids in the development of a functional, political, and cross-disciplinary account.
The ecology of knowledge framework is predicated on complementary critiques of science and politics. Working, on the one hand, against an abstract, positivist, reductionist science and, on the other, against the political systems of capitalism, patriarchy, and colonialism, the ecology of knowledge rejects what Boaventura de Sousa Santos calls the “epistemological fascism”26 that promotes “monopol[ies]”27 and “monoculture[s]”28 of knowledge. It attends instead to the “intricate interrelationships” that produce intertwined bodies of knowledge—relationships appearing among individuals, artefacts, organizations, and environments,29 and at the level of labs, subfields, disciplines, colleges, and the academy itself, especially in its contemporary Western guise. As such, rather than analyzing isolates, an ecological perspective focuses on a network of connections, a web of interdependencies, and circulations of exchange. It does so for the purpose of enhancing a plurality of knowledges and knowledge-production practices across sociocultural and historical locales. It therefore preserves bio-, cultural, and epistemic diversity in the knowledge enterprise,30 often doing so expressly in the service of “social” and “cognitive justice.”31 Some locate this justice in the democracy of ideas that can result from deconstructing academic silos and intellectual monocultures.32 Others insist that ideal knowledge-formations be evaluated not for their bald equality but rather for their pragmatic efficacy33 in “guarantee[ing] the greatest level of participation” by relevant stakeholders.34
For a number of reasons, an ecology-of-knowledge approach provides an ideal framework for the new field of curiosity studies. On the one hand, this framework reflects the kinesthetic signature of curiosity itself. If anything, curiosity is inherently dynamic and expansive, jumping from one sphere of inquiry to another, one detail or vantage point to another. Much like curiosity, an ecology-of-knowledge approach moves brazenly across boundaries, irrespective of established conceptual, architectural, and disciplinary norms. On the other hand, such a framework also pushes the study of curiosity to better track the kinesthetic signature of curiosity writ large. That is, it equips scholars to study curiosity curiously. Rather than succumbing to parochial border wars and aspirations to disciplinary purity, an ecological study of curiosity is capable of perceiving, appreciating, and perturbing as-yet-unimaginable connections and crosscurrents of inquiry.
From a knowledge-ecology perspective, the study of curiosity must honor the material and discursive enmeshments of both the science and social practice of curiosity. At the very least, this requires rooting curiosity studies in political and cross-disciplinary accounts. First, it must refuse the common presumption that curiosity is an ahistorical, value-neutral human capacity. Instead, it must acknowledge the historical matrices—and the clash of social values—in which curiosity has been conceived and mobilized, reproduced or revolutionized. It needs to account for what today’s curiosity has inherited and what it has occluded. It needs to ask: Who can be curious, within what contexts, why, and how? For whom is curiosity valorized? How have different functions of curiosity been historically gendered and racialized? Why are Western modalities of curiosity valued over their non-Western correlates? For that matter, what does it mean for Obama to claim curiosity as an American value or for journalists to claim that Trump is dangerously incurious? And what is at stake in reserving curiosity for the human, rather than acknowledging it in animal, vegetal, computational, or extraterrestrial contexts? In asking precisely these sociopolitical questions and more, the present volume positions curiosity studies beyond the traditional anthropocentric, Enlightenment frameworks that continue to haunt much of our scholarly discourses.
Second, an ecologically informed curiosity studies must refuse the common assumption that curiosity is a monadic unit, accessible by any one method of analysis. This means curiosity studies must not locate the proper study of curiosity exclusively in the hard sciences, but in fact reject the onto-epistemological division between the human, social, and natural sciences. Instead, it must nurture computational and behavioral perspectives alongside decolonial and feminist theoretical approaches. In fact, curiosity studies requires interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary modes of inquiry. Interdisciplinary work on curiosity combines discrete concepts, theories, or methods from different disciplines in order to develop a unique scholarly contribution. Transdisciplinary work on curiosity goes even further. Capitalizing on the multiple resonances and tensions in the word “trans”—the transitive and transversal, the transient and transitional, and the transgressive—transdisciplinary analyses not only crisscross disciplinary norms and positions but condition a rich differentiation of concepts, court prescient if impermanent perspectives, precondition paradigm shifts, and politicize the everyday. As such, these analyses recontour the terrain across which curiosity can be explored. Indeed, insofar as curiosity challenges sociodisciplinary boundaries, an ecologically oriented curiosity studies must work in a space liminal to existing fields.
The ecological approach foregrounds the interdeterminacy, contingency, and heterogeneity of knowledge production. Knowledge of curiosity exists in ecosystems, in which information, ideas, experiences, and embodiments cross-fertilize and feed one another. Our commitment to historicizing and politicizing the concept of curiosity, as well as staging interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary conversations, honors the epistemic ecologies that subtend the very possibility of curiosity studies. It is our hope that the new ecologies of curiosity to follow will be new in both a descriptive and a normative sense. That is, they will be as fresh intellectually as they are forward-looking politically.
Science, Education, Relationships, and Change
If one were to think of important contributions to the study of curiosity today, one might think of work done in history or literature, in psychology or neuroscience. One might turn, for example, to Neil Kenny’s Curiosity in Early Modern Europe: Word Histories, to Hilary Schor’s Curious Subjects: Women and the Trials of Realism, or to empirical studies by Min Jeong Kang or Charan Ranganath. Rather than focus on isolated contributions from distinct fields, however, we have chosen, in Curiosity Studies, to analyze elements of curiosity that have been problematized across disciplinary vectors and historical terrains. We focus specifically on curiosity’s role in scientific inquiry, educational practice, social relations, and the power of transformation. By clustering chapters around these themes, Curiosity Studies builds on contemporary scholarship and pushes a series of material, multiscalar, and political analyses in fresh, new directions.
Curiosity—as a desire to see, to understand, and to know—is perhaps most consistently and richly considered in relationship to the sciences, broadly construed. As historians of science such as Sander Bais, Philip Ball, and Roger Wagner put it,35 science is fueled by curiosity, a curiosity for which “nothing [is] too trivial or obscure.”36 And yet the capaciousness of curiosity paradoxically produces its own constraints. The history of science is, if nothing else, one of interminable struggle between forces that liberate curiosity and forces that discipline and direct it. What is more, the very practice of curiosity at once transgresses physical and conceptual boundaries37 and (re)constructs them. This can be seen not only in bioethical debates over biotechnologies but also across the literature on curiosity, travel, and collections. On the heels of the medieval curiosi,38 for example, who traveled in search of secular knowledge, rose the modern ars apodemica (or art of traveling) not only for anthropological and geographical information gathering39 but also for cultural exploration and ultimately colonization, imperialism, and globalization.40 Such curious travel resulted in collections of curiosities, which slowly symbolized the advancement of scientific knowledge.41 These collections often included books (especially dictionaries),42 but were also interpreted through books,43 which constructed simultaneously the modern liberal subject of Enlightenment rationality and the paradoxically exotic, mystical, and primitive Orient.44 The curiosity at work in the scientific enterprise thus has a propensity for but also produces the forbidden.45 And all of this is determined by political structures and sociocultural values, as well as determinative of those same structures and values.
Curiosity—as a prompt to learning, growth, and exploration—is also commonly analyzed in scholarship on education.46 This effort to map the inquiring mind relies in great part on the pragmatist philosophy of William James and John Dewey, for whom curiosity is a natural “impulse,”47 an “expression of an abundant organic energy”48 that, while shared among all creatures, becomes uniquely human insofar as it serves sophisticated cognition and higher-order problem solving. Developing through behavioral psychology and neuroscience—across thinkers such as Daniel Berlyne, Harry Fowler, George Lowenstein, Charles Spielberger and Laura Starr, Jacqueline Gottlieb, and Celeste Kidd49—curiosity has been defined and measured in relation to interest, motivation, attention, arousal, anxiety, and creativity. Much of this tradition assumes a universal human subject and simplified manifestations of curiosity: for example, raising a hand, turning an eye, asking a question, or expressing interest in trivia. Some such studies have historically given rise to troublesome claims that, for example, female students are less curious than their male counterparts because they raise their hands less often.50 As a corrective, it is important not only to analyze the changing morphology of curiosity across childhood development and adulthood, as Susan Engel and Todd Kashdan do,51 but also to account for the effects of social inequalities on the practice and perception of curiosity. Scholars might take inspiration from radical pedagogue Paulo Freire, for whom curiosity, as a “restless questioning,” equips people not only “to produce something together” but to “resist together.”52 Accounting for curiosity as a sociopolitical practice of resistance involves diversifying not only the methods and modes of inquiry but how those modes are identified and valued.53
Curiosity—as an interest in the new, the foreign, and the forbidden—has long had a bearing on the interpretation of cultural differences and the structure of social inequalities. While some scholarship has diagnosed curiosity’s complicity in exoticization and orientalism, especially through colonial travel and imperial collections,54 most scholarship in this vein has centered on women, both as subjects and objects of curiosity. In early modern Europe, just as curiosity is being retooled into its rational, disciplined, and masculine guise, its more uncouth elements—gossip, distraction, transgression—are transferred to a new conceptual domicile: female and/or feminine curiosity. As Barbara Benedict, Neil Kenny, and Line Cottegnies et al. demonstrate, albeit in different respects, such curiosity—taken to signal sexual, cultural, and intellectual ambition—was perceived as impertinent and punishable.55 The winds turn a bit with the development of the modern realist novel, whose heroine’s practice of curiosity helped construct the modern feminist subject.56 Indeed, Laura Mulvey and Cynthia Enloe have since developed an account of an expressly feminist curiosity, which involves women taking themselves as their own subjects and objects of curiosity.57 Insofar as curiosity is never abstracted from social life, its practice either supports or challenges the reigning forms of knowledge production (and, in our case, the primacy of a white, Eurocentric, cis-male discourse). Whether it polarizes the abled and disabled communities, a la Rosemarie Garland-Thomson,58 or reduces polarization across racial difference, a la Narendra Keval,59 curiosity can entrench or invert sociopolitical hierarchies.
Finally, curiosity—as a drive to transgress, to refuse, and to create—is sometimes considered in relation to social change and transformation. From early myths of Eve and Pandora, Prometheus and Odysseus, curiosity is inherently disobedient, crossing boundaries and borders in its furious press toward the end of the world and beyond. It was Friedrich Nietzsche who memorably insisted that “the great liberation” would one day be characterized by a “vehement, dangerous curiosity.”60 As adventurous as it is insubordinate,61 curiosity is, for Michel Foucault, “a certain determination to throw off familiar ways of thought and to look at the same things in a different way.”62 This is not only an irreverence for common concepts or mores but a commitment to the struggle, a la Freire, for freedom for all. Such a task involves deconstructing the status quo,63 pitting a curiosity of resistance against an institutionalized system of meaning-making and meaning-building. Sometimes, it involves setting curiosities at war.64 Today our era is marked, Helga Nowotny argues, by the “taming” or “domestication” of curiosity in a neoliberal academy, which subjects the progress of science to the privatization and propertization of a market economy.65 And yet, it is precisely today that we need a wild, unbroken curiosity. We need, in Anna Tsing’s words, a “radical curiosity” about “multispecies worlds,”66 one that notices what has gone unnoticed, what has fallen outside the frame of our epistemic and material values. This is “the first requirement,” she insists, “of collaborative survival in precarious times.”67 How, indeed, might we harness the power of curiosity for change?
Contributions to the Conversation
Curiosity Studies first formalizes and then contributes to these ongoing conversations. It does so by staging—across its four parts—cross-disciplinary investigations into curiosity’s increasingly complicated role in the processes of knowing, learning, relating, and changing.
In Part I, “Interrogating the Scientific Enterprise,” authors explore the promise and limits of scientific inquiry and method, from its modern inception to its future life. Seeta Sistla, in “Exploring the Costs of Curiosity: An Environmental Scientist’s Dilemma,” opens with a clarion call to reassess our overreliance on resource-demanding technologies in scientific research. Against an environmentally irresponsible curiosity, she challenges us to refashion our curiosity in concert with Earth’s ecologies. As if in response, Heather Anne Swanson, in “Curious Ecologies of Knowledge: More-Than-Human Anthropology,” argues that traditional methodologies have to be reimagined if natural and social scientists are to be responsive to and responsible for a more-than-human world. She specifically proposes a multispecies anthropology that relinquishes curiosity-about and embraces curiosity-with. Likewise, Ellen K. Feder, in “Curiosity, Ethics, and the Medical Management of Intersex Anatomies,” insists that, while an objectifying medico-scientific curiosity has, on the whole, caused irreparable harm to the intersex community, there is another form of curiosity—modeled by some doctors and intersex people themselves—that facilitates understanding, respect, and care. This first section significantly complicates the simple celebration of scientific curiosity on new twenty-first-century fronts, insisting on greater ecological awareness, self-reflexivity, and participatory research protocols.
In Part II, “Relearning How We Learn,” authors explore recent advances in our understanding of the contours of curiosity in human learning. Danielle S. Bassett, in “A Network Science of the Practice of Curiosity,” offers a novel theory of curiosity as a practice of building knowledge networks, a practice traceable in neural connectivity patterns as well as evident in linguistic behaviors. This work promises to enhance education and work settings, where greater facilitation of such patterns and behaviors is required. For Susan Engel, in “Why Should This Be So? The Waxing and Waning of Children’s Curiosity,” any encouragement of curiosity in educational settings needs to account for the developmental changes in children’s curiosity—and presumably adults’ curiosity—across time. This task is frustrated, however, by schools and colleges in which certain forms of curiosity are celebrated over others. Taking equal inspiration from aesthetic theory and The Big Lebowski, Tyson E. Lewis, in “The Dude Abides, or Why Curiosity is Important for Education Today,” for example, argues that real curiosity is not actually serious at all but involves an atypical, “distracted” learning style that, although commonly disciplined and punished, should be encouraged in all of our classrooms and among our students. Last, Arjun Shankar, in “‘The Campus Is Sick’: Capitalist Curiosity and Student Mental Health,” turns to diagnose the plight of curiosity in U.S. higher education. After exploring the affective costs of an overdetermined, ruthlessly pragmatic, neoliberal curiosity, he suggests that a return to a deinstrumentalized and open curiosity that is squarely situated in a student’s desire for knowledge is crucial to student mental health. This section clearly pushes discussions of curiosity and education into important new terrains.
In Part III, “Reimagining How We Relate,” authors investigate the centrality of curiosity both to the tensions that divide communities—whether over race, ethnicity, gender, or disability—and to the attentions that can heal them. Kristina T. Johnson, in “Autism, Neurodiversity, and Curiosity,” opens the cluster by insisting that curiosity studies needs to get more curious about neuroatypical individuals and their curiosity. For Johnson, recognizing curiosity in autistic children, for example, requires entirely new research designs capable of formalizing the neural and motor movement coincident with autistic children’s “affinities,” or special interests. In a related argument, Narendra Keval, in “Obstacles to Curiosity and Concern: Exploring the Racist Imagination,” argues it is precisely curiosity that can disarm racist states of mind and reopen the psyche to our shared humanity, even our shared curiosity. Analyzing aesthetic productions of latinidad, Christina León, in “Curious Entanglements: Opacity and Ethical Relation in Latina/o Aesthetics,” shows that such a radical curiosity (rather than a racist, stereotyping one) is ready to sit with uncertainty and unknowing. In doing so, she argues, curiosity can initiate real relationality across the most intransigent differences. Finally, Amy Marvin, in “Transsexuality, the Curio, and the Transgender Tipping Point,” after warning that recent media attention has functioned to “curiotize” trans people, reducing them to merely the objects of public curiosity, recommends another sort of curiosity—a reopening one—that instead honors trans experience in all its social and historical complexity. This section highlights the importance of engaging and recognizing curiosity responsibly across our human differences.
In Part IV, “Deconstructing the Status Quo,” authors reflect on the radical potential and continued promise of curiosity. Barbara M. Benedict, in “Peeping and Transgression: Curiosity and Collecting in English Literature,” explains how curiosity can represent simultaneously the promise of freedom and the threat of danger by locating curiosity in the transgressive: the transgressive phenomena that provoke inquiry and the transgressive character of that inquiry itself. Perry Zurn, in “Curiosity and Political Resistance,” then analyzes curiosity as a force of social transformation through political resistance. He does so by investigating the conditions of creative exploration, especially among marginalized groups, and the forces that frustrate that exploration. Hilary M. Schor, in “Curiosity at the End of the World: Women, Fiction, Electricity,” then turns to think about the future. If, as she suggests, the novel is the modern curiosity-cabinet—or that story is the genre of curiosity par excellence—it will be curious storytelling that equips us to function within a palimpsest of cultures as we press on toward the end of the world. This final section, then, at once affirms and deepens our hope for curiosity today.
Finally, in the Conclusion, “On Teaching Curiosity,” we as editors return to discuss both the rationale and the methods for teaching this ambivalent, complex, and multiscalar phenomenon called curiosity. We draw out the tensions between teaching curiosity as subject matter, as pedagogical approach, and as an inspiration for research. Furthermore, we explore precisely how these newly invigorated conversations around curiosity’s role in science, education, relationships, and change may not only transform our classrooms but also our ways of being together in the world. In doing so we aim to encourage not only traditional and nontraditional students—but really everyone—to develop their capacities to conscientiously deploy radical curiosity on an everyday basis, in their everyday lives.
Historically, the study of curiosity has been responsive to and yet ultimately unequal to the task of quantifying and qualifying curiosity in its distinctive manifestations and across different milieus. This is perhaps inescapable, reflecting an admixture of human finitude and fallibility. Today, although we are equipped as never before to assess the shifting parameters of curiosity and the inherited or newly acquired delimitations of our understanding, the technologization of knowledge has introduced a fundamental anachronism in that pursuit. What we are curious about, with whom, and how we pursue that curiosity is changing faster than ever before. In this vein and insofar as curiosity precisely clambers after the unknown, it is important to recognize that the very future of curiosity studies should be as yet unimaginable and therefore indeterminable. Nevertheless, it is possible to peer just over the horizon of our present context and location, to correct for currently identifiable limitations, and to risk a wager on new frontiers in the study of curiosity.
It is perhaps appropriate in a U.S. context to begin with the recognition that indigenous curiosity has been and continues to be suppressed, despite the efforts of some exemplary practitioners—for example, Sandy Grande, Erica Violet Lee, Robin Wall Kimmerer, and Kyle Whyte. In this context, curiosity studies ought to develop in tandem with decolonial feminist science studies. Turning from the local to the global, it is imperative that greater attention be paid to non-Western histories of and approaches to curiosity.68 Might, for example, the turn to mindfulness be a turn to a new series of curious practices? The pedagogical implications of “Eastern” philosophies, alongside developments in network neuroscience and the recognition of neuroatypical expressions of curiosity, have the potential to significantly transform educational norms. In a digital age, it is also critical to account for how human–computer interaction and artificial intelligence69—let alone revolutions in social media—refashion the terrain of curiosity. Cross-cultural analyses of curiosity are also sorely lacking, as are concerted efforts to understand the role of curiosity in religious beliefs and practices (e.g., prayer, meditation, fellowship).70 Moreover, as antidote to the immense attention paid to children’s curiosity, it is important to inquire into curiosity across the lifespan, especially among the aging. Finally, in an increasingly polarized, war-torn, disease-ridden, and environmentally devastated world, we need to ask what curiosity’s role might be in peacebuilding for sustainable futures.
Curiosity Studies is a groundbreaking book about the nature, promise, and pitfalls of curiosity in the twenty-first century. It is radically imaginative and full of unexpected twists and turns. Its insights are as invigorating as they are haunting. We invite readers to approach the text quizzically. Maintain a mind flexible enough to follow the trail of ideas, to leap between writing styles, and to hazard a mélange of methodologies. Keep a hawk’s-eye out for the multiplicity of curiosity, the way it resurfaces in a network of practices. And stay alive to its social investments and political potential. Take up the quest of curiosity bravely. And let Curiosity Studies be just one stop along the way, one moment in a long journey of exploration and transformation.
While we here acknowledge our location as U.S. scholars, we later interrogate the U.S.-centrism so common in the study of curiosity.
Barack Obama, “Inaugural Address,” Grant Park, Chicago: January 20, 2009.
See, for example, Sarah Vowell, “The Danger of an Incurious President,” New York Times, August 9, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/09/opinion/trump-fire-fury-north-korea.html.
See, for example, Perry Zurn, “Busybody, Hunter, Dancer: Three Historical Models of Curiosity,” in Toward New Philosophical Explorations of the Epistemic Desire to Know: Just Curious about Curiosity, ed. Marianna Papastephanou (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2019), 26–49.
To our knowledge, the only comparable text is the anthology La curiosité: Vestiges du savoir, edited by Nicole Czechowski (Paris: Autrement, 1993). Where La curiosité relies most heavily on the humanities, however, Curiosity Studies canvasses a broader and more balanced array of disciplines to collate twenty-first-century discussions. There are also more circumscribed collections that, while interdisciplinary, nevertheless focus on field hubs relevant to their topics—e.g., Nicole Jacques-Chaquin and Sophie Houdard, eds., Curiosité et libido sciendi de la Renaissance aux lumières (Paris: ENS Editions, 1998); Line Cottegnies, Sandrine Parageau, and John J. Thompson, eds., Women and Curiosity in Early Modern England and France (Boston: Brill, 2016); Ilhan Inan et al., eds., The Moral Psychology of Curiosity (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2018); Goren Gordon, ed., The New Science of Curiosity (New York: Nova, 2018); and Marianna Papastephanou, ed., Toward New Philosophical Explorations of the Epistemic Desire to Know: Just Curious about Curiosity (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2019).
For the most extensive philosophical history of curiosity to date, see Hans Blumenberg, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, trans. Robert M. Wallace (1966; Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1983), part 3.
Matthew Leigh, From Polypragmon to Curiosus: Ancient Concepts of Curious and Meddlesome Behavior (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).
Seneca, Naturales Questiones (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1972), 1.12.
Plutarch, “On Being a Busybody,” in Moralia VI (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2005), 515d.
Aristotle, Politics (Cambridge, Mass.: Loeb Classical Library, 1932), 126.96.36.1999b.
Plato, The Republic (Cambridge, Mass.: Loeb Classical Library, 2013), 4.444b.
Augustine, The Confessions (Cambridge, Mass.: Loeb Classical Library, 2014), 10.35.
Augustine, “De utilitate credendi,” in Augustine: Earlier Writings, trans. J. H. S. Burleigh (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1953).
Isidore of Seville, De summo bono, Latin edition (Nabu Press, 2011), 2.37; Gregory the Great, Moralia (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 2014), 31.45.88.
Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologica (1274; New York: Benziger Brothers, 1947–48), 188.8.131.52–2.
Bernard of Clairvaux, The Rule of St. Benedict (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 2018), c7.
See Christian Zacher, Curiosity and Pilgrimage: The Literature of Discovery in Fourteenth-Century England (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), chapter 4.
René Descartes, “The Search for Truth,” in The Philosophical Writings of Descartes II, trans. John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, and Dugald Murdoch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 400–420.
Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. Edwin Curley (1651; Indianapolis: Hackett Press, 1994), 11.24–25.
David Hume, A Treatise on Human Nature (1739; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 2.3.10.
John Locke, Some Thoughts Concerning Education, ed. John William Adamson (1693; New York: Dover, 2007), §118.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile, or On Education, trans. Allan Bloom (1762; New York: Basic Books: 1979), 167.
Charles E. Rosenberg, “Towards an Ecology of Knowledge: Discipline, Context, and History,” in The Organization of Knowledge in Modern America, 1860–1920, ed. Alexandra Oleson and John Voss (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979), 440–55. An even earlier iteration, “ecology of ideas,” was developed by Gregory Bateson in Steps to an Ecology of Mind (New York: Chandler, 1972).
Atsushi Akera, “Constructing a Representation for an Ecology of Knowledge: Methodological Advances in the Integration of Knowledge and Its Various Contexts,” Social Studies of Science 37, no. 3 (2007): 418; Peter J. Taylor, “Mapping Ecologists’ Ecologies of Knowledge,” PSA: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association 2 (1990): 97.
For a metaphorical interpretation, see Atsushi Akera, “The Circulation of Knowledge, Institutional Ecologies, and the History of Computing,” IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 26, no. 3 (2004): 86–88. For an analogical interpretation, see Susan Leigh Star, Ecologies of Knowledge: Work and Politics in Science and Technology (New York: State University of New York Press, 1995).
Boaventura de Sousa Santos, “A Non-Occidentalist West? Learned Ignorance and Ecology of Knowledge,” Theory, Culture and Society 26, nos. 7–8 (2009): 117.
Boaventura de Sousa Santos, “Beyond Abyssal Thinking: From Global Lines to Ecologies of Knowledge,” Review 30, no. 1 (2007): 69.
de Sousa Santos, “Beyond Abyssal Thinking,” 76; Daniel Coleman, “Toward an Indigenist Ecology of Knowledges for Canadian Literary Studies,” Studies in Canadian Literature 37, no. 2 (2012): 5–31; Silvia Elisabeth Moraes and Ludmila de Almeida Freire, “The University Curriculum and the Ecology of Knowledges towards Building a Planetary Citizenship,” Transnational Curriculum Inquiry 13, no. 1 (2016): 39.
Eve Mitleton-Kelly, “Organisation as Co-evolving Complex Adaptive Systems” (lecture, British Academy of Management Conference, September 8–12, 1997, London, UK).
Kay Milton, “Ecologies: Anthropology, Culture, and the Environment,” International Social Science Journal 49, no. 154 (1997): 494; de Sousa Santos, “Beyond Abyssal Thinking,” 67.
De Sousa Santos, “Beyond Abyssal Thinking,” 69; de Sousa Santos, “A Non-Occidentalist West?,” 117; Boaventura de Sousa Santos, Epistemologies of the South: Justice against Epistemicide (New York: Routledge, 2016), 13.
Star, “Introduction,” in Ecologies of Knowledge, 27; Moraes and de Almeida Freire, “The University Curriculum,” 52.
Milton, “Ecologies: Anthropology, Culture, and the Environment,” 494; de Sousa Santos, “Beyond Abyssal Thinking,” 72.
de Sousa Santos, “Beyond Abyssal Thinking,” 73.
Sander Bais, In Praise of Science: Curiosity, Understanding, and Progress (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2010); Philip Ball, Curiosity: How Science Became Interested in Everything (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012); Roger Wagner, The Penultimate Curiosity: How Science Swims in the Slipstream of Ultimate Questions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).
Ball, Curiosity, vii.
See, for example, Daniel Gade, Curiosity, Inquiry, and the Geographical Imagination (New York: Peter Lang, 2011).
Zacher, Curiosity and Pilgrimage.
Justin Stagl, A History of Curiosity: The Theory of Travel, 1550–1800 (Poststrasse, Sw.: Harwood Academic, 1995).
Nigel Leask, Curiosity and the Aesthetics of Travel Writing, 1770–1840 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).
Krzysztof Pomian, Collectors and Curiosities: Paris and Venice, 1500–1800 (Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press, 1990).
John Considine, Small Dictionaries and Curiosity: Lexicography and Fieldwork in Post-Medieval Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).
Marjorie Swann, Curiosities and Texts: The Culture of Collecting in Early Modern Europe (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001).
David L. Martin, Curious Visions of Modernity: Enchantment, Magic, and the Sacred (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2011).
Roger Shattuck, Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography (New York: Harcourt, 1996).
See, for example, Arjun Shankar and Mariam Durrani, “Curiosity and Education: A White Paper” (Center for Curiosity, New York, 2013), accessed July 27, 2018. http://centerforcuriosity.com/wp-content/uploads/bsk-pdf-manager/WhitePaper-CuriosityandEducation__2.pdf.
William James, Talks to Teachers on Psychology and to Students on Some of Life’s Ideals (1899; New York: Dover, 2001), 24; cf. Ross Posnock, The Trial of Curiosity: Henry James, William James, and the Challenge of Modernity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991).
John Dewey, How We Think (New York: Dover, 1997), 31.
Daniel Berlyne, Conflict, Arousal, and Curiosity (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1960); Harry Fowler, Curiosity and Exploratory Behavior (New York: Macmillan, 1965); George Lowenstein, “The Psychology of Curiosity: A Review and Reinterpretation,” Psychological Bulletin 116 (1994): 75–98; Charles Spielberger and Laura Starr, “Curiosity and Exploratory Behavior,” in Motivation: Theory and Research, ed. Harold O’Neal Jr. and Michael Drillings (New York: Routledge, 2009), 221–44; Celeste Kidd and Benjamin Y. Hayden, “The Psychology of Neuroscience,” Neuron 88, no. 3 (2015): 449–60.
See, for example, Hasida Ben-Zurn and Moshe Zeidner, “Sex Differences in Anxiety, Curiosity, and Anger: A Cross-Cultural Study,” Sex Roles 19, nos. 5–6 (1988): 335–46; Ruth A. Peters, “Effects of Anxiety, Curiosity, and Perceived Instructor Threat on Student Verbal Behavior in the College Classroom,” Journal of Educational Psychology 70, no. 3 (1978): 388–95.
Susan Engel, The Hungry Mind: The Origins of Curiosity in Childhood (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2015); Todd Kashdan et al., “The Five-Dimensional Curiosity Scale: Capturing the Bandwidth of Curiosity and Identifying Four Unique Subgroups of Curious People,” Journal of Research in Personality 73 (2018): 130–49.
Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of Freedom: Ethics, Democracy, and Civic Courage (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2001), 37, 69. See also the commentary by Tyson Lewis, The Aesthetics of Education: Theatre, Curiosity, and Politics in the Work of Jacques Rancière and Paulo Freire (London: Bloomsbury, 2012).
See, for example, Arjun Shankar, “Listening to Images, Participatory Pedagogy, and Anthropological (Re-)Inventions,” American Anthropologist 121, no. 1 (2019): 229–42.
Leask, Curiosity; Martin, Curious Visions of Modernity.
Barbara Benedict, Curiosity: A Cultural History of Early Modern Inquiry (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), chapter 3; Neil Kenny, The Use of Curiosity in Early Modern France and Germany (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), parts 4 and 5; Cottegnies, Parageau, and Thompson, Women and Curiosity.
Hilary Schor, Curious Subjects: Women and the Trials of Realism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).
Laura Mulvey, “Pandora’s Box: Topographies of Curiosity,” in Fetishism and Curiosity (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996), 53–64; Cynthia Enloe, The Curious Feminist: Searching for Women in a New Age of Empire (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004).
Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Staring: How We Look (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).
Narendra Keval, Racist States of Mind: Understanding the Perversion of Curiosity and Concern (London: Karnac, 2016).
Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human, trans. R. J. Hollingdale (1878, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), preface to part 1, §3.
For an unsustainable distinction between a masculine, adventurous curiosity and a feminine, disobedient curiosity, see Victoria Reid, André Gide and Curiosity (New York: Rodopi, 2009).
Michel Foucault, “The Masked Philosopher,” in Ethics, Subjectivity, Truth (1980; New York: New Press, 1997), 325.
Perry Zurn, “The Curiosity at Work in Deconstruction,” Journal of French and Francophone Philosophy 26, no. 1 (2018): 65–87.
Perry Zurn, “Curiosities at War: The Police and Prison Resistance after May ’68,” Modern and Contemporary France 26, no. 2 (2018): 179–91.
Helga Nowotny, Insatiable Curiosity: Innovation in a Fragile Future, trans. Mitch Cohen (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2008).
Anna Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2015), 144, 281.
This might include Kunimasa Sato, “Socratic Examplars: Considering the Traditional Japanese Idea of Exemplars in Learning,” in The Moral Psychology of Curiosity, ed. Inan et al.; Ian James Kidd, “Asking the Right Questions? Confucian Curiosity and Moral Self-Cultivation,” in The Moral Psychology of Curiosity, ed. Inan et al.; and Rāmapratāpa Vedālankāra, Camatkāravicāracarcā (Hośyārapuram, Pañjāba: Viśveśvarānanda-Vaidika-Śodha-Samsthānam, 2004), a text on the concept of curiosity in Sanskrit poems.
Pierre-Yves Oudeyer, Jacqueline Gottlieb, and Manuel Lopes, “Intrinsic Motivation, Curiosity, and Learning: Theory and Applications in Educational Technologies,” Progress in Brain Research 229 (2016): 257–84.
See, for example, Tanya Luhrmann’s “Spiritual Curiosity and the Experience of God,” Templeton Grant, https://www.templeton.org/grant/spiritual-curiosity-and-the-experience-of-god.