Thursday, January 17, 2008

Elias Baumgarten: "Curiosity as a Moral Virtue"

Enemy of Curiosity?
(Image from Wikipedia)

Two days ago, I looked at Thomas D. Kennedy's views on 'Idle' Curiosity, which seemed to be the only kind of curiosity that he recognized -- curiosity as a sort of inattentive distraction from important things. As such, Kennedy stands squarely within the Augustinian tradition in its rejection of curiosity as a vice.

Ours is not an age to receive such curious criticism equably, so the critique likely touches a sensitive point and at least for that reason merits our attention. Let us therefore consider the words of Bernard of Clairvaux, quoted by Kennedy, criticizing curiosity:
The curious person spends much time pasturing these [sinful, hence 'goatlike', eyes and ears] when he does not care to know in what condition he has left himself within. And truly, O man, if you concentrate hard on the state you are in it will be surprising if you have time for anything else. Hear what Solomon says, curious man. Hear, foolish man, what Wisdom says. "Guard your heart with all your might." (Prov. 4:23), so that all your senses may be alert to protect the source of life. (Thomas D. Kennedy, "Curiosity and the Integrated Self: A Postmodern Vice," Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture 4.4 (2001) page 46, citing Bernard of Clairvaux, Selected Works, trans. G. R. Evans (New York: Paulist Press, 1987), 123-24.)
Bernard understands curiosity much as Augustine did some 700 years earlier: it means meddlesomeness. A curious person is meddlesome, the sort of nosy individual who's forever looking into other people's business and then gossiping about it in a manner likely to engage the curiosity of others.

Well, nobody truly likes a busybody, so if curiosity means nosiness, then it's certainly a bad thing.

Kennedy therefore counsels us to restrain our curiosity by focusing attentively upon God . . . and, interestingly, upon the world:
To love as God loves, that is the goal of Christians, but so to love requires a self and an attentiveness to God and the world difficult to come by in our noisy times. Curiosity trades upon our delight in the riches of creation and demands that we abandon careful attention to the world present to us for the sake of thrill around the corner. It is a subtle vice, its tentacles hard to notice. If curiosity kills cats, it but wounds us, though wounds us deeply, perhaps imperceptibly. But we can learn to love, can learn to study God and God's creation, can learn attentiveness. To that end, a return to our quiet rooms may be both the beginning and end of wisdom and delight. (Kennedy, page 53)
Note that Kennedy maintains that "[c]uriosity . . . demands that we abandon careful attention to the world" (italics mine). And the Bernard quote cited previously insists that "[t]he curious person . . . does not care to know in what condition he has left himself within" (italics mine). Kennedy, following Bernard and placing himself within the Augustinian tradition, holds that curiosity has no genuine care for the objects of its inattentive gaze.

This is a curious point, as we shall see by looking at a passage from another article on curiosity published at the same time as Kennedy's article, both of them in the autumn of 2001. The following passage comes from Elias Baumgarten:
An important feature of curiosity is its fecundity: it tends to lead to other virtues. The virtue of curiosity does not depend on its leading to other virtues, but its having this instrumental value is morally significant. Curiosity bears a close relationship to, and is often bound up with, care and concern. Curiosity is rooted linguistically in the other-regarding activities of "care" and "cure" (from the Latin cūrāre, to take care of). We use the same term, "indifference" to describe both a lack of interest in other persons or things and a lack of concern about their welfare. For one to overcome indifference and be curious about something does not conceptually imply that one will also care about its welfare, but there is often a close relationship. In this section I will explore the connection between curiosity and care or concern in our relationships both with other people and with the non-human world, and I will also try to distinguish curiosity from several closely related character traits. (Elias Baumgarten, "Curiosity as a Moral Virtue," International Journal of Applied Philosophy, Volume 15, Number 2 (Fall 2001), part 2, paragraph one)
Kennedy and Baumgarten, though at odds over curiosity, perhaps know nothing of one another's work. Nevertheless, what we have here is a failure to communicate, foundered upon radically differing views of what "curiosity" means. Kennedy draws upon a tradition in which "curiosity" had come to imply a superficial concern with inessential matters, a meaning established by the the term's use. Baumgarten draws instead upon the sense of the word "curiosity" established by its Latin origin in cūrāre, "to take care of," a meaning established by the term's etymology.
But who is correct, Kennedy or Baumgarten? In a narrow sense, both are right if one can stipulate what a word means for the purposes of one's argument. In a larger sense, they're both right in that the term "curiosity" has both negative and positive meanings, depending upon the tradition to which one appeals -- a strong Medieval tradition denigrates curiosity, but an equally strong Modern tradition extolls it.

I'm latitudinarian enough to accept both views so long as they're working with different meanings of the same word, insofar as they're not talking about the same thing. As such, we would need merely to add, for example, the qualifier "idle" or "attentive" to the noun "curiosity" to know which view we're talking about.

The issue, however, is not quite that simple, for what if they're actually talking about exactly the same activity but evaluating it differently? Augustine, for instance, confessed that his curiosity misled him into watching a spider capture flies within its web instead of focusing upon the state of his soul on its journey toward God. Yet, precisely that curious attention to the details of this world, and to many things other than God and our souls, results in the fruits of science and technology as well as the knowledge of many other fascinating things.

Personally, I find Baumgarten's article more rich in insights, for it leads to connections that I hadn't previously thought about, so I'd recommend it for those curious about curiosity (though I wouldn't neglect Kennedy either).

I also find curious an incidental, even accidental connection in the timing of the two articles' publication. In a number of blog entries, I have investigated the concept of a voluntarist deity, a radically absolutist God unrestrained by reason or ethics and, arguably, intolerant of our curiosity. Hans Blumenberg argues that precisely this conception of God in one Medieval school of philosophy, i.e., nominalism, caused the Christian synthesis of faith and reason to fracture and that the Modern Age arose from those ruins through an act of human self-assertion legitimating theoretical curiosity and the Modern Age. Blumenberg doesn't make the process sound quite so heroic as that, but I'm summarizing, and moreover, times may now require intellectual heroism.

Kennedy and Baumgarten both published in the fall of 2001, and since that dire autumn, we have come to understand the very physical threat posed by the fiery thought in men's minds of a radically voluntarist deity, which strongly suggests that the debate about curiosity deserves our serious attention.

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