Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Thomas D. Kennedy on 'Idle' Curiosity

The Fragmented Postmodern Self?
...and that curious, onlooking cat...
(Image from criticarte.com)

As some readers will have noted, I've been exploring the status of "curiosity" in a number of relatively recent posts, beginning in November of last year, for a research project on "care" that Warren T. Reich has invited me to participate in.

The parameters of that project are large and expandable, so one central difficulty lies in keeping the research plan limited enough to be successfully undertaken. One area that Reich has asked me to look at is the role of curiosity in the emergence of the scientific revolution. Hans Blumenberg finds enormous significance in the process whereby curiosity came to be legitimated as a positive intellectual attitude and argues that this legitimation enabled the emergence of modern science and technology.

I've already gone into some of Blumenberg's reasoning, but deepening an understanding of his views is not my aim in this post. I do want to note, however, that he seems to have little sympathy for the Ancient and Medieval critiques of curiosity -- a point that's pretty obvious to anyone reading his study of theoretical curiosity's trial.

I note this because not everybody stands convinced that curiosity is a thoroughly good thing. Indeed, some continue to think of it as an intellectual vice. I've just read a critical article by the philosopher Thomas D. Kennedy (Valparaiso University), who argues that curiosity is an intellectual vice particularly characteristic of our Postmodern Age, an age so taken with overstimulation of the eyes and ears and sensations generally that it literally drives us to distraction, to inattention to a proper integration of our experiences into a integrated self.

Kennedy thus expresses sympathy for Augustine's critique directed toward "the lust of the eyes" and explains what he finds troubling about "idle curiosity":
What is problematic about curiosity, as [Josef] Pieper and such predecessors as Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Bernard of Clairvaux argue, is that curiosity both distracts us from proper attention to that to which we ought to be attending and disposes us to attend in the wrong sort of way whenever we do turn to that to which we ought to be attending. To repeat, the vice of curiosity both (a) interferes with the proper objects of attention and (b) the proper means of attention. Curiosity typically distracts us from attention to the right things. We look for the new sight, the next visual thrill. Mouse in hand, we surf from Web site to Web site, on the prowl for something a little faster, a little glitzier, than the last sight. And should we pause and attend to the right things, curiosity disposes us to attend in the wrong sort of way. Again, the curious person surfs the Web, thrilled by the look or the sound of a page without considering whether look or sound may interfere with the message of the page. Or, the curious person neglects the printed page for it does not thrill as the Web search does.

Curiosity, then, is a mental habit, a disposition to attend to the world in a particular way, that way consisting of a heightened sensitivity to and awareness of information and cognitive experiences that are mentally stimulating and thrilling. It is the habit of intellectual thrill-seeking, a fixed disposition to abandon understanding for the sake of the interesting, the novel, the superficially stimulating. (Thomas D. Kennedy, "Curiosity and the Integrated Self: A Postmodern Vice," Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, 4.4 (2001), pages 46-47)
For Kennedy, curiosity is synonymous with idle curiosity, a superficial attention to sensations, a lack of genuine care for understanding. Curiosity of this sort, of course, would have had little to contribute toward the development of modern science but would, rather, have acted as a distracting force.

Like Aquinas, Kennedy offers "studiousness" as the virtue to cultivate for an antidote to the vice of curiosity:
By contrast, those with the corresponding virtue of studiousness, the disposition to a guided and reflective pursuit of knowledge, a prudent attention to God, to the world and to oneself, will be disposed to see the world. That seeing requires a discipline of looking, of studying what is there to be seen and heard. One focuses, ignores the temptation of distracting sights and sounds, in order to get in touch with what is present to him or her. With respect to the moral life, that seeing calls for an awareness of who one is and a sensitivity to the relation between one's self-understanding and one's beliefs, feelings, and actions. In short, studiousness is a necessary condition for self-integration. (Kennedy, "Curiosity and the Integrated Self," page 49)
Kennedy stipulates that one's careful rather than curious attention to God, the world, and oneself should be "prudent." I wonder what this prudence consists in. Blumenberg might consider the Medieval thinker's focus upon God, to the exclusion of the world (and perhaps of oneself), imprudent. Prudence would advise an openness to new experiences as a crucial corrective to narrowmindedness. The extreme character of Augustine's critique directed toward curiosity would close one off to the world, as Blumenberg has rather brilliantly shown.

Yet, I understand what Kennedy -- and Augustine -- mean about idle curiosity being superficial, for the internet stands as an ever-present temptation threatening to distract me from my more serious studies. There's a moral struggle involved in not allowing myself to be idly distracted by You Tube and suddenly realize that an hour has slipped away.

I'd like to say that I've resolved this problem of the proper balance between curiosity and studiousness, but a resolution of that point will have to wait until greater insight on my part.

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At 7:47 AM, Blogger Hathor said...

Idle curiosity makes trial and error, sometime a leap in imagination. Occasionally science needs this.

I don't think getting absorbed in youtube is curiosity, but mere idleness, an escape, consciously designed to keep us off task.

At 8:01 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I agree with you about engaged curiosity, but idle curiosity? My sense is that the qualifier "idle" signifies that the curiosity is unserious, unthoughtful.

Augustine seems to have treated nearly all curiosity as idle in this sense, but some of what he writes could be reinterpreted and applied for analysis of the sort that Kennedy has done.

But I'm 'curious' about an engaged curiosity and its contribution to the scientific revolution.

Incidentally, I just wasted a few minutes on You Tube...

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:32 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It wasn't wasted. I am certain you applied your usual degree of studiousness to your viewing.


At 4:58 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

JK, how did you know that I habitually waste time?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well perhaps I was not correct. I didn't know you wasted time.

I did type, "I am certain you studiously applied your viewing."

But I'm not certain now. Both you and hathor mention a site I of course, am not familiar with, I'm just a cool cat and I know what kills cats. I have to say I'd be a simple cat but doggone Melbourne is cold just now.

I expect En-uk knows what long-handles are (I can recall busting ice out of pad-eyes off the Korean coast) I'd advise him to pack some?


At 9:20 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

JK, it was the "usual degree" that led me to think...

I'll send En-Uk out to bust ice tomorrow morning.

Jeffery Hodges

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