(From the A-Z Secrecy and Ignorance Series)
Curiosity, the desire to know or learn, or the ‘urge to explore unknown situations’ (Stagl, 2002: 2) is understood by Perry Zurn as an ‘individual, relational, and systems-level practice of connection’, that allows us to build ‘knowledge networks in our brains and across our societies’ (Zurn, 2022). Curiosity is therefore seen fundamentally as an instrument of human development and civilisation, the cornerstone of inquiry and innovation (Zurn and Shankar, 2020: xiv), and the ‘epistemic drive’ that motivates and organises knowledge production (Bineth, 2013: 119-121).
Within the white Western imaginary, curiosity occupies an important position, and one that is often gendered. The Greek mythological tale of Pandora’s Box sees death and evils untold, unleashed onto the world by idle curiosity. Biblical warnings of the folly of human curiosity feature in the stories of Lot’s wife who, defying God’s command out of curiosity, looks back and is transformed into a pillar of salt; or of Eve, unable to resist the fruit that would doom humankind for eternity. Yet these stories of curiosity-induced woe are associated with the ‘forbidden knowledge’ sought by a ‘transgressive and disruptive’ feminine curiosity (Zurn, 2021: 2), rather than the masculine curiosity to which the modern era’s definitive spirit of discovery, progress, and innovation has been credited.
Curiosity has therefore been variously regarded as both a virtue and a vice – subject always to the moral and epistemological ethos of the given era. Stefaan van Hooydonk of the Global Curiosity Institute reflects that while curiosity was largely celebrated by the Greeks and Romans, in the subsequent Christian era it was seen as a sinful diversion. ‘God fashioned hell for the inquisitive’, proclaimed St. Augustine at a time when the gatekeeping of knowledge and information was the preferred method of elite control over the ignorant masses (Zeegers and Barron, 2010).
Not until the Renaissance period and the decline of the Church’s monopoly on knowledge production was curiosity broadly accepted as a celebrated and respected scientific pursuit. Perhaps the greatest contribution of the Renaissance to the cultivation of a collective and egalitarian curiosity in the Western world was the invention of the printing press which facilitated the mass production and dissemination of knowledge to large and diverse audiences (Eisenstein, 1980). The following period of Enlightenment saw an increase in global travel and subsequently in the influence of other cultures on European societies, resulting in the expansion of intellectual curiosity into broader sections of society (Dolan, 2000).
In other words, curiosity is itself influenced and informed by the sociohistorical conditions in which it manifests (Bineth, 2013: 120), contributing to the institution and perpetuation of Western epistemic authority. Zurn and Shankar (2020: xvii), key founders of the interdisciplinary area of Curiosity Studies, therefore reject the idea of curiosity as an ‘ahistorical, value-neutral human capacity’ and confront the historically gendered and racialised functions of curiosity – challenging the inherited hierarchies which valorise ‘Western modalities of curiosity’ over non-Western forms. Both Zurn and Shankar and Bineth understand curiosity as a sociological phenomenon, the study of which is subject to the standards of academic rigour and reflexivity.
Overall, Zurn and Shankar (2020: xii) suggest that we have reached an ‘Age of Curiosity’ in which human curiosity is more powerful than ever, with greater material influence, and yet has been simultaneously ‘hypercommodified’ into ineffectuality. Applying Paulo Freire’s (1998: 37) assessment of curiosity as ‘restless questioning’, Zurn and Shankar (2020: xiii) view curiosity as a political tool with the subversive potential and radical capacity to challenge dominant epistemic authority and ‘inherited hierarchies of value’. As such curiosity becomes an act of vigilance in the quest for clarity – for the revelation of that which has been hidden (Freire, 1998: 37-38).
Bineth, Ariel (2023) ‘Towards a sociology of curiosity: theoretical and empirical consideration of the epistemic drive notion’, in Theory and Society, 52, 119-144.
Dolan, Brian (2000) Exploring European Frontiers, London: Macmillan.
Eisenstein, Elizabeth (1980) The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Freire, Paulo (1998) Pedagogy of Freedom: Ethics, Democracy, and Civic Courage, Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield.
Stagl, Justin (2002) A History of Curiosity: The Theory of Travel 1550-1800, Routledge.
van Hooydonk, Stefaan (n.d.) ‘Exploring the history and concept of curiosity throughout the ages’, Global Curiosity Institute, Accessed: 11 July 2023. Available at: https://www.globalcuriosityinstitute.com/post/design-a-stunning-blog
Zeegers, Margaret and Barron, Deirdre (2010) Gatekeepers of Knowledge: A Consideration of the Library, the Book, and the Scholar in the Western World, Oxford: Chandos Publishing.
Zurn, Perry and Shankar, Arjun (2020) ‘What is Curiosity Studies?’, in Zurn, P. and Shankar, A. (eds) Curiosity Studies: A New Ecology of Knowledge, University of Minnesota Press, xi-xxx.
Zurn, Perry (2021) ‘Feminist curiosity’, in Philosophy Compass 16.9, available online at: https://philpapers.org/rec/ZURFC.
Zurn, Perry (2022) ‘Perry Zurn and Identical Twin Dani S. Bassett Publish Groundbreaking Book on Curiosity’, in interview with Housman, Patty, American University News, 14 September. Accessed: 19 July 2023. Available at: https://www.american.edu/cas/news/perry-zurn-and-dani-s-bassett-publish-groundbreaking-book-on-curiosity.cfm#:~:text=“For%20thousands%20of%20years%2C%20curiosity,and%20concepts%2C%20aspirations%20and%20visions.
Zurn, Perry and Bassett, Dani S. (2022) Curious Minds: The Power of Connection, Massachusetts: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Zurn, Perry and Shankar, Arjun (2020) eds. Curiosity Studies: A New Ecology of Knowledge, University of Minnesota Press.
Zurn, Perry (2021a) Curiosity and power: The politics of inquiry. University of Minnesota Press.
Stevens, Clare, Elspeth Van Veeren, Brian Rappert and Owen D. Thomas, ‘Being Curious With Secrecy,’ Secrecy and Society, forthcoming.