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Curiosity, A History

Friday, April 7, 2017,

College Arts & Humanities Institute (1211 E Atwater Ave)

Curiosity is a key term in the history of the sciences, in the social sciences, the humanities, and the arts; it is still understood to be the engine of revolutions in thought and in science to this day. This was not, of course, always the case. The word itself has a long and interesting history, one worth reconsidering at the current moment. A neologism first coined by Cicero, the word curiositas was based upon the adjective curiosus, which in turn derived from the substantive cura, meaning cure or care. This derivation underwrote centuries of debate concerning the relation of the pursuit of knowledge to questions of value: what kinds of things, and what kinds of intellectual pursuits, are deserving of our care and our careful attention? Care extends from things therapeutic to things philosophical, from health and well-being to medical cures, from personal attachments to social responsibility, from creaturely flourishing to ethical impulses. The links between care and curiosity will feature in debates over knowledge and human flourishing: how is curiosity related to those things on which our happiness depends, the pursuit of knowledge among them?

“Curiosity” currently reenergizes debates in a host of disciplines: increasingly understood as central to human cognition and well-being, and the future of curiosity has been important to ethical concerns over sustainability, to the relations of humans and non-human animals, and to aesthetics. In her manifesto for “Companion Species,” Donna Haraway links curiosity (our “first obligation and deepest pleasure”) to the ethics of our relation to non-human animals and things. Proponents of “positive psychology” (like Todd Kashdan) make curiosity central to human thriving even while, and at this same moment, educational psychologists link curiosity with especially risky, dangerous, and otherwise undesirable behavior in adolescents.

Curiosity — historic or contemporary — proves a tricky concept, one that resists easy categorization; indeed, it often reveals the limits of the systems of thought that try to define or domesticate it. This Workshop excavates the tricky early history of the concept. In standard histories of curiosity, the Middle Ages especially are seriously under- or misrepresented, despite the fact that this is the period when curiosity was theorized in ways that remain powerfully influential to this day. And, in fact, a growing number of medievalists are now working on the topic. The workshop will feature the work of some of these scholars and will hope to facilitate a collaborative conversation among an interdisciplinary group of thinkers as we work together to ‘excavate’ the uses and meanings of the history of curiosity.