The Uses of Curiosity in Early Modern France and Germany 
by Neil Kenny.
Oxford, 484 pp., £68, July 2004, 0 19 927136 4
Show More
Show More

There has probably never been a society that did not erect barriers to certain kinds of knowledge. Moralists since Greek and Roman antiquity have frowned on busybodies who pry into their neighbours’ private lives; medieval Christian theologians condemned necromancers who wanted to discover the secrets of demons; today we fret about state surveillance of citizens and certain kinds of scientific research on human subjects. Curiosity has never been allowed free rein: there has always been a distinction between good and bad curiosity, legitimate and illegitimate knowledge.

Rarely has the question of where to draw the line between them been as furiously and consequentially debated as in early modern Europe. The new geography, the new science, the new periodical press, the new religions, the new polities that shook Europe between 1500 and 1800 were propagated and absorbed in new sites – not just universities, courts and ecclesiastical councils, but also academies, coffee houses, printers’ shops, salons, marketplaces and battlefields. Who ought to know what and how were questions ventilated in Latin dissertations, novels, sermons, scientific treatises, Jesuit ballets, pornography, satirical poems, penny broadsides and presumably many conversations among learned and lay people alike. Curiosity became an object of intense, even obsessive attention.

Neil Kenny is not the first to note the early modern preoccupation with curiosity, but his book, though restricted to France and Germany, is the most comprehensive and careful study of it to date. The book’s appearance is timely, now that once again curiosity is being nudged into the cultural limelight, this time by clash-of-civilisations warriors such as Bernard Lewis, who proclaim curiosity to be the distinguishing feature of the West, in woeful contrast to the alleged indifference of Muslim societies to other ways of life. If the battle is to be joined for a second time, it would be helpful to know how it came out the first time around.

Curiosity didn’t always enjoy such a favourable press, even in Europe. Classical mythology as well as the Hebrew and Christian Bibles offer many examples of disastrous curiosity: Icarus, Pandora, Psyche, Semele, Orpheus, Eve and Lot’s wife are victims of their overweening will to know more than they should. Curiosity was always classified as a passion, a state which one suffered, as one suffered hunger and lust. St Augustine called it concupiscentia oculorum, the ‘lust of the eyes’, a phrase that still resonated in the sermons of the early 18th century. St Bernard of Clairvaux, writing in the early 12th century, promoted it to the status of one of the seven deadly sins, believing it closely related to sloth, a time-wasting tendency to attend too closely to the useless. It was also, Bernard thought, dangerously similar to pride, the sin of Lucifer, who is condemned to an eavesdropping version of the tortures of Tantalus: suspended in the air, he can see the angels, his former comrades, coming and going, but can’t make out their conversation, strain as he may. Classical sources, such as Plutarch’s essay on the subject, were equally disapproving. The damaging associations of curiosity with magic, an arrogant desire to probe nature’s secrets in order to augment human power, persisted through the Renaissance. Erasmus still used the word curiositas mostly in a pejorative sense, as the immoderate greed to know unnecessary things, the opposite of a simple, trusting faith in God.

Yet 16th-century contemporaries of Erasmus had begun to redeem curiosity as an acceptable, even praiseworthy desire to know. Naturalists and travellers, purveyors of marvels in word, image and thing, suggested that an interest in new lands, new flora and fauna, even in two-headed cats and bearded grapevines, was understandable and sometimes edifying. The curious inquirer into nature’s variety and intricacy praised God by glorifying his works. The range of objects to which curiosity could be attracted expanded rapidly in the 16th and 17th centuries, from the canonical examples of the secrets of neighbours, the mysteries of theology and the arcana of nature (especially those having to do with sex) to all that was exquisitely wrought (whether a tiny insect or ivory turned fine as filigree), rare, exotic, new or just plain odd. Indeed, in some languages (including English, French and German), ‘curiosity’ and its cognates came to refer not only to the passion, but also to its preferred objects. By the mid-17th century, market-conscious authors were retailing everything and anything as ‘curiosities’. People curious for curiosities became known as ‘the curious’, a group that included the members of early scientific academies such as the Roman Accademia dei Lincei, the German Academia Naturae Curiosorum (later the Leopoldina), the Royal Society of London and the Paris Académie Royale des Sciences. Moralists continued to thunder away, mostly from the pulpit, against such frivolous and potentially dangerous (because a distraction from more serious pursuits, such as salvation) interests. But the decibel level of their complaints suggests that by the late 17th century they were on the defensive.

Historians, most notably Hans Blumenberg, Carlo Ginzburg, Jean Céard, Krzysztof Pomian and William Eamon, have noted the remarkable rise of curiosity and its transvaluation from vice to virtue. They have argued, with varying emphases, that this episode is key to understanding the modernisation of European culture, a momentous transformation linked to the voyages of exploration and conquest, booming capitalism and the emergence of the ‘new science’. Curiosity unbound legitimated the researches of the anatomists and naturalists, the laboratories of the experimenters, the avidity of the collectors, and the Enlightenment exhortation sapere aude, ‘dare to know’. Early modern curiosity had a keen edge, combining the inquisitive and acquisitive in equal measure. Hobbes thought it a desire more insatiable than lust, and more pleasurable. It was not a meek and humble virtue, but it was a virtue all the same. Curiosity’s rags to riches (or sin to scintillation) career is without equal, even in the labile field of early modern passions. Albert Hirschman brilliantly argued that during this period greed was grudgingly elevated from vice to interest, on the grounds that it usefully curbed more destructive passions such as anger and ambition, an important step towards the moral acceptance of early capitalism. But no one ever claimed greed as an outright virtue; at best, it was a private vice that turned into a public virtue by stoking the economy. Curiosity, in contrast, was by the mid-18th century widely if not universally touted as a genuine virtue, although, as Kenny rightly observes, amid much debate and far more for men than for women.

It is these debates that interest Kenny. He doesn’t so much contest the story told by his predecessors as complicate it. The word ‘negotiate’ looms large. He frowns on generalisations that smooth over disagreements, omit exceptions, blur contradictions and simplify messiness. ‘My own thesis is that people talked and wrote about curiosity for conflicting purposes, and that they could do so because there was an enduring lack of consensus about what exactly curiosity was.’ Those conflicting purposes are anchored in diverse institutions (universities, churches, courts), genres (novels, satires, journals) and groups (Jesuits, academicians, men, women). Kenny denies early modern curiosity the status of a concept (by which he seems to mean something crystalline and Kantian, setting the bar rather high), preferring late Wittgensteinian categories such as ‘language games’ and ‘family resemblances’. No single essence can be distilled from all the ways early modern texts used curiosity.

In order to sort out this cacophony, Kenny is strict about defining his quarry: the cluster of words deriving from the Latin curiositas current in early modern Latin, French and German usage. So curiosité and Curiosität are fair game, but not Vorwitz and Neubegierde. Yet Vorwitz was a common translation of the Latin curiositas, and Neubegierde (plus variants) not only emerged just as the controversy over good and bad curiosity caught fire in the late 17th century, but also wears its etymology (‘desire for the new’) on its sleeve. Words closely allied with curiositas, such as Neuigkeit and merveille, also lie beyond Kenny’s purview, although he is well aware of the connections. His primary argument for narrowing the focus seems to be semantic: by concentrating on the Latin cognates, the historian has better grounds for believing that the combatants really had joined battle over the same issue. The secondary argument is that restricting the domain makes it possible to survey the sources more comprehensively. I appreciate the force of this latter argument and admire Kenny’s analyses of so many diverse texts. I am not, however, persuaded by the former argument, nor by the Wittgensteinian gloss Kenny gives it.

Early modern curiosity came in two flavours, good and bad, and much ink was spilled trying to sort out which was which and for whom. The ‘for whom’ was crucial to the dividing of curious dross from curious gold. Considerations of decorum and context dictated who could legitimately know what: was the object of curiosity appropriate to the knower’s discipline, sex, age, station? On the answers to such questions hinged the verdict bona/mala curiositas. Examples of bad curiosity included questions about astrology, what the Sirens sang to Odysseus, clockwork, Japan, the mysteries of the faith, the fidelity of one’s wife (if one was male) and almost any area of higher learning (if one was female); of good curiosity, natural philosophy (especially the new experimental kind), agriculture, the Holy Land, the latest news, medical anomalies, the meaning of life, and the neighbours’ secrets (if one was Prussian). Yet as Kenny shows time and again, the same object of curiosity (and hence the passion of curiosity it excited) could be praised or blamed, depending on speaker and occasion.

Northern German Protestant universities generated a cottage industry in dissertations on the subject in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Curiosity was duly divided into genus and species, excessive and moderate, vain and useful, healthy and unhealthy, higher faculty (law, medicine, theology) and lower faculty (philosophy). As Kenny shrewdly remarks, curiosity was an ideal topic for undersubscribed universities desperate to attract attention and students: it radiated an aura of the new and controversial, well suited to the formalities of pro/contra disputations, and lent itself to ponderous academic humour (multilingual puns, jokes at the expense of colleagues in other disciplines etc). Unsurprisingly, both Catholic and Protestant clerics approached it more warily, Augustinian warnings still ringing in their ears. Still, Kenny discerns differences of opinion even in these ranks, especially among writers conscious of the modernising world around them. Travel had long been an expression of and goad to curiosity; religious writers could draw on pilgrimage literature to smuggle in curious baubles. Kenny’s frontispiece is a charming engraving from a 1713 work by an Austrian Franciscan who had lived in Bethlehem. Pilgrim is accompanied by two female allegorical figures, Devotion and Curiosity, and his gaze is clearly turned away from veiled Devotion towards pert Curiosity, all curls and pearls and beckoning décolletage.

Any number of institutions participated in what Kenny calls ‘the culture of curiosities’: museums, coffee houses, academies, salons, but also newspapers and books. Because he is primarily interested in curiosity and curiosities in texts, Kenny concentrates on verbal rather than physical collections. Curiosities were notably presented as fragments, in the form of lists or disjointed descriptions. Mimicking the deliberately heterogeneous and decontextualised presentation of material objects in a Wunderkammer, where a stuffed Laplander might be displayed cheek-by-jowl with a Turkish shoe and a fly preserved in amber, the verbal miscellanies simulated the variety and strangeness of the world by a disconnected jumble of facts, the weirder and more disparate the better. Indeed, these oddities were the first facts: i.e. nuggets of experience carefully detached from all inferences that might be drawn from them and all systems that might explain them. Collecting curiosities, both physical and textual, often went hand in hand with extreme caution about premature generalisations and esprit de système, especially in the sciences. By the late 17th century, it had become painfully evident to savants that the best minds of Antiquity – Aristotle, Ptolemy, Galen – had erred. They tried to immunise themselves against further intellectual debacles by proceeding slowly and methodically, gathering up fragments of fact in preparation for a grand synthesis postponed to some remote future date. Kenny quotes Bernard de Fontenelle, writing in his capacity as perpetual secretary of the fledgling Académie Royale des Sciences, to capture the pulverising spirit of the culture of curiosities. Fontenelle’s disturbing images of dismembered ‘morsels’ of fact are indeed arresting, redolent of the dissecting table and the torture rack.

But there was another side to the culture of curiosities, one considerably less sober, with which Fontenelle was equally familiar. For the many connoisseurs of curiosities in Wunderkammern and in printed miscellanies (with irresistible titles like A Thousand Notable Things), these motley fragments were simply fun. Fontenelle played up this aspect in his defence of the Académie and a fact-mongering natural philosophy. He reproached the ancients for their lack of curiosity and recommended the study of nature as an inexhaustible source of delightful curiosities – phosphors that glowed in the dark, cold liquids that when mixed burst into flame, silver dendrites, the ‘almost magical games of the magnet’: science as glorious entertainment. Kenny is surely aware of this more hedonistic side, yet even in the section on pornography (curiosity about sexual secrets), the analysis is resolutely functional. Without denying the uses of curiosity as a way of selling books and newspapers, or as a lure for students or as a label with which to identify oneself as a member of the cognoscenti, it does seem an exaggeration of scholarly self-restraint not to dwell on what Hobbes called ‘a perseverance of delight’ which was its own reward.

I suspect that Kenny’s reservations are methodological. He is openly suspicious of the generalisations of other historians (mostly Continental): he characteristically rejects the ‘generalising modern label’ of the German Baroque. He worries that ‘grand narrative’ and ‘concept-based approaches’ invite anachronism – not without cause, at least in the case of Blumenberg, who didn’t hesitate to lecture his primary sources when they deviated from his understanding of ‘theoretical curiosity’. Kenny gravitates towards the wary empiricism of the early modern culture of curiosities; in his case, this means the texts and nothing but the texts. He doesn’t deny the existence of a world to which language refers, a world that perhaps embraces experiences as well as things, but he insists on the self-sufficiency of language, or rather, of rule-governed language games, related by family resemblances. While language may be ‘inextricably bound up’ with its various contexts, intellectual, social and physical, it is not an ‘epiphenomenon’ of them. Conversely, Kenny sees no point in trying to probe this past reality via the linguistic traces that survive; the texts can’t reveal whether or how words congealed into deeds, much less the texture of the experiences they designated and perhaps shaped.

In practice, this thoroughgoing linguistic agnosticism is less confining than it sounds. First, Kenny sensibly acknowledges that historians would find it hard to say anything if scruples about anachronism forced them to foreswear all modern terms and meanings, though he does strive for something like this with respect to curiosity. Second, he often contextualises his chosen texts, as in the case of the German universities, in ways that are quite illuminating. Third, on his home territory of texts, Kenny is a nonpareil close reader: learned, subtle, attentive, lucid. One reads every section of this book with pleasure and profit. And yet it doesn’t cohere; it remains a work of aperçu rather than of argument. Kenny would probably retort that this is exactly the point: there was no forest of early modern curiosity, only lots of trees that bear the kind of family resemblance to one another that permits us to call all of them trees, but no more.

Is this the voice of prudence or of premature resignation? Even if – especially if – one insists on working solely in the plane of language, why not reconstruct more of the semantic field, exploiting this source of evidence for all its worth? The shifting associations of proximity and remoteness of terms, as well as their doubling to suggest nuances of approval and disapproval (as in the case of the usually negative German Vorwitz), can be extremely revealing, particularly if tracked over a period of centuries and in more than one language. True, texts are the alpha and omega of history, but in the case of curiosity, we also have evidence of practices and even things: inventories of collections, letters between collectors exchanging choice objects, the objects themselves in some cases. For the past two decades, historians of science have been attempting to recover past practices from texts, images and things. The successes of this research programme may be modest, but few would now argue that it is in principle impossible. The recovery of past (or even contemporary) experience is admittedly a much riskier business; yet, as Adam Smith argued in his Theory of Moral Sentiments, not only society but self would dissolve if we stopped trying. In practice, Kenny assumes that such leaps of the sympathetic imagination are possible and justified: hence his portraits of provincial German professors, sophisticated Parisian Jesuits, saucer-eyed travellers. The very familiarity of these categories begs Kenny’s question: can modern historians shake free not only of their language, but also of their collective, time-bound experience, in order to retrieve a past without anachronism? Or is this forbidden knowledge?

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences