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THE EPISTEMIC VALUE OF CURIOSITY Frederick F. Schmitt Department of Philosophy Indiana University

Reza Lahroodi Department of Philosophy and Religion University of Northern Iowa

ABSTRACT. In this essay, Frederick Schmitt and Reza Lahroodi explore the value of curiosity for inquiry and knowledge. They defend an appetitive account of curiosity, viewing curiosity as a motivationally original desire to know that arises from having one’s attention drawn to the object and that in turn sustains one’s attention to it. Distinguishing curiosity from wonder, the authors explore several sources of the epistemic value of curiosity. First, curiosity is tenacious: curiosity whether a proposition is true leads to curiosity about related issues, thereby deepening our knowledge. Second, it is to some extent biased in favor of topics in which we already have a practical or epistemic interest. Third, and most important, curiosity is largely independent of our interests: it fixes our attention on objects in which we have no antecedent interest, thereby broadening our knowledge. Schmitt and Lahroodi elucidate the value of curiosity by outlining its role in levels of development — an approach indebted to John Dewey’s explanation of the value of curiosity. Finally, they raise some questions about the implications of their account for educational practice.

It is a commonplace that curiosity facilitates education and inquiry, and even that frequent states of curiosity are psychologically necessary for a person’s regular success in learning and discovery.1 That we take curiosity to be instrumental to and even essential for education, inquiry, and knowledge is confirmed by the fact that teachers often prefer techniques of instruction that excite curiosity — they juxtapose topics with unexpected connections to elicit surprise, ask students to solve puzzles, present vivid examples or make striking demonstrations to rivet attention on the subject matter, and use the Socratic method of instruction to cultivate an inclination to evocative questions. Stimulating curiosity is central to education and learning. We seek here to explain why curiosity has instrumental value for inquiry and knowledge.2 Our strategy will be to explore the nature of curiosity and employ what we discover about it to explain its instrumental epistemic value. 1. Harold Blumenberg, in his book The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, trans. Robert M. Wallace (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1983), argues that curiosity has been variously valued over the course of history — valued in antiquity, disparaged in the Middle Ages, and more recently restored to value. We will not try to assess this sweeping historical claim. 2. Curiosity seems to have not only instrumental value for knowledge but intrinsic value as well. People seek out situations in which their curiosity is elicited. We pursue and enjoy puzzles — riddles, crossword puzzles, Rubix cubes, logical perplexities such as the liar paradox, and so on. Certainly we do not pursue and enjoy these merely for the knowledge we gain by solving them, which often seems less important than the activity of solving them. We enjoy being curious in a way that we do not enjoy being hungry or thirsty, and we enjoy it even if we do not satisfy our curiosity. One might propose that all that is valuable here, apart from the knowledge gained, is the activity of attempting to solve the puzzle. But curiosity seems to have value over and above both the activity of inquiry and the knowledge gained. But we will make little here of curiosity’s intrinsic value. EDUCATIONAL THEORY j Volume 58 j Number 2 j 2008 Ó 2008 Board of Trustees j University of Illinois


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Part of our explanation will turn on necessary features of curiosity — features recognized in our everyday concept of curiosity — and part will turn on contingent features of curiosity. Our explanation will parallel, in a contemporary idiom, John Dewey’s explanation of the value of curiosity. This article is a contribution to the burgeoning field of virtue epistemology, or the conceptual and normative study of the epistemic value of character traits, dispositions, and abilities — a field that may help us understand and judge the value of educational practices.3 At the close of the article, we will raise some questions about the implications of our study of curiosity for educational practices intended to excite curiosity. WHAT IS CURIOSITY? We aim first to capture our everyday concept of the state of curiosity.4 For it is in our everyday sense that curiosity is uncontroversially valuable for knowledge, and our everyday concept of curiosity should supply some initial clues as to its value. We assume that there are both occurrent and dispositional states of curiosity 3. For a leading example of virtue epistemology, see Linda Zagzebski, Virtues of the Mind: An Inquiry into the Nature of Virtue and the Ethical Foundations of Knowledge (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996). 4. We are not offering an empirical psychological theory of the state of curiosity. For an extensive, insightful, and meticulously argued review of such theories, see George Loewenstein, ‘‘The Psychology of Curiosity: A Review and Reinterpretation,’’ Psychological Bulletin 116 (1994): 75–98. Loewenstein distinguishes several kinds of empirical theories that purport to explain curiosity and the behavior it produces. These include drive theories of curiosity, which see curiosity as caused either by an internal homeostatic mechanism like the one that causes other appetites or by the object of curiosity; incongruity theories of curiosity, which posit that curiosity occurs when our expectations for an object are violated by what we observe of the object, and we attempt to resolve the conflict between expectations and observation; and competence theories of curiosity, which contend that curiosity results from the motive of mastering the environment. Loewenstein also develops his own information-gap theory of curiosity (originally suggested by William James), which argues that curiosity is triggered (that is, we are motivated to inquire) when our informational reference point (what we want to know) exceeds what we do know (or take ourselves to know). The information-gap theory has the advantage of being appropriately general. The theory predicts that, given a question about which we are curious, our motivation to acquire a piece of information will be greater toward those pieces of information that bring the subject closer to closing the information gap. It also predicts that a subject is more likely to become curious about a topic the more knowledge the subject has pertinent to the topic. These predictions of the information-gap theory have been confirmed. Of the psychological theories of curiosity Loewenstein examines, only the information-gap theory includes a partial account of what curiosity is (as opposed merely to an account of why it occurs). That account is consonant with the account of the everyday notion of curiosity we present in this essay. It is important to note, however, that, although Loewenstein presents the information-gap theory as a competitor of the drive, incongruity, and competence theories, this contrast is misleading, for the information-gap theory differs from the other theories in not attempting to explain why curiosity occurs. But the theory is compatible with the view we take in this essay that the desire to know involved in curiosity is motivationally original. Our account of curiosity is logically compatible with all the empirical theories of curiosity we have mentioned, but the information-gap theory is the only one that yields plausible systematic consequences for the situational causes of curiosity. FREDERICK F. SCHMITT is Professor of Philosophy at Indiana University, Sycamore 026, 1033 E. Third St., Bloomington, IN 47401; e-mail \fschmitt@indiana.edu[. His primary areas of scholarship are epistemology and metaphysics. REZA LAHROODI is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Northern Iowa, Department of Philosophy and Religion, 135 Baker Hall, 1227 W. 27th St., Cedar Falls, IA 50614; e-mail \Reza.Lahroodi@uni.edu[. His primary areas of scholarship are epistemology, philosophy of mind, and history of philosophy.


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about a topic. An occurrent state of curiosity, as we understand it, involves attending to the topic at which our curiosity is directed. A dispositional state is a disposition to be occurrently curious about the topic. Both of these states are to be distinguished from the trait of curiosity, which is or involves an inclination to be dispositionally curious about a range of topics. We will focus on the occurrent state of curiosity, although the dispositional state will be relevant in obvious ways at many points in the discussion. We will set aside the trait of curiosity (or the inclination to be dispositionally curious) for another occasion. The state of curiosity has traditionally been identified with an appetite for knowledge and assimilated to the appetites of hunger and thirst as well as the appetite for sex.5 It has also been described as a passion.6 The appetitive and passional conceptions of curiosity are compatible, and both seem accurate. Curiosity about an object is naturally described as a hunger or thirst for knowledge of the object. Like other appetites, curiosity may involve a feeling and surely involves a desire. And it exhibits other earmarks of the appetites: it cannot be produced at will; it appears unbidden; it cannot be suppressed at will; it demands to be satisfied; and it can become obsessive. We behave impulsively to gratify curiosity. We indulge it against our will and better judgment. Augustine famously described his upright and self-controlled friend Alypius as morbidly curious about gladiatorial combat, as unable to avert his eyes from the spectacle, despite his effort, and as succumbing to the enthusiasm of the crowd.7 On one view of the appetite of hunger, hunger necessarily involves a feeling of hunger (hunger pangs, or sensations of gurgling or rumbling), as well as a desire to eat. This view might (though need not) be supplemented with the claim that these feelings necessarily cause the desire to eat. On a competing view, hunger does not necessarily involve a feeling of hunger, or any other feeling. One counts as hungry if one has what we will call a motivationally original desire to eat — a desire that is intrinsic (that is, not formed because its object is instrumental to any other object, such as maintaining energy, pleasing one’s host, or perhaps even the pleasure of the taste of food), not a manifestation of a standing desire to eat, and not a desire that arises in a regular way from a standing practice of eating as part of the

5. For example, ‘‘appetite of curiosity,’’ Jeremy Bentham, Principles of Morals and Legislation (New York: Macmillan, 1948), 34; ‘‘Curiosity.has an appetite,’’ Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1958), 31; and ‘‘thirst for knowledge,’’ Sigmund Freud, ‘‘Analysis of a Phobia in a Five-Year-Old Boy,’’ in Collected Papers, vol. 3 (New York: Basic Books, 1915), 153. William James distinguished a ‘‘susceptibility for being excited and irritated by the mere novelty of.the environment,’’ from ‘‘scientific curiosity’’ toward a specific question, in The Principles of Psychology, vol. 2 (New York: Holt, 1950), 430. Susceptibility to excitation might be susceptibility to the triggering of an appetite, like the susceptibility to sexual desire. 6. For example, ‘‘innate love of learning and knowledge,’’ ‘‘the passion of learning,’’ Cicero, De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum, trans. Harris Rackham (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1914), 448; ‘‘the love of truth,’’ ‘‘the love of knowledge,’’ ‘‘an insatiable desire for knowing,’’ Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, ed. L.A. Selby-Brigge, revised by P.H. Nidditch (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978), bk. 2, pt. 3, sec. 10, 448, 453. 7. Augustine, The Confessions, in The Confessions, the City of God, and On Christian Doctrine (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952), bk. VI, sec. 13, 39.

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exercise of that practice (as with many overeaters). This second view of the appetite of hunger is of course compatible with the claim that a feeling of hunger as a matter of psychological law generally accompanies the required motivationally original desire to eat; it merely denies that hunger necessarily involves such a feeling. It is natural to supplement this second view with the remark that pangs of hunger and sensations of gurgling count as sensations of hunger simply because as a matter of psychological law they accompany hunger. We need not decide between these two competing views of hunger. It is enough to remark that the second view seems the more suitable model for curiosity. It is commonly thought that there is a feeling associated with curiosity, naturally described as the feeling of being drawn, or the feeling of having one‘s attention drawn, to the topic of one’s curiosity (where the topic is an object, a subject matter, or the question whether p).8 But this feeling, if it really differs from having one’s attention drawn to the topic, seems inessential to curiosity. It is essential rather that one’s attention is actually drawn to the topic, in the sense that one attends to it involuntarily. Curiosity does not seem to require that one’s attention is initially drawn to the topic in any particular way. It does, however, require that the drawing of attention is accompanied by a motivationally original desire to know the topic.9 A startlingly loud noise might draw one’s attention to the object that produces it, and one might come to know the cause of the noise as a result of one’s attention being so drawn. But there is no curiosity here unless the drawing of attention causes one to desire to know — something not typically so in the case of autonomic attention to a loud noise. The desire to know must be motivationally original in the sense that it is not instrumental to any practical desire nor to the generic desire to know for the sake of accumulating an estimable stock of knowledge (the epistemic desire to know, as we may call it), nor is it a desire that arises in a regular way from a practice of acquiring knowledge of things as part of the exercise of that practice. The required desire to know is not a desire to know the topic for the sake of knowledge in general. It is misleading even to describe it as a desire to know the topic for the sake of knowing that topic only. It is simply a desire to know the topic without there being anything for the sake of which one desires to know it. The desire may be to know an object or to know a proposition. Curiosity, then, requires that one’s attention is drawn to the topic, and it requires a motivationally original desire to know the topic. The 8. That there is a connection between curiosity and attention is recognized by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who defines ‘‘the cultivation of curiosity and interest’’ as ‘‘the allocation of attention to things for their own sake’’ (see his Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention [New York: HarperCollins, 1996], 346). This suggestion is best understood as the claim that in curiosity we attend to the object out of a desire to know the object for the sake of knowing that object rather than for any practical or even broader epistemic interest. However, it seems to us misleading to describe the desire to know in curiosity as the desire to know the object for the sake of knowing the object. Rather it is the desire to know without desiring to know for the sake of anything. 9. The trait of curiosity is distinguished from the trait of need for cognition by involving the desire to know, not merely the inclination to effortful cognition. For discussion of the value of the trait of need for cognition, see Reza Lahroodi, ‘‘Evaluating Need for Cognition: A Case Study in Naturalistic Epistemic Virtue Theory,’’ Philosophical Psychology 20, no. 2 (2007): 227–245.


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involuntariness of having one’s attention drawn to the topic and the motivational originality of the desire make it appropriate to describe curiosity as a passion as well as a state of appetite. But curiosity requires more than this. One’s attention could be involuntarily drawn to a topic, and one could form a motivationally original desire to know the topic, without being curious. Curiosity requires that the drawing of attention and the desire to know be causally related. First, the drawing of attention must give rise to the desire to know the topic. You are not curious unless your interest in the topic arises from being drawn to the topic before you desire to know. The fact that in curiosity the desire arises from no practical or epistemic motivation but rather because one is drawn to the topic is the most important fact for understanding the power of curiosity to propel inquiry. Second, one’s attention must continue to be drawn to the topic even after one begins to desire to know, and it must be drawn by one’s desire to know. A startlingly loud noise might draw one’s attention and even cause a motivationally original desire to know the source of the noise, but there is no curiosity here unless the desire to know sustains one’s attention. Thus, curiosity requires a mutually supportive drawing of attention and desire to know: one desires to know because one’s attention is drawn, and one’s attention continues to be drawn because one desires to know. Pandora is curious about what is in the box. She counts as curious because her attention is drawn to the question what is in the box; she desires to know what is in the box; the desire results from the attention; and the attention is sustained by the desire. We suggest that the requirement that the attention sustains the desire to know makes curiosity generally (other things being equal) more valuable epistemically than other motivationally original desires to know such as the desire caused by a startlingly loud noise. For the fact that the desire to know in curiosity sustains one’s attention to the topic makes it more likely that the desire will be satisfied than would be the case without this sustaining relation. The mutual support involved in curiosity is thus a feature of curiosity that makes it generally more valuable epistemically than other motivationally original desires to know. This is not, however, the most important source of the value of curiosity, which, as we argue subsequently, lies largely in the independence of the desire from practical and epistemic interests. Curiosity is satisfied, and ceases, when one comes to know the topic. Upon knowledge of the topic, the desire to know ceases, and attention is no longer sustained by that desire. We employ here the common distinction between practical and epistemic motivation to acquire knowledge. The latter is a desire to contribute to an epistemically estimable distribution of knowledge, where what it is for a distribution to be epistemically estimable is determined by cognitive and not merely by practical considerations (we drop ‘‘epistemically’’ and speak of ‘‘estimable distribution’’ from here on in). We need take no stand in this article on what knowledge is, or on which cognitive considerations — quantity of content, coherence, explanatory power, and the like — define an estimable distribution. We do not rule out that

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what counts as an estimable distribution is constrained by the condition that the practical value of a piece of knowledge for the subject enhances its contribution to any estimable distribution. At the same time, we allow that knowledge lacking practical value also counts toward an estimable distribution.10 The desire to know in curiosity is neither practically nor epistemically motivated. But curiosity has epistemic value because it is instrumental to and determinative of an estimable distribution of knowledge. First, it is instrumental to our acquiring knowledge that contributes to an estimable distribution of knowledge, both because it drives us to inquire into topics of practical and epistemic interest and because it drives us to inquire into other topics. Second, curiosity contributes indirectly to an estimable distribution by adding to the determination of what counts as an estimable distribution for us. To be specific, it motivates us to acquire knowledge even when we have no practical or epistemic motivation to know; this knowledge in turn partly determines what further knowledge we are motivated to acquire by shaping what topics we are interested in and what our cognitive specializations are; and this motivation to acquire further knowledge then partly determines what counts as an estimable distribution of knowledge for us. In short, curiosity is instrumentally valuable for, and determinative of, an estimable distribution by driving us to inquire despite the poverty of our practical and epistemic motivation to know. CURIOSITY AND WONDER To understand curiosity, it helps to contrast it with wonder. Curiosity is often accompanied by wonder, and wonder is usually accompanied by curiosity.11 Nevertheless, the two states differ.12 No doubt ‘‘I wonder about the stars’’ sometimes simply means ‘‘I am curious about the stars.’’ And a ‘‘curious object’’ is one that is out of the ordinary, in a way that may provoke wonder. But there is also a common use of ‘‘wonder’’ to refer to a passion that is different from curiosity. The expression ‘‘I wonder at the stars’’ clearly does not mean ‘‘I am curious at the stars,’’ which is not even grammatical English. And it can be used to mean something different from ‘‘I am curious about the stars,’’ as can ‘‘I wonder about the stars.’’ Wonder is not an appetite. It does not demand to be satisfied. Indeed, it does not seem to be the sort of thing that can be satisfied. Wonder is more easily suppressed than curiosity. We do not indulge wonder against our better judgment; it does not become obsessive. 10. For discussion of the value of information gathering in organizations apart from its contribution to decision making, see Martha S. Feldman and James G. March, ‘‘Information in Organizations as Signal and Symbol,’’ Administrative Science Quarterly 26, no. 2 (1981): 171–186. For discussion of the nonpractical value of information gathering in medicine, see David A. Asch, James P. Patton, and John C. Hershey, ‘‘Knowing for the Sake of Knowing,’’ Medical Decision Making 10, no. 1 (1990): 47–57. 11. Fascination with a topic may entail both curiosity and wonder about it. 12. Dewey distinguished the two in his book How We Think: A Restatement of the Relation of Reflective Thinking to the Educative Process (1910 and 1931; repr. Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1971), 52. But he went on to say that wonder ‘‘is the same as curiosity when the latter reaches the intellectual plane.’’ Dewey’s ‘‘curiosity’’ includes an innate disposition to handle objects and thereby learn, and only his ‘‘curiosity’’ on ‘‘the intellectual plane’’ is what we call curiosity here. So probably Dewey meant by ‘‘wonder’’ simply what we mean by ‘‘curiosity.’’ Dewey’s How We Think will be cited as HWT in the text for all subsequent references.


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Wonder differs from curiosity in five respects. First, unlike curiosity, it is clearly associated with a unique characteristic feeling. It is associated with being impressed by, standing in some degree of awe of, its object.13 (The Latin for ‘‘wonder’’ is admiratio.) Moreover, wonder necessarily and always involves this feeling. Second, wonder differs from curiosity in not entailing having one’s attention drawn to the object. Wonder does, however, entail considering its object. Third, wonder differs from curiosity in typically or perhaps even necessarily arising from a cognitive conflict. Wonder at or about an object typically, if not necessarily, arises from surprise at or puzzlement about the object. As Rene´ Descartes said, ‘‘When our first encounter with some object surprises us and we find it novel, or very different from what we formerly knew or from what we supposed it ought to be, this causes us to wonder and to be astonished about it.’’14 In surprise, we are confronted with an inconsistency between the features we expect the object to have and those we observe it to have. Why do we wonder at the heavens? Perhaps in part because we expect what we observe on earth to hold for the heavens, and this expectation is in some respects disappointed. Wonder at the stars arises from the surprise that comes from comparing the majesty, distance, size, or composition of the stars with that of familiar objects on earth. In puzzlement, we are confronted with an inconsistency between some features that we attribute to the object itself, rather than between expected features and observed features of the object. Puzzlement too sometimes gives rise to wonder. Curiosity differs from wonder in that it need not arise from surprise or puzzlement. It does not require an object that violates expectations, nor does it require an apparent inconsistency. It can arise when we have no expectations for the object. In this sense, curiosity arises in a larger range of psychological conditions than wonder does. We add that typically, if not always, wonder endures as long as the cognitive conflict that gives rise to it endures: we wonder as long as the stars seem strange. And wonder typically, if not always, ceases when the conflict ceases: we cease wondering when the stars seem familiar. By contrast, curiosity about the stars can wane even though they continue to seem strange, and it can continue after they seem familiar. Fourth, wonder differs from curiosity in its relation to desires for cognition. Wonder is not necessarily or typically accompanied by a desire to know, as 13. There is a superb portrayal of this aspect of wonder, and its deflation, in the character of Wanda in Federico Fellini’s The White Sheik (Italian: Lo sceicco bianco, 1952). 14. Rene´ Descartes, The Passions of the Soul, pt. II, article 53, in The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, vol. 1, trans. John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, and Dugald Murdoch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 350. A Cartesian account of wonder is worked out in splendid detail by Nicolas Malebranche, The Search After Truth, trans. Thomas M. Lennon and Paul J. Olscamp (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1980), bk. V, secs. 7–8, 373–389. Benedict de Spinoza gave a rather different definition of wonder as ‘‘an imagination of a thing in which the Mind remains fixed because this singular imagination has no connection with the others’’ (see Ethics in Collected Works of Spinoza, vol. 1, ed. and trans. Edwin Curley [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985], pt. III, ‘‘Definitions of the Affects,’’ 532; see also P52 Schol., 524). Wonder becomes consternation when the subject fears the object. William James’s opposition between curiosity and fear echoes Spinoza’s opposition between positive wonder and consternation (The Principles of Psychology, vol. 2, 523). One of Dewey’s remarks on wonder is in line with Cartesian thinking: ‘‘Surprise, the unexpected, novelty, stimulate it [that is, wonder]’’ (HWT, 52).

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curiosity is. It is not clear whether it is typically accompanied by a desire to relieve the cognitive conflict that gives rise to it. But if this desire is present in instances of wonder, it does not usually lead to an attempt to relieve the cognitive conflict. We do not usually have an overriding desire to terminate the state of wonder. Our overriding desire is usually to remain in the state, either because we find it pleasurable or because we regard it as instrumental to understanding or because we desire it for its own sake. Many religions attempt to induce or prolong wonder at certain objects (for example, the heavens) as a means to understanding the divine, or at least they attempt to induce or prolong the sort of cognitive conflict that frequently produces wonder. They may do so because inducing a cognitive conflict makes available for reflection an inconsistency about the heavens, and reflection on such an inconsistency is thought to give insight into the divine. In all this, wonder contrasts with curiosity, which is accompanied by a desire that tends to impel us to terminate the state of curiosity. To be sure, we often desire to be in a state of curiosity, as evidenced by our enthusiasm for puzzles. We may desire a state of curiosity because we find curiosity or the satisfaction of curiosity pleasurable, as in the case of puzzles, or because curiosity is instrumental to inquiry. We may even desire a state of curiosity because we find it to be intrinsically valuable. But we do not desire to be in a state of curiosity without also desiring to be in a state we would desire to terminate were we in that state. In other words, we do not desire a prolonged state of curiosity. This is a key difference in the import of curiosity and wonder for inquiry. Prolonging cognitive conflict of the sort that gives rise to wonder is thought useful for appreciating contradiction and mystery; curiosity drives us to eliminate cognitive conflict. In wonder we are not overridingly motivated to resolve cognitive conflict, while curiosity motivates us to inquire. Curiosity is therefore the more useful state for most epistemic purposes. Fifth, wonder tends to decay rapidly. If our wonder about the stars stems from comparing their majesty with the common character of objects on earth, we prolong wonder only by attending to the comparison and reminding ourselves of how striking it is. Prolonging wonder depends on prolonging the surprise or puzzlement that produces it. By contrast, curiosity tends to persist on its own until satisfied (unless our attention is distracted from the object). We do not need to make an effort to attend to the topic or remind ourselves of its interest. This is another difference between curiosity and wonder that makes curiosity epistemically more useful than wonder. Descartes regarded astonishment as pathological — ‘‘an excess of wonder’’ that stymies action.15 Nicolas Malebranche observed that wonder can ‘‘become excessive to the point of stupefaction,’’ in which case it leaves ‘‘rational curiosity’’ behind.16 Stupefaction results when surprise overwhelms our management of the conflict between our expectations and what we find or when puzzlement prevents us from resolving the conflict in our thinking about the object. The stupefaction of astonishment seems to prevent not only further inquiry but even curiosity about 15. Descartes, The Passions of the Soul, pt. II, article 73, 354. 16. Malebranche, The Search After Truth, 386.


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the object: the subject is too flummoxed to desire to know about the object.17 Nor is it possible for curiosity to stupefy us. Descartes made wonder ‘‘the first of all the passions’’: wonder fixes our first attention on an object. The value of wonder is to make us persist in attending to a novel object when we would not otherwise do so, and to attend to it long enough to judge whether it has utility for us or not, and finally, if it does have utility, to assess whether it is harmful or beneficial. Descartes’s account of the value of wonder omits the epistemic value of wonder recognized by religions, of enhancing our understanding of the divine. And it appears to assume that wonder leads to or motivates an inquiry into the utility of an object when in fact it does not. But even though the account is inaccurate in regard to the value of wonder, a similar account of the value of curiosity is accurate. Curiosity has the value of fixing our desire to know topics into which we would not otherwise be motivated to inquire, thereby making us attend to them more closely than we would otherwise. However, curiosity does not fix our first attention on an object: curiosity emerges from attention rather than the other way around. There are of course differences between the value of wonder on the Cartesian account and the value we ascribe to curiosity. For Descartes, wonder concerns novel objects while curiosity may arise about any topic, novel or familiar. And, according to Descartes, the value of wonder is entirely practical: it leads us to judge the utility of objects and thereby treat objects according to their utility; whereas curiosity does not necessarily concern the utility of objects. Descartes’s account of the value of wonder does not recognize any role for the resolution of surprise or puzzlement in the value of wonder. And curiosity that results from surprise or puzzlement does have the value of motivating the resolution of the puzzlement. But again, the value of curiosity goes beyond the resolution of surprise and puzzlement, since it occurs without surprise. The upshot of our discussion is that curiosity has more epistemic value than wonder does because it stimulates inquiry more generally and more powerfully than wonder does. CURIOSITY AND THE DESIRE TO KNOW We have said that curiosity involves the desire to know.18 Have we fastened on the right target of desire? David Hume defined curiosity as the ‘‘love of truth.’’19 But we can see that the desire for truth is too weak for curiosity, at least for 17. This is not to deny that stupefaction and paralysis of curiosity and inquiry can be an appropriate reaction to an awesome object — for example, the cosmos. 18. It is worth noting that there is no distinction between being curious whether p and being curious to know whether p. We observe that being curious about an object cannot be defined as curiosity whether propositions are true — just what we would expect if curiosity requires knowledge, since knowledge of an object cannot be defined as knowledge of propositions. Can one be curious to learn whether p? This may be just a way of saying that one is curious whether p. It is interesting that we do not say that someone is curious to know how to play the piano, though we say that someone is curious to know how one plays the piano and curious to experience learning how to play the piano. 19. But he defined curiosity as the love of knowledge in David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, bk. 2, pt. 3, sec. 10, 453, and in Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary, ed. Eugene F. Miller (Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1987), 113.

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curiosity about objects or propositions of a sort we think we are capable of knowing. The person who is curious whether Goldbach’s Conjecture is true would not be fully satisfied by a mere true belief as to whether it is true. If offered a choice between a device that would, upon pressing a button, implant a true belief as to whether the Conjecture is true and a device that would implant knowledge, the subject would prefer the latter device and would do so to satisfy curiosity. Indeed, the requirement of knowledge is not merely for a justified true belief. If Smith is curious whether Jones has ten coins in his pocket, he will not be fully satisfied by a true belief to this effect that arises in the manner described by Edmund Gettier in his famous examples of justified true belief without knowledge.20 It will not be enough for him to arrive at the justified true belief that the man who will get the job has ten coins in his pocket by reasoning from the justified false beliefs that Jones is the man who will get the job and that Jones has ten coins in his pocket. It will not satisfy him to arrive luckily at a true conclusion. Curiosity requires the desire for knowledge in the full sense of ‘‘knowledge’’ recognized in recent epistemology, in which justified true belief is not enough for knowledge. Evidently, curiosity requires that the subject bear the right relation to the truth of the belief — believing it because it is true. More exactly, this is so for curiosity about objects and propositions of a sort that we think we are capable of knowing. We might satisfy our curiosity with less when we do not think we are capable of knowing the object or proposition. Such curiosity would presumably require only desiring that we have a justified true belief about the object or a justified true belief in the proposition rather than requiring knowing the object or proposition.21 Does curiosity require a desire for more than knowledge? If Pandora is curious what is in the box, must she desire anything more than knowing what is in the box? Must she desire, not merely to know what is in the box, but to know this as a result of inquiring what is in the box? Would it satisfy her curiosity merely to find out what is in the box accidentally, without inquiry — for instance, if the lid of the box accidentally opens to reveal its contents or if someone tells her what is in it without her inquiring? If her curiosity can be satisfied only by her own inquiry, must the inquiry be firsthand, or is it enough to receive testimony as a result of inquiry? Would her curiosity be satisfied only by having the experience of opening the box? One might say that any of the scenarios would satisfy Pandora if she is merely curious what is in the box, as opposed to being curious to learn or inquire what is in the box or to experience opening the box. We do not, then, have a clear case that curiosity as to what is in the box requires desiring inquiry, firsthand inquiry, or the experience of opening the box in addition to desiring to know what is in the box. However, our discussion of the example of Pandora does show that some curiosity requires more than desiring to know. Pandora might be, not merely curious 20. Edmund Gettier, ‘‘Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?’’ Analysis 23 (1963): 121–123. 21. The point that curiosity must be defined in terms of the desire for knowledge, hence in terms of knowledge, entails that the trait of curiosity must also be defined in these terms. Consequently knowledge cannot be defined by a list of virtues that includes curiosity, on pain of circularity.


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what is in the box, but curious to see for herself what is in the box or to experience opening the box. More generally, one can be curious not just about an object and as to whether p (or as to what is the case, or when, where, why, or how something is the case). One can also be curious to see for oneself or to experience. Ulysses was curious to hear the song of the Sirens. No doubt such curiosity involves a desire to know what the song of the Sirens is like, but it involves more than this. Ulysses’ curiosity would not be satisfied merely by being informed of what the song of the Sirens is like. A description of the song might inform him of this, but it would not fully satisfy his curiosity. His curiosity involves a desire to experience aurally the song of the Sirens. (It might be that Ulysses is curious not merely to hear the song of the Sirens, for which a recording might do, but to hear the Sirens sing, for which auditing a live performance is required.) The desire involved in curiosity to experience an object is not captured by a desire to know what it is like to experience the object. Perhaps curiosity whether p and curiosity to experience an object have in common entailing a desire for cognitive contact with reality (to borrow a term from Linda Zagzebski) or for acquaintance.22 On this view, the desire to know whether p and the desire to experience an object are instances of the same general type of desire, for cognitive contact with reality, and all cases of curiosity have in common entailing a desire of this type. Whether desire to experience an object is aptly described this way depends on whether it reduces to a mere desire for novel sensations (what psychologists call ‘‘diversive curiosity’’) or instead involves a desire to relate cognitively to objects in the environment.23 It seems likely that it involves the latter. Perhaps more important than the state of curiosity to experience an object is the trait of being curious to experience a variety of things — for example, being curious to experience a variety of foods. If it is kept within limits — the subject is not curious to experience every sort of thing — and it does not degenerate into mere sensationalism (a desire for a variety of sensations, without the prompting of attention to the object), this sort of curiosity is regarded as valuable.24 Curiosity does not entail a generic desire for knowledge.25 One can be curious as to whether p without having a desire to know a great deal or to know a great variety of things, and without having a desire always to avoid believing what one does not 22. Zagzebski, Virtues of the Mind, 45, 167. Dewey ascribed curiosity to a desire for acquaintance (‘‘some direct contact’’), and we find this ascription plausible. But he then traced the desire for acquaintance to a ‘‘Desire for expansion, for ‘self-realization’.The interest is sympathetic, socially and aesthetically sympathetic, rather than cognitive’’ (HWT, 248). We see no reason to suppose that curiosity has a basis in a desire for self-realization or in sympathy, though it may enhance a sense of self. 23. See Loewenstein, ‘‘The Psychology of Curiosity,’’ 77–78. 24. Dewey suggested that sensationalism is a pathological degeneration of curiosity (HWT, 40). But according to recent work in the psychology of curiosity, a desire for novel or diverse sensations is more likely due to a tendency that is distinct from curiosity — the tendency psychologists call diversive curiosity, or the tendency to seek diverse experiences and activities (instrumental to relieving boredom). 25. How does the trait of curiosity relate to that of inquisitiveness? The trait of curiosity is manifested by states of curiosity while inquisitiveness is manifested by inquiring as a result of a nonpractical desire to inquire (either an intrinsic desire to inquire on that occasion or a desire to inquire for the sake of inquiry or knowledge). Curiosity generally causes inquisitiveness, and conversely.

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know. The desire for knowledge entailed by a state of curiosity is specific to the topic of curiosity. In cases of curiosity whether p, it is a desire to know whether p. It is worth noting that there is no such thing as generic curiosity. Curiosity is always specific in two ways. First, there is no such thing as a state of curiosity satisfied by the knowledge of just any object or proposition. It is not a state of curiosity if it would be satisfied by coming to know just anything. Curiosity is always satisfied only by knowledge of an object or proposition, either specific or of a type — indeed, an object or proposition designated in advance of satisfaction. In this, curiosity differs from hunger, which is satisfied by any food, provided there is enough of it.26 Second, in curiosity the designated object or proposition is itself less than fully general. There is no such thing as curiosity about everything, or curiosity as to the whole truth about the world. Curiosity is always about a specific object or proposition, or type of object or proposition more limited than the generic type of all objects or propositions. (Compare wonder: it seems possible to wonder at the whole world — perhaps by contrasting what one finds with one’s a priori expectations.) One might object to the claim that curiosity entails a desire to know on the ground that it has the counterintuitive consequence that very young children and nonhuman animals cannot be curious, since they lack the concept of knowledge and so cannot desire to know. We may attribute hunger to very young children and dogs and still view hunger as entailing a desire to eat, for very young children and dogs may plausibly be said to have the concept of eating. But we cannot attribute curiosity to them and still view curiosity as entailing a desire to know. A proponent of the appetitive account of curiosity must either deny that desiring to know entails that the subject has the concept of knowledge or acquiesce in the conclusion that very young children and animals cannot be curious. We do not find this a decisive objection to the appetitive account. Suppose that desiring to know entails that the subject has the concept of knowledge and that very young children and animals lack the concept of knowledge. The appetitive account may still allow that very young children and animals exhibit behavior like the behavior adult humans exhibit when curious — approaching, sensing, examining, testing, and the like. It may also allow that this behavior arises from a cognitive state that resembles curiosity at least in arising from a mechanism that triggers the behavior when the cognitive system has an information deficit relative to a target for information. A cognitive mechanism of this sort does not require a desire to know. The appetitive account may thus allow that very young children exhibit behavior functionally equivalent to curiosity before they acquire the conceptual means to be curious, and that this behavior arises from cognition that resembles curiosity. The account need only concede that these children are not genuinely curious. One might wonder what the claim that a subject is genuinely curious adds to the claim that the subject exhibits behavior functionally equivalent to curiosity, behavior that arises from curiosity-like cognition. The answer is

26. We speak of being hungry for pizza, but this would seem to mean only that we are hungry, and for additional reasons of taste we desire that our hunger be satisfied by pizza.


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that it adds what is involved in genuinely desiring knowledge. The reason to doubt that very young children desire knowledge is a reason to think that they lack something of value. We doubt that they desire knowledge because we do not see them exhibit practical reasoning (which here may include reasoning that aims at actions to satisfy epistemic goals) of the sort that adult humans engage in when curious, in which the desire to know causes us to set a goal of knowing, which in turn constrains plans for behavior. What is valuable in curiosity, over and above the behavior and cognition we may attribute to very young children, is the effect of desiring knowledge on practical reasoning and planning. So the appetitive account may allow that very young children exhibit some of the features of curiosity while maintaining that they lack some features that make curiosity more valuable than the behavior and cognition we attribute to the children. Of course, any ground for attributing more than this behavior and cognition to very young children would also be a ground for finding the appetitive view consistent with attributing genuine curiosity to the children. For this reason, the objection is not decisive against the appetitive account or the commonsense picture of curiosity as entailing the desire to know. FOUNDATIONS OF THE EPISTEMIC VALUE OF CURIOSITY: TENACITY We have argued that curiosity, according to our everyday notion, is an appetite for knowledge. This characterization relates curiosity to features it necessarily has. The instrumental value of these features for knowledge is obvious enough: the desire to know tends to lead to knowledge; the fact that the desire to know is sustained by attention enhances the chance that the desire will be satisfied. We will say more about the epistemic value of these necessary features of curiosity subsequently. In the meantime, we embark on a discussion of the epistemic value conferred on curiosity by its contingent and normative features. It is a contingent fact that typical states of curiosity have what we will call tenacity. That is, for a typical state of curiosity whether p, one has more than a desire to know whether p; one is also disposed to be curious about issues related to p. Of course, for any state of curiosity whether p, one will tend to desire to know q if one thinks that knowing q is necessary for or likely to facilitate knowing p. If one is curious whether gold dissolves in aqua regia, and one thinks that to find out it will help to know whether silver dissolves in the same acid, then one will desire to know the latter. This follows simply from the fact that curiosity whether p entails desiring to know whether p (together with the fact that desiring anything tends to make one desire what one thinks to be instrumental to it). However, this tendency to desire instrumental knowledge, entailed by curiosity, is limited in two ways. It is limited to a desire for knowledge of propositions q one thinks to be instrumental to knowing p. And it is a tendency only to desire instrumental knowledge that q, not to be curious as to whether q. By contrast, tenacity involves being disposed to desire knowledge of q, for propositions q related to p; it is not merely a tendency to desire knowledge instrumental to knowing p. And it involves being disposed to be curious as to whether q, for propositions q one believes suitably related to p; it does not merely involve being disposed to desire to know q. More exactly, it involves

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being conditionally curious about matters related to whether p — that is, disposed to be curious as to whether q, once it is settled whether p, for propositions q one believes related to the proposition that p. We have spoken of tenacity as a disposition to be curious about matters related to whether p, but this could be understood either as a disposition to be curious about matters one believes to be related to p or as a disposition to be curious about matters really related to p. Perhaps one need not go as far as to be disposed to be curious about matters really related to p, but it is plausible that tenacity involves both a disposition to be curious about matters one believes to be related to p together with a disposition to inquire into matters because one expects them to be related to p. In spelling out what tenacity is, it is not clear whether to say that in the typical case, curiosity whether p is satisfied by knowing p but drives us on to curiosity about related issues, or to say instead that curiosity whether p is not quite satisfied by knowing p but requires the satisfaction of curiosity about related issues.27 The former proposal would treat curiosity as a state satisfied just in case the desires it entails are satisfied, whereas the latter proposal would treat curiosity as a state the satisfaction of which requires something more than the satisfaction of the desires it entails. On the former proposal, curiosity as to whether p would end with the knowledge that p even though the subject continues to be curious about related matters, while, on the latter proposal, curiosity as to whether p would not end until curiosity about related issues is satisfied. Whichever of these views we adopt, tenacity seems not to be a conceptually necessary condition of curiosity but holds for typical states of curiosity as a matter of psychology. The tenacity of curiosity seems quite important for its instrumental value for inquiry. According to Edmund Burke, ‘‘Curiosity is the most superficial of all the affections; it changes its object perpetually; it has an appetite which is very sharp, but very easily satisfied; and it has always an appearance of giddiness, restlessness and anxiety.’’28 Burke’s description of curiosity as perpetually changing its object is correct if we understand the description to mean that typically curiosity whether p is replaced with curiosity about further issues once whether p has been settled. But it is a mistake to infer from the fact that curiosity typically involves such a change in focus that it is superficial in being very easily satisfied. On the contrary, the change in focus is part of curiosity’s tenacity, of its not being easily satisfied. Tenacity is a source of a valuable state Dewey called ‘‘wholeheartedness,’’ by which he meant a species of wholeheartedness in the common sense of throwing oneself into one’s projects. In his sense, wholeheartedness is absorption in the pursuit of knowledge or understanding: ‘‘When a person is absorbed, the subject carries him on.the material holds and buoys his mind up and gives an onward impetus to thinking’’ (HWT, 31–32). States of curiosity are one source of wholeheartedness in this sense, perhaps a generally necessary cause of it, and their 27. We may ask, too, what happens when the desire to know whether p is not satisfied in a case of curiosity whether p: do we have a disposition to become curious about other issues related to whether p? 28. Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, 31.


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tenacity is one source of the impetus involved in absorption. Dewey described this as a ‘‘genuine enthusiasm,’’ and it is plausible that curiosity is a cause of enthusiasm in inquiry. It would seem to be psychologically impossible to be engrossed in a novel without being curious as to what comes next in the story. Similarly, it would be psychologically impossible to be riveted by a question without being curious about related matters. Curiosity is needed to sustain an intense attention to a topic, and by its tenacity it brings with it curiosity about related matters. One source of the epistemic value of curiosity, then, is that a tenacious state of curiosity will eventuate in a larger body of knowledge related to the topic of curiosity than a nontenacious state of curiosity will, other things being equal, if our desire for knowledge is satisfied. Moreover, since the knowledge tenacity disposes us to desire is knowledge of related propositions, a tenacious state will frequently eventuate in the possession of more justification for and a greater understanding of the propositions known. In short, it will lead to deeper knowledge of the topics of curiosity than nontenacious states do. PATHOLOGIES OF CURIOSITY Curiosity is subject to epistemic pathologies of obsession. These include a passion for knowledge of a specified topic to the exclusion of other knowledge and for petty detail or complete knowledge of a topic. Malebranche gave examples of each of these kinds of curiosity: curiosity about definitions to the exclusion of all else (‘‘an entire library of all kinds of dictionaries’’) and ‘‘the curiosity of those who collect coins from all countries and periods.’’29 Another example of the second category is Uncle Toby’s obsession with the details of the Battle of Namur (in Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman).30 These obsessions are epistemically pathological because, given the limitations on the effort we can expend to acquire knowledge, and the narrowness and pettiness of their subject matter, they prevent us from inquiring into a suitably broad range of topics or from inquiring into topics we need to know to understand the world. These pathologies of obsession are exacerbated if not caused by an exaggeration of the otherwise valuable tenacity of curiosity, discussed previously. Curiosity is also subject to pathologies that are not necessarily obsessive. There are pathological states of curiosity — nosy, unwholesome, and morbid curiosity. And there are pathological forms of inquiry that reflect badly on the states or traits of curiosity that give rise to them — prying, peeping, voyeurism, and rubbernecking. These are certainly moral but not necessarily epistemic pathologies. Nosy, unwholesome, and morbid curiosity are epistemically objectionable only insofar as they draw us to petty knowledge, the pursuit of which distracts us from knowledge of greater importance. But not all nosy and morbid curiosity is petty.

29. Malebranche, The Search After Truth, bk. V, chap. 11, 401. 30. Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (New York: The Modern Library, 2004), bk. II, chap. 3, 68–70. For a discussion of this example, see Zagzebski, Virtues of the Mind, 194–197.

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The epistemic objection to petty curiosity clearly does not apply to another sort of curiosity that has been regarded as at least morally and perhaps also epistemically pathological. Traditional religion routinely condemns curiosity about (though not wonder at) the profound, sacred, or diabolical, as the stories of Eve, Lot’s wife, Pandora, and Ulysses illustrate. One might take curiosity about these matters to be inappropriate. Or one might think that curiosity can lead to knowledge only of profane matters (as Augustine apparently did). Neither of these grounds for condemning curiosity about the divine is epistemic. The best ground for condemning such curiosity would seem to be that any inquiry into God should aim not at knowledge or even understanding but at a relationship with God, and curiosity about God is no more appropriate as a primary instrument for developing such a relationship than curiosity about another person is appropriate as a primary instrument for developing a friendship with that person. But, again, this would seem to be a moral and not an epistemic criticism of curiosity about the divine. FOUNDATIONS OF THE EPISTEMIC VALUE OF CURIOSITY: INDEPENDENCE FROM OUR INTERESTS The example of morbid curiosity highlights an important feature of curiosity: it does not generally depend for its choice of topics on our having prior practical or epistemic interests in that topic. We are drawn to the morbid despite lacking any practical or epistemic motivation to inquire into it, and even against our revulsion at the topic. We will call this feature of curiosity its independence from practical and epistemic interests. This independence from interests does not follow from the fact that curiosity is motivationally original, but motivational originality makes independence possible. To be sure, curiosity is not wholly independent from our practical and epistemic interests. These interests bias our curiosity: we are more apt to be curious about topics related to those we already desire to know.31 Part of the value of curiosity lies in the way it reinforces inquiry into topics that interest us. This has an effect like that of tenacity, of deepening our knowledge of the topics of interest. We take the mechanisms of tenacity and interest bias to be distinct mechanisms with similar effects. Although curiosity about the morbid has little epistemic value for most of us, the independence of curiosity from interests that it highlights has epistemic value. The independence of curiosity from our practical and epistemic interests tends to divert our attention from topics of practical and epistemic interest to topics we are not yet interested in. Curiosity frequently gets the better of us and unexpectedly draws us to a topic in which we have little antecedent interest.32 In this way,

31. As we have noted, the information-gap theory of curiosity entails that people are more likely to be curious about a topic on which they already know more. This is a cognitive biasing of curiosity toward topics about which the subject knows more. However, it tends to coincide with the biasing of curiosity by interests, since we tend to know more about the things in which we are interested. 32. In addition to the value of curiosity whether p for knowing p for practical reasons, for reasons of the distribution of knowledge, and simply for knowing p, curiosity has instrumental value for retaining knowledge that p. Daniel E. Berlyne showed that curiosity about a question reinforces learning of the answer to the question (see ‘‘An Experimental Study of Human Curiosity,’’ British Journal of Psychology 45, no. 1 (1954): 256–265).


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curiosity broadens our attention and ultimately our practical and epistemic interests. This effect of curiosity is most beneficial when we lack many practical and epistemic interests, as with children, or when our interests are weakly motivating and so lead to little inquiry, or when our interests are narrow or petty, and we would otherwise devote considerable effort to building a less than estimable body of knowledge. The motivation to inquire into topics without prior interest in them is instrumentally valuable and indeed essential for developing the stock of knowledge that determines what we are interested in and thereby partly determines what counts for us as an estimable distribution of knowledge. It is also instrumentally valuable for producing the knowledge that contributes to an estimable distribution. We add that the knowledge we obtain when curiosity drives us afield of our interests sometimes comes to deepen our understanding of the topics in which we have a prior interest. CURIOSITY IN THE DEVELOPMENT OF LEARNING To put the epistemic value of curiosity in perspective, it will help to consider where it enters in the development of learning. Here we follow Dewey’s stages or levels of development in his account of the value of curiosity.33 We assume these to be idealized descriptions of distinct forms of cognitive functioning, not descriptions of actual temporally segregated stages of historical development. We differ from Dewey on what it takes to be curious, and we do not apply the term ‘‘curious’’ to very young children, as he did; but we find his description of levels helpful for discerning the value of curiosity. First, Dewey’s ‘‘organic level’’ refers to those who lack any interest in inquiry (HWT, 38). As we have conceded, very young children lack the concept of knowledge. Accordingly, they lack both curiosity and practical, theoretical, and epistemic interests in knowledge. These emerge only after the cognitive development necessary for acquiring the concept of knowledge. But nature provides them with an effective equivalent of curiosity: an innate disposition to handle and examine novel objects in their environment — ‘‘reaching, poking, pounding, prying’’ (HWT, 37). As Dewey observed, ‘‘Objects are.experimented with until they cease to yield new qualities’’ (HWT, 38). Children engage in these activities, as animals do, ‘‘without real reference to the business in hand’’ — indeed, in most instances, they have no business in hand, since they have an impoverished set of practical interests, as of desires to know.34 These activities resemble the ‘‘exploring and testing’’ caused by curiosity but differ from them in not being driven by interests (HWT, 38). Here a disposition to handle and observe novel objects until they become boring yields knowledge in the way that curiosity does later on. The disposition resembles 33. For discussion of the role of curiosity in cognitive development, see Joachim F. Wohlwill, ‘‘Introduction,’’ in Curiosity, Imagination, and Play, eds. Dietmar Go¨rlitz and Joachim F. Wohlwill (Hillsdale, New Jersey: Erlbaum, 1987), 1–21. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi argues that curiosity is ‘‘the first step toward a more creative life’’ (Creativity, 346). 34. Dewey (HWT, 37) quoted this phrase from L.T. Hobhouse, Mind in Evolution, 3d ed. (London: Macmillan, 1926), 195.

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curiosity, too, in that attention sustains the knowledge-producing behavior. In this respect, it is unlike the desire to know caused by a startlingly loud noise, in which attention does not sustain the desire to know. The epistemic value of the disposition here is to supply a diverse stock of knowledge from observation even though interests are lacking. As Dewey pointed out, the disposition has depth in the sense that the child tends to continue testing the object until there are diminishing returns in the observation of new qualities or until a more stimulating object appears. This is analogous to the tenacity of curiosity. However, it differs from tenacity in not being directed by any connection in the topics for which the object is examined. Second, Dewey’s ‘‘social level’’ describes those with a stock of knowledge supplied by the effective equivalent of curiosity at the organic level (HWT, 38). Young children soon acquire enough knowledge to ask persistent questions of others and thereby enlarge and diversify their stock of knowledge. As Dewey suggested, it is unclear whether these children yet have an interest in knowledge or rather operate from an innate disposition simply to ask questions or from an interest ‘‘in the mere process of asking a question’’ and provoking an answer (HWT, 39). The repetitive and exhaustive why-questions posed by young children have a mechanical character that suggests an innate disposition or an interest in provoking an answer. Moreover, even if they do ask questions out of an interest in knowledge, it is not clear that their interest exhibits the causal structure of curiosity — attention to an object leading to a desire to know, producing further attention. It could be that their questions result from a desire to know specific facts that is instrumental to a generic desire to know. Whatever the explanation for their questions, the disposition to ask questions is at least an effective equivalent of curiosity. Again, their disposition to ask exhaustive questions is analogous to the tenacity of curiosity. This disposition differs from that at the organic level in driving the child to inquire into topics relevant to the starting question. Evidently the choice of questions is guided by a sense of their relevance. But the topics tend not to be as relevant to the question or as well chosen for developing related knowledge as the topics pursued as the result of the tenacity of curiosity. This difference is perhaps only a consequence of a difference in the amount of knowledge the child has at the social level and later on. Knowledge of relevance guides the choice of questions at the social level, as it does the inquiry that stems from the tenacity of curiosity. Third, Dewey’s ‘‘intellectual level’’ refers to those having a stock of knowledge produced by the effective equivalents of curiosity at the organic and social levels (HWT, 38–39). Dewey focused attention on the point that firsthand inquiry begins in earnest at this level, though of course reliance on others for knowledge, such as we find in formal schooling, remains an essential source of diversification and depth in knowledge. For our purposes, what matters is that at this level the child has sufficient concepts to form the desire for knowledge and may therefore not only develop interests in acquiring more knowledge but also exhibit genuine curiosity. Curiosity then gradually replaces the effective equivalents at the organic and


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social levels. Curiosity comes to provide much of the stimulus for inquiry (whether firsthand or secondhand). The advent of the concept of knowledge enables the child to develop practical and epistemic interests to acquire knowledge. But there is no reason to think that most of the child’s inquiry results from these interests. The child continues to exhibit the driven investigation characteristic of the organic level, ‘‘without real reference to the business in hand.’’ But now curiosity takes over the role of the organic equivalent of curiosity. Though curiosity is supplemented by practical or epistemic interests that favor inquiry, it accounts for most of the inquiry. It may override practical interests not to inquire. Curiosity differs from its earlier effective equivalents at the organic and social levels in involving a desire to know. This is one significant reason why it has greater value than its equivalents. The dispositions of the organic and social levels do not engage practical reasoning. In one respect they do not differ from curiosity: they do not result from practical reasoning. But in another respect they differ: they neither involve nor produce inputs to practical reasoning. By contrast, curiosity involves a desire to know, and such a desire is an input to practical reasoning. This desire may be balanced in practical reasoning against practical and epistemic interests. A goal of knowing p produced by curiosity’s desire to know p may be strengthened, attenuated, or rescinded in light of practical or epistemic interests. And practical reasoning may find efficient ways to satisfy the desire to know. In this way, curiosity commands some of the flexibility, motivational power, and efficiency of practical reasoning and promises a more efficient and fruitful production of knowledge than that of its effective equivalents at the organic and social levels. Curiosity’s deployment of practical reasoning improves the prospect that inquiry will contribute positively to the epistemically estimable distribution of knowledge over the prospect offered at the organic and social levels. The interest bias and tenacity of curiosity also make it more valuable than its effective equivalents. At the intellectual level children begin to specialize their inquiry. The organic and social dispositions are not biased toward practical or epistemic interests and so do not focus the child’s examination on topics in which the child has a practical or epistemic interest. Curiosity, by contrast, does bias inquiry in this way. The organic and social dispositions do exhibit a sort of tenacity — toward the object of immediate attention at the organic level and toward the topic of the starting question at the social level. But, as we have already noted, this does not tend to lead to an examination of topics well chosen for the development of knowledge. By contrast, the tenacity of curiosity leads the child to inquire into topics in which he or she is interested, to continue inquiring as if guided by interests, and to relent in the inquiry depending on goals determined by practical and epistemic interests as well as by motivationally original desires to know. At the same time, tenacity disposes the child to continue examining the related topics beyond the point that practical and epistemic interests mandate, and this makes a contribution to knowledge that alters these interests and propels cognitive development. The interest independence of curiosity has

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much the same effect, enabling us to act against practical and epistemic motivation not to inquire. The effervescent curiosity of childhood recedes with maturity. Dewey suggested, plausibly, that curiosity ‘‘degenerates or evaporates’’ and is replaced by indifference, flippancy, or dogmatism unless the child develops into a firsthand inquirer (HWT, 39).35 Schooling is sometimes blamed for the evaporation of curiosity, but the mounting practical concerns that accompany maturation may take the larger toll on curiosity, discouraging firsthand inquiry not instrumental to those concerns. Unfortunately, curiosity is just what is needed to form a practice of firsthand inquiry that can prevent its degeneration. For this reason, the best opportunity for mature curiosity lies in the early formation of a practice of firsthand inquiry, relying on immature curiosity. The fourth level described by Dewey addresses specialization of interests. All human beings develop special interests in knowing. This is a consequence of practical interests that we inadvertently develop. It is also a consequence of our epistemic interest in accumulating an estimable stock of knowledge. Plausibly, an estimable stock of knowledge exhibits an appropriate weighting of depth on some topics against breadth of topics and respects the desirability of our contributing original knowledge to the store of knowledge available to others through testimony or collaboration. Specialization is necessary if we are to achieve estimable depth on some topics and if we are to contribute original knowledge. Both of these achievements require a substantial amount of firsthand inquiry. Even after specialization of interests has set in, curiosity continues to have epistemic value for both the depth and breadth of knowledge in which we have a practical or epistemic interest. It has such value because it acts independently of — often for but occasionally against — practical and epistemic interests. Let us list the valuable effects of curiosity on the specialized pursuit of knowledge in this fourth level of development. First, as we emphasized earlier, practical and epistemic interests bias our curiosity so that it increases our attention to the topics of our specialty.36 Second, the tenacity of curiosity about a topic tends to increase the depth of our knowledge on the topic, in tandem with any 35. This raises the question why a failure to engage in firsthand inquiry causes curiosity to degenerate. Why isn’t inquiry from testimony enough to sustain curiosity? One possible answer is that once the disposition to ask why-questions recedes, only observation from firsthand inquiry provides enough vividness and certainty about the topic to trigger the tenacity of curiosity; yet unless tenacity is regularly triggered, the child does not form strong enough desires to know. Psychologists have yet to offer an account of the development of curiosity that explains these matters. 36. These points are supported by recent work on motivation in creative enterprises such as art and science. Success in such enterprises depends on more than practical motivation: ‘‘Without curiosity, the act of pursuing success, eminence, and creativity is not enough to motivate an individual to consistently maintain 10-, 12-, or even 16-hour workdays at the expense of developing balance between work and other life roles.we characterize curiosity as a self-regulatory mechanism that facilitates intrinsic goal effort, perseverance, personal growth, and, under the right conditions, creativity’’ (Todd B. Kashdan and Frank D. Fincham, ‘‘Facilitating Creativity by Regulating Curiosity,’’ American Psychologist 57, no. 5 [2002]: 373–374). Intrinsic interest in a domain makes work more satisfying and enhances the sense of self (see Richard L. Ryan and Edward L. Deci, ‘‘Self-Determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development, and Well-Being,’’ American Psychologist 55, no. 1 [2000]: 68–78).


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practical or epistemic interest to do so and against any practical motivation not to do so. Third, by virtue of its interest independence, curiosity brings our attention to topics within our specialty that our interests would not have led us to consider or would have discouraged us from considering. This increases the depth of our knowledge of the specialty. It makes us familiar with topics within our specialty that we would not otherwise have noticed and in this way puts us in a position to make better informed decisions about where to allocate our resources for further inquiry within our specialty. Fourth, by virtue of its interest independence, curiosity leads us to topics outside our specialty and even overrides the practical and epistemic interests and the motivationally original desires that limit our inquiry to our specialty. This keeps us in touch with the wider world and occasionally brings to our attention topics outside our specialty that bear on inquiry within our specialty. It is true that we would have no need of curiosity if we had practical or epistemic interests to inquire strong enough to override any practical interests we may have not to inquire, and if we had the wisdom to see which topics it would be best to examine to satisfy those interests, and, further, if all this emerged without being initiated by motivationally original desires to know. If the organic and social levels gave us enough practical and epistemic motivation to inquire and made some distribution of knowledge estimable for us, we could do without curiosity. But these conditions are wanting. For this reason, we are fortunate to be curious creatures. We have emphasized that by virtue of tenacity, interest bias, and interest independence, curiosity supplements and opposes our practical and epistemic interests in epistemically valuable ways. The tenacity and interest bias of curiosity enhance the depth of our inquiry by focusing our attention on topics within our specialty. The interest independence of curiosity enhances the breadth and sometimes the depth of our inquiry by diverting our attention to topics outside our specialty. But these features of curiosity carry inherent liabilities. First, the mechanism by which tenacity, interest bias, and interest independence produce depth and breadth is largely unintelligent. The mechanism does not work primarily by intelligent practical reasoning about inquiry, any more than the mechanism by which the organic and social levels lead to knowledge works by intelligent practical reasoning. Tenacious and interest-biased curiosity chooses its targets for inquiry on the basis of a tacit perception of the relevance of those targets. We are somehow providentially guided by considerations of relevance in a way that is unavailable to practical reasoning about inquiry. At the same time, practical reasoning would choose our targets more wisely in the instances in which the mechanism leads us astray. Similarly, interest-independent curiosity chooses its targets in a manner frequently beneficial both to breadth and to depth of inquiry, and practical reasoning about inquiry would not choose as well in the beneficial instances. But practical reasoning would choose better where the mechanism leads us astray.

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A second liability of these unintelligent mechanisms is that they do not intelligently guide the ratio of tenacity and interest bias, on the one hand, and interest independence, on the other. Tenacity and interest bias can compensate for underspecialization by deepening our inquiry in our specialty. Interest independence can compensate for overspecialization by broadening our inquiry. But the mechanisms of curiosity evidently do not monitor whether we underspecialize or overspecialize and intelligently set tenacity, interest bias, and interest independence to compensate for this. It appears that the relative contribution of these features of curiosity is left to chance. Thus, we must concede that curiosity is vulnerable to a further pathology, in addition to those listed previously, of exaggerating underspecialization or overspecialization. Perhaps practical reasoning can to some degree correct the chance setting of these features in light of information about the difference between our actual and our ideal balance of depth and breadth. Or perhaps there are other mechanisms (for example, satiety from overspecialization, or social sanctions to discourage underspecialization) that reset the features of curiosity to improve their effect. We must leave the choice between these for further investigation. FOSTERING CURIOSITY Our aim has been to examine the nature of curiosity, both its necessary and its contingent features, and rely on our findings about it to explain the epistemic value of curiosity — primarily, its instrumental value for knowledge. Our results explain the commonplace that one must have considerable curiosity to develop into a fruitfully inquiring, knowing person and to achieve an estimable distribution in a substantial body of knowledge later in life. But our results do not immediately tell us whether curiosity can be fostered or how to foster it. We noted at the outset that teachers have accumulated techniques to excite curiosity. Dewey made the practical issue of how to ‘‘arouse and guide curiosity’’ his focus for forming habits of reflective thought (HWT, 56–68). We are now interested in whether there is anything in our discussion that might help us to understand and evaluate the effect of teaching techniques in fostering curiosity.37 We can offer only questions at this point in our discussion.38 One set of questions is suggested by the fact that in most people curiosity (both the frequency of episodes and the inclination to curiosity) wanes with maturity. According to the story of levels of functioning we outlined previously, behavior

37. For discussion of how to stimulate curiosity in children, see H.I. Day, ‘‘Curiosity and the Interested Explorer,’’ Performance and Instruction 21, no. 4 (1982): 19–22; and Margaret McNay, ‘‘Science: All the Wonder Things,’’ Childhood Education 61, no. 5 (1985): 375–378; and Gail E. Tomkins and Eileen Tway, ‘‘Adventuring with Words: Keeping Language Curiosity Alive in Elementary School Children,’’ Childhood Education 61, no. 5 (1985): 361–365. 38. Raymond Nickerson has suggested that curiosity can be stimulated by making a practice of close observation of the world, that curiosity is contagious in the sense that one person’s curiosity tends to stimulate another’s, and that curiosity is self-increasing in the sense that ‘‘the more it is indulged, the more it grows’’ (see ‘‘Enhancing Creativity,’’ in Handbook of Creativity, ed. Robert J. Sternberg [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999], 410–411). These are all leads worth pursuing in future work on fostering curiosity.


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that is functionally equivalent to curiosity in the first two levels is eventually replaced by genuine curiosity. But this process of replacement involves considerable loss, and at levels three and four we do not exhibit curiosity with the same frequency or stability that we exhibit its functional equivalents at levels one and two. And in maturation through levels three and four, there is further loss of curiosity. This raises the question whether we can hope to increase curiosity through teaching, or only to retain it, or perhaps only to retard its loss. If we cannot hope to increase total curiosity, we may still hope to affect its distribution over topics. Perhaps we can alter the distribution, from one that is diversified over topics to one that is focused on specific topics. How sharply we wish to focus curiosity would seem to depend on the student’s level of maturity — the more mature the student, the more we would aim to focus curiosity. There is a question related to these. One possible explanation for the waning of curiosity is that it is a natural, biological effect of maturation, of a piece with the natural reduction in the intensity of feelings and passions that comes with age. If this is so, then we would seek to retard the natural reduction of curiosity. Alternatively, curiosity might erode in the way that skills do — from disuse. Then we would seek to prevent erosion by exercising our minds, perhaps by focusing attention in the right way. There is a related question. Even when an individual’s curiosity remains high, maturation increases the number and strength of practical interests against inquiring, and although these do not prevent curiosity, they may preempt its production of inquiry. Very powerful curiosity may prevail over these practical concerns, as may curiosity supported by practical concerns that favor inquiry. How, if at all, can teaching promote curiosity in this contest between curiosity and practical concerns? A second set of questions arises from our suggestion that the contingent features of tenacity and interest independence are the primary sources of curiosity’s epistemic value. Our account of the value of curiosity implies that to foster it in a way that makes it valuable requires fostering its tenacity and interest independence. We have noted that these are at odds with one another: tenacity favors depth of inquiry and interest independence favors breadth. It is plausible enough that directing students toward intensive study of a topic will foster tenacity, while frequent changes in the subject matter taught and adventurous juxtapositions of diverse subjects will foster interest independence. But are these strategies exclusive? More generally, must fostering tenacity undermine interest independence? Are there circumstances in which one is to be preferred to the other? Might we look to the level of the students as a determinant in the choice between tenacity and interest independence if these are genuinely at odds with one another: breadth is more valuable earlier in development, depth later on? A final set of questions arises from the reflection that teaching uncontroversial facts and objectively testable skills must compete for classroom time and resources with exposure to controversial subject matter and creative activities. The latter have been thought to foster curiosity more than the former do. Recent federal education policy in the United States has tended to favor the former by making

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achievement tests a primary basis for allocating resources to schools. Achievement tests must emphasize uncontroversial facts and objective skills if they are to be easily gradable, and thus their use tends to crowd out the teaching of controversial subject matter and creative activities. This trend in education has broad political support and is likely to continue in the foreseeable future. We are thus led to ask whether teaching uncontroversial facts and objectively testable skills must be less effective in exciting curiosity than exposure to controversy and creative activities. If it must be, this would be a significant consideration against a role for testing that prevents such teaching. And if achievement tests must be prominent, it would be a significant consideration in favor of tests that allow more credit for creative activities, despite the greater costs of grading such tests. In this article, we have characterized curiosity about a topic as attention to the topic giving rise to, and in turn sustained by, a motivationally original desire to know. Curiosity is biased by our practical and epistemic interests. It is tenacious, typically involving a disposition to inquire into topics related to the topic of curiosity. And its motivational originality allows it to be to some degree independent of practical and epistemic interests. The value of curiosity depends on these features. Its interest bias and tenacity together lead to deeper inquiry than is motivated by practical and epistemic interests. Its interest independence leads to broader inquiry than interests would dictate, keeping us abreast of the wider world, sometimes to the benefit of our specialties. Curiosity leads to knowledge that, in turn, sets up the interests in knowledge by virtue of which certain distributions of knowledge count as estimable. Curiosity plays its most important role in middle and later childhood, after the child’s innate dispositions to handle objects and persist in questions recede. It enables children to develop topics of special interest and at the same time allows the rounding needed for competent adult life. Later in life curiosity continues to play a role in inquiry, both specialized and general. These reflections explain the high epistemic value we customarily assign to curiosity.

WE WOULD LIKE TO THANK Marcia Baron, Nicholas Burbules, Gary Ebbs, Harvey Siegel, Kevin Toh, and the anonymous referees of Educational Theory for helpful comments.



The Epistemic Value of Curiosity