Curiositas, an Early Modern snapshot
by Leslie Wexler
TORONTO – Curiosity has long been considered a virtue in Western culture. Thomas Hobbes attributes the human institutions of language, science, and religion to it, and David Hume identifies it directly with that «love of truth, which is the first source of all our inquiries.» Yet, for even longer, curiosity has also been depicted as the cause of mankind’s errors. Curiosity is the mark of discontent, the sign of a pursuit of something beyond what you have. Augustine’s views dominated the corrupt and morbid aspects of curiosity for over a millennium. The Curiositas exhibition, on display in the E.J. Pratt library on the University of Toronto campus, considered the moment when curiosity flourished in Europe, England and the Americas. Francis Bacon wanted to change the epistemology (the science how we learn things) of how we think about the natural world. He was interested in shifting the nature of knowledge from deductive reasoning and calls for inductive reasons (what Bacon calls the “new organon”, or new instrument). Bacon advised separating the two kinds of curiosity – empty and void speculations versus solid and fruitful ones – and only preserving and augmenting the latter. The way that inductive reasoning proves fruitful is first by gathering data and as many observations as possible without drawing theories. The rest of his plan follows from this epistemology.
The central aspect to inductive reasoning is “encyclopedic” gathering and its “desire of learning or knowledge” is inspired by several reasons, such as natural curiosity / inquisitiveness; entertaining the mind / delight; for ornament or reputation; for lucre (monetary gain) and profession.
Natural and experimental history collapsed into the same category for Bacon. From this Bacon moved to empiricism: all knowledge is based on senses and sensation, and thus trust your senses, trust your observations. Housed in the Pratt foyer (April 2-13, 2018), curated by Lauren Maxine, Paul Harrison and Leslie Wexler, the rare book exhibition from the Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies collection offered viewers a way to access the ideas of the early modern moves toward understanding ourselves, our environment, and what lies beyond both our world and comprehension through human ingenuity inspired by curiositas.