Cultivating Curiosity: The Propeller of Human Innovation

What distinguishes us from animals? The philosopher Thomas Hobbes casts an interesting light on this old question, arguing that curiosity is one of the few capacities that distinguishes humans from animals. It is this natural curiosity that explains why innovation is the hallmark of human beings.

Thomas Hobbes is one of those philosophers with a bad reputation for his sometimes pessimistic – some would say realistic – vision of man. In his desire to describe man as he is, rather than as he should be, he invokes what he sees as a uniquely human quality: curiosity, defined as an “appetite for knowledge”. The concept of curiosity has been variously valued in philosophy and morality, either as an inappropriate thirst for information (such as the attraction of gossip) or as an admirable intellectual appetite, represented by the image of the scholar, the learned and the “honest man”.

Possible futures

For Hobbes, curiosity is at the root of both science and egoism. It drives people to imagine a wide range of possible futures, and therefore personal goals. The thirst for knowledge drives them to ponder possible causal relationships. This can lead to anxiety about the future, which in turn “leads men to inquire into the causes of things” – a vicious circle of anxious prediction and investigation that condemns all men to a “Promethean state” in which their hearts are eternally “tormented by the fear of death, poverty, or some other calamity” that may come. Curiosity gives rise to an awareness of time: it makes us think about what might happen in the future. Once imagined, the future becomes a source of conflict and anxiety because it may be unsatisfactory, and my neighbor’s future may be more favorable than mine. This anxiety is alien to animals, who are only interested in anticipating causal patterns they have already observed, not in inferring new possibilities from past experience.

Don’t kill the cat (Source: Wikipedia)

If curiosity is defined as an appetite for knowledge, Hobbes proposes a more technical definition, which is not simply a pleasure in causes, but an appetite for a particular kind of original knowledge: that of the hitherto untried effects of known causes (the means at my disposal). Hobbes contrasts curiosity about the possible effects of known causes (what can I do with this stick?) with a prudential interest in the causes of known effects (how can I catch this prey?).

What distinguishes man, according to Hobbes, is his interest in effects which are not in themselves the object of passion or appetite; in other words, which are not directly useful. In this sense, curiosity has a characteristically gratuitous aspect that is not found in animals. An effect is pursued for its own sake. We’re interested in what might happen. All animals want to know about cause-and-effect relationships that are relevant to their well-being. They are also looking for ways to bring about change in line with their goals: Hunger drives an animal to hunt prey. The goal determines the means needed to achieve it (hunger->prey). There is no innovation because the goals are the starting point. They remain relatively stable over time, as do the means. The game is closed, so to speak. The imperative of immediate utility makes innovation impossible: there’s a problem to solve, we can solve it creatively, but we’re only interested in solving it.

Disinterested knowledge

So curiosity goes beyond self-interested knowledge. It changes the way ideas are related. It replaces a teleological structure (a distant end that determines the means necessary to reach it) with a more open process in which the goal is neither synthesis (defining the steps from a cause to a known effect) nor analysis (tracing the steps from a known effect to its causes), but the discovery of new causal relationships. Curiosity, on the other hand, involves the ability not only to remember observed causal relationships, but also to imagine all the possible outcomes of a given cause: “In imagining any thing, we look for all the possible effects it may produce; we imagine what we may do with it when we have it,” writes Hobbes. Curiosity leads to the creation of new associations. It’s impossible not to recognize here the entrepreneurial approach to effectuation, according to which entrepreneurs start with their available means and imagine the possible effects.

What Hobbes is suggesting is that what we call the entrepreneurial mindset is actually universal. It’s a human attitude, in the broadest sense, that has existed since the dawn of time. In other words, innovation, as the free exploration of possible new and unexpected effects, is a profoundly human trait. Humans don’t just try to solve problems; they can’t help but imagine new effects from the causes (means) at their disposal. The chimpanzee’s use of a stick to extract ants from a tree trunk is evidence of intelligence. Humans also solve this kind of problem, but they go beyond it and ask themselves: What can I do with this stick? Dig a hole, hit my neighbour, make noise, learn to juggle, scratch my back, sculpt it, use it as a crutch, etc. All considerations that would not interest the chimpanzee, but which open up new possibilities.

The fascinating paradox is that this quest for disinterested knowledge is the one that has proved most useful since the beginning of time. Humans innovate because they can’t help it; and they can’t help it because they’re curious; curiosity is their nature. It’s a nasty flaw that gets them into a lot of trouble, but it’s also an extraordinary quality that explains why we stopped living in caves a long time ago.

🔎 Source for this article: Kathryn Tabb, The Fate of Nebuchadnezzar: Curiosity and Human Nature in Hobbes, Hobbes Studies 27(1): 13-34, (2014).

🇫🇷 French version of this article here.

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