Curiosity, Forbidden Knowledge, and the Reformation of Natural Philosophy in Early Modern England

[Introduction]: Curiosity is now widely regarded, with some justification, as a vital ingredient of the inquiring mind and, more particularly, as a crucial virtue for the practitioner of the pure sciences. We have become accustomed to associate curiosity with innocence and, in its more mature manifestations, with the pursuit of truth for its own sake. It was not always so. The sentiments expressed in Sir John Davies's poem, published on the eve of the seventeenth century, paint a somewhat different picture. To seek knowledge with no particular end in mind was to indulge in "fruitlesse curiositie," while the "desire to know" was associated with those catastrophic events that took place at the dawn of history in the Garden of Eden and with the ensuing curse that fell upon succeeding generations. Davies's poem neatly sets out two of the chief impediments to the advancement of learning in seventeenth-century England: the fact that the Genesis narrative attributes the Fall of the human race to the desire for knowledge, and the moral disapprobation associated with the vice of curiosity. In short, the traditional classification of curiosity amongst the vices and its complicity in the commission of the first sin represented a major obstacle to early modern projects to enlarge human learning. This essay will explore the changing fortunes of curiosity, from its construction as an intellectual vice in the patristic era to its subsequent transformation, over the course of the seventeenth century, to a virtue. Particular attention will be paid to the way in which Francis Bacon dealt with prevailing conceptions of curiosity and forbidden knowledge and how he modified an existing view of the moral legitimacy of knowledge of nature in order to provide rhetorical justification for his proposed instauration of learning. This change in the status of knowledge of nature, initiated by Bacon and promoted by his successors, highlights the morally charged character of early modem debates over the status of natural philosophy and the particular virtues required of its practitioners. As we shall see, the rehabilitation of curiosity was a crucial element in the objectification of scientific knowledge and led to a shift of focus away from the moral qualities of investigators and the propriety of particular objects of knowledge to specific disciplines, procedures, and methods
Keywords No keywords specified (fix it)
Categories (categorize this paper)
DOI 10.1086/385182
 Save to my reading list
Follow the author(s)
My bibliography
Export citation
Find it on Scholar
Edit this record
Mark as duplicate
Revision history Request removal from index
Download options
PhilPapers Archive

Upload a copy of this paper     Check publisher's policy on self-archival     Papers currently archived: 23,201
External links
Setup an account with your affiliations in order to access resources via your University's proxy server
Configure custom proxy (use this if your affiliation does not provide a proxy)
Through your library
References found in this work BETA

No references found.

Add more references

Citations of this work BETA

Add more citations

Similar books and articles
Axel Gelfert (2013). Hume on Curiosity. British Journal for the History of Philosophy 21 (4):711-732.
Elias Baumgarten (2001). Curiosity as a Moral Virtue. International Journal of Applied Philosophy 15 (2):169-184.
Mark Alfano (2013). The Most Agreeable of All Vices: Nietzsche as Virtue Epistemologist. British Journal for the History of Philosophy 21 (4):767-790.
Dennis Whitcomb (2010). Curiosity Was Framed. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 81 (3):664-687.
Dennis Whitcomb (2010). Curiosity Was Framed. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 81 (3):664-687.
Jan A. Aertsen (2005). Aquinas and the Human Desire for Knowledge. American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly 79 (3):411-430.

Monthly downloads

Added to index


Total downloads

22 ( #213,183 of 1,940,945 )

Recent downloads (6 months)

2 ( #333,818 of 1,940,945 )

How can I increase my downloads?

My notes
Sign in to use this feature

Start a new thread
There  are no threads in this forum
Nothing in this forum yet.