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What Is an Emotion? William James’s Revolutionary 1884 Theory of How Our Bodies Affect Our Feelings

“A purely disembodied human emotion is a nonentity.”

What Is an Emotion? William James’s Revolutionary 1884 Theory of How Our Bodies Affect Our Feelings

“Emotions are not just the fuel that powers the psychological mechanism of a reasoning creature,” philosopher Martha Nussbaum wrote in her masterful treatise on the intelligence of the motions, “they are parts, highly complex and messy parts, of this creature’s reasoning itself.” But the emotions and the intellect are just two parts of our creaturely trifecta of experience. The third, which can’t be disentwined from the other two and which is in constant dynamic dialogue with them, is the physical — the reality of the body.

More than a century before Nussbaum, the trailblazing psychologist William James (January 11, 1842–August 26, 1910) — who shaped our understanding of the psychology of habit — made a revolutionary case for “how much our mental life is knit up with our corporeal frame” in an 1884 essay titled “What is an Emotion?” included in The Heart of William James (public library).

Long before scientists came to demonstrate how our emotions affect our bodies, James argued that the relationship is bidirectional and that while “bodily disturbances” are conventionally considered byproducts or expressions of the so-called standard emotions — “surprise, curiosity, rapture, fear, anger, lust, greed, and the like” — these corporeal reverberations are actually the raw material of the emotion itself.

James writes:

Our natural way of thinking about these standard emotions is that the mental perception of some fact excites the mental affection called the emotion, and that this latter state of mind gives rise to the bodily expression. My thesis on the contrary is that the bodily changes follow directly the PERCEPTION of the exciting fact, and that our feeling of the same changes as they occur IS the emotion. Common sense says, we lose our fortune, are sorry and weep; we meet a bear, are frightened and run; we are insulted by a rival, are angry and strike. The hypothesis here to be defended says that this order of sequence is incorrect, that the one mental state is not immediately induced by the other, that the bodily manifestations must first be interposed between, and that the more rational statement is that we feel sorry because we cry, angry because we strike, afraid because we tremble, and not that we cry, strike, or tremble, because we are sorry, angry, or fearful, as the case may be. Without the bodily states following on the perception, the latter would be purely cognitive in form, pale, colourless, destitute of emotional warmth. We might then see the bear, and judge it best to run, receive the insult and deem it right to strike, but we could not actually feel afraid or angry.

Photograph from Charles Darwin's pioneering studies of the emotions, which James referenced in developing his theory.
Photograph from Charles Darwin’s pioneering studies of the emotions, which James referenced in developing his theory.

The subtleties of our body language and physical instinct, James argues, are in concordance with the subtleties of our emotional experience:

No shade of emotion, however slight, should be without a bodily reverberation as unique, when taken in its totality, as is the mental mood itself.

The immense number of parts modified in each emotion is what makes it so difficult for us to reproduce in cold blood the total and integral expression of any one of them.

[…]

Our whole cubic capacity is sensibly alive; and each morsel of it contributes its pulsations of feeling, dim or sharp, pleasant, painful, or dubious, to that sense of personality that every one of us unfailingly carries with him.

Pointing out that we’re each familiar with the bodily experience of emotional states — the instinctual furrowing of the brow when troubled, the lump in the throat when anxious — James delivers the central point of his theory:

If we fancy some strong emotion, and then try to abstract from our consciousness of it all the feelings of its characteristic bodily symptoms, we find we have nothing left behind, no “mind-stuff” out of which the emotion can be constituted, and that a cold and neutral state of intellectual perception is all that remains.

[…]

Can one fancy the state of rage and picture no ebullition of it in the chest, no flushing of the face, no dilatation of the nostrils, no clenching of the teeth, no impulse to vigorous action, but in their stead limp muscles, calm breathing, and a placid face? The present writer, for one, certainly cannot. The rage is as completely evaporated as the sensation of its so-called manifestations, and the only thing that can possibly be supposed to take its place is some cold-blooded and dispassionate judicial sentence, confined entirely to the intellectual realm, to the effect that a certain person or persons merit chastisement for their sins. In like manner of grief: what would it be without its tears, its sobs, its suffocation of the heart, its pang in the breast-bone? A feelingless cognition that certain circumstances are deplorable, and nothing more. Every passion in turn tells the same story. A purely disembodied human emotion is a nonentity.

Illustration by Quentin Blake for Michael Rosen's Sad Book, a poignant parable of grief
Illustration by Quentin Blake for Michael Rosen’s Sad Book, a poignant parable of grief

It’s only in the past decade, more than a century after James developed his theory, that Western scientists have come to study this relationship through the field of embodied condition. But millennia-old Eastern traditions are built upon a foundational understanding of this osmotic interplay of flesh and feeling. Ancient mind-body practices like vipassana meditation are so effective because, in bringing us back into our bodies, they decondition our mental spinning and make us better able to simply observe our emotions as we experience them rather than being wound up and dominated by them.

Noting that his theory “grew out of fragmentary introspective observations,” James offers an empirical testament from his own interior life:

The more closely I scrutinise my states, the more persuaded I become, that whatever moods, affections, and passions I have, are in very truth constituted by, and made up of, those bodily changes we ordinarily call their expression or consequence; and the more it seems to me that if I were to become corporeally anaesthetic, I should be excluded from the life of the affections, harsh and tender alike, and drag out an existence of merely cognitive or intellectual form.

Art from A Year Without Mom by Dasha Tolstikova

He notes that the purely cognitive experience of things is “more allied to a judgment of right than to anything else” — for instance, analyzing a symphony’s composition rather than letting the music, in the immortal words of Oliver Sacks, “pierce the heart directly.” Curiously, James argues that intellectual mastery of a specific domain blunts one’s ability to feel these physiological-aesthetic ripples of emotion:

Where long familiarity with a certain class of effects has blunted emotional sensibility thereto as much as it has sharpened the taste and judgment, we do get the intellectual emotion, if such it can be called, pure and undefiled. And the dryness of it, the paleness, the absence of all glow, as it may exist in a thoroughly expert critic’s mind, not only shows us what an altogether different thing it is from the “standard” emotions we considered first, but makes us suspect that almost the entire difference lies in the fact that the bodily sounding-board, vibrating in the one case, is in the other mute. “Not so very bad” is, in a person of consummate taste, apt to be the highest limit of approving expression.

The great physicist Richard Feynman, of course, vehemently disagreed. But James certainly had a point: I once knew a hard scientist, in every sense of the word, who very much embodied this withering of the expansive warmth of aesthetic appreciation in the grip of the cold intellect. On one occasion, she sent me a photograph from an autumn hike, depicting hills of trees covered in beautiful foliage at sunset. “Not bad,” she wrote.

James considers the interplay of these two faculties:

In every art, in every science, there is the keen perception of certain relations being right or not, and there is the emotional flush and thrill consequent thereupon. And these are two things, not one. In the former of them it is that experts and masters are at home. The latter accompaniments are bodily commotions that they may hardly feel, but that may be experienced in their fulness by Crétins and Philistines in whom the critical judgment is at its lowest ebb. The “marvels” of Science, about which so much edifying popular literature is written, are apt to be “caviare” to the men in the laboratories. Cognition and emotion are parted even in this last retreat, — who shall say that their antagonism may not just be one phase of the world-old struggle known as that between the spirit and the flesh? — a struggle in which it seems pretty certain that neither party will definitively drive the other off the field.

The essay, like every piece collected in The Heart of William James, is a magnificent read in its entirety. Complement it with James on choosing purpose over profit and the psychology of the second wind, then revisit immunologist Esther Sternberg on how our emotions affect our susceptibility to burnout and disease and Rilke on the relationship between the body and the soul.

BP

Alexander von Humboldt and the Invention of Nature: How One of the Last True Polymaths Pioneered the Cosmos of Connections

“In this great chain of causes and effects, no single fact can be considered in isolation.”

Alexander von Humboldt and the Invention of Nature: How One of the Last True Polymaths Pioneered the Cosmos of Connections

No thinker has shaped our understanding of the astounding interconnectedness of the universe more profoundly than the great Prussian naturalist, explorer, and geographer Alexander von Humboldt (September 14, 1769–May 6, 1859), who pioneered the notion that the natural world is a web of intricately entwined elements, each in constant dynamic dialogue with every other — a concept a century ahead of its time. His legacy isn’t so much any single discovery — although he did discover the magnetic equator, invented isotherms, and came up with climate zones — as it is a mindset, a worldview, a singular sensemaking sublimity.

Alexander von Humboldt by Friedrich Georg Weitsch, 1806
Alexander von Humboldt by Friedrich Georg Weitsch, 1806

Goethe, in his conversations with Eckermann, remarked that a single day with Humboldt enriched him more than years spent alone, enthusing:

What a man he is! … He has not his equal in knowledge and living wisdom. Then he has a many-sidedness such as I have found nowhere else. On whatever point you approach him, he is at home, and lavishes upon us his intellectual treasures. He is like a fountain with many pipes, under which you need only hold a vessel, and from which refreshing and inexhaustible streams are ever flowing.

Darwin asserted that Humboldt’s writings kindled in him a zeal without which he wouldn’t have boarded the Beagle or written On the Origin of Species. Thoreau was an ardent admirer of Humboldt’s “habit of close observation,” without the influence of which there might have been no Walden. Trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell, who met Humboldt weeks before his death, marveled in her diary that “no young aspirant in science ever left Humboldt’s presence uncheered,” and his ideas reverberate through her famous assertion that science is “not all mathematics, nor all logic, but it is somewhat beauty and poetry.” Emerson, in his essays and lectures, called Humboldt “a man whose eyes, ears, and mind are armed by all the science, arts, and implements which mankind have anywhere accumulated” and saw him as living proof that “a certain vastness of learning, or quasi omnipresence of the human soul in nature, is possible.”

Goethe's diagram of the comparative table elevations of the Old and New World, inspired by Humboldt
Goethe’s diagram of the comparative table elevations of the Old and New World, inspired by Humboldt

In informing and impressing the greatest minds of his time, Humboldt invariably influenced the course of science and its intercourse with the rest of culture in ways innumerable, enduring, and profound. His visionary understanding of nature’s interconnectedness sparked the basic ecological awareness that gave rise to the environmental movement. His integrated approach to science, incorporating elements of art, philosophy, poetry, politics, and history, provided the last bold counterpoint to the disconnected and dysfunctional “villages” of specialization into which science would fragment a mere generation later. And yet Humboldt, despite his enormous contribution to our most fundamental understanding of life, is largely forgotten today.

In The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World (public library), London-based design historian and writer Andrea Wulf sets out to liberate this extraordinary man’s legacy from the grip of obscurity and short-termism, illuminating the myriad threads of influence through which he continues to shape our present thinking about science, society, and life itself.

Alexander von Humboldt in his home library at at 67 Oranienburger Strasse, Berlin. Chromolithograph copy of watercolor drawing by Eduard Hildebrant, 1856.
Alexander von Humboldt in his home library at at 67 Oranienburger Strasse, Berlin. Chromolithograph copy of watercolor drawing by Eduard Hildebrant, 1856.

Wulf paints the backdrop for Humboldt’s enduring genius:

Described by his contemporaries as the most famous man in the world after Napoleon, Humboldt was one of the most captivating and inspiring men of his time. Born in 1769 into a wealthy Prussian aristocratic family, he discarded a life of privilege to discover for himself how the world worked. As a young man he set out on a five-year exploration to Latin America, risking his life many times and returning with a new sense of the world. It was a journey that shaped his life and thinking, and that made him legendary across the globe. He lived in cities such as Paris and Berlin, but was equally at home on the most remote branches of the Orinoco River or in the Kazakh Steppe at Russia’s Mongolian border. During much of his long life, he was the nexus of the scientific world, writing some 50,000 letters and receiving at least double that number. Knowledge, Humboldt believed, had to be shared, exchanged and made available to everybody.

But knowledge, for Humboldt, wasn’t merely an intellectual faculty — it was an embodied, holistic presence with life in all of its dimensions. A rock-climber, volcano-diver, and tireless hiker well into his eighties, Humboldt saw observation as an active endeavor and continually tested the limits of his body in his scientific pursuits. For him, mind, body, and spirit were all instruments of inquiry into the nature of the world. Two centuries before Carl Sagan sold us on the idea that “science invariably elicits a sense of reverence and awe,” Humboldt advocated for this then-radical notion amid a culture that drew a thick line between reason and emotion.

Wulf writes:

Fascinated by scientific instruments, measurements and observations, he was driven by a sense of wonder as well. Of course nature had to be measured and analysed, but he also believed that a great part of our response to the natural world should be based on the senses and emotions. He wanted to excite a “love of nature.” At a time when other scientists were searching for universal laws, Humboldt wrote that nature had to be experienced through feelings.

Alexander von Humboldt by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1843
Alexander von Humboldt by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1843

Out of this integrated approach to knowledge sprang Humboldt’s revolutionary view of life — the scientifically informed counterpart to Ada Lovelace’s famous assertion that “everything is naturally related and interconnected.” Wulf captures his greatest legacy:

Humboldt revolutionized the way we see the natural world. He found connections everywhere. Nothing, not even the tiniest organism, was looked at on its own. “In this great chain of causes and effects,” Humboldt said, “no single fact can be considered in isolation.” With this insight, he invented the web of life, the concept of nature as we know it today.

When nature is perceived as a web, its vulnerability also becomes obvious. Everything hangs together. If one thread is pulled, the whole tapestry may unravel.

Humboldt's 1806 drawing of the geographic distribution of plants based on mountain height and air temperature
Humboldt’s 1806 drawing of the geographic distribution of plants based on mountain height and air temperature

Given his attentiveness to this interconnectedness across all scales and dimensions of life, it is hardly surprising that Humboldt became the first scientist to admonish against the grave consequences of human-induced climate change after witnessing the environmental devastation of deforestation brought on by the spread of colonial plantations across South America in the 1800s.

Wulf writes:

Deforestation there had made the land barren, water levels of the lake were falling and with the disappearance of brushwood torrential rains had washed away the soils on the surrounding mountain slopes. Humboldt was the first to explain the forest’s ability to enrich the atmosphere with moisture and its cooling effect, as well as its importance for water retention and protection against soil erosion. He warned that humans were meddling with the climate and that this could have an unforeseeable impact on “future generations.”

[…]

We are shaped by the past. Nicolaus Copernicus showed us our place in the universe, Isaac Newton explained the laws of nature, Thomas Jefferson gave us some of our concepts of liberty and democracy, and Charles Darwin proved that all species descend from common ancestors. These ideas define our relationship to the world.

Humboldt gave us our concept of nature itself. The irony is that Humboldt’s views have become so self-evident that we have largely forgotten the man behind them. But there exists a direct line of connection through his ideas, and through the many people whom he inspired. Like a rope, Humboldt’s concept of nature connects us to him.

Wulf pulls on that rope with both hands:

There are many reasons why Humboldt remains fascinating and important: not only was his life colourful and packed with adventure, but his story gives meaning to why we see nature the way we see it today. In a world where we tend to draw a sharp line between the sciences and the arts, between the subjective and the objective, Humboldt’s insight that we can only truly understand nature by using our imagination makes him a visionary.

Humboldt’s disciples, and their disciples in turn, carried his legacy forward — quietly, subtly and sometimes unintentionally. Environmentalists, ecologists and nature writers today remain firmly rooted in Humboldt’s vision — although many have never heard of him. Nonetheless, Humboldt is their founding father.

As scientists are trying to understand and predict the global consequences of climate change, Humboldt’s interdisciplinary approach to science and nature is more relevant than ever. His beliefs in the free exchange of information, in uniting scientists and in fostering communication across disciplines, are the pillars of science today. His concept of nature as one of global patterns underpins our thinking.

[…]

It feels as if we’ve come full circle. Maybe now is the moment for us and for the environmental movement to reclaim Alexander von Humboldt as our hero.

The Invention of Nature is a riveting read in its entirety, bringing back to life the remarkable man who gave shape to life as we know it. Complement it with the equally enchanting story of Luke Howard — the young amateur meteorologist who classified the clouds and who, like his contemporary Humboldt, bewitched Goethe with his genius — then trace Humboldt’s legacy to our present-day understanding of how everything connects.

BP

The New Age of Wonder: Freeman Dyson on the Future of Science and Why Biologists Are the New Poets

“A new generation of artists, writing genomes as fluently as Blake and Byron wrote verses, might create an abundance of new flowers and fruit and trees and birds to enrich the ecology of our planet.”

“Poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge… the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all Science,” William Wordsworth wrote as he contemplated the shared heart of poetry and science in 1798. And yet sometime in the two centuries since, poetry and science seceded from this shared kingdom of knowledge into wholly separate, if not warring, countries.

In one of the twenty-one excellent essays in his Dreams of Earth and Sky (public library), physicist, mathematician, and venerable sage of science Freeman Dyson (December 15, 1923–February 28, 2020) argues that bridging this rift between poetry and science holds some of the most thrilling and even life-saving possibilities for the future of our species and our world.

Dyson — one of the most blazing minds of our time, who enters his nineties as a kind of modern-day Bertrand Russell of science, with Buckminster Fuller’s daring genius, Einstein’s firm grip on science, and Goethe’s gift for enchantment — writes in a beautiful piece titled “When Science and Poetry Were Friends”:

The Age of Wonder means the period of sixty years between 1770 and 1830, commonly called the Romantic Age. It is most clearly defined as an age of poetry. As every English schoolchild of my generation learned, the Romantic Age had three major poets, Blake and Wordsworth and Coleridge, at the beginning, and three more major poets, Shelley and Keats and Byron, at the end. In literary style it is sharply different from the Classical Age before it (Dryden and Pope) and the Victorian Age after it (Tennyson and Browning). Looking at nature, Blake saw a vision of wildness:

Tyger, tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

Byron saw a vision of darkness:

The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air…

Illustration by JooHee Yoon from ‘Beastly Verse.’ Click image for more.

It was during the Age of Wonder that science and poetry first began communing, perhaps nowhere more so than in Goethe’s poetry inspired by the then-groundbreaking science of clouds. Dyson contemplates the circles of influence during this singular epoch of creative cross-pollination:

The scientists of that age were as Romantic as the poets. The scientific discoveries were as unexpected and intoxicating as the poems. Many of the poets were intensely interested in science, and many of the scientists in poetry.

The scientists and the poets belonged to a single culture and were in many cases personal friends. Erasmus Darwin, the grandfather of Charles Darwin and progenitor of many of Charles’s ideas, published his speculations about evolution in a book-length poem, The Botanic Garden, in 1791. Humphry Davy wrote poetry all his life and published much of it. Davy was a close friend of Coleridge, Shelley a close friend of Lawrence. The boundless prodigality of nature inspired scientists and poets with the same feelings of wonder.

Among the most substantive differences between that era and ours, Dyson points out, is the stark contrast between the “standing army of many thousands of professional scientists” today and the mere handful back then. But there is also one notable similarity — in both eras, ordinary citizens, or “amateurs,” were welcomed into the scientific world, be it the amateur meteorologist who classified the clouds in the eighteenth century or the DIY genetic test kits available to us today.

Indeed, Dyson suggests that the discovery of DNA and the bioengineering it made possible opened up the most exciting frontier of science — a remarkable opportunity to fully understand life and reimagine it at its highest potential, which ultimately requires an act of the poetic imagination. And because any technology of thought can be used toward both good and evil, this new frontier is one where we urgently need to reengage the poetic spirit with the enterprise of science. Nearly half a century after Ray Bradbury, perched on another major scientific precipice, remarked that “it’s part of the nature of man to start with romance and build to a reality,” Dyson envisions a renaissance of the Romantic spirit in modern science:

One feature of the old Age of Wonder is conspicuously absent in the new age. Poetry, the dominant art form in many human cultures from Homer to Byron, no longer dominates. No modern poet has the stature of Coleridge or Shelley. Poetry has in part been replaced in the popular culture by graphic art.

[…]

If the dominant science in the new Age of Wonder is biology, then the dominant art form should be the design of genomes to create new varieties of animals and plants. This art form, using the new biotechnology creatively to enhance the ancient skills of plant and animal breeders, is still struggling to be born. It must struggle against cultural barriers as well as technical difficulties, against the myth of Frankenstein as well as the reality of genetic defects and deformities.

If this dream comes true, and the new art form emerges triumphant, then a new generation of artists, writing genomes as fluently as Blake and Byron wrote verses, might create an abundance of new flowers and fruit and trees and birds to enrich the ecology of our planet. Most of these artists would be amateurs, but they would be in close touch with science, like the poets of the earlier Age of Wonder. The new Age of Wonder might bring together wealthy entrepreneurs [with] academic professionals … and a worldwide community of gardeners and farmers and breeders, working together to make the planet beautiful as well as fertile, hospitable to hummingbirds as well as to humans.

Dreams of Earth and Sky is an immensely stimulating read in its entirety. Complement this particular thread of thought with sociobiologist E.O. Wilson and poet laureate Robert Hass’s beautiful conversation about science and poetry.

BP

A Stop-Motion Love Letter to the Power of Curiosity

“The more you know, the more you want to know… the more connections you can make between the different bits of knowledge… the more ideas you have, which is why curiosity is really the wellspring of creativity.”

“It is in our nature to explore, to reach out into the unknown,” wrote pioneering polar explorer Ernest Shackleton in reflecting on the feat that nearly took his life, adding: “The only true failure would be not to explore at all.” This vitalizing power of exploration applies as much to the exterior world we inhabit as it does to the interior. Upon turning eighty and looking back on his extraordinary life, Henry Miller observed: “Perhaps it is curiosity — about anything and everything — that made me the writer I am. It has never left me.” And yet in the century since Shackleton and the decades since Miller, despite the proliferation of access to knowledge, we seem to have lost our appetite for this singular human faculty that propels us forward. We’ve lulled ourselves into a kind of complacency, where too often we’d rather be right than uncertain or — worse yet — wrong, forgetting that “useful ignorance,” to borrow Thoreau’s beautiful term, is precisely what helps us transcend the limits of our knowledge and stretch our ability.

That vital force of self-transcendence is what Arts University Bournemouth student and self-taught animator Georgina Venning explores in her immeasurably delightful stop-motion animation of an excerpt from Ian Leslie’s RSA talk, based on his book Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It (public library).

The piece is one of the winners in the Moving Pictures category of the 2015 RSA Student Design Awards, which invite emerging designers and artists to examine social, environmental, and economic issues through compelling visual communication driven by design thinking. The category itself is an offshoot of RSA’s existing series of animated shorts, which has previously given us such gems as Susan Cain on the power of introverts and Brené Brown on vulnerability and the difference between empathy and sympathy.

Venning’s film is impressively meticulous beyond the beautiful papercraft — in order to create consistent natural light throughout the animation, she filmed one frame per day, at the exact same time of day.

Curiosity is a muscle — use it or lose it. It’s something that we consciously have to nurture in ourselves, in our families, in classrooms, at work.

Sometimes I hear that curiosity and creativity are killed by too many facts — but, actually, the opposite is true: The more you know, the more you want to know. Not only that, but the more you know, the more connections you can make between the different bits of knowledge that you have in your head and therefore the more ideas you have, which is why curiosity is really the wellspring of creativity.

Technology is replacing routine work — and that’s what technology replaces first and has done throughout history. So intellectually curious people — people who are capable of learning throughout their career, of asking questions (good questions), of adapting and collaborating with others from different disciplines; people who are capable of really thriving in this world of non-routine work, in other words — are the people who are going to do better.

In the introduction to the book, Leslie considers humanity’s historically contentious relationship with curiosity and writes:

Our oldest stories about curiosity are warnings: Adam and Eve and the apple of knowledge, Icarus and the sun, Pandora’s box. Early Christian theologians railed against curiosity: Saint Augustine claimed that “God fashioned hell for the inquisitive.” Even humanist philosopher Erasmus suggested that curiosity was greed by a different name. For most of Western history, it has been regarded as at best a distraction, at worst a poison, corrosive to the soul and to society.

There’s a reason for this. Curiosity is unruly. It doesn’t like rules, or, at least, it assumes that all rules are provisional, subject to the laceration of a smart question nobody has yet thought to ask. It disdains the approved pathways, preferring diversions, unplanned excursions, impulsive left turns. In short, curiosity is deviant. Pursuing it is liable to bring you into conflict with authority at some point, as everyone from Galileo to Charles Darwin to Steve Jobs could have attested.

A society that values order above all else will seek to suppress curiosity. But a society that believes in progress, innovation, and creativity will cultivate it, recognizing that the inquiring minds of its people constitute its most valuable asset. In medieval Europe, the inquiring mind — especially if it inquired too closely into the edicts of church or state — was stigmatized. During the Renaissance and Reformation, received wisdoms began to be interrogated, and by the time of the Enlightenment, European societies started to see that their future lay with the curious and encouraged probing questions rather than stamping on them. The result was the biggest explosion of new ideas and scientific advances in history.

The great unlocking of curiosity translated into a cascade of prosperity for the nations that precipitated it. Today, we cannot know for sure if we are in the middle of this golden period or at the end of it. But we are, at the very least, in a lull.

In the remainder of Curious, Leslie goes on to explore our best strategies for jolting ourselves out of that lull by cultivating more diverse modes of curiosity that ensure our flourishing in an increasingly complex world. Complement it with Isaac Asimov on curiosity and risk-taking and Marie Curie on curiosity, wonder, and the spirit of adventure in science.

BP

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