Ethics for Everyone

Moral wisdom for the modern world

Intellectual Curiosity

Fifth in a series on intellectual character traits.

As children, we were naturally curious about almost everything. This may have annoyed our parents and teachers, but it is also an essential part of human development. If we want to grow intellectually, morally, socially, and spiritually, we need to ask questions and seek answers. We need intellectual curiosity. At some point, however, many of us lost this initial curiosity. Perhaps we feared looking unintelligent or ignorant, or perhaps a peer in school mocked us for our curiosity. Fortunately, it is not too difficult to retrieve this trait.

What is intellectual curiosity? The intellectually curious person has a deep and persistent desire to know. She asks and seeks answers to the “why” questions. And she doesn’t stop asking at a surface level, but instead asks probing questions in order to peel back layers of explanation to get at the foundational ideas concerning a particular issue.

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Curiosity isn’t always good, or good in an unqualified sense. It killed the cat, after all. And it can kill or harm us, if we are not careful. For example, Isaac Newton once wedged a flat stick between his skull and the back of his eye, and recorded the visual experiences he had. This was a part of his curious quest to know how it is that we human beings perceive color and light. While not as dangerous, we might let our curiosity lead us to aimless googling about unimportant things. This seems like a waste of time. However, when curiosity is aimed at the right end, and pursued in the right manner, it can lead to wisdom and a deeper and more enriching life.

How can we develop this trait? In his book, Virtuous Minds, from which the above is drawn, Philip Dow offers several suggestions. We can commit to taking 10 minutes a day to investigate some issue or topic we are interested in but haven’t yet taken the time to explore. We can ask questions about random aspects of the world.

I would add that we can explore issues of everyday importance to us. If you are a parent, read some accessible scholarship on parenting, childhood development, or character growth. If you are a coach, do some research about technical aspects of your sport, or how to motivate athletes, or how to encourage character growth in young athletes. If you are religious, or not, find a good book arguing for, and one against, your own particular view. Whatever you decide to pursue, keep exploring, analyzing, and evaluating, so that you can get beyond the first layer or two of answers. When you do this, you’ll experience some exciting personal and intellectual growth.

@michaelwaustin

Michael W. Austin, Ph.D., is a Professor of Philosophy at Eastern Kentucky University.

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