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Journal Article

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This article is published in Isis.

Harrison, Peter (2001) Curiosity, Forbidden Knowledge, and the Reformation of Natural Philosophy in Early-Modern England, Isis 92 (2) pp. 265-90.

© 2001 University of Chicago Press. All Rights Reserved.

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[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.

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