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  • The Uses of Curiosity in Early Modern France and Germany
  • Edward Peters
Neil Kenny . The Uses of Curiosity in Early Modern France and Germany. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. xiv + 484 pp. index. illus. tbls. map. bibl. £65. ISBN: 0-19-927136-4.

Since 1991 Neil Kenny has published a series of articles and books dealing with the early modern European uses of the elusive term "curiosity." The most important of these is the excellent Curiosity in Early Modern Europe: Word Histories (1998), a "semantic survey that is a prolegomenon to the present study" (4, n. 8). Kenny's work deals with the distinctive passio or affectus, curiositas, its Greek and vernacular cognates, and its alleged motives, purposes, and sites of application (as well as objects called "curiosities"), a topic that has attracted the attention of early modern intellectual historians ever since its enlistment in Hans Blumenberg's defense of modernity in his metahistorical polemic against Karl Löwith, Die Legitimität der Neuzeit (1966; Eng. trans. Robert Wallace, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, 1983).

Most recent scholarship on curiosity — but emphatically not Kenny's — derives directly or indirectly from Blumenberg, which is unfortunate since Blumenberg got it wrong. Focusing narrowly on what he termed "theoretical curiosity," by which he meant the theoretical, disinterested investigation of nature which he thought medieval moralists uniformly considered a vice, Blumenberg ignored the wide semantic history of the term in and out of moral theology, as well as its many and various honorific and pejorative senses in late antiquity and medieval Europe in a reductionist defense of the history of modern science.

Kenny's work, although it relies too often on several dated and incomplete semantic surveys of the term in antiquity and omits much work on it in earlier European history (easily acceptable in the light of his substantial achievement here), is the best study of the meanings and uses of the term and the variety of ways [End Page 675] by which it was understood and deployed in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe across a much broader range and variety of sources than any of his predecessors. His method, as well as his conclusions, should have a substantial influence on current ideas of how the intellectual history of medieval and early modern Europe might better be done. Kenny uses neither Lovejoyan idea-units nor the Begriffsgeschichte of Reinhard Koselleck and Melvin Richter (13, n. 22), since "curiosity" in his period signifies a number of very different things in different contexts, having no conceptual core: "What I am claiming to show is how writers selected some meanings from the 'curiosity' family's wide range in order to shape and reshape the thing or things that they considered curiosity to be" (8). He proposes "to follow the contours of the period's ordinary language, rather than reorganizing the contours myself into those of a concept" (432). Kenny is a remarkably learned and intelligent guide through what he calls "a semantic swamp" (428). Slogging through this particular semantic swamp turns out to be a fine way of subverting an unfortunate master narrative.

Kenny divides the book into three parts: institutions — universities, churches, and other groups and networks sufficiently definable as to possess recognizable vocabularies; discursive tendencies — curiosity-collecting and curiosity narratives; and sex/gender — curiosity attributed to or appropriated by males and females; the last chapter in this section is by far the most thorough and intelligent survey of the relation between early modern curiosity and misogyny ever written.

By treating objects and narratives after his survey of institutional usages, Kenny creates a grid in which any utterance concerning curiosity can be located readily in one or another social context. He sweeps through an enormous number and variety of sources, from university dissertations in law and philosophy to moral stories, how-to books, early novels, Jesuit ballets, and erotica. His discussion of curiosity as a passion benefits from the valuable work of Susan James, but the reader interested in paleopsychology might also consult the early chapters of Thomas Dixon's recent From Passions to Emotions: The Creation of a Secular Psychological Category (2003). Although Kenny mentions the proverb about...


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