On curiosity, the gathering of knowledge, and human nature

The other day I was privileged to be part of a discussion group on Marc Bloch’s posthumous work, The Historian’s Craft. While I had read the book a few years ago, my attempt to speed read it in what little time I had was to no avail, as the first chapters contained so much that one had to simply stop and reflect on. However, I turned up at the class out of sheer curiosity.  Especially as I thought it could prove useful to me in my work on Ricoeur, as some of his reflections in Memory, History, Forgetting were inspired by Bloch.

The small group of postgraduates were part of a slightly larger BA/MA course on the World of Alexander the Great taught by Maria Papadopoulo and Marie-Louise Nosch. Among the intriguing questions raised by the students, was one about the rhetorical device that Bloch begins with: “Tell me Daddy” (1953, p.3), and Marie-Louise Nosch who led the discussion group explained to us that it was a device common to ancient texts.

This set off a train of thought afterwards. Recently, I had been reflecting on pioneering activities in gathering knowledge. During my 11 years copyediting at the university, I have seen how some projects that successfully receive funding have gestated for years with researchers receiving one rejection after another. An emeritus ethnologist once wrote of how the main project that funded his own smaller, but pioneering fieldwork for his master’s thesis was cancelled by the funding authorities. And at the Local History Archives where I volunteer, can be found a collection of taped interviews of local Dragør fishermen who had been involved in helping Jews to safety as well as sailing for the Danish Resistance, that today by our more sophisticated standards of interview techniques may appear to leave something to be desired.  All in all, I was struck by how pioneering knowledge gathering and a child’s curiosity are driven by the same facet of human nature.

As Martin Buber lovingly describes in his I and Thou, an infant can engage in a conversation with a simmering kettle or become aware of a teddy bear by touching its contours (1923/2013, pp. 18-19). We explore and converse with the world around us. A tiny baby can gaze at something for a long time. A slightly older baby can crawl over to explore something of interest. Before confidently walking upright and running around, the human infant falls down many times. Similarly, the successful scientist, whether in geology, ancient genetics or chemical engineering has a large number of failed experiments, and the mathematician, several false trails, before finding an elegant solution to a complex problem, as I know from having observed from afar several young scholars over the years, either at work at CTR or in our own family.  Without falling down, without failed attempts, without trying new, untried ways, that either mystify one’s surroundings – and potential funding authorities- or are seen to be amateur efforts by more sophisticated people in later times, human knowledge cannot advance.

And Marc Bloch, writing The Historian’s Craft while desperately fighting for his country, his life and identity, pleads on behalf of the fundamental nature common to all human beings. For without it, we cannot further our understanding, which requires comparisons against a common basis: However, there must be a permanent foundation in human nature and in human society, or the very names of man or society become meaningless (p. 42).