Are we living through a time in which over-certainty has driven us to polarisation, and could curiosity help us out of it?

Only for the curious

Peter Hoskin

Peter Hoskin reports from the DRUGSTORE CULTURE session at the Names Not Numbers conference

30 September 2018 08:21

And so to Oxford, where DRUGSTORE CULTURE was taking part in Editorial Intelligence’s Names Not Numbers conference. Actually, scratch that. We weren’t just taking part. We were full event partners, along with Berry Bros. & Rudd and the Bodleian Libraries. Two centuries-old institutions and one – us – that’s only been around for a few weeks. What would ensue?

The official DRUGSTORE CULTURE session took place yesterday morning – amid a number of other fantastic talks and workshops and watering breaks – under the glulam beam ceilings of Exeter College’s Cohen Quad building. Its theme was curiosity, or, more specifically, ‘Curiosity or certainty: what drives cultural judgment?’. Our panel featured the Times columnist David Aaronovitch; the Marketing Director of Berry Bros. & Rudd, Hannah Crabtree; the University of Sheffield’s Professor of the Public Understanding of Philosophy, Angie Hobbs; and the organiser of the whole occasion, the founder of Editorial Intelligence, Julia Hobsbawm. The moderator was our own Editor-in-Chief, Matthew d’Ancona.

Matt began with a Big Question: are we living through a time in which over-certainty has driven us to polarisation, and could curiosity help us out of it? Hobsbawm’s answer: yes and yes. ‘We are,’ she said, ‘frightened of uncertainty’ – and need to overcome that fear. In fact, she added with reference to Jude Jennison’s book Leading Through Uncertainty, embracing uncertainty can lead to some very positive outcomes.

Photos by Habie Schwarz

Angie Hobbs began her remarks by quoting the words that Plato has Socrates say in his Theaetetus: ‘Philosophy begins in wonder.’ Which is to say, we need to ask questions in order to even begin understanding the world. However, Hobbs offered an important counterpoint – or, rather, a clarifying point – also from the work of Plato. His Republic moves past Socratic questioning to establish actual conclusions about the state of the world. If you don’t end up reaching some answers, she said, ‘you can end up a bit unsatisfied’ – even if we then have revisit and refine these answers later. She summed up her position by quoting another famous philosopher, Leonard Cohen: ‘There’s a mighty judgment coming, but I may be wrong.’

Hannah Crabtree explained how Berry Bros. & Rudd – the wine merchants who sponsored our session, for which are very grateful – are trying to democratise their business, and are invoking curiosity in order to do so. Wine, she began, has a lot of historical baggage. It can be ‘quite overwhelming and off-putting for a lot of consumers.’ But this is where the considerate vintner steps in, to answer people’s questions and to help guide them through this otherwise complicated terrain of Beaujolais and Sauternes and bouquets and pH.

The session shifted to what Matt called an ‘annual festival of fixity and certainty’ – aka, party conference season. David Aaronovitch agreed that these are not exactly events for the curious, but rather ‘safe spaces’ that leave their occupants ‘unruffled and unchallenged’. When hundreds of like-minded people gather, the result is a grand nothingness – or worse. Populist movements, he said, are born of certainty. They want to exclude other ideas and cultures about which we might be curious.

Aaronovitch’s broader point was that unquestioning devotion runs counter to human experience. He could think of only three subjects in which he was entirely uninterested: golf, fishing and himself. Otherwise, the world is a ‘varied and fascinating place’ – and both demands and rewards curiosity.

Photos by Habie Schwarz

During the second round of questions, Aaronovitch made a supplementary point that was similar, in spirit, to Hobbs’s earlier one. Whilst political ideology can be ‘deadening’, his own upbringing in an ideology that ‘told us we had all the answers,’ was also a ‘basis from which you can move on’. This wasn’t just a biographical detail, it was also a sensible concession to the way that things are. Politics has always been, and always will be, an arena for partisanship, said Aaronovitch. He urged us to imagine the opposite: a ‘Contingent Party,’ whose manifesto promises only to ‘deal with problems when they arise’. It’s beyond the bounds of practicality.

The panel alighted on a number of other branches – from the costs of curiosity (it ‘requires time,’ said Crabtree) to its antiheroes (‘Elon Musk has become so certain,’ warned Hobsbawn) – before Hobbs was able to dwell on the great big stick that is cultural appropriation. ‘It’s one of my bugbears,’ she started. ‘If we use this term “cultural appropriation” too loosely and too lazily, to include every kind of imaginative endeavour, that will lead to the end of fiction writing and the end of theatre.’

Hobbs’s final argument was about ‘the problem of exams’ – and especially of their marking. The reduction of education to ‘multiple choice questions with definite answers’ was, she observed, ‘the antithesis of what explorative philosophy is meant to be about’. And it means that particularly explorative philosophers from the past, as Immanuel Kant, would struggle to ‘get a job in a current British university’.

Matt closed proceedings by quoting Samuel Johnson: ‘Curiosity is, in great and generous minds, the first passion and the last’ – and it left me thinking. Johnson, Kant, Plato, Socrates, Elon Musk, party politics and wine. Yeah, we really were in an Oxford college.

Are we living through a time in which over-certainty has driven us to polarisation, and could curiosity help us out of it?