Introducing the Need to Know

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We have all heard of the kind of curiosity which makes our children destroy their toys to see inside them, and of those adults who manage to keep this childhood curiosity alive in later years. Curiosity is experienced by all of us several times a day. We have questions which come to us and, when asked why they were formulated, we hear, “I was just curious!” indicating the legitimacy of that movement and its benignness.

Curiosity in some social context and circumstances becomes nosiness and can be resented. But in other contexts it seems a healthy human attribute of the mind, the one which keeps us on a specific track to find out something about what occupies us. Curiosity blends a mental, intellectual component with an affective one. The latter gives us the energy that keeps us at it, which holds other matters at bay and nourishes our involvement in the pursuit of that which seems relevant to our search. It is the feeling of the affective component which characterizes curiosity whatever the intellectual content of the search. This universal presence of a particular kind of tension in us, recognizable by the self in a vast spectrum of involvements, allows us to switch from a feeling to a need, and see curiosity as “a need to know.”

Man’s mind is such that it can become aware of perception whether it is created by an input of energy from outside the soma or it is a shift of energy within the soma.

Awarenesses of energy changes, qualify those changes as subtle, notable, excessive. Those awarenesses accompanied by others which refer to the content and to the whole, blended in the moment, are the reality of the knowing, whether it is retained as significant or shoved away in order to dwell on something else. The self at the level of experience at work in this way, generates experience, its experience.

This is why each of us believes in the genuineness of one’s experience and can distinguish not only truth from lie and from mental fabrications (which may be creatively valuable in fictitious work of fantasy and fiction) but also the qualities and attributes of one’s mental acts as distinct from their content which takes the form of objectified energy. Thus we reach the power to judge our inner life and some of its transactions.

With the distinction between the attributes of our mental acts and the objectified forms of ourselves available to us, we can reach our needs as well as our knowing, and blend them into our need to know.

We can find in us the need to know, in our present inner life under thousands of guises, at our present age and in our present circumstances. We can distinguish between the need to know nourished by curiosity and the need fed by ambition, habit or even the momentum of curiosity. Once known empirically in the here-and-now, we can try to make it into an instrument for our understanding of our own life, our condition, our involvements and their present shapes and strengths.

Since the life of each of us is unique, every one of us must redo the work of focusing on one’s experience of the need in one to know, by using such lightings and by noting what is being made evident, stressed, put into relief and thus meet one’s need to know face to face.

We can select instances from our lives and illustrate first, the existence of a need to know and then, a variety of the modalities of its manifestation. We can look at, for example, what we all (or almost all) do when we come to an intersection and want to cross to the other side. We stop and inspect the environment. We take in the color of the traffic lights and interpret the signal; we look to the right or to the left (but generally to both) and process the information by stopping or moving ahead, leisurely or fast, involved with the traffic to avoid being run over or even simply to interfere with its flow, feeling what is our right of way, our sense of fairness, our courtesy, separately or blended. It takes only fractions of seconds to do all that mental work but we do it spontaneously, using our need to know whether or not it is safe to cross at this intersection at this moment with all that which characterizes the moment as it is perceived by our trained senses supported by our previous experience and our knowledge of the laws of traffic.

While our inner life goes on and we order our soma to walk towards a certain destination set in advance, by a certain route which may have a number of options at the precise moment of actual crossing we give to our need to know its chance to function unobtrusively towards a practical end. If the situation demands, once again, that we need to know, we feel the need active in us mobilizing us to assess the situation captured in the moment. The moment taken care of, we move on to our destination. Such insertion of the need to know into a routine activity though it gives the need to know a trivial appearance, it also makes it a part of the fabric of our life, localizable in so many of our daily involvements. By dwelling in some of them now we can all find our own list of instances which introduce us explicitly to what our need to know is.

If it is, as we claim, an important part of the fabric of human lives, we shall be helped by meeting its existence in us to understand ourselves and others. We shall contribute to our evolution by becoming aware that our need, in fact, is an instrument of knowing.

In fact, it is the need which provides the energy for knowing, the affective energy that mobilizes the psychic energy which in turn is required to mobilize our organized past: our soma as well as all the objectivations which enter in every action and have been generated in earlier knowings and experiences. Because of the existence of this energy component in knowing, we are allowed to speak of need to know. Indeed, “need” can be proposed, and can be adopted, because of the contact of the self with the presence of the dynamics within the happening. Each of us is sensitive both to this presence and to its vicissitudes which represent the modalities of the manifestation of a need and we assert spontaneously both that we have a need to know and can remain with the knowing.

The superficial openness of curiosity has been replaced by the profound and hidden workings of the need to know. This will allow us to understand why and how humans are compelled to yield to their curiosity in so many circumstances of their lives, why curiosity at certain times and of certain kinds is healthy and must be encouraged and cultivated.

Homo sapiens is not only a knowing hominid among all creatures, but defined as a knowing creature, with knowing as the essence of his being. Thus he has created a new reality called knowledge which covers the full spectrum of all the reaches of his awareness. In so doing he has become aware of awareness and generated all the sciences of successive generations from the least structured and least established — which were passed on through action from parents to offspring — to the modern established sciences of the last four hundred years — which form the contents of the courses in all schools of the world, including the graduate, and for which organized education is the vehicle.

Without the need to know there can be no sciences.

According to the nature of the impacts on the self, the need to know applies those attributes of knowing to itself which indicate that the resultant knowledge belongs to such or such a science. The need is universal but it gets structured differently according to the selected attributes of the knowing. Both a nuclear physicist and a cosmologist — an observer of the whole universe, experience the need to know but that need does not satisfy itself in the same way in both fields. The infinitely small in one case and the infinitely large in the other, remain beyond the reach of the mind which creates the instruments to reach the α and the ω of the universe. The experience of the need to know (though reachable in both) is not stressed while the experience of the contact with the contents is. Thus both can recognize themselves as scientists because of their discipline to know, while the findings of each might pose difficulties in their comprehension by the other.

Although the ethics of scientists require that they stress objectivity and neutrality and ignore the emergence of subjective and personal components, yet each working scientist knows that he experiences the very subjective pressures of his personal need to know as it manifests itself in his specific field and not in others. There we find the source of specialization which does not result only from the enormity of the accumulated knowledge. Indeed, there are people who specialize in allowing the whole to occupy them and who propose syntheses of fields rather than collections of details gathered in narrow areas.

We all experience the need to know. Its existence cannot be denied. Exceptionally we suspend it: at our moments of introspection, when we are in dialogue with ourselves.

Author: Caleb Gattegno

Read the whole article in the Newsletter: The Need to Know (PDF) or (Issuu) Vol. XIII* N° 2 December 1983.

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“Introducing the Need to Know” in The Need to Know by Caleb Gattegno is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. The copyright holder is Educational Solutions Worldwide Inc.