Haven’t read Abraham Flexner’s 9-page essay?

I just had a good read.  It was entitled, The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge (1939), written by a man named Abraham Flexner.

Dropping the temptation to roll over this man’s biography, I chose to share bits of my reading.  His words are powerfully wrapped in anecdotes, grazing stories among two dominant perspectives – the “scientific” and “humanistic” approaches.


From a practical point of view, intellectual and spiritual life is, on the surface, a useless form of activity, in which men indulge because they procure for themselves greater satisfactions than are otherwise obtainable.

And yet, in the most crucial debacle between practical skills and artistic pursuits, the former tends to win.  Whatever brings utmost value, whichever appeals to a utilitarian’s senses makes it to people’s top priorities.

‘Intellectual and spiritual life’ has been assigned for specific people: artists, musicians, writers, thinkers, radical.  This is quite unfair.   It erroneously assumes that invention is solely backed by utility, fabrications by facts.  It unceremoniously drops theory, as well as, spontaneity.

Spontaneity had been Archimedes’ story and that of Newton’s too.  How about our generation?


“… throughout the whole history of science most of the really great discoveries which had ultimately proved to be beneficial to mankind had been made by men and women who were driven not by the desire to be useful but merely  the desire to satisfy their curiosity.”

‘The desire to satisfy curiosity’ – does anybody still has that?  Our predecessors had collected so much data, packed it into dizzying formats (i.e., videos, books, and infographics).  Each were made accessible through mobile gadgets… knowledge that is power became a click away!

Fed by these sources, indeed, everyone had ‘satisfied their curiosity.’  The unfortunate part of this whole story is that a majority of us grew contented.  After reading or watching or listening, we’d be fine with saying, ‘I know.’

We know, therefore, we’re done.  Of course, that is not exactly true.  As we go through our individual lives, we see counterarguments that shake our understanding of what we just read, watched, or listened.  This, obviously, calls for a rethinking, a thorough going-over or a review.

In other words, there has to be a kind of ‘follow up’ to really, authentically, satisfy our curiosity.  But do we head on that direction?  Do we decide to abandon what we just read, start from scratch and look at mystery or uncertainty in the eye?


“He was absorbed in disentangling the riddles of the universe, at first chemical riddles, in the later periods, physical riddles. As far as he cared, the question of utility was never raised.  Any suspicion of utility would have restricted his restless curiosity.  In the end, utility resulted, but it was never a criterion to which his ceaseless experimentation could be subjected.”  Flexner on Michael Faraday

With the kind of data-engrossed world pictured earlier, the obsession for mystery may have long deserted us.  Such obsession, as mentioned, was restricted to the elite few – those whom everyone called genius in success, but fool in failure.

I guess the real question here is this: do you still love riddles?  Riddles are the everyday problems and inconveniences that you meet on your way to work or school.  They pop unexpectedly; these riddles are good at feigning – like they can’t offer you anything.

But Flexner knew: riddles proffer the chance to satiate curiosity.

And what about value?  It eventually reveals itself, it always does.  In fact, value seems to find our human efforts irresistible.  But effort sustained by curiosity goes further; utility, on the other hand, is only up to an entity’s willing pocket.


2 thoughts on “Haven’t read Abraham Flexner’s 9-page essay?

  1. ” riddles proffer the chance to satiate curiosity” – it absolutely does. And curiosity is a seductive vice, people love to be intrigued, and solving a riddle is soooo satisfactory. Never being able to solve one mind you may ruin your life and leave you wearing a straight jacket in a padded cell. So watch out, riddles can be dangerous! 😉
    Great post, also thank you for the Gratisography link, what a brilliant idea. – sonmicloud.

    • Indeed, riddles can be very dangerous! 🙂
      Glad you enjoyed the link; it does got some great visual goodies…
      Food for the eye, if I might say!

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