Discarding the Neophyte Label


Design for a flying machine, Leonardo Da Vinci, c. 1488

by Rhoda Feng

In the 1450s there lived a boy whose favorite pastime it was to roam the hills of Tuscany. He would dwell in vineyards and olive groves that offered up an assortment of brightly plumed birds, peeping insects, and fragrant plants for contemplation. On his lengthier peregrinations, he developed a fascination for majestic waterfalls, caves and rocky promontories. At the age of 15, he became apprenticed to a craftsman and painter and learned how to mix pigments, fashion paintbrushes and work with oils and glazes. The young man eventually left Florence and recommended himself to the ruler of Milan by delineating his accomplishments as an engineer, architect, sculptor and painter. By the end of his life, he would have explored and contributed to several other fields, including mathematics, geology, optics, hydronamics, anatomy, botany and astronomy. This man was Leonardo da Vinci. That he was a consummate Renaissance man of enormously diverse interests is undisputed. That he can be called a neophyte is less certain.

An article that appeared recently in the New York Times (“What’s New? Exuberance for Novelty Has Benefits” by John Tierney) discusses how neophilia, or a penchant for the new, can help foster a healthy and successful lifestyle. Intuition or examples of famous innovators like da Vinci would seem to have led people to regard neophilia – which might be distilled into inquisitiveness – as a predictor of accomplishment. Instead, as Tierney informs us, “novelty-seeking [is] a personality trait long associated with trouble.” Given its history of bad repute, one might believe that the latest research on neophytes restores a sense of equilibrium, essentially neutralizing the term “neophilia.” Would it were so simple. As the article suggests, some people, far from regarding neophilia as a term with neither positive nor negative valence, have come to imbue it with the former.

In attempting to wrest the word “neophilia” from all negative implications, many, it seems, have been swayed into believing, if not outright espousing, an equally skewed version of the term. The Times article notes that “Fans of this trait are […] pointing to genetic evidence of its importance as humans migrated throughout the world […] the journalist Winifred Gallagher argues that neophilia has always been the quintessential human survival skill.” To ascribe our ancestors’ nomadic lifestyle to neophilia smacks of sophistry. One could conjure up a score of instances in which capricious Mother Nature, rather than any inherent desire, forced tribes of reluctant people to move from place to place.

Neophilia might be charitably interpreted as an active curiosity, but it is important to keep in mind that it still plays a part in all kinds of deleterious behavior, including “compulsive spending and gambling, alcoholism, drug abuse and criminal behavior.” That neophilia manifests itself in both good and bad deeds indicates that an attempt to assign a general value of positive or negative to the term is a mistaken, perhaps even pernicious, enterprise.

When researchers point to neophilia as a cause of a litany of social ills, they wrongfully pathologize it. To isolate one trait out of several that must work in concordance with one another is as inadmissible as cases of false advertising. The truth is that neophilia, like most other personality traits, is inextricably bound up with several other traits that comprise the web of our being. Moreover, it logically follows from the above that to “cure” a gambling addiction, one must do away with a proclivity for novelty. It is not at all clear that such a course of action is either feasible or desirable. The capacity to envision new possibilities and courses of conduct can serve everyone well at some time or other. Conversely, the tendency to stick to a routine, while it undoubtedly imparts many advantages, can be restricting and hinder creativity.

Like all labels, the use of the terms “neophyte” or “neophiliac,” an extreme form of neophilia, presents problems of overgeneralization and reduction and invites people to judge someone on the basis of that one trait alone. As I have argued, neophilia by itself is neither good nor bad; context determines everything. Though I am adverse to the idea of “neophyte,” “neophiliac,” and “neophobe” being used as labels or as shorthand for a cluster of personality traits (mainly because to do so overlooks the highly nuanced integrity of our personality), I genuinely believe that the study of people’s predilection for new things, when undertaken with a regard for the cocktail nature of our personalities, would prove to be an extremely worthwhile endeavor. It would be interesting to know, for instance, to what extent our hunger for what’s new and exciting is determined by our genes rather than our environment, and vice versa.

In its purest form, curiosity is one of the most important virtues to have and to cultivate. As epitomized by da Vinci, it can enable us to do amazing things. But as fallible creatures, we are bound to err in our judgment, give offense where we don’t mean to, and pay for our hubris. Nothing, however, can excuse the muddying of truth where it can be helped. We owe it to each other to think carefully about what we say.

About the Author

Rhoda Feng is a freelance writer who splits her time between New York and Washington, DC.