Philosophy and wonder
Spoons. Ceiling fans and coconuts. Potatoes, water, pouring water from one container into another and then back again, Cats, masks, billboards, and cars. Bicycles. Stairs, knives. plates, and butterflies. Stones.
Those, ladies and gentlemen, are a few of Rahi's favourite things. I could go on but I think we get the picture. He is 18 months old and completely fascinated by the world.
I thought of him today when I read a blog by the philosopher Liam Kofi Bright. Kofi Bright begins by talking about his nephew Kai, who is 2 years old and also utterly fascinated by the world. Kai's curiosity makes Kofi Bright reflect on "who I am, or maybe where I am, as a philosopher." He feels that somewhere along the way he has "lost the heart of inquiry which still beats so strongly in Kai." And he makes a resolution:
My task for myself in 2023 is to recover something of Kai's spirit.
Inspired by this piece, I want to think aloud a little about this spirit and its relation to philosophy and philosophising. Come along if you fancy, farewell if you don't.
I am trying to imagine the first philosopher. Not Socrates, not the pre-Socratics, not even the people who wrote the Vedas and the Upanishads. I am trying to imagine the first human who philosophised.
How might she have begun? According to Socrates (or maybe Plato), there
is an experience which is characteristic of a philosopher, this wondering: this is where philosophy begins and nowhere else. (Theaetetus, 155c-d.)
Let’s run with this idea for a bit. The first philosopher begins then with this experience of wonder. What is this experience?
Socrates means a particular type of experience of wonder, I think – the experience of puzzlement. So our first philosopher perhaps wonders why she is alive, or why anyone is alive, or why Zeno’s tortoise always wins the race. She wonders these things in the Socratic sense of wonder, where to wonder means to wonder-why or wonder-how. She is struck by something that she needs to be explained or explained away.
Socratic wonder, then, is (implicitly or explicitly) a question and in the normal case the correct response to a question is to try to answer it. Aristotle also talks about philosophy beginning in wonder, and seems to see wonder in the same way:
It is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize; they wondered originally at the obvious difficulties, then advanced little by little and stated difficulties about the greater matters, e.g. about the phenomena of the moon and those of the sun and the stars, and about the genesis of the universe. And a man who is puzzled and wonders thinks himself ignorant … therefore … they philosophized in order to escape from ignorance. (Metaphysics, 982b 12-20)
All of this is a vision of one of the possible futures of philosophising; the future that has turned out to be actual, at least for the tradition in which I used to work. The activity of philosophising is the activity of asking questions and trying to answer them; or, if not directly answering them, of asking more questions about the first question and trying to answer those, or of trying to show that the question is not answerable and we should ask a different question, and so on and so forth. It is the activity that arises in Socratic wonder – in puzzlement – and whose aim is to dispel that very wonder which allows it to arise (or perhaps demands that it arise, for certain sorts of minds).
Children, I have heard people say, are natural philosophers. The people I have heard saying this are mostly themselves philosophers, and what they typically mean by this is that children delight in asking questions, and then, when the question is answered, in pressing questions to the answer. In the terms of our discussion so far, we may say that the idea here is that children are naturally open to experiences of Socratic wonder, and are naturally eager to try to resolve these experiences.
This is true of many children, in my experience, but it is also incomplete. For there is another experience of wonder that we may ascribe to children – the wonder of simply seeing a world, of being in it, of feeling something, of hearing something, etc.
I remember taking my then 2-year-old nephew to the sea. It was his first time. I remember his astonishment, his visible shock at the waves rolling onto the sand under his feet. He turned to me and his eyes shone with delight. It is impossible to know for certain what he was experiencing, of course. But from the outside, I could see no puzzlement; I saw, however, wonder.
Socratic wonder is not the only type of wonder there is. Indeed, one typical use of “wonder” is to express astonishment and delight and joy, and this use expresses no irritation or ignorance. Here, for example, is Keats on discovering Chapman’s translation of Homer:
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow'd Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star'd at the Pacific—and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
That, too, is an experience of wonder, but it is not wonder-why or wonder-how. It is, we might say, wonder-at or wonder-that.
It’s the wonder we might feel at the birth of a child, or when we see the leaves of a tree rippling in a breeze, the wonder I felt when I saw Michelangelo’s Pieta. In none of these cases are we (typically) puzzled. There is nothing to correct, no conflict or tension or contradiction to resolve. We are simply struck by something, we are deeply affected by it, we are astonished at its existence and made joyful by it.
Philosophy begins in wonder, said Socrates. Well, what if it began with this kind of wonder? What if instead of puzzlement it began in astonishment and joy? How might we do philosophy then? What would be the methods of this sort of philosophising? And what might that teach us about our sort of philosophising?
I don't know. But I think it'll be fun finding out. So I've just in this moment decided to start a new series here on this site. Let's call it ... well, there's no need to be clever, is there? Let's just call it Wonder.
Wonder will be a place to express wonder-at and wonder-that, a place to speak with love about the world; a place to philosophise as Kai and Rahi might, if they had the words for it.
((The pieces below are sort of connected to this, so have a look if you find this interesting.))