In episode 73 the question was of 'why do philosophy' was posed. There are many ways to come at this question and in the episode the PEL guys kept coming back to two things: Curiosity and Wonder. How are these two words linked, if they are, and what is their relation to philosophy?
The essay "Beginning in Wonder: Placing the Origin of Thinking" (in Nikolas Kompridis's (ed.) Philosophical Romanticism) by Jeff Malpas gives an interesting, Heideggerian, interpretation of this question. Malpas's position is that wonder, which he traces back to the writings of Plato and Aristotle, must be held distinct from curiosity. Unlike curiosity, wonder cannot be extinguished with an explanation:
A clear demonstration of this distinction is given by the fact that we may be struck by wonder at some phenomenon in spite of being satisfied with our understanding and explanation of it. A rainbow, for instance, can inspire wonder in a way that is quite unaffected by the knowledge that it is produced by the refraction of sunlight through droplets of water in the atmosphere.
It is not that Malpas is arguing that curiosity and explanation are alien to philosophy. Rather, his point is that philosophy cannot be reduced to mere curiosity. That the impulse to philosophize is fueled continually by the wonder which is in excess to our power to explain. Part of the origin of philosophy then is making the ordinary extra-ordinary in the interplay between the transparency of explanation and the opacity in wondering.
One can feel the strong Heideggerian influence here. For Malpas, part of this wondering is connected to always already being-in-the-world. It is in the interplay between transparency and opacity (the revealing and concealing character of aletheia), that our being there is "illuminated". How is this? Malpas, tells us that it is the opacity in continuing to wonder at a rainbow calls attention to our situated-ness in the world. The only way I can really make sense of what Malpas is trying to get at here is that our wonder - and the opacity that always 'doubles' explanation- calls attention to our inability to have a view from nowhere:
Wonder is thus a returning, something with the abruptness of a sudden shock, to the world to which we always, already belong - it is in that return that philosophy begins and to which it must always itself go back.
Although, I find Malpas position interesting and I appreciate the idea that we can remain in wonder at the opacity of the world even after explanation, it does not seem to me that this is the origin of philosophy or answers the question 'why do philosophy'. This is not to deny that philosophy does not begin in wonder and a sense of opacity - it surely does that for many. But to connect wonder with a situated-ness and a return to the 'everyday' does not seem to be the 'telos' of philosophy. There are many more questions that can spur philosophizing and there can be more ends as well.
Daniel David says
Thanks for this. The idea of wonder is something I’ve been interested in lately. I couldn’t say whether it’s the driving motivation behind philosophy, but this was an interesting perspective. Why do things that once inspired tremendous wonder across centuries begin to seem old or unremarkable while humans live only slightly longer than they ever have?
I suppose one way to construe Malpas’ point is that wonder doesn’t require ignorance. I’m curious about the way that wonder is extinguished, and what forces are responsible. I’m inclined to agree that it’s not knowledge alone, but if knowledge isn’t responsible, what is? I think it might be just one small step that’s the crucial difference. Perhaps seeing how a rainbow works doesn’t nullify it’s capacity to fascinate, but what about being able to make one? Or then making one several or a hundred times? What about being able instead to make a Super Bowl halftime sized fireworks show? Or just seeing five thousand images of either? Maybe it’s just the subtle move from seeing our situatedness to using knowledge to adjust our situation that makes all the difference.
Adam Arnold says
I think Malpas would say that nothing can extinguish wonder. Rather, it is more like a forgetting or many reification. That if we look at the phenomenon in the right way the wonder emerges and our being-in-the-world is illuminated. That it is our inattentiveness to how wondrous it is that there is such a creature as us who have the ability to make a rainbow several hundred times – that there is a creature that can manipulate our world in such a way.
I attended a lecture by David Wood recently who talked on an issue similar to this a few months ago. You can listen to it here http://backdoorbroadcasting.net/2012/10/david-wood-reversals-and-transformations-towards-a-deconstructive-phenomenology/
Daniel David says
I’d agree wonder can be recovered, or at least I’d like to believe that, so I think you’re right in pointing out that “extinguish” may not be the best word. My personal observation the phenomenon is that wonder occurs in two basic ways; from a certain attentive attitude toward it and also from environmental provocation. I don’t mean to imply that the former is an entirely internal process, cut off from the world in a way that would make Heidegger wag his finger, but just to emphasize the direction of attention. This is why I don’t think “forgetting” would be quite right either, even collectively, because what might inspire wonder isn’t necessarily already known, and also because it suggests that the same perspective or experience can be achieved or copied nearly enough to evoke the same reaction.
I don’t think that’s the case. I think if we look people in the world, what we see is a kind of arms race of experience – people going to greater and greater lengths to recreate original or wonderful experiences. I think we have to acknowledge the that it can often take a great deal of effort to even approach the original instance of fascination or inspiration, simply because we are not the people we were when we first saw the stars, swam in a lake or slaughtered 72 simulated people in a Playstation game.
Daniel David says
Wow, please pardon my awful rushed typing.
Adam Arnold says
Good point. Though, I was trying to suggest that what is forgotten is not the experience of an object but rather a forgetting of ourselves in-the-world. With the eternal recurrence of the same in media and culture we forget ourselves. The ‘arms race’ of experience is lived-through (Erlebt) which is comfortable, unartistic, empty and unredeeming which has always already been experienced as opposed to the compassionate, spiritfulness, hopefulness of wondrous experience (Erfahrung). (I am obviously thinking of the wonderful essay by Walter Benjamin called “Experience” here). I think you are right about the ‘environmental provocation’ (it makes me think of Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Verfremdungseffekt)) or the writings of Nietzsche and many of the so-called French post-structuralists. We, in our everyday existence, need to be shocked back into see the world and our place in it – its wondrousness.
Daniel David says
I think I understand. My Heideggerian is still pretty limited; I can ask where the restroom is, and that sort of thing. I like Benjamin, but I haven’t read that essay, so thanks for the heads up. I’ll try to track it down this week. Thanks again for an interesting post.
not sure that wonder is all that common and or sustained but certainly pleasure and curiosity are at work for many researchers of various kinds, the philosopher Isabelle Stengers has tried to bring the role of “interest” to the forefront of science studies.
Adam Arnold says
Certainly wonder is not all that common. Part of what Malpas is doing is uncovering the ‘true’ source and the ‘true’ end of philosophy. Malpas also, as I tried to say, does not think that curiosity or interest is disconnected from philosophy. He things they are closely related. It is just that curiosity and interest can be fulfilled but the wondrous remains with opacity even in the face of the transparency of the explained.
yeah i get the retread Sublime but doubting that the phenomenology supports the actual experiences/durations, better perhaps to stick with Marcel on the difference between problems and mysteries, as for quasi-transcendentals like the ‘true’ sources/end that’s a bit of extra-human speculation that I think better left to the theologians.
Gary Chapin says
Nice piece. I think curiosity and wonder are related, but of different scale. I’m wracking my brain trying to remember who said that curiosity is a form of discomfort, an itch to be scratched. William James said “the essence of philosophy is to be in question.” We just keep scratching … it solves nothing, but somehow helps us be in the world.
Your rainbow quote reminds me of Joseph Campbell’s observation about the Native American sun dancers. I paraphrase: It isn’t that they make the sun rise every morning, or even that they think this. It’s that they participate in the sunrise every morning.
Also, I would argue that explanation IS alien to philosophy, in that once a phenomenon is explained to everyone’s general satisfaction, it ceases to be a matter for the field of philosophy and becomes something else.
Adam Arnold says
I believe you are thinking of C.S. Peirce in “How to Make Our Ideas Clear” where he says “the action of thought is excited by the irritation of doubt, and ceases when belief is attained”.
I think the point about explanation is that the striving to find an adequate explanation is not alien to philosophy.
Leland Gregory says
Awesome entry and quotations! I’ve never really thought about delineating curiosity from wonder, let me take a stab at it.
For me, curiosity is the desire to understand how things work, from an intellectual standpoint, using the faculties of reasoning. It’s a drive to understand the different levels below an object that give rise to emergent properties of the whole. This could be anything from understanding that quarks interact to make atoms, or that sunlight diffracts through water to make a rainbow. In each case, something is “made” from constituent parts.
That something is the object of wonder for me. The fact that the phenomenon exists, out of a mechanical working is still awe-some, in the most literal sense. This awe is wonder. It’s not so much a question for me, in that I don’t really want an answer. Maybe you can say it’s a persistent question that revels in itself.
I think philosophy has both of these components. There is a desire to understand how we are built, how we came about, what gives rise to our experience and faculties. But at the same time, the remarkable fact is that we do have experience and faculties, and no amount of explanation makes that any less beautiful. In fact, I think being able to explain and explore ideas on multiple levels adds a wonder at each and every level!
Wonder may not be the genesis or the result of philosophy, but philosophy is definitely a way to appreciate and exercise both wonder and curiosity in new and interesting ways.
tim becker says
I’ve been thinking and reading a lot about this lately, (esp. w/r/t Heidegger’s account of wonder vs. curiosity). I haven’t read the Malpas essay, but the excerpt draws heavily on Heidegger’s distinction between wonder and curiosity in Being and Time. Curiosity is part of what he calls falling – the tendency to be drawn into the world of the public-self [Das Man] and forget our own, personal, first hand experience. Falling is kind of a secularized version of the Christian idea that we are in the world, but not of it.
Curiosity is always looking for what’s new and exciting, darting from thing to thing in search of the novel. Seeing just to see. In curiosity we only see what has already been seen. Phenomenologically it’s the opposite of “letting something show itself in itself.”
He ties wonder back to Plato and the beginning of philosophy through the Greek “thaumazein” – to be amazed, to wonder – and aporia, or perplexity. Wonder and perplexity are crucial to the deconstruction of the metaphysical tradition – undoing all the layers of accreted concepts and returning to the “primordial experiences” in which the Greeks first questioned the meaning of being.
“Curiosity has nothing to do with observing entities and marveling at them — θαυμαζειν . To be amazed to the point of not understanding is something in which it has no interest.” (Being and Time, 216 )
On a not-entirely-different-note, Simon Critchley thinks that philosophy begins in religious and political disappointment.
“That is to say, philosophy might be said to begin with two problems: (i) religious disappointment provokes the problem of meaning, namely, what is the meaning of life in the absence of religious belief?; and (ii) political disappointment provokes the problem of justice, namely, ‘what is justice’ and how might justice become effective in a violently unjust world? ” (Very Little, Almost Nothing, 2)