On Wonder

By Greig Roselli

In the Theatetus Plato writes, “philosophy begins in wonder” (155d). The Original Greek is θαῦμα (thauma), which translates as “puzzle,” “problem,” or simply, a “marvel”. The definition suggests to wonder is in fact to attempt “to solve a conundrum.” In this sense, θαῦμα, carries with it a connotation of active puzzle-solving. Wonder is open to action, yet is also paradoxically passive in its reflective nature. I say this because the concept of wondering implies both the ability to reflect, to bring a thought into motion; and also, the active thinking of the thought, which we call roughly, the idea.

The Platonic mantra “philosophy begins in wonder,” thus seems to suggest an object that originates in such a person who wonders. It is the birth of an idea, and it rises to the surface – call it consciousness.

Archimedes sat in his tub, noticed that the water level rose equal to the volume of his own body. Before Archimedes’s discovery, an object’s displacement of water was a mystery, something to be puzzled out. Is wonder, then, is the origin of the conscious moment? Isn’t this what we do when we attempt to puzzle out questions of being?

Wonder – Origins

Wonder is both active and shareable. In its original sense, θαῦμα (thauma), does not equate to “awe,” or, “inspired by greatness,” but rather refers to the

locus from which the philosopher begins.

To wonder is to have the capacity to even begin philosophical thinking. Wonder is a beginning point; not a response to a world that necessitates somber recognition. Wonder catapults us into the abstract — into the mode where philosophy is staged — to engage with the world. Wonder is an active principle, and not irreducibly a passive one. It generates the possibility of standing outside of our own cognition and commenting on the world and ideas.

Wonder necessitates response. Wonder involves a response that forms the very kernel of philosophy. Wonder allows us to interactively reflect on the purpose of philosophy itself.

A school founded on wonder. Philosophy (School of Athens) by Rafael, Stanza della Segnatura, Vatican Palace, Rome, Italy, 1509-1511.

Philosophers ask, “what does it mean to philosophize?” Philosophers ask us to think about ourselves from an anthropological stance. What makes the human being capable of asking questions about its own being-in-the-world? Wonder makes meta-thinking possible, to think about thinking. Philosophy then becomes a reflexive activity that spurs on thought, brings it forward out of the mind and into the broader community of thinkers. In this way, the philosopher is not the stereotypical navel gazer who is lost in his one dimensional, fantasy-driven worldview. It is erroneous to think of wonder as solipsism, the monist philosopher, a brain in a vat.

Wonder is the epistemological step to defining ourselves as thinking beings. Rational creatures, like humans, can wonder — contain within themselves the capacity to think beyond themselves — which means rational creatures can think about their being and their own death. By extension, we can share our experiences, our reflections with others.

It is in this way we create a human community. It is a dance between solitude, an inner stirring, and entering back into the human circle, which constitutes our wondering, what makes our wondering shareable, and gives our philosophy a sense of work and collaboration. We can wonder together about these issues. Wonder originates from an “I” and informs a “We”.

Dasein Can Wonder

As I have already said, wonder is a primary function of philosophical

inquiry. In philosophical and intellectual circles we tend to speculate on many things, but we seldom reflect how we came to this type of thinking known as “wonder” in the first place. Rarely is it asked, ‘where does this capacity spring from?’

Modernity — by which I mean anything after Kant — emphasizes the privilege of the thinking subject. It is in the twentieth century, perhaps with Heidegger, who rigorously rethought the question of being, taking it down from the point of view of a deity and turning it to the vantage point of the human being. With Dasein (Being), the subject who ponders being asks “why is there something rather than nothing?” Here the question of wonder takes on a subjective shape. Heidegger speaks of the capacity to wonder when he lays a foundation for how Dasein is even capable of philosophizing.

Heidegger’s beef lies with his observation that no one has ever really made a coherent argument regarding how humans began to philosophize. When Heidegger writes about the facility of Dasein as an a priori condition of its own being in such a way that one has an understanding of Being, he is speaking about the conditions of wonder.

The Greeks situated the philosopher in a space defined by leisure. In the Middle Ages, philosophy was a necessary servant to theology. In “early modern” thought, every philosopher from Descartes to Kant, gave the cogito (I think) an exalted status that truncated thinking from its source, the human being. In the apex of Enlightenment right up to the powerful seduction of contemporary science, the hegemony of thought over being has held sway.

Heidegger was the first to question the possibility of wonder as a counterpoint to the hegemony of thought. Dasein, then, Heidegger’s metaphysical interlocutor, is the human being himself, in time, who is able to carve out for himself, and for others, the intricacies of being. Heidegger understands the question of being by first looking at the subject who is capable of articulating the question of being in the first place, namely us humans. Dasein allows for being to be thought of as both coming from an originary space, and also extends being to a shareable discourse.

Wonder, then, is an architectonic by which we begin to enter into philosophical inquiry and debate. Wonder builds from wonder into thinking and by extension, into engagement with the world. We think of the philosopher’s tool as an inward dialectic, as if wonder is presupposed to think inwardly. While I think this is true, it is a fundamental flaw of reason to mistake wonder with introspection. Wonder is inextricably designed to be outward in its structure while introspection is not.

Wonder is a capacity – a capacity that makes it even possible to be what we call thinking-beings. Dasein is possible by virtue of wonder. Wonder is not and cannot be an inward action that precludes activity with others. In wonder, the philosopher begins to build a worldview.

Without wonder it would be impossible to pose questions about the world, nature, the “I,” God, and others. Without wonder, without a conception of human beings who wonder, there is a disabled view of how human beings can interact.

Another analogy of wonder is the child. The birth of the philosopher can be traced back to a moment in childhood. The child asks, “What happens after death?” Or, as both Leibniz and Heidegger question, “Why is there something and not nothing?” From wonder, the child relinquishes himself for the first time from dependence on another and begins to formulate questions that softly form his or her own identity.

The capacity to wonder fulfills another function, which is to leave the imaginary fold of dependence and enter into an interdependence within a community where ideas can be shared. Society hinges on the failure or success of the human subject to master his own malformed subjectivity. A subject without the capacity to wonder would be one for whom the world poses no marvels. There would be no interdependence, only monism. Without wonder the community would not exist because people would not have the impetus to propel themselves outward. Since human beings have the capacity to wonder, it is part of our cognitive origins to seek out answers to the most basic questions. Wonder is a necessary narcissistic wound.

Wonder is Shareable

To reiterate, wonder is a shareable phenomenon. Just as Archimedes had his moment of clarity, so too does his wonder extend beyond his own thinking and becomes a shareable wonder with others. The import of Archimedes’s unpuzzling is the precision by which volume can be measured.

In a way, wonder makes possible a community of inquiring people. It is the capacity to wonder, to puzzle out, that inspired the early polis to organize groups of people together in the streets to philosophize. The community of thinkers, what Dante would call the virtuous pagans, through the leisure granted them to wonder, discuss in dialogue the ideas they have mulled, or ruminated, in their heads. In a less romantic way, wonder is registered by the school teacher who sees his student’s face light up when they realize an answer.

Wonder is that initial birth of an idea that sparks a piece of art, or an idea for a thesis. Without wonder, Newton would never have been able to even to bring into his consciousness the law of gravity, or Copernicus a heliocentric universe.

Wonder does not ground any of this. Wonder is not a reason or an understanding. Wonder is a point of departure. Wonder is the birth of an idea. I turn to you, another being who wonders, not as a dead thing in a room, but as another wondering being with whom I can begin.