Monday, May 23, 2011

The end of wonder

Justin E. H. Smith writes that:
false theories are an important part of the puzzle that we as philosophers should be trying to complete: that of determining the range of ways people conceptualize the world around them.
The implication is that philosophy is about (i.e. the goal of philosophy is) determining the range of ways people conceptualize the world around them.

This is, at least superficially, quite different from Mark Linsenmayer's claim that:
we live in a culture where “conservative” means “go out and get a job and be useful, and screw all this knowledge for knowledge’s sake and art for art’s sake!” Philosophy is by definition in opposition to that. 
The implication here is less clear, but one way to read it would be as a rejection of instrumentalist thinking. Philosophy is opposed (or even is opposition) to the idea that the good is the useful, that there is no such thing as intrinsic value, as in art for art's sake.

Smith approaches Linsenmayer's position though:
Scholarship in the history of philosophy must not aim to contribute to the resolution of problems on the current philosophical agenda. What it must do instead is reveal the variety of problems that have in different times and places been deemed philosophical, thereby providing a broader context within which current philosophers can understand the contingency, and future transformability, of their own problems. In this way, historians of philosophy contribute to the vitality of current philosophy, but on their own terms, and not on the terms dictated by their non-historian colleagues.
He rejects one kind of call for relevance, the demand from philosophers that work in the history of philosophy have a payoff, but seems to offer a different kind of relevance instead. The history of philosophy, as he sees it, ought to provide something for current philosophers, although what it provides them is a context, not the kind of thing that they actually want.

Smith clearly cares about other things too, such as respect for the dead and the possibility that our current thinking might in some ways be too narrow. And these things seem to be part of the point of providing a broader context. So he isn't really thinking instrumentally here, at least not in a crude way. What I'm tempted to say he wants to offer is a (broadened and respectful) sense of possibilities. Which I think you might call informed wonder.

Linsenmayer's association (not identification) of philosophy with knowledge for knowledge's sake and art for art's sake is actually quite similar to this. Very roughly speaking, the art part might provide the wonder while the knowledge part provides the being informed. Although talk of aspects might be better than parts here.

What both Smith and Linsenmayer oppose is something that it would be nice to be able to call utilitarianism, a narrow- or closed-minded "practical" approach to life. I suppose philosophy is opposed to this in spirit, but it doesn't stop actual philosophers wanting philosophers to provide not understanding of the dead or of possibilities, but answers to questions, solutions to problems, or at least something neat to entertain them. Bread and circuses.

I'm also tempted to see this as a problem that belongs to mainstream philosophers who therefore fail to appreciate the good work of others ("What do you mean you don't see the value of my musings on some obscure remarks of Wittgenstein's?"), but actually it's probably just human nature. I like having questions answered and to be entertained too.

Whether this idea of philosophy as being about wonder is anti-conservative I don't know. It is in one obvious way anti-conventional, but there needn't be anything political about that. Or rather: it is political, but not necessarily aligned with any particular part of the political spectrum. A philosopher is a member of no thought community. Including the thought community of philosophers. 



  1. In almost every post of yours, there is a turn of phrase which provokes an "I wish I had said that" reaction in me. Two posts ago, it was:

    But by now I suppose I am getting very banal, which I take it is a sign that what I'm saying is probably about right.

    Now it is:

    I like having questions answered and to be entertained too.


    Every time wonder is mentioned in connection with Wittgenstein, I think of Paul Bernays's remark:

    The old Greek observation that philosophical contemplation often begins in philosophical wonder misleads many philosophers today into believing that the cultivation of astonishment is in itself a philosophical achievement.

    This was intended as an anti-Wittgensteinian remark. I think there are (people who think of themselves as) Wittgensteinians who are guilty of this, and still others who are not and nevertheless manage to give wonder its due. As so often in philosophy, there are healthy and unhealthy forms of the same phenomenon, and those who endorse the unhealthy form perhaps justify it to themselves by convincing themselves that it is the healthy one.

    That "philosophy begins in wonder" (another of those "banalities that are about right") does not have to mean that philosophy ends in wonder as well.

  2. Thank you!

    The cultivation of astonishment actually seems like a very good thing to me, but it would almost certainly have to be done accidentally. Having the cultivation of astonishment as one's goal must be a bad thing. Maybe not for a magician, but even then I think I'd rather see a magician who wanted to perfect a certain craft more than he wanted to wow people. And philosophers aren't magicians anyway. This is why talk of exciting ideas, or "one of the most exciting young philosophers working in the philosophy of x," rubs me the wrong way. Even though, of course, I like to be excited too, and what people actually mean when they talk like this might be something quite innocuous.

    So it's fine with me if philosophy ends in wonder as long as this doesn't just mean that the audience says/thinks/writes "wow!" or "ooh!" The wonder should be more informed than this, or more productive. It should change your life rather than making your day. And one problem with philosophy that aims for a "wow!", in addition to its shallowness, is that it might change people's lives for the worse. Being radically innovative is not necessarily bad, but it's a dangerous game.