Philosophy and a Sense of Wonder

Greek philosophersRetrieving what is of forgotten value from the history of philosophy will require much intellectual work. The goal of this work is to obtain knowledge of the Truth. In order to know the Truth, we must pursue the Truth. But in order to pursue the Truth we must believe that knowing the Truth is possible. Seeking to know requires hope that achieving the goal of knowledge is possible. If knowing the Truth is an impossible goal, then seeking after Truth is futile, and philosophy becomes merely pragmatic.

In Plato’s dialogue, Theaetetus — a dialogue about knowledge — Socrates says to his young interlocutor, Theaetetus, that a sense of wonder is the mark of a philosopher (155c). He says this just after the young Theaetetus ponders some puzzling results of the Sophist, Protagoras’ view that all is becoming and is in flux. Theaetetus’ head is spinning as he sets to wondering about what it could mean to say that all is becoming. Wonder begins with seeking to find an answer, expecting that an answer may be found, however difficult. Wonder is connected to curiosity, our desire to know. It is what drives science and philosophy, and almost all that advances humanity in a forward direction. Wonder is an aspect of our humanity, our rationality. We are born with a sense of wonder, but it seems that our sense of wonder may be dulled or quashed by our unexamined assumptions. Socrates sees potential in young Theaetetus for his sense of wonder and willingness to invest the work necessary for pursuing the Truth of the matter at hand.

Philosophy begins with a sense of wonder at the meaning of things. Socrates and Theaetetus, in their pursuit of a definition of knowledge, wonder at the nature of things, the meaning of things. Wonder includes pondering the meaning of words and of being. These conversation partners don’t just wonder about anything, they are pursuing the nature of fundamental things, the nature of ultimate reality. The pursuit of the definition of knowledge is intimately related to the nature of ultimate reality. They wonder, “what does that mean?” in the give and take of the conversation. They wonder “what is it?”. They wonder “is that possible?” when responses are presented. They reject what is not possible as meaningless and hold on to what is necessary as meaningful.

What are some things we can learn about the nature of philosophy from the exchange between Socrates and Theaetetus? 1) Doing philosophy originates in our sense of wonder. It requires a kind of seeking. 2) Philosophy consists in pursuing the meaning of statements (“what does that mean?”) and the Truth, or nature of things (“what is x?”). 3) Philosophy is the pursuit of knowledge of the Truth. 4) Philosophy relies upon conversation and community in process of dialogue. This community includes philosophers of the past as well as those of the present.

So what? Why is a sense of wonder important for Retrieval Philosophy? In order to do philosophy as Socrates intended, then we need to retrieve a sense of wonder both personally and corporately. Are we actively pursuing what is True? If not, is it because we have accepted the pervasive notion that knowledge of Truth is not possible? Should we put that pervasive assumption to the Socratic test and ask what does it mean to say that Truth is not possible, and why is Truth not possible? If pursuit of the Truth is not possible, then what becomes of the activity of doing philosophy? Are the alternatives of skepticism, fideism, or pragmatism capable of sustaining a senses of wonder?

Retrieval Philosophy questions the assumptions of popular and philosophical skepticism in pursuit of knowledge of the Truth in the same way that Socrates questions the skepticism of his day. Skepticism is the position that knowledge of what is True is not possible for us, that ultimate reality is unknowable, that there are no answers to questions of ultimate reality. Philosophy begins with wonder. Let us wonder about the meaning of skepticism and ask whether reality is such that it is unknowable. If we answer in the negative, then there is nothing further to wonder about. If we answer in the affirmative, then the whole of reality stands open before us. Retrieval Philosophy begins with a renewal of a sense of wonder and a seeking after the Truth.

What is Retrieval Philosophy?

philosophy_dictionaryRetrieval Philosophy is the study of the history of philosophy as a means to addressing contemporary philosophical problems. Retrieval philosophy (Ret PHI) uses the history of philosophy to bring concepts and figures from the philosophical past into dialogue with philosophical problems of the present.

Ret PHI is a movement within the discipline of philosophy. It is a move “back to the sources” (ad fontes). It is a call to return to classical philosophy, with the advantage of a rational presuppositional approach to critical analysis of basic assumptions. A rational presuppositional approach relies upon the critical use of reason to test concepts, judgments, and arguments for rational consistency, rejecting that which lacks meaning and retaining that which is meaningful. The rational presuppositional approach seeks to establish what is logically more basic prior to engaging with what is logically less basic in a step by step, systematic way. For example: Epistemology is logically prior to metaphysics, and metaphysics is logically prior to ethics. Ret PHI seeks to use the history of philosophy in a challenge and response method with the goal of removing the accumulated rubble of bad philosophy and rebuilding the foundations of the discipline of philosophy.

Ret PHI benefits from developments in analytic and continental strains of philosophy, with a critical eye to both past errors and contemporary assumptions. Yet, Ret PHI is post-analytic and post-deconstruction philosophy. It takes the critique of both traditions seriously, and promotes what is of value from both traditions, yet is not paralyzed by the skepticism of each tradition. Ret PHI is not mere genealogy, but is similar to genealogy. The method is to trace concepts or thinkers historically, and show their strengths and weaknesses. The method should get to the root of assumptions, uproot what is meaningless and false, and chart a course for what is meaningful and true.

Ret PHI seeks to avoid a naive reading of texts, which calls for careful and close interpretation and analysis of the text. Ret PHI also seeks to get to the root of philosophical problems and address them in such a way that does not allow for regrowth of the same problems later. Ret PHI is in essence a way of reading the history of ideas with the goal of rejecting meaningless, and thus false, positions and retrieving from the broad philosophical tradition what is true, good, beautiful, and just. It is a critical examination of received assumptions, a test for the meaning of those assumptions, a rejection of what is meaningless and a preserving of what is meaningful from the history of philosophy.

Ret PHI does not tacitly accept the assumptions of contemporary philosophy, which includes naturalism, empiricism, skepticism, and pragmatism. Ret PHI retrieves key arguments against these assumptions from the history of philosophy, providing contemporary philosophical discussions with historic counterexamples. Ret PHI is a platform within the discipline of philosophy from which to move the discipline forward and to explore alternative avenues such as retrieval rationalism, retrieval philosophical theism, and retrieval natural moral law.

It is a longstanding critique that analytic philosophy has not sufficiently recognized or engaged with the history of philosophy. It views itself as “objective” and ahistorical. Analytic philosophy has not sufficiently addressed its own problematic historical assumptions and position of power within the academy. This has been a consistent critique from continental thinkers. Continental deconstruction has been keen to point out the history of power dynamics within the history of what passes for “knowledge,” but deconstruction has not left any positive philosophy in the wake of its destructive forces. The discipline of philosophy, the foundational discipline of the academy, is in crisis. We are now post-reason, post-analytical, and post-postmodern. The only way forward from this moment of crisis within the discipline appears to be a reckoning with the past. This reckoning includes a critical analysis of the assumptions that led to the crisis, and a retrieval of what is classic in classical philosophy.

Retrieval philosophy is a way forward. The desire is not to return to mere tradition, Ret PHI is a “critical retrieval.” It is not a mere return, it is getting something back having dealt with the challenges that led to its being rejected and forgotten in the first place. Ad fontes, philosophers!


What is the Problem?


The primary philosophical problem that has sustained my attention over the years has been reason and public discourse. I am convinced that a renewed civil public discourse is not only possible, but is necessary. I wrote about the crisis of contemporary discourse in my dissertation, and to set up the project of Retrieval Philosophy, I would like to quote at length from the introduction (publication forthcoming):

Currently, the West is experiencing the results of unreason and the lack of a shared public discourse. Western Civilization seems to be in a crisis of legitimacy in the face of a plurality of competing belief systems within a new level of global interaction. There is a push by some for global unity, but on what basis? The process of secularization has resulted in the celebration of pluralism, diversity, and multiculturalism on one hand, and the privatization and minimization of national, cultural, and religious particularity on the other. Politically correct (PC) language has been used as a means to navigate our diversities, and has become the fallback language of the public sphere. But politically correct language does not provide any content. Rather, PC is a negative guide in what ought not be said because what is said may be deemed insensitive. PC is the language of tolerance in the face of difference. Social justice has become the fallback ethics of a public that lacks a shared set of values. And since there is no shared source of authority — cultural, religious, traditional, or otherwise — there is no common ground for public discourse. What we currently see in the public sphere are expressions of emotional outrage or the imposition of a will to power, often by protests that verge on civil unrest by the populace or by legal fiat by the elite. Words are emptied of meaning, and we experience the phenomenon of “fake news” and “alternative facts.”1 Instead of engaging in the rational exchange of arguments to explain what one means, ad hominem attacks are often used to defend oneself or to oppose those with whom one disagrees.

Thomas Szasz has named the phenomenon of emptying words of meaning “semanticide.” He says: “To concepts like suicide, homicide, and genocide, we should add ‘semanticide’ — the murder of language. The deliberate (or quasi-­deliberate) misuse of language through hidden metaphor and professional mystification breaks the basic contract between people, namely the tacit agreement on the proper use of words.”2 The murder of language has a history, and is rooted in an earlier murder of reason (logicide). This dissertation will chart the root of semanticide in the West. Yet, semanticide is not a new phenomenon, nor is it only a Western phenomenon. Chinese Confucian philosophy recognizes the danger of semanticide and proffers its cure in “the rectification of names.” Confucian philosopher Hsun Tsu (310 – 238 BCE) says the following with regard to the rectification of names:

“…When sage-­kings instituted names, the names were fixed actualities distinguished. The sage-­kings’ principles were carried out and their wills understood. Then the people were carefully led and united. Therefore, the practice of splitting terms and arbitrarily creating names to confuse correct names, thus causing much doubt in people’s minds and bringing about much litigation, was called great wickedness. It was a crime, like private manufacturing of credentials and measurements, and therefore the people dared not rely on strange terms created to confuse correct names. Hence the people were honest. Being honest, they were easily employed. Being easily employed, they achieved results. Since the people dared not rely on strange terms created to confuse correct names, they single­mindedly followed the law and carefully obeyed orders. In this way, the traces of their accomplishments spread. The spreading of traces and the achievement of results are the highest point of good government. This is the result of careful abiding by the conventional meaning of names.

Now the sage-­kings are dead and the guarding of names has become lax, strange terms have arisen, and names and actualities have been confused. As the standard of right and wrong is not clear, even the guardians of law and the teachers of natural principles are in a state of confusion.”3

Semanticide is the murder of language through the misuse of names, either intentionally, or through becoming “lax” in guarding the meaning of names. It involves the confusion of words, and what those words represent. Semanticide fails to identify and distinguish the “fixed actualities” that names represent. It leads to disunity, confusion, and doubt (skepticism); lawsuits (will to power); wickedness, fraud, and dishonesty (distrust); unemployment, disobedience to law, and bad government. Semanticide has a cure. The cure is the rectification of names: identifying actualities and calling them by the correct name. Yet the cure must go deep. It must go to the heart of the most fundamental discipline in the academy. The cure must begin with the discipline of philosophy. The sages charged with “the guarding of names” in the West — the philosophers — are often the very people who have promoted and propagated semanticide in our day. Some in the academy are currently proclaiming the death of philosophy. Philosophy, which once stood as the foundation of Western Civilization, is dead. What then becomes of Western Civilization? What becomes of our common culture, traditions, and language? What becomes of the West in the face of globalization, multiculturalism, and secularization? What will be the source of unity for humankind in this context? What will determine whether we have named things aright? Will a political person or body determine the proper names of things?

… We will ask the question “what is reason?” And we will engage the question “how may reason be a shared source of authority for all human beings?” Minimally, reason is the laws of thought.4 Furthermore, we will ask “how can we use reason as common ground in a global, multicultural, secular context?” The means of exploring reason and public discourse is through the discipline of philosophy, and more specifically by examining a previous period of philosophical crisis similar to our own. The problem and diagnosis of semanticide goes to the question of reason in itself, reason’s application to being, and its expression in the proper use of words to express being. Reason and being have been the two fundamental concepts in the history of philosophy, and the denial of reason and being are at the root of semanticide today.

The contemporary crisis of public discourse has a history. There is also a solution to this crisis in the history of philosophy. To address the crisis and to find the solution to the problem of contemporary public discourse through a close grappling with the history of philosophy is an example of the method of Retrieval Philosophy. Yet, the crisis of public discourse also has roots in the very discipline of philosophy. Thus, Retrieval Philosophy also involves a method for disciplinary self-examination. Retrieval philosophy seeks to expose assumptions of contemporary philosophical schools, which are historically rooted, and which contribute to contemporary philosophical problems, the crisis of public discourse being one such example. To sum up: Retrieval Philosophy engages in the history of philosophy to address contemporary philosophical problems. These problems often have roots in the discipline of philosophy, thus Retrieval Philosophy serves also as a means of disciplinary self-examination.

1 See Scherer, Michael. “Is Truth Dead?” Time Magazine, March 22, 2017.­trump­fbi­surveillance­house­intelligence­committee/ Accessed 3/31/2017.
2 Szasz, Thomas. The Second Sin. (New York: Anchor Press, 1973), 22­23.
3 Chan, Wing­ Tsit (translator). A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), 124.