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.