Wonder and doubt

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Q: “How do people approach life? With a sense of wonder or with doubt? Aristotle said many years ago that philosophy begins in wonder. Kierkegaard later observed and lamented in the 19th century, that there’s been a shift; that philosophy begins with doubt. Is that still the case today?”

Near the beginning of Negative Dialectics, Adorno claims that philosophy had been surpassed (because its moment of realization was missed). Yet, I witnessed a packed auditorium at 9am on a Saturday morning held in rapt attention by Habermas’s lecture “From Kant to Hegel and Back Again: The Move toward Detranscendentalization” (subsequently published in Truth and Justification). There’s no schande in the fact that there is professional philosophy (and the claim against academic philosophy that it is academic doesn’t constitute a non-trivial finding) and that philosophy exists outside the academy. I’m amused by the apparent war between analytic and continental philosophy (which echoes the apparent war between quantitative and qualitative methods in the social sciences). Professional philosophy is an embattled field, at once the most exulted of the cultural sciences and, often, the smallest department within the humanities. The social sciences have encroached, in their clumsy way, on the philosophical field, appropriating, borrowing, and stealing, frequently without understanding.

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Socrates: “I see, my dear Theaetetus, that Theodorus had a true insight into your nature when he said that you were a philosopher, for wonder is the feeling of a philosopher, and philosophy begins in wonder. He was not a bad genealogist who said that Iris (the messenger of heaven) is the child of Thaumas (wonder).” Plato, Theaetetus (Penguin Books: p. 25).

Hegel: “Only one word more concerning the desire to teach the world what it ought to be. For such a purpose philosophy at least always comes too late. Philosophy, as the thought of the world, does not appear until reality has completed its formative process, and made itself ready. History thus corroborates the teaching of the conception that only in the maturity of reality does the ideal appear as counterpart to the real, apprehends the real world in its substance, and shapes it into an intellectual kingdom. When philosophy paints its grey in grey, one form of life has become old, and by means of grey it cannot be rejuvenated, but only known. The owl of Minerva takes its flight only when the shades of night are gathering.” The Philosophy of Right (Preface).

Wittgenstein: “In every serious philosophical question uncertainty extends to the very roots of the problem. We must always be prepared to learn something totally new.” Remarks on Colour (University of California Press: 1-15, 4e).

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Wonder and doubt should not be placed in opposition. Here I would say that “wonder” stands in a polemical relation to the view of philosophy articulated by Hegel in the Preface to The Philosophy of Right; the notion that philosophy comes on the scene only after events are cut and dried (which allows an identity between the real and ideal, the real and the rational) and the List der Vernunft (in The Philosophy of History) leave no room for contingency, of anything of which one might be “in wonder.” There are no historical surprises for Hegel, no possibility that things could be otherwise; they simply are.

And yet, Wittgenstein signals: uncertainty — a form of doubt — also opens a way to wonder (the preparation, or capacity, to learn something new or unexpected); or perhaps we can understand wonder and doubt as different orientations that bring about openness towards what exists, what is thought to exist, and categories of knowledge.

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Whether doubt and wonder should be considered oppositional ways of knowing (of philosophy) or as complementary orientations, one can also acknowledge that a hierarchical relationship exists between wonder and doubt. A homology exists in the relationship between the following terms, with primacy accruing to the first term in the paired sets:

Doubt and wonder
Science and art

The hierarchical relations of doubt/wonder, science/art have other associations (or relations) of superior and inferior mapped on to them:

Doubt:Wonder
Masculine:Feminine
Adult:Child
Developed:Un(der)developed

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We can also consider the question raised by Kierkegaard in another way, with another provisional “opposition” between two orientations: knowing and being. Ricoeur’s summary of the trend in philosophical hermeneutics (represented by Heidegger and Gadamer) is helpful: “I see the recent history of hermeneutics as dominated by two preoccupations. The first tends progressively to enlarge the aim of hermeneutics, in such a way that all regional hermeneutics [NB. here he means hermeneutics developed for the purpose of the study of the bible and ancient texts (philology)] are incorporated into one general hermeneutics. But this movement of deregionalization cannot be pressed to the end unless at the same time the properly epistemological concerns of hermeneutics – its efforts to achieve a scientific status – are subordinated to ontological preoccupations, whereby understanding ceases to appear as a simple mode of knowing in order to become a way of being and a way of relating to beings and to being” (“The task of hermeneutics” (p. 54) in From Text To Action: Essays in Hermeneutics II). The opposition of epistemology (which is associated with doubt, science, and method in Gadamer’s Truth and Method) to ontology (with the shift in favor of the latter) has this implication for philosophy in the work of Gadamer. According to Gadamer, we must first ask what types of beings we are; answer: we are historical beings. Second, he argues that interpretation/hermeneutics involves us in acquiring the historical tradition which always already shapes our way of being; prejudices, the bête noire of Enlightenment thought (and the philosophy of doubt running from Descartes to Durkheim), are not to be rejected, but rather are the starting point for an interpretive process in which a fusion of horizons (our own with those of the past) takes place.

Hence, we wind up (following Heidegger and Gadamer) with a rejection of skepticism, epistemology, and, most significantly, explanation, and an exclusive embrace of interpretation and understanding. Ricoeur attempted to overcome this opposition by turning to linguistics as a “scientific method” that is appropriate to language and our being in language — as per Heidegger’s claim that language is “the house of Being.” (Martin Heidegger, “The way to language” (p 135) in On the Way to Language).

“We can, as readers, remain in the suspense of the text, treating it as a worldless and authorless object; in this case, we explain the text in terms of its internal relations, its structure. On the other hand, we can lift the suspense and fulfill the text in speech, restoring it to living communication; in this case, we interpret the text. These two possibilities both belong to reading, and reading is the dialectic of these two attitudes” (Ricoeur, “What is a text? explanation and understanding” (p 113) in From Text to Action: Essays in Hermeneutics, II)

I reference Ricoeur for the purpose of showing an effort to work through apparent oppositions that pertain to defining what “philosophy” is (as they are raised in Heidegger and, perhaps in Kierkegaard). It is possible to both raise epistemological questions (in this case, the conditions of meaningfulness) and ontological questions (the meaning of a text in relation to the world of texts and to ourselves) within philosophical hermeneutics. Ricoeur explains this as follows, with the notion of a “hermeneutical arc.”

“I shall therefore say: to explain is to being out the structure, that is, the internal relations of dependence that constitute the statics of the text; to interpret is to follow the path of thought opened up by the text, to place oneself en route toward the orient of the text. We are invited by this remark to correct our initial concept of interpretation and to search – beyond a subjective process of interpretation as an act on the text – for an objective process of interpretation that would be the act of the text.”

“The idea of interpretation as appropriation is not, for all that eliminated; it is simply postponed until the termination of the process. It lies at the extremity of what we called about the hermeneutical arc: it is the final brace of the bridge, the anchorage of the arch in the ground of lived experience. but the entire theory of hermeneutics consists in mediating this interpretation-appropriation by the series of interpretants that belong to the work of the text upon itself. Appropriation loses its arbitrariness insofar as it is the recovery of that which is at work, in labor, within the text. What the interpreter says is a resaying that reactivates what is said in the text” (“What is a text? explanation and understanding” (pp 121-122, 124) in From Text to Action: Essays in Hermeneutics, II)

In this case, an openness to the text (towards discovery and appropriation of its meaning) is compatible with the philosophical tradition of doubt (epistemology), which raises questions of the conditions for knowing a text (its internal conditions of meaningfulness). The tradition of doubt does not have to be excised; and the “pathos of astonishment” need not be dispelled (pace Heidegger).

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