Thursday, February 18, 2010

Philosophy Begins in Wonder

In his Commentary on the Metaphysics (Book I, lecture 3, para. 54-56), St Thomas Aquinas discusses Aristotle's saying that philosophy begins in wonder. Men long ago sought to overcome their ignorance, and enquired about the hidden causes of the things they saw, especially in the heavens. For doubt and wonder proceed from ignorance. When we see some manifest effect whose cause is hidden, we are led to wonder about that cause. From this it is clear that the philosopher is in some way a lover of myths and stories, and is akin to the poets. Whence the first men who treated about the principles of things in a mythical way are called the theologizing poets - for instance, the Seven Sages of ancient Greece.

The reason that philosophers are compared to poets is that each is moved by wonder. For the stories which the poets tell are made up of marvels (just look at Homer, or the Metamorphoses!), i.e. wonderful things. And philosophers themselves are moved to philosophize by wonder. And since wonder comes out of ignorance, it is clear that the early sages were moved to philosophize in order to flee from ignorance. And so for this reason they sought studiously, and not for the sake of any utility.

But we should take note that the name of wisdom has changed to that of philosophy. Pythagoras is said to have been the first to call himself a philosopher, in order to distinguish himself from the sophists, those who claimed to be wise. He would claim only to love wisdom, and not yet to be wise. And he seems to be a lover of wisdom who seeks it, not for the sake of something else, but for itself. For he who seeks something for another's sake, loves the thing on account of which he seeks it, more than what he seeks itself.

I think this notion of philosophy and its origins goes a good part of the way in resolving some of the earlier discussion on the history of philosophy. Why is, e.g., the debate over analogy vs. univocity being studied? In order to understand medieval history, or in order understand how we can know God? Of course one can have both goals, but which is prior? The motivation and attitude behind the study has, perhaps, more to do with whether you are studying as a philosopher than anything else.

The other point that interests me is Aquinas' account of wonder. Since wonder is tied, in this conception, to ignorance, which the philosopher wants to overcome, the wonder itself is not a goal. To philosophize is not to admire the starry heavens openmouthed and saying "like, wow, man!" To get lost in the labyrinth and mystery of being is not philosophy, unless you try to navigate it. A praiseworthy sense of wonder does not travel hopefully without any thought of its destination: it hopes to arrive, and regards the arrival as better than the travel. Not that we shouldn't enjoy the trip!

1 comment:

Brandon said...

I've always liked this part of Aquinas's discussion; it still seems to me to be the best psychology of philosophy in existence. The key is that the sort of wonder involved is the sort that makes you wonder -- the theological poets , too, didn't just look at the stars and say, 'Wow!' but came up with stories and descriptions, cosmogonies and theogonies, because that's what people do when they aren't merely amazed at something but actually wonder about it. Nobody wonders about something simply in order to be wondering about it; when we wonder we want to know.