Philosophy as astonishment

cynthia asked:

What is the meaning of Theatetus’ response to Socrates’ question: ‘what is philosophy’?

‘For this especially is the passion of a philosopher: to be astonished; there is no other beginning of philosophy than this.’

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

What is your passion in life? I don’t know; but let us make an example of a Marathon Runner training for the Olympic Games.

He’s good at it, no doubt. He has strong legs and feet, and they are long legs and broad feet. He has a good lung too, and a healthy appetite, so that he can tuck away 10 kilos of potatoes for fuel before a run. Also endurance, very important when you have to run for an hour and a half. Moreover he is serious about his game, so he studies whatever science can do to help him, like appropriate footwear and how to navigate a strong wind. But most importantly he trains: day after day, punishing his body, extending the threshold of pain, doing without the simple pleasures that make other people happy, like hamburgers and coke. He might even decide to go without sex for a year, so as not to waste his strength. What does all this add up to?

Clearly that the fellow is either insane or else passionate about something that he has decided to achieve. He makes great sacrifices to this passion. And if he gets better and starts winning a few events, he will feel the spur to exert himself even more. And then one day, let us suppose, he wins gold.

Looking back over all these motivations of an athlete to live a pretty hard Spartan life, you can now say with Plato:

‘For this especially is the passion of an athlete: to be astonished that this was possible; and there is no beginning of athletic contest other than this.’

And his admirers are astonished, and he will will bask in the sunshine of their delight with him.

For an athlete and his well-wishers it may be difficult to conceive that a life of study and thinking may be driven by passion. But then it is easy enough to put the boot on the other foot and wonder what’s so special about running a quarter of a second faster than other athletes and investing a substantial portion of a life in that quest.

The philosopher’s passion is to discover something about the world, about man in the world, about the secret connections that hold between phenomena. Every thought that discovers something generates astonishment about what makes it so – e.g. (specific to Plato) that humans have an innate ability to generalise from particular objects to groups of objects sharing certain qualities and features. This ability, quite mysterious when you really think about it, might then encourage a theory of ideas, because plainly those features are often in the mind of the observer rather than his eyes. Hardness is shared by ceramics and fingernails, but does this make them objects belonging to one class? Justice is something every human wishes for, but (as Plato writes) you can’t take a candle into the streets and go looking for it. So this kind of investigation can bring its own rewards in the astonishment of the philosopher about how much there is to learn about life and the world, and about how much happiness it can bring to the soul to share this effort with others. And so philosophical discovery, like every other human achievement, kindles and fuels passion, and the desire for more, greater, deeper insights.

But the first emotion you must bring to philosophy is astonishment. We take so much for granted that is mysterious and enigmatic. A baby can’t think about everything new it is learning in life. A philosopher should – a philosopher should be astonished every time he hears a sound, sees a colour, touches a surface, and above all about what this incredible fact that we call ‘life’ is all about.

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