Tuesday, January 06, 2009


Wanting to name my post "Existential Wonder" I typed it into google to see what sort of hits I'd come up with. The second link, which I clicked after dismissing the first, was the title of a blog post. My heart sank a little, as it always does when I realize I'm just one of the millions of bloggers out there prattling on about anything that would make me sound the way I feel -- like a philosopher! Then I realized that the post was about a reincarnated dog. It had nothing to do with existential wonder, except for serving as a heart-warming example of it. Think "Marley & Me" for vaguely eastern folks.

So, I retreated, and clicked the third link. Boon!

From Mark Kingwell's Practical Judgements:

"In losing our ability to be amazed in a strange environment, or indeed to see a familiar environment as sometimes very strange, we may have obscured the origin of philosophizing. But an obscuration of origin does not mean we have lost philosophy. Modern philosophy – now made traditional, ruled by convention, canonical – continues without full regard for the experience that gave it rise. Wonder, even if in reality the origin of philosophy, may not be considered an experience deserving philosophical attention. On the other hand, simple wonder cannot be viewed as sufficient of itself to be the philosophizing it sets in motion. The tradition, with its conventions and rules, must be evaluated alongside the experience of wonder. Such a tradition may be rejected as ossified, conservative, or misleading, as Husserl attempts to do, but it cannot simply be ignored."

...then a few lines later, concerning analytic philosopher Ronald Hepburn...

"True wonderment in its philosophical connotation, says Hepburn, must be distinguished from astonishment at ‘mere novelty’ – a distinction to be found not only in Kant but also in Heidegger (curiousity vs. marvel). The thrust of Hepburn’s distinction is thus that ‘legitimate’ wonder must always be wedded to a concern for truth, ultimate causes, reasons; the wonderer wonders only to the extent that he gets his ‘real’ inquiry going. ‘Existential wonder’ at the sheer facticity of the world may not be of legitimate interest, Hepburn suggests, since it opens up no set of reasons to be investigated. It is a kind of wonder, but not one that leads to anything further. […]"

...and a quote from Hepburn...

"We can give no reason for the world's being rather than not being. We can meaningfully ask why it exists, but we have no resource for answering the question. Wonder is generated from this sense of absolute contingency; its object the sheer existence of the world. I shall call it "existential wonder." All reasons fall away: wondering is not prelude to fuller knowledge, though the general interrogative attitude may persist."

Kingwell goes on to point out that many philosophers disagree; in fact, most call this existential wonder the very source of philosophy. Take Plato for instance, who puts into the mouth of Socrates these words:

"[The] sense of wonder is the mark of the philosopher. Philosophy indeed has no other origin, and he was the good genealogist who made Iris the daughter of Thaumas."

Thaumas was a sea god of Greek mythology, whose name meant wonder. Iris was the goddess of rainbows, and a messenger of the gods.

Anyway, to get to my point -- although I think rambling may have been my point -- I recently decided that I've moved out of a state of religious wonder, into a state of existential wonder. Or, that my wonder has lost some of its epic ghosts, and has been whittled down to a dumb amazement that the world is here, around me.

And, conveniently, I think I may agree with Hepburn. Being wonderstruck, in the existential sense, kind of leaves one with a zen-like feeling -- no desires. A vague "interrogative attitude" persists, but with "no resource for answering the question" other than reference to existence itself, all we can do is sense its meaning, and keep quiet.

Wittgenstein said: "It is not how things are in the world that is mystical, but that it exists." (TLP, 6.44)

He also said, "What we cannot speak about, we must pass over in silence." Which makes me think of rainbows, conveniently -- the feeling of being left speechless.

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