Wonder and Inquiry

“Son of Klinias, I think that you are wondering…”

Plato’s Alcibiades—the first Platonic dialogue that students in late antiquity, following the Iamblichean curriculum, would read—begins with Socrates speaking these words. From this manifest appearance of wonder comes the invitation to philosophy. Yet for Socrates, and for the Platonist following his example, philosophy never displaces wonder, never undermines the encounter with the cosmos which is philosophy’s own fons et origo, as we see throughout Plato’s portrayal of Socrates, and especially in the Parmenides and the Phaedo.

Wonder is a complex notion. The primary sense of the Greek verb θαυμάζω and its derivatives—as used by Plato, and more broadly—is “to marvel at, to be amazed.” We still retain this sense of “wonder” in English, particularly (though not exclusively) in phrases like “wonder and awe.” Yet somewhere along the way, English acquired a second sense of “wonder,” meaning something like “to be curious, to seek an account or an explanation.” In other words, in the first sense, we wonder that something is. or we wonder at something, while in the second sense, we wonder why something is. The second sense is not there in the ancient Greek use of θαυμάζω, and indeed, for the Platonist, we are in a very important sense “jumping the gun” when we conflate the two.

As with so many of Plato’s dialogues, the first words of the Alcibiades point clearly to a central theme of the conversation which will ensue. And indeed, we are told again and again that philosophy begins in wonder. Yet as Proclus points out in his commentary on the Alcibiades, from wondering that something is, the natural next step is to inquire why it is. And to inquire why is to search after that causes of the thing, in the thick, ancient sense of those things which genuinely explain, and which must therefore be metaphysically prior to the explanandum. Socrates alludes to this as well in the opening of the dialogue, when he addresses Alcibiades not by his own given name, but by reference to his father, Klinias, since paternity is a causal relation.

This dynamic relation of wondering that and inquiring why continues, all the way to the pinnacle of classical Platonism, the summit of the Iamblichean curriculum, Plato’s Parmenides. In book IV of his commentary on this dialogue, Proclus notes:

And here is something that, as I have said before, both in this and in many other contexts, is very important: the investigation of the “how.” It is the sort of inquiry we said Socrates was pursuing when he asked how the Forms themselves are separated and combined. … He inquires, then, how separation and union are possible in their case—not whether there is such union and separation, but how it can be. Likewise in the present passage the argument asks not whether there is participation, but how it is possible.

in Parm. 877 Cousin; trans. Morrow & Dillon, pp. 239–240

Here, it is critical that inquiry how—even, and especially, when that inquiry is very difficult—does not lead Socrates to give up on “that”: that the Forms are both separated and combined, that participation is possible. In other words, the search for an explanation, however arduous that may become, never leads Socrates to abandon the explanandum: the feature of the world that, by eliciting our wonder that, prompted the philosophical inquiry in the first place.

Put another way, the Platonist’s project is always to explain, but never to explain away.

This naturally leads me back to a critical passage in Plato’s Phaedo, to which Proclus also refers in commenting on this lemma from the Parmenides. Here, Socrates has just run through a list of various causal explanations given by his predecessors. He then goes on:

I no longer understand or recognize those other sophisticated causes, and if someone tells me that a thing is beautiful because it has a bright color or shape or any such thing, I ignore these other reasons—for all these confuse me—but I simply, naively, and perhaps foolishly cling to this, that nothing else makes it beautiful other than the presence of. or the sharing in, or however you may describe its relationship to that Beauty we mentioned, for I will not insist on the precise nature of the relationship, but that all beautiful things are made beautiful by Beauty. That, I think, is the safest answer I can give myself or anyone else. And if I stick to this I think I shall never fall into error. This is the safe answer for me or anyone else to give, namely, that it is through Beauty that beautiful things are made beautiful.

Phaedo 100c-e, trans. Grube, slightly modified

Here too, only hours before his death, Socrates clings to the basic encounter with Beauty. Dare we even call this the phenomenon which is to be explained? That is, it is apparent to Socrates throughout his entire life that somehow, particular things are beautiful because they participate in Beauty. This motivates a life-long search to understand how that can be. And despite his never coming to a fully satisfactory account or explanation of this participation, Socrates never gives up on acknowledging the basic, observed phenomenon of participation: the “safe answer” which prompted the inquiry in the first place.

Put yet another way, for the Platonist, everything exists. The (beautiful) person, the (beautiful) statue, the beauty in each of them, Beauty itself which seems somehow to be independent of either of them. All of these are basic parts of our encounter with the cosmos, reflected in our ordinary ways of thought and talk. Together with Socrates, the philosopher wonders at these. She is amazed at their depth and complexity and intricacy, she marvels at the cosmic whole of which they are such tiny yet magnificent constituents. From that wonder, the philosopher’s task is not to explain them away, but simply to explain them, however challenging that may turn out to be. All while never losing sight of her initial experience of wonder.

3 thoughts on “Wonder and Inquiry

    1. So, the awe-related definition dates back to 888, but the other one doesn’t come in that much later. There are two subareas in the OED that seem to have that sense. 1b is the sense that Milton would sometimes use when introducing a topic of inquiry.

      All text below is from the OED:

      1b. with clause expressing the motive or object of wonder.

      c1000 West Saxon Gospels: Luke (Corpus Cambr.) i. 21 Þæt folc wæs zachariam geanbidiende, & wundrodon þæt he on þam temple læt wæs.
      c1386 [see sense 1a]. c1430 [see sense 1a].
      ?1553 Respublica (1952) iii. i. 21 Nowe I doe lesse woonder that lost men life to save, Ferre from lande dooe laboure againste the roring wave.

      2. Usually with clause: To ask oneself in wonderment; to feel some doubt or curiosity (how, whether, why, etc.); to be desirous to know or learn.
      I wonder is often placed after a question which expresses the object of curiosity or doubt; e.g. ‘How can that be, I wonder?’ = I wonder how that can be. Also I wonder!, colloquial exclamation expressing doubt, incredulity, or reserve of judgement.

      1297 R. Gloucester’s Chron. (Rolls) 160 Þe stones stondeþ þere so grete..& oþere liggeþ heie aboue..Þat eche man wondry may hou hii were ferst arered.
      1377 W. Langland Piers Plowman B. xix. 199 I wondred what þat was.
      1390 J. Gower Confessio Amantis I. 210 Thei wondren what sche wolde mene, And riden after softe pas.

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