Stung by a Stingray

Part 2 in a series discussing the meaning of Wonder

The Greek philosopher Plato wrote most of his reflections – deep, penetrating thoughts, always pushing the limits with his questions, always seeking for an additional degree of precision in his answers – in the form of dialogues; like plays in which the main character would be his beloved teacher, Socrates.

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Socrates and the Socratic Method  — Drawing by hotcheeto89

In one such dialogue, Theaetetus, Socrates is having a discussion with a youth, the very own Theaetetus (my students won’t even try to pronounce his name, so let’s call him Tee). They’re trying to find what is the nature of knowledge, no less. Tee is kind of the ideal student: clever, respectful, curious, and possessing a good sense of himself and his capacities. He’s not afraid to bring forth his own opinions, be contradicted, if it happens, and learn from the whole thing. And he is not interested in what impression he is making on the teachers, whether he’ll look clever or dumb. He is interested in learning about things that, well, have caught his interest.

In his impish manner, Socrates has shown to Tee that it is possible to become taller or shorter, bigger or smaller, without changing in size at all. Compare yourself with someone who has grown a lot. You’re the same size than you were, but you are also shorter!

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“These puzzles are not new to you, I guess,” Socrates asks.

“No,” Tee replies, “but indeed, it is extraordinary how they set me wondering whatever they can mean. Sometimes I get quite dizzy with thinking of them.”

This reaction, I should here mention, is very telling. You can see young Tee (who is a student of math), trying to solve a problem, realizing he’s missed something, looking at it from a different angle, finding it doesn’t add up, starting yet again, until the whole thing gets mixed up in his head. Yet we don’t get from Tee’s reply the impression that he is frustrated by that. Rather, there is something pleasant and fun about getting dizzy and completely baffled!

* * *

Maybe I can introduce here a first definition for “Wonder.” I would call it an onomatopoeic definition.

“Wonder” is what makes us say: “WHAAAT???”

This is not an angry “What?” It’s a baffled, dumbfounded “What?” Socrates compares it with being stung by a stingray. You feel numb, disoriented.

And this is what Socrates makes of Tee’s reply: “That shows that Theodorus (Tee’s own teacher) was not wrong in his estimate of your nature. This sense of wonder is the mark of the philosopher. Philosophy indeed has no other origin.”

These are big words. Up until very recently, at least (until, perhaps, the 1800’s), you could say that this remark by Plato was basically unchallenged. Meaning that everyone who was doing philosophy agreed with this: Philosophy has its origin in this sense of wonder. Let’s look at it in more detail.

There are questions that we ask out of a survival (or more broadly, “practical”) interest: “Where should I go if a tornado struck?” “How can I increase the yield in my crops?”” Does this model come with airbags?” “Do you have homework?”

There are questions that we ask because they help us orient ourselves in the here and now, learn where everyone else is at: “Where’s everybody gone?” “What did you have for dinner?” “What was Hawaii like?” “Who won the game?”

And then there are questions that we ask for no practical reason at all; just because they are baffling, or puzzling, or intriguing.

What is winning

Epic Rap Battles of History got it right. It’s not about who wins!

Sometimes they are kind of silly, but the process of thinking through them is a lot of fun.

And sometimes, they are really BIG questions; questions that make us feel that our grasp on reality is no thicker than a light fabric of theories we’ve spun around our minds. Let’s take gravity, for example.

A: “Isn’t it curious that we seem to be stuck to the ground, when nothing is actually grabbing us?”

B: “Duh! That’s gravity!”

A: “But what is gravity?”

B: “It is… the reason why things are attracted towards the earth.”

A: “So… You’re basically saying that the reason things are attracted towards the earth is that there is something that makes things be attracted towards the earth.”

B: “…”

A: “But how does it work…?”

Now A has punched a hole through the fabric, realizing that gravity is for them no more than a word, put in place of—a placeholder, perhaps, for a real explanation. Now B has two options:

Option 1: Retreat!

“Well, I don’t know myself, but I’m sure scientists know.”

(Which is perhaps not true now, and was certainly not true before Einstein.)

Option 2: Allow  oneself to be baffled.

“Dude, I have no idea…!

Again, it’s both uncomfortable – deeply unsettling, some would say – and exciting. Here is this world we’ve taken for granted, and there’s actually so little we know about it!

This is, according to Plato, and Aristotle, and the bulk of classical philosophers, what originated not just philosophy, but all the sciences (which in the beginning, if you want to know, were all jumbled up under the name “Philosophy”).

Newton

Yep, that’s what Newton’s brilliant work on the laws of motion (and, yes, gravity!) was called: not ‘Physics,’ or ‘Astronomy,’ but the ‘Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy’!

And that’s where it all began, philosophy and science: with people that got carried away by these immense questions, and decided to be methodical about it.

<Coming next: Wonder is not just “Whaaat?”, but also “WOW!”>

Wonder

Part 1 in a series discussing the meaning of Wonder

Plato would be mad at me. So would be Alice, for that matter.

I didn’t try to define my subject (which would have upset Plato), and (against the King’s only good bit of advice to Alice) I didn’t begin at the beginning.

I’ve had the nerve to subtitle my blog, “Looking for Wonder in All Things,” and to name it after one of the most famous expressions from (you probably knew this) Alice in Wonderland. Yet at no point, in the year or so it’s been up, did I even try to explain what this Wonder thing is!

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I’ve had my reasons, of course; the first being that it is a very difficult thing to do. I have a very narrow comfort zone; doing something difficult is already stepping out of it…

Secondly, Wonder and Philosophy go a long way back. Plato makes Socrates say (in Theaetetus) that “this sense of wonder is the mark of the philosopher,” no less, and that philosophy, indeed, has no other origin than wonder. After Plato, many great philosophers – and hundreds of minor ones – have written magnificent things about it. So the task is reasonably daunting. Especially since I plan to do it blog style.

What got me started, then? Well, this: I teach Philosophy. I brought my students to the library to do some hunting. Among the questions I posed was, how do you define ‘wonder’?

Easy, I thought. Just go into one of the many encyclopedias of philosophy we’ve pulled out for you and look into the index. Well, here’s what they found.

Nothing.

In fact, I think I should center it for emphasis. Here’s what they found:

Nothing.

Yep. They looked in Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 10 volumes, and the word wasn’t even in the index. They looked in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and got just a few inconsequential hits, of people, well, wondering about something, but never about wonder itself. Somehow we’ve gone from “the mark of the philosopher” to “not worth writing an article about,” and this is certainly puzzling. A screaming silence, if you will.

I’m talking, of course, of the peer-reviewed heavyweights. Wikipedia, which is awesome (another word for “wonderful”), but so far unquotable in the academic world, has a somewhat discombobulated article that amounts to, let’s see, 700 words. Fewer, probably, than any minor supervillain from Marvel (yet another word for “Wonder”). Certainly less than Wikipedia’s entry on Wonder Woman (which, come to think about it, is such a silly name for a character: it applies to about half the population on Earth!)

Wwoman

Yet wonder is very, very important. Not just for philosophers, but for human life.

Without wonder, it’s like the light has died inside you.

* * *

Just bring these two images to your mind: two traditional high school classrooms. In one students are slumped, their eyes glassy, their whole body language lazily screaming, “when is this class going to end?” In another, students are not just sitting upright but a bit forward, itching to speak, nearly falling from their desks in their efforts to catch the teacher’s attention so they can share what is buzzing through their minds…

The difference? Easy. Wonder. Call it curiosity or interest, if you want; that’s wonder at its lowest intensity. Bring it up all the way to mind-blowing (or sometimes mind-numbing) puzzlement, disbelief, the impossibility to reconcile what they think they know with what is being proposed, and you have something closer to what Plato meant by it.

Do you begin to see why wonder is important? Maybe you’ve been present at a class, or a meeting, where “nobody cares.” It feels like people are breathing, but not really alive. We can lose our capacity for wonder – that interior light. It is rather common, actually.

But why?

If you’ve read this far, it means you haven’t lost your capacity for wonder – at least it’s a very good sign. But maybe you are considering – wondering, yes – how to recover it, wake it up when someone has lost it. If you teach, or if giving presentations is one of your career hazards, you may be asking yourself how to wake up this wonder in your students, in your audience.

I’ll put down a few thoughts in my following posts. I can’t claim them as mine, since some of my favorite philosophers have been working on this for a very long time; but the least I can say is that they are “time-tested” – for at least twenty three hundred years or so.

In the meantime, I’d very much like to hear your thoughts on the matter!

<To be continued…>