Saturday, 30 November 2019

the danger of wonder

We're sometimes invited to philosophise in a mood of wonder. Heidegger does this; Wittgenstein occasionally does something similar too. Now I've no wish to dismiss wonder, but I want to express a concern about it, or at least about what can easily be taken for it.

St Augustine
Take Augustine's question "What then is time?" which he follows with "If no one asks me, I know; if I want to explain it to a questioner, I do not know." (Both Heidegger and Wittgenstein were concerned with this remark, and admired, if with reservations, Augustine's treatment of time.)

What I'm imagining is someone taking himself to understand Augustine's words, taking himself to understand the question "What is time?", and agreeing with the idea that, in some sense, he "knows what time is" if nobody asks him but not if they do ask him. If I put myself in this imaginary situation, I find myself starting to wonder at time; "How extraordinary!" I interject. It seems utterly mysterious what it is. A simple philosophical question seems to take something we all rather took for granted, something into which we're all unreflectively sunk, something which our thought and action rely upon - and turns it into a thematic object of investigation. And a sense of something at least rather like wonder is surely attendant on this. "Time!" we gasp, wondering at it, stunned that this marvel which seems to outstrip our reflective comprehension was all along under our noses.

But what concerns me here is that Philosophy ( - in what follows I shall pretend that 'Philosophy' is the name of the person drawn to making the philosophical move I wish to expose - ) has mistaken its own capacity to confuse itself for the extraordinariness of nature. For Philosophy here takes a question - "What is X?" - a question which we know how to handle in various contexts ("What is the atomic number of mercury?", "What is a dodecahedron?", "What is a carburettor?") and now substituted for "X" (not "mercury", "dodecahedron" or "carburettor" but) "time". After it has done this, Philosophy takes itself to be asking a genuine question with "What is time?" There being no ready answer, a sense of something like marvel or wonder springs up. "Time: how extraordinary!"

Yet what Philosophy has done nothing to show is the intelligibility of its own question. After all, why on earth should we expect to get a sensible question out of "What is X?" regardless of whichever noun we substitute for "X"? Why should that be a good question in more than a certain range of cases? Why should it be any more prima facie intelligible what is being asked when someone says "What is time?" than when, taking "Y" not as standing for "a piece of string" but rather for "a prime number" or "the colour yellow" they say "How onerous is Y?"? 

The "What is X?" question certainly has a clear role in articulating a certain kind of puzzle about certain substances and (what we might cautiously call) various abstract phenomena (insolvency, arrogance, woke culture, aluminium, plate glass); it works for the whole range of ordinary objects too if we put an 'a' or an 'an' in it too. But so far as I can tell it just isn't obvious what's being asked by "What is time?"

Someone might reply "Well talk of Augustine's knowing what time is so long as nobody asks him must just be another way of saying that he knows how to tell the time, knows how to use the word 'time' in sentences like 'The time is 3.30pm', etc." OK. I'm fine with that. But I don't see a way to preserve the sense of wonder generated by "What is time?" if it is taken to mean "How is the word 'time' used?" For the answer to that question is not in any sense mysterious. It involves pointing to clocks and stopwatches, rehearsing the tenses, explaining how the day is divided into hours and minutes and seconds, etc. etc.

Now I've no wish to deprive anyone of genuine wonder. All I wish to point out here is that we're capable of generating apparent senses of awe and wonder by asking questions the sense of which is unclear when this unclarity goes unrecognised by us. We ask "What is time?" and then rather than continue with "Hang on, what am I even asking here?" instead go on with "How amazing, I talk about it unreflectively every day, but it radically outstrips my reflective purchase and I simply don't know what it is!" That, I suggest, is not a sense of wonder worth having, and philosophy pursued under its sign is nothing but arrogant hubris - the arrogance here being the presumptuous opinion that the putative question on Philosophy's lips had any meaning in the first place.

Rather than wonder, then, the affective sign under which we most often do well to pursue philosophy is, I suggest, humility.