I think that a good way to get a feel for what philosophy is is to connect it with wonder. We all have experienced moments of wonder. As has been said from the beginning of philosophy, philosophy begins with wonder.
What is wonder, then? Stop and wonder at wonder. It really is a stunning, mysterious idea, even though we all know what it is to wonder.
Wonder is a knowing and a not-knowing at the same time. A mystery, a puzzle, and a clue are like this, too. This is not contradictory—or clues would be unusable. It is a kind of not-yet-knowing. Wonder draws us. It delights and is joyous, inherently.
Wonder, actually, connects us more intimately with the thing about which we wonder. It is a better insight into it and understanding of it—no matter whether it’s a person or a mollusk, a formula or a touchdown pass. You actually never want the wonder to dissipate, because that will actually disconnect you from the real, and diminish you as a person. This is all wonder-full.
Philosophy beginning with wonder means that philosophy is rooted in wonder through and through. To philosophize is to marvel at things as they are. In our un-wonder-filled way of relating to things, we don’t marvel at them. They are around us, a backdrop to what we are doing, or we study them, or use them. To wonder at them, you can see, is to see them in a different way—to really see them, you might say. It’s not to see them and dismiss or discount them. It is to see them and connect with them, embrace them, in a way that never dissipates their mystery.
To wonder is to see something, and to say, “Huh!” It’s to sit in the “huh!,” not to try to explain it away.
Philosophy begins with wonder and never leaves its beginning. Doing philosophy (well) is cultivating wonder, deepening wonder, all along the way. To wonder deepens our humanness.
Why wouldn’t you embrace wonder and philosophize?
Alas! Modernity has exiled wonder! No wonder we avoid philosophy.
There is actually a reason—a current situation in our culture’s philosophical outlook—that dismisses wonder. That’s also threatened philosophy itself, inclining it to dry, inscrutable, dehumanizing debates. Not so tantalizing as it was meant to be. How could philosophy let this happen to itself?
Philosophy began with the presumption that philosophy begins with wonder. Modern philosophy began with the presumption that philosophy begins with doubt—with being skeptical, critical, eventually cynical, untrusting, of everything. The point of philosophizing came instead to be to eliminate wonder, moving toward total control. To say that knowledge is power, as Francis Bacon did, is to attempt to aggrandize Man in a way that eliminated wonder. The trick is that it self-destructs, because it desiccates humanness.
This 17th century innovation—pretention—still marks and damages us. This means that modern philosophy itself can be seen to be dying for lack of wonder. There are actually recent philosophical discussions about whether philosophy has reached an end. Philosophy is at risk. It also means that humanness is at risk as well. And human culture, too.
Another dimension of modernism’s impact is that in the absence of wonder, it has totalized work. Humans have been reduced to workers—by both collectivism and capitalism. College is reduced to preparation for work. Many contemporary philosophers have expressed concern at our absorption by a technological spirit: the problem is not technology; the problem is philosophy. Philosopher Joseph Pieper, in “What Does it Mean to Philosophize?” argues that philosophy is what pierces the dome of the world of work—wonder that saves our humanness.
Modernity puts reality itself at risk, too. It denudes reality of its own mystery and depth and miracle. It renders it impersonal, ours to appropriate how ever we want. We can in the process destroy it.
You would be justified, because of modernity, for not feeling inclined to philosophy. But you should not give up because of that, because after all you continue to be human. It means that a more complicated road lies ahead. It means a more desperate situation, a situation more desperate for restored philosophizing.
Philosophy is the love of wisdom
Philosophy is, literally, “love of wisdom.” That means that what it is, most basically, is love!
Philosophy is, I think, best understood as a posture we take toward the world. You can see the posture when you think about wonder, and you can see it when you consider love. Both orient the wonderer, the lover, desirously toward the real, with self humbly open to welcome it in.
“Wisdom” can sound as if we have “arrived” at total comprehension. I don’t think it does mean that; but the point is that “philosophy” isn’t “sophy” without the prefix, “philo.” Philosophy is ever the love of wisdom, not ever a final attainment of something. Or maybe we could say, to be wise always retains the love of wisdom. Wisdom itself retains and accompanies the posture of love.
The orienting posture of love is humanness at its deepest. We should all cultivate being lovers--amateurs—not as a side act, but as the center ring of who we are. That posture is philosophical.
So philosophy matters. To you, and to philosophy itself.
I think it’s helpful to speak of developing philosophical awareness, rather than learning philosophy. Of course, the best way to develop philosophical awareness is to learn philosophy! But what we want is not the information, but the posture it cultivates—the wonder, the love of wisdom, the orientation to the world. We want in-formation: formation in the posture.
In this it’s like any other subject. Studying birds for a while makes you hear them more and more understandingly; the same with bus routes, or renaissance art. The bird/bus/art-world comes alive to you. It only gets richer. The information forms you in it. You never walk away from the subject, having completed it. You lean into reality in that respect, in fertile communion, for the rest of your life.
But here’s what sets philosophical awareness apart from awareness of birds, busses, and renaissance art. Philosophical awareness dramatically heightens your awareness of everything else. Everything else. For every subject, at its root and throughout, is a tissue of philosophy. Not that philosophy teaches you about birds. But it orients you insightfully, philosophically, to the real and to how we understand it, and how we value it. And that does bird lovers no end of good. Birds, too. And ornithology.