Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Wondering about wonder

Theaetetus: By the gods, Socrates, I am lost in wonder when I think of all these things, and sometimes when I regard them it really makes my head swim.
Socrates: …. This feeling of wonder shows that you are a philosopher, since wonder is the only beginning of philosophy, and he who said that Iris was the child of Thaumas made a good genealogy.
--Plato, Theaetetus 155d

It is through wonder that men now begin and originally began to philosophize; wondering in the first place at obvious perplexities, and then by gradual progression raising questions about the greater matters too, e.g. about the changes of the moon and of the sun, about the stars and about the origin of the universe. …thus the myth-lover is in a sense a philosopher, since myths are composed of wonders.
--Aristotle, Metaphysics A 982b
Wonder is often supposed to be the special provenance of children. This supposition is perhaps another aspect of the so-called "invention of childhood," the ostensible cultural shift in the west which (it is claimed) gave us a new construal of the difference between children and adults. The historian usually credited with (or blamed for) the idea that childhood is a modern construct is Philippe Aries, who pointed out, among other things, that before roughly the 1600s, children were visually represented in Europe as miniature adults. Among thinkers, Locke and Rousseau are frequently associated with this re-construal, which cast childhood as a window of innocence and goodness and vulnerability.

I am dubious about such historicist claims that such-and-such a phenomenon was "unknown until..." some date that usually winds up being suspiciously late. (Similar claims are made about homosexuality and romantic love, for instance). Talk like this has a tendency to become overblown and to foment the worst sorts of historicist relativism. We do well to beware of anachronistically projecting a contemporary perspective on the past, but such due caution is not the same as thinking that the "new" development was unprecedented and would have been unrecognizable to previous ages. (Similar arguments are made about "judging history" by contemporary values, and here too, one must walk a careful line. There is such a thing as anachronism, of course, and I take the history of modes of consciousness seriously, especially as informed by technology -- which really does change; in thinking about these things one is continually compensating in one direction and then the other).

There is plenty of evidence to show that children were always seen in certain ways as different from adults – for instance, the fact that they are counted (or sometimes not counted) separately. Example: when the New Testament recounts the miraculous feeding of the multitude, it specifies: "The number of those that ate was about 5,000 men, besides women and children." And one could also point to all the specific emphasis Jesus puts on children, which cannot be explained away as sentimental Victorian haze even though it was surely obscured by such sentimentality. Whatever the real differences between children and adults, it is certainly not unreasonable to suggest that this difference has been read in more than one way from era to era. Why this alleged shift should be described as the "invention" (and not, say, the discovery) of childhood is not obvious; but it's at least arguable that the idea of the child as especially prone to "wonder" is an instance of such ideology at work.

In short, I think that the notion of "wonder" is associated with children for good reason that modernity may have magnified but which it did not invent. And yet, in the same era that would have (per hypothesis) projected this image of the naturally-"wondering" child, specifically engaging the very young in expressly philosophical discussion has more and more fallen out of practice, except in the most informal or "framing" of contexts. Teachers may allow themselves a philosophical aside, or discover that they and their young students are having a surprisingly wide-ranging conversation, but in modern academic pedagogy, philosophical instruction tends to begin in undergraduate years. The notion of intentionally presenting philosophy to young people (between elementary and high school) as an investigation in its own right is (for the most part) foreign to primary education.

What does this say about our presuppositions about pedagogy, about philosophy, and about the "wonder" from which philosophy supposedly springs? Might the modern "disenchanted" world – a world from which wonder has (supposedly) been banished – be a symptom, a cause, or both, of our assumption that philosophy is a matter for "adults"?


  1. I loathe pronouncements that begin with the phrase "For the Greeks..." HENCE: for the Greeks I think the divide between child and adult, while by no means unthought, had a tendency to be subsumed into the divide between citizen and non-citizen, with the class of near-future citizens (ie boys/men of the age of the eromenos) pointing to the problem. There is something about the non-citizen that the citizen envies or desires, though he cannot quite admit it. The philosopher, then, was an "adult" but not quite a "man" - and never a trustworthy citizen, as the sophists understood and as the example of Socrates proved. All of which is to say: I wonder if "the invention of childhood" was not a byproduct of an "invention of adulthood," which was related to the extension of the essence of the citizen to all "adult members of society" (philosophically and then politically). At any rate simply *being* an adult now is thought to entail a kind of seriousness, a set of obligations, a code of behavior. It is political before politics come anywhere near it. Is this code any less allergic to the childish/like wonder of philosophy than that of the Greek citizen? If not, then the fact that it attaches to us regardless of our political activities proper seems like it would only tighten the noose. Also goes some way to explain the mania for respect of so many who tie their public lives to philosophy. Perhaps it is this same mania that cannot bear the idea of teaching philosophy to children, since that would amount to an admission of their shame.

  2. K,
    A number of scattered half-responses, for which I apologize.

    Your observation on adulthood being simply defined as "serious" (without, of course, any criteria being offered for what is and is not serious) -- and, to boot, political "before politics comes anywhere near it", recalls the unquestioned obligation to "participate in the democratic process", i.e., to vote -- an obligation that is the price of admission for any "right to complain." This obligation-slash-right is conferred, of course, upon attaining "adulthood".

    There is also an implicit (at least) contrast between the civilized and the wild, which is close to (but not the same as) that between the citizen and the non-citizen. It is arguable (though hugely beyond the scope of a blog comment) that the very notion of civilization -- the "civilizing process" -- entails an indefinite postponement of adulthood, or at least what "maturity" means in the wild. Consider the marks oft domestication of animals: shearing them; keeping them in specific places -- zoos, reservations, pens -- rather than letting them roam free; deciding who owns them; and deciding if and when they breed and indeed whether or not they attain sexual maturity. (Indeed, this last point even pertains to plants; consider the well-trimmed lawn.) Compare these to what has happened to every colonized population that the West has encountered. (There is for instance a striking set of before-and-after photographs taken in the 19th century of Native Americans which shows the obvious significance hair-cutting as marking the border between "civilized" and "wild." When you think of this shearing as one of a set of practices that also includes regulation of sexual maturity, you suddenly see the possibility that "civilization" itself could be one long process of protracted adolescence. Perhaps the "cult of youth" upon which our economics is based is simply the side effect of a much deeper process.

    This of course would not be news to critics (e.g. Nietzsche, Spengler,Pound, and a host of much, much lesser wannabes) who have long spoken of the "softening" effects of civilization, its tendency to breed humans who have a far lower tolerance for hardship and a stupidly high dependence on specialization. On the other hand, of course, such talk has often in the past tended towards a highly reactionary politics -- one which has done its share to cultivate the "cult of youth" as well, and in any case is not a friend to long-haired critics of civilization.

    If you are right that childhood was "invented" as a side-effect of inventing "adulthood" by (you imply) the Enlightenment project, this would seem to be an instance of the re-creation within of a border that had supposedly been abolished.

    Much more could be said.

    1. As if to remind me I stumbled on this in Thoreau today (from the last chapter in Walden:
      There was an artist in the city of Kouroo who was disposed to strive after perfection. One day it came into his mind to make a staff. Having considered that in an imperfect work time is an ingredient, but into a perfect work time does not enter, he said to himself, It shall be perfect in all respects, though I should do nothing else in my life. ... His singleness of purpose and resolution, and his elevated piety, endowed him, without his knowledge, with perennial youth.

  3. These thoughts certainly hold an interesting dialogue. What is the relation between the politicization of adulthood that I suggest with the glorification of youth that you point to? This may be too large a question for an exchange of blog comments but it certainly is cause for wonder and further exploration. Does politicized adulthood ironically create a cult of youth (or pseudo youth?) for itself because it needs to prohibit the citizen-adult from "wild" or "natural" maturity? Does "wild" maturity, maturity that refuses or is ignorant of the political definition of adulthood, stay closer to youth (at least "wild" youth, though is there any other kind?) in an altogether different sense -- in the sense of a childhishness grown deeper and more self-aware, perhaps? It is not, after all, youth in the sense of wondering or, gods forbid, ignorance, that we prize...

    1. The more I think about it the more I think that it's a question of a kind of Derridean pharmakon -- poison and cure. Or, let's say, a kind of concentrated (rather than diffuse) magic. I've been dialoguing w/ David Abram again who reminds me that writing is the technology that prompts the falling-silent of the wild landscape; but this happens not because of some black-box "literacy" which makes animism impotent; rather, Abram's point is that the alphabet is the focus of an extremely concentrated animism. (A similar point is made, mutatis mutandis, by Eugene McCarraher about money, for instance). This is not a specifically Derridean argument, but it does use some of the elision of in/ex-clusion logic that deconstruction made more recognizable. What if the "civilizing process" is a sort of attempt to (impossibly) contain the wild -- and thus the "cult of youth" is a site of the "passion and energy" to which we give a kind of lip-service while also hoping to keep it in its place?