Abstract for Rethinking Mental Disorders: Educating leaders on the ethical implications of psychopathology

(This abstract was accepted by the Society for Ethics Across the Curriculum for the 2017 Conference which will be taking place in Grand Rapids, Michigan, October 5-7, 2017. I will be presenting a paper based on this abstract. I am honored to be accepted and eagerly anticipating the conference.)

With the rising number of mental disorders in our communities, it has become increasingly important for leaders to have a clear understanding of the nature of mental disorder and to be given the appropriate tools to help those who are suffering. Leaders, both inside and outside the psychological community, are struggling with how to treat people with mental disorders and how to provide them the best care possible.

This paper will suggest a fresh way of viewing those struggling with mental disorders by seeing their experiences as not outside the common human experience, but actually arising from the human condition itself. I will turn to the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, a philosopher and psychologist, to demonstrate how cases of psychopathology must be understood as an opening to the horizon of human experience, an expression of the human condition and a way of still using structures of being-in-the-world. We will find that this inclusive account of psychopathology aids in a better understanding of mental disorders as well as a better understanding of the human. We cannot, however, conflate the distinctions between healthy and sick ways of experiencing the world, as the suffering from those with mental disorders is weighty and real. Thus, while recognizing the magnitude of the suffering, this account provides a way to relate to the person struggling, as opposed to perceiving their experiences as inaccessible.

With this inclusive account of psychopathology, leaders can then be equipped both (1) to help those struggling with mental disorders and (2) to incorporate them into the life of their community. For the first, leaders will be reminded of the importance of holistic care: not only is it crucial to offer medical care, but also physical, spiritual and emotional support. And second, although certain times of separation from the community are needed, during times of hospitalization or mental health retreats, leaders can also look for ways to engage those struggling with the community. I will close this paper by looking at several examples of this kind of community engagement, such as sports programs at local recreational centers, art and music workshops at non-profit organizations, educational opportunities at charter high schools, and social and volunteer activities at state hospitals.

Abstract for Merleau-Ponty on Habit With Possible Implications for Psychopathology

(This abstract was accepted by the North Texas Philosophical Association for the 2016 Conference which will be taking place in Dallas, Texas, April 1-2, 2016. I will be presenting a paper based on this abstract. I am honored to be accepted and eagerly anticipating the conference.)

Habits are part of our daily lives and something that all of us act upon – whether we want to or not. Merleau-Ponty takes a broad approach to human habit claiming that it is a key to all of human behavior. In this paper, we will walk through Merleau-Ponty’s description of habit and discover the integral role it plays in how we learn and how we encounter the world. Furthermore, we will discuss Merleau-Ponty’s radical claim that humans do not just have habits, but are habits. Taking these ideas further, I suggest that such an understanding of human habit is particularly beneficial for the practice of psychopathology by recognizing that those struggling with mental disorders are still operating according to habit. I conclude the paper by offering four possible ways that this recognition may provide fresh avenues to understand, help, and heal them as fellow humans.

Abstract for Foucault’s Care of Self: An Ethical Approach to Technology in the Global Age

(This abstract was accepted by the Society for Ethics Across the Curriculum for the 2015 Conference which will be taking place in Greenville, South Carolina, October 8-10, 2015. I will be presenting a paper based on this abstract. I am honored to be accepted and eagerly anticipating the conference.)

There is no question that technology has become one of the most powerful forces shaping our world. According to mobile-cellular subscriptions, the number of cell phones has now reached over 6.8 billion with the world population being a little over 7 billion. With the gap between the number of cell phones and the number of people rapidly closing, it is evident that at least some form of technology has reached almost every person on this planet. How do we respond to this global invasion of technology? Is there an ethical framework by which we can properly understand and regulate technology?

Drawing mostly on Michel Foucault’s later works, this paper argues that Foucault’s care of self offers us an ethical approach to technology in the global age. First, through his historical investigation, Foucault reveals that the ancient notion of care of self has been eclipsed in the modern age with a reduced notion of knowledge of self. As a result, when we look at modern technology, we find that most modern technology is no longer concerned with a holistic care for self, but only with an obsession for knowledge, especially self-knowledge. And yet, Foucault also claims that technologies can have the power to contribute to a proper care of self. Thus, I believe that his analysis of care of self reveals the shortcomings in modern technology, but also challenges us to discover technologies which do promote a holistic care of self.

Myth and Religion: Nietzsche (Part 2)

This is the second post for my two part series on myth. This post focuses on Nietzsche’s understanding of myth and its necessary role in religion.

Like Merleau-Ponty and Tolkien, Nietzsche situates myth in the human condition. He sees myth as a kind of narrative, which has themes, characters, and events that relate to the human. A culture can take a hold of these elements, make them part of its identity, and become unified as a community. But unlike Tolkien, myth, for Nietzsche, is only human. It is not something ‘bigger than ourselves’ but something part of ourselves and yet renews our spirits.

Our modern age, however, has given up its belief in myth and instead looks to establish religion on systematic and historical grounds. Nietzsche explains in The Birth of Tragedy:

For this is usually how religions die. It happens when the mythical presuppositions of a religion become systematized as a finished sum of historical events under the severe, intellectual gaze of orthodox dogmatism, and people begin to defend anxiously the credibility of the myths while resisting every natural tendency within them to go on living and to throw out new shoots – in other words, when the feeling for myth dies and is replaced by the claim of religion to have historical foundations.[1]

When the feeling for myth dies, people turn to systems and facts in an attempt to carry on their religion. But a religion without myth, according to Nietzsche, is doomed, for it is the spirit of myth that breathes life into religion. In fact, myth is necessary for religion; it is “the necessary precondition of every religion.”[2]

Nietzsche laments this loss of myth and believes that it causes the destruction of true human community. He writes, “Without myth . . . all cultures lose their healthy, creative, natural energy; only a horizon surrounded by myths encloses and unifies a cultural movement.”[3] Cultures lack creativity and vitality when myth has vanished, and it is only through myth that a culture can be united through the common themes and miracles of that myth. This loss leads to homelessness where people can no longer identify with a place of belonging. Nietzsche asks, “The enormous historical need of dissatisfied modern culture, the accumulation of countless other cultures, the consuming desire for knowledge – what does all this point to, if not to the loss of myth, loss of a mythical home, a mythical maternal womb?”[4]

Not only does Nietzsche affirm the need for myth through his philosophical writings, but also he creates a new myth, Thus Spake Zarathustra. In this philosophical novel, the character Zarathustra wanders about giving speeches to those that he meets. By spreading his message, Zarathustra hopes to encourage these creatures to accept both the pleasurable as well as the painful parts to life – to affirm life no matter what.

A crucial part of myth, both old and new, is the notion of miracle (German:Wunder). Surprisingly, Nietzsche discusses “miracle” often in his writings and the majority of those discussions are positive. He argues that miracle is indispensable to myth. In speaking of the miracle in myth as seen in art, he writes, “This will enable [the art participant] to estimate the extent to which he is at all equipped to understand myth, the contracted image of the world, which, as abbreviation of appearances, cannot dispense with miracle.”[5]

What kind of miracles is Nietzsche talking about? Rejecting the so-called miracles of morality, where someone “miraculously” goes from a bad person to a good person, Nietzsche is talking about the miracle of self-affirmation. Through the experience of myth, one is able to both see and perform the miracle of accepting one’s self and the events of one’s life. “Love fate!” Nietzsche says, “Love the events of your life and be willing to live them over and over again!” The ability to love one’s life in this way is the true miracle. Myth provides the medium through which we can miraculously love our lives – no matter what has happened or will happen.

  1. [1] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy in The Birth of Tragedy and Other Writing, ed. Raymond Geuss and Ronald Speirs, trans. Ronald Speirs (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), Section 10, pp. 53-54.
  2. [2] Ibid., Section 18, p. 87.
  3. [3] Ibid., Section 23, p. 108.
  4. [4] Ibid., Section 23, p. 109.
  5. [5] Ibid., Section 23, p. 108, italics mine and his.

Myth and the Human Condition: Merleau-Ponty and Tolkien (Part 1)

I will be doing a two part series on myth. This first post will focus on myth and the human condition and refer to French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty and the British novelist J.R.R. Tolkien. The second post will focus on myth and religion and refer to the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.

IMG_2347Maurice Merleau-Ponty discusses the purpose of myth in his Phenomenology of Perception:

[M]yth is a projection of existence and an expression of the human condition. But understanding the myth does not mean believing in it, and if all myths are true, this is insofar as they can be put back into a phenomenology of spirit that indicates their function in the emergence of self-consciousness and that ultimately grounds their proper sense upon the sense they have for the philosopher.[1]

There is truth in myth, Merleau-Ponty argues, but it is not found in establishing the historical validity of the myth. A myth is true when it illustrates something true about the human condition, when it represents the true spirit of the human consciousness seeking to understand the world. He often uses the word “magical” in describing how a human puts together the facts or sensations of the world to establish a cohesive whole. There is a magical or mythical element to the way we are in touch with the world.

Tolkien, author of the great mythical stories found in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, also believes in the truth of myths. Before his creation of middle earth, Tolkien is first famous for his work on the myth of Beowolf. In a lecture on Beowulf, Tolkien gives an analogy of a man who built a tower from old stone only for it later to be mocked and torn down. But, before it was destroyed, the man who built it had been able to climb the tower and “look out upon the sea.”[2] (See the picture above of the beautiful sea at Muriwai Beach on the North Island of New Zealand.) Tolkien relates this to Beowulf, who built a tower, his poem, only for it later to be criticized so severely. And yet, the building of the tower was not in vain as the man was still able to look out at the sea.

This is the benefit of the myth: the opportunity to look upon something great. Those who write myths are part of pointing us toward something great. Tolkien writes in his poem, “Mythopoeia”: “Blessed are the legend-makers with their rhyme, of things not found within recorded time.”[3]

The blessing of “looking out upon the sea” is like the blessing of looking upon truth. Myth reveals parts of our world to us and the way humans interact with the world. Tolkien believes that the best myths and fairy stories will provide the reader with euchatastrophe, unexpected joy. This will all the more take place when we encounter the greatest true myth, the incarnation of Christ. For Tolkien, the God-becoming-man myth is the key to understanding the human condition; this myth is where, according to Tolkien, “Legend and History have met and fused.”[4] When the man looks out at sea, Tolkien may be imagining him facing this incredible, infinite Truth of redemption. He may be thinking of the Psalmist who writes how such truth is greater than the ocean and deeper than the sea.[5]

Although Merleau-Ponty would not see redemption as part of the truth of myth, he, along with Tolkien, believe in the mythical element in the human condition. From his approach, Merleau-Ponty finds that pure objective thought does not account for the real way that humans live in the world. For example, humans live in what he calls a “mythical space.”[6]. This is why we can physically be in one place but that place “not necessarily [be] the landscape of our life.” He continues, “I can ‘be elsewhere’ while remaining here and if I am kept far from what I love, I feel far from the center of real life.”[7]. Homesickness, for example, is a way for us to be dwelling in the mythical space of our home while being physically somewhere else. Anyone who has been in love or has observed someone in love has seen that while that person may be in one location, perhaps even doing something enjoyable, he or she is not fully engaged because of the desire to be with his or her lover. Even dreams, as Merleau-Ponty points out, demonstrate the way that humans have a connection to the mythical. We escape to the myth in our sleep.

These mythical elements of the human experience are not peripheral, but integral to the very way we interact with the world. We approach objects, not as mere appearances, but as actual essences, because we believe, somehow, that there is a sense or meaning to all things. The world of myth invades are world of perception. Merleau-Ponty writes, “The myth fits the essence into the appearance; the mythical phenomenon is not a representation, but a genuine presence.”[8]. We experience objects as having a mythical presence, react according to that presence, and create our lived space in this world.

In summary, Tolkien finds mythical element in the human condition because it reveals our pursuit of truth. Ultimately, our love for myth, he argues, will drive us toward the highest form of truth, a religious form of truth. (We will find a similar notion, although not in accordance with the Christian religion, when we turn to Nietzsche’s notion of myth in the next post.) In a different way, Merleau-Ponty finds the mythical element in the human condition to explain the way we interact with the world. We are not mechanical, calculating robots but experience places and people according to mythical relationships. Both are revealing the integral part myth plays in the human.

  1. [1] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Donald A. Landes (London: Routledge, 2012), 306
  2. [2] J.R.R. Tolkien, a lecture to the British Academy in 1936 in Essays, pp. 7-8, quoted in T.A. Shippey, J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000), 162.
  3. [3] Tolkien, “Mythopoeia,” in Tree and Leaf, including the Poem Mythopoeia (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1988), 144, quoted in Bradley Birzer, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle-earth (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2003), xxi.
  4. [4] Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” in Christopher Tolkien, ed., The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays, 109, quoted in Birzer, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth, 40.
  5. [5] See Psalm 36:5-7: “Your love, O Lord, reaches to the heavens, your faithfulness to the skies. Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains, your justice like the great deep . . . How priceless is your unfailing love!”
  6. [6] Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 298
  7. [7] Ibid., 299.
  8. [8] Ibid., 303.

Taking Off My Subjective Weight

There is power in knowing one’s self, being one’s self, perfecting one’s self, and loving one’s self. It can be argued that without a strong self-identity, life loses much of its meaning, joy and fulfillment. For example, how can you relate with the other without first relating to yourself? Some knowledge of self is necessary in building relationships because a relationship must include a connection between one self and another.

With that said, however, the burden of my own individual subjectivity can become very heavy.[1] Who am I? I am a person limited by my body, my thoughts, and my abilities. I have my own personal history and my own personal thought patterns which are forever upon me and can never be changed. I carry around this inevitable me-ness in this particular time and space and it enters into every circumstance and encounter that I have in my life.

As humans, we look for ways to relieve our subjective weight. Sometimes we try things that appear to give us relief, and actually do temporarily, only to have the weight come back, heavier than before. Escaping to the world of fantasy, where we allow our minds to participate in actions and thoughts which we usually regard as vile and undignified, temporarily relieves our subjective weight. But, upon coming back to the world of reality, we are faced with the shame and guilt for entertaining such images and thoughts. On another level, we may take part in a mob where we move beyond our insignificant selves to become one with others around us. Acting as one, heinous crimes have been committed by those elated with feelings of freedom and unity.

Nietzsche argues that art is a way, or I should say, the way, to take off our subjective weight. In The Birth of Tragedy, he makes a distinction between two types of art: the Apollonian and the Dionysian. The Apollonian art represents the ordered, beautiful and calculated art. The Dionysian, on the other hand, is art which comes from frenzy, laughter, and natural life. He argues that Dionysian art is shown through the presence of the chorus in an Ancient Greek tragedy. In the environment of the chorus, the Dionysian aesthetic is exemplified: the members of the chorus as well as anyone who joins them are able to rise to a new level of artistic experience. Nietzsche writes:

This process of the tragic chorus is the dramatic proto-phenomenon: to see oneself transformed before one’s own eyes and to begin to act as if one had actually entered into another body, another character. [2]

Through participation in the dramatic proto-phenomenon, one is able to move beyond one’s self into another. Nietzsche contrasts this with the Apollonian:

[In the Apollonian] the virgins who proceed solemnly to the temple of Apollo, laurel branches in their hands, singing a processional hymn, remain what they are and retain their civic names: the dithyrambic chorus [Dionysian chorus] is a chorus of transformed characters whose civic past and social status have been totally forgotten: they have become timeless servants of their god who live outside the spheres of society.[3]

Unlike the ordered, calm procession of the worshippers of Apollo, the worshippers of Dionysius have reached such a state of transformation that they have left behind their past and their social status. They have given themselves completely to the worship of this god. In this act, the individuals become united as one, and their identity becomes the identity of the group. Dropping their subjective weight, they can taste the freedom that comes from rising above the self.[4]

I think that many will resonate with this above description, because we too desire to have freedom from ourselves. We could argue that there is something in the human condition which pushes us toward aesthetic experiences: we long to rise above ourselves and feel part of something bigger than ourselves. Whether it is engaging in a piece of music, encountering an epic story in a movie or book, losing one’s self in a painting or acting as a character in a play, art allows us to take part in this beautiful act of freedom.

Notice, however, that while Nietzsche is writing about art, he uses the example of worship. Worship is then an aesthetic experience where we creatively adore someone above ourselves. A theist would argue that worshipping an immanent god, such as Dionysius, only provides a temporary release from our subjectivity, and that the worship of a transcendent God is needed for true subjective relief.[5] Such worship, however, cannot be on one’s own. As Nietzsche reminds us, taking off the weight of subjectivity must be done with others, acting as a united whole, where I lose my identity in a timeless communal act of worship.[6]

  1. [1] I would like to thank Phillip Rosemann for suggesting this terminology.
  2. [2] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, in Basic Writings of Nietzsche, trans. by Walter Kaufmann (New York: Modern Library, 2000), Section 8, p. 64.
  3. [3] Ibid.
  4. [4] In Greek mythology, sometimes Dionysian worship did result in heinous crimes similar to the behavior of a mob, mentioned above. In one myth, Pentheus’s mother, due to her frenzied state of Dionysian worship, unknowingly participated in dismembering her own son.
  5. [5] However, it should be noted that Dionysius has characteristics of a Christ-like figure who suffers, dies and resurrects.
  6. [6] See also my post on the human need to worship: Is the “Need to Worship” Part of the Human Condition?

Abstract for The Dialectic of ‘Meaning’ in Merleau-Ponty’s The Structure of Behavior

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(This abstract was recently accepted by the North Texas Philosophical Association for the 2014 Annual Meeting which will take place at the University of North Texas, April 3-5, 2014. I will be presenting a paper based on this abstract. I am honored to be accepted and eagerly anticipating the conference.)

Drawing on Merleau-Ponty’s first major work, The Structure of Behavior, this paper explores how the concept of meaning can be both connected to the human and to the world. We first look at how the world offers us meaning as displayed in reflex and animal behavior and then turn to the unique human capacity to seek out this meaning. From these descriptions, I argue that meaning is not imposed on the world by the human nor is it intrinsic to the world, but is found in the relation between them forming, what I call, the dialectic of meaning.

Is the “Need to Worship” Part of the Human Condition?

In the chapter, “The Heart and the Life of Feeling: A Phenomenological Sketch” of Robert Wood’s upcoming book Being Human, Wood discusses the different types of intrinsic human feelings. One type, which he calls religious feelings, are the feelings that we have in reference to the whole, the human desire to turn toward something eternal and all-encompassing. Wood remarks:

Essential to religious sensibility is a deep sense of the presence of God . . . that fills the empty space of reference to totality with something more than an inference or a conventional belief and calls forth adoration that might break forth in praise . . . which can be experienced as . . . the feeling of being called, as in the Biblical tradition[1]

I wonder if we can take such remarks a step further and make a fundamental observation about the human condition: every human desires to admire, praise, and be part of something greater than himself or herself. In other words, can we say that humans have a need to worship? Ignoring the theological connections with this idea for a moment, we can see evidence for this in human behavior all around us. In political contexts, there is the eagerness with which people join a cause or a political group to feel part of something important. In social settings, there are the lengths that people will go through to be part of certain communities such as sororities, fraternities or clubs. In “religious” settings, there is the tendency of people to follow after those who promise prosperity in this life and happiness in the next, despite the irrational requirements which a leader may have on his followers.

Part of this human behavior is the desire to be with others and in community, but it also entails a desire to adore something and praise something. Humans seem to know that there is something that they are supposed to be adoring, and even on a deeper level, worshipping, but what that thing or being consists of is fraught with confusion. In their eagerness to worship something, people may choose the wrong idea/person/thing and as a result, waste their adoration on something unworthy. Perhaps part of our human quest is searching for what is worthy of our utmost devotion.

I end with two questions for further study: Can we discover the need to worship without turning to theological principles? How would we go about such an investigation?

  1. [1] Wood, Robert. Being Human, unpublished, 23-24, italics his.

Marcel’s Metaphysics of Hospitality

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Toward the end of his Mystery of Being, Volume 1, Gabriel Marcel speaks of the mysterious presence that one person has to another. This presence goes beyond mere ability to reason, perform or accomplish, but simply communicates to us a sense of value or worth. He gives an example of a sleeping child, someone who is completely vulnerable and unprotected and yet we deeply feel its valuable presence. The fact that the child is “utterly at our mercy” is what gives this presence a sense of sacredness.

From the point of view of physical activity, or at least in so far as the notion of physical activity is defined in relation to the possible grasping of things, the sleeping child is completely unprotected and appears to be utterly in our power; from that point of view, it is permissible for us to do what we like with the child. But from the point of view of mystery, we might say that it is just because this being is completely unprotected, that it is utterly at our mercy, that it is also invulnerable or sacred. And there can be no doubt at all that the strongest and most irrefutable mark of sheer barbarism that we could imagine would consist in the refusal to recognize this mysterious invulnerability. This sacredness of the unprotected lies also at the roots of what we might call a metaphysics of hospitality.[1]

Though it is difficult to clearly define the mysterious presence of another human, it is intrinsic to every human interaction. Almost all of us can attest to this sense of presence in our everyday experiences with others. In fact, to disregard the sacredness of the unprotected, as Marcel says, is the most barbaric act we can possibly do. We no longer recognize the mystery of the human and seek to categorize such a being only according to what it can do or perform. The perpetrators of the Holocaust did exactly this: they no longer recognized the presence of another human, relegating them to unheard of treatments, tortures and experiments. The worst crimes in history come from this lack of recognition and this refusal to honor the sacredness of the weak.

We must ask ourselves: Who are the weak today that are being stripped of their dignity? Who are the vulnerable that are being relegated to mere objects for our own gain?

Because we often ignore the mysterious presence of the human and instead define a human based on its “efficiency and output,” we begin to overlook those whose efficiency and output is limited or even non-existent. With an emphasis on what the human can produce rather than its mysterious presence, a metaphysics of hospitality becomes absurd. Marcel writes, “. . . the more this attitude of reverence towards the guest, towards the wounded, towards the sick, will appear at first incomprehensible, and later absurd: and in fact, in the world around us, we know that this assertion of the absurdity of forbearance and generosity is taking very practical shapes.”[2]

Chilling examples of those who find this reverence incomprehensible are not only located in the Holocaust, but in our own cities. The defenselessness of a child, for example, is constantly being taken advantage of and as a result, there are those, like Dr. Gosnell (pictured right), who find children merely dispensable. (Dr. Gosnell is on trial for eight murders, seven babies and one woman, at his horrific medical center. To read more on what he is accused of, see the CNN article here.)

Living out a metaphysics of hospitality means honoring the mysterious presence of the humans around us. And since such presence is often ignored, it means championing the worth of those who are overlooked, the weak, the vulnerable, the defenseless. Such a championing of the weak is beautifully displayed in the recent photo of the new Pope embracing the young boy with cerebral palsy. Embracing the weak is recognizing the mysterious presence which each human, regardless of age or health, embodies.

  1. [1] Gabriel Marcel, The Mystery of Being, Volume 1: Reflection and Mystery, trans. G.S. Fraser (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2001), 217.
  2. [2] Ibid.

Reflections on Wonder (with Reference to Marcel)

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I am fascinated by human fascination. I have titled this blog, Through Wonder, purposefully, because I feel that wonder and fascination are essential in pursuing truth. Wonder is both the starting point, as Aristotle and Plato point out (see my About page for their direct quotes), and, I would add, the ending point to true philosophic study. We end in wonder, not because we are finished, but because it is a state of consciousness that we cannot escape. The more one pursues philosophy, the more one realizes that such a pursuit must be constantly done in the presence of wonder.

What does it mean to wonder? Does it mean that we look at a math problem, such as 5000 divided by 5, and wonder what the solution is? And then, when we have discovered the solution is 1000, do we no longer have the need to wonder? Due to Aristotle’s scientific approach, his notion of wonder appears to be more along these lines: we have a curiosity about how things in the world work, we do the necessary steps and we can discover the solution. I would argue though, perhaps more in the vein of Plato, that wonder is much broader than this.[1]

Human wonder is not only the human desire to solve a puzzle, but, it is also our response to puzzles which cannot be solved. We have all had this experience in studying a particular subject: the more we study, the more we feel that we do not know. Having played the piano since I was little girl, I told myself that once I learned how to play the piano, then I would begin a new instrument. But as I studied the piano through high school and then through my degree in music in college, I continued to find more and more things that I did not know and that I wanted to learn. As a result, I have never learned to play another instrument (at least, not yet).

As we plunge into a subject, we begin to feel small, in contrast to the vastness of the knowledge that it includes as well as the unsolved complexities buried within its structure. Marcel puts this beautifully when he says that the thaumazein (wonder) of the Greeks “lies on the borderline between wonderment and admiration.” [2] Wondering as exploring, as opposed to wondering as solving, allows us to find admiration because we are forced to recognize how little we actually know.

Socrates praises Theaetetus for his pursuit of this kind of wonder, a wonder that brings him to admiration as opposed to arrogance. It’s easy to get away from this wonder and start to view philosophy as a chore, something to be attacked or sorted out. Through his interaction with Theaetetus, Socrates is reminding us of the starting place of philosophy: wonder at how certain things that seem true at first glance unravel upon investigation.

According to Marcel, when we have “progressed” beyond wonder, we are no longer doing philosophy. He writes, ” . . . a philosopher remains a philosopher only so long as he retains this capacity for wonderment in the presence of certain fundamental situations, despite everything surrounding and even within him that tends to dispel it.” [3]

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Thinking of wonder as the starting place for philosophy reminds me of the words of Christ. Jesus tells his followers that in order to enter the kingdom, they have to become like little children: “Truly, I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes a humble place – becoming like this child – is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” [4]. Children let their wonder and curiosity guide them without reserve. Socrates praises Theaetetus, a young boy, for allowing his wonder to bring him to philosophy and Jesus encourages us to be like children, creatures of wonder, to draw us to Himself.

  1. [1] Granted, the url of this blog is based off the quote from Aristotle so I am in no way implying that Aristotle’s understanding of thaumazein is inaccurate. I am only suggesting, as the footnote on my About page also mentions, that his concept of thaumazein may need to be expanded to include the delight in wondering about mysteries. Thanks to Robert Wood for pointing out the distinctions between Plato and Aristotle’s views on wonder.
  2. [2] Gabriel Marcel, Existential Background of Human Dignity (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1963), 11
  3. [3] Ibid., 12.
  4. [4] Matthew 18:3-4. See also Matthew 19:14, Mark 10:14-15, and Luke 18:16-17.