Who said that philosophy begins with amazement


from: Issue 4/2015, pp. 28-37

Amazement as a subject of philosophy

That philosophy has to do with amazement is an old thought. Plato determines amazement (thaumázein) in dialogue Theaetetus even as the beginning of philosophy. In the symposium he characterized the vision of ideal beauty as the astonishing (Thaumastòn) at the same time as the ultimate goal of philosophical knowledge, and the Neoplatonic tradition followed him in this. However, this determination has not been retained unchanged in the history of Western thought. The stoic school, for example, understands astonishment as a pathological state of the soul that stems from ignorance that must be overcome through the knowledge of reason. According to this view, the telos of philosophy does not consist in amazement, but in its therapeutic departure. Likewise, Aristotle in his metaphysics does not regard amazement as the final state of the striving for knowledge, but as its mere starting point. According to Aristotle, we are amazed at a phenomenon whose explanation we do not yet know. This explanation-seeking amazement is more related to scientific curiosity than to an admiring view of objects of knowledge as Plato had in mind.

Medieval tradition then brought amazement closer to specifically religious experience. In the astonished admiration and awe she sees the appropriate intellectual attitude towards God or the miracle of creation. This genuinely theological exaggeration also deviates from Plato's original definition of the term. However, it is likely to be one of the reasons why the philosophy of the Enlightenment, which sought to end the intellectual predominance of theology, no longer provided a proper place in its epistemological blueprints for the attitude of amazement. The systematic revival of the idea of ​​a genuinely philosophical form of amazement, independent of religious stipulations, did not take place until the 20th century, within the phenomenological tradition. Authors such as Max Scheler, Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt address amazement and wonder in the face of the fact that there is a world at all and not nothing. The underlying metaphysical question of beings as a whole is - in contrast to the question of beings as beings - also not yet to be found in this form in ancient thought, but rather goes back as a philosophical motif to modern authors such as Leibniz and Schelling.

Despite the last-mentioned approaches of the 20th century, the concept of a philosophical amazement, which sees itself as a genuinely non-religious attitude, has only been systematically investigated within modern philosophy. In the following I would like to introduce some programmatic reflections on possible ways to regain amazement as a philosophical topic based on the tradition of the Enlightenment. In doing so, I will tie in with the Platonic-Neoplatonic definition and discuss the question of the extent to which an epistemically legitimate area of ​​amazement can be characterized within the framework of the modern scientific worldview. The starting point is initially the (fundamental ontological) reflection on the existence of the world as such. However, I will also ask whether there might not be other equally fundamental objects of wonder. In the course of my deliberations, I shall, among other things, borrow some unorthodox systematic borrowings from Kant.

On the relationship between amazement, religion and mysticism

If one wants to clarify which systematic role amazement can play in today's philosophical thought, one must answer two questions in particular:

- The question of what kind of attitude the amazement of form is exactly, provided that it is understood as a consistently non-religious attitude.

- The question of which facts can usefully be the content of a genuinely philosophical astonishment.

Ernst Tugendhat answered the first of the two questions in his book Egocentricity and mysticism made some illuminating considerations. The context is that of the distinction between religion and mysticism. According to this, both are attitudes of the human mind that serve to cope with the so-called problem of contingency. This anthropologically fundamental problem consists in the fact that the coincidental and at the same time overpowering natural world events often oppose our wishes. This is shown most drastically in the phenomenon of death, which inevitably overtakes us, regardless of whether we want to stay alive or not.

Religion and mysticism are now, according to Tugendhat's analysis, opposing methods of making the painful clash between desire and contradicting reality disappear. Religion does this by reinterpreting reality in such a way that it corresponds to our wishes, for example by postulating a life after death and the existence of a benevolent God who cares for the individual's salvation. In contrast to this, mysticism goes the opposite way, in that it teaches to step back from that egocentric point of view that supports our desires, which are often threatened by frustration, and instead to look at the whole of the world - or the physical totality of the universe - our own To become aware of unimportance.

In addition to religion and mysticism, Tugendhat devotes a separate chapter of his book to wonder. In doing so, however, he leaves a bit of an uncertainty as to how the latter relates exactly to the other two areas. Tugendhat describes astonishment at the existence of the world as a form of paying attention to the world as a whole, as an attentiveness which forms a prerequisite for the mystical concentration that recedes from the ego and that is directed towards the universe. In this way, he tends to move the astonishment of his intellectual location closer to mysticism than to that of religion.

According to Tugendhat, not understanding is part of the essence of amazement. Anyone who is amazed at something does not understand the reason for what they are looking at in amazement. To be amazed that there is something at all and not nothing, then belongs e.g. B. the recognition of the lack of an explanation of this fact. I can certainly agree with this point. The awareness of not understanding something differentiates astonished attention to something from the mere aesthetic immersion in an object, as it takes place, for example, when looking at a mountainous landscape. However, it should be emphasized that amazement cannot simply be defined as an act of aesthetic contemplation, which is additionally accompanied by the awareness of non-understanding. Because an object of aesthetic perception - such as a work of art or an unusual natural phenomenon - can also be astonished under certain circumstances. However, when we marvel at the existence of the world as a whole, it is not based on an aesthetic view of the world as a whole. Because even when looking at the starry sky, which this form of wonder may occasionally trigger, we only ever see a limited section of the whole.

If one wants to distinguish amazement as a proprium of philosophy, the aforementioned determination of non-understanding attention to something is not yet sufficient. We saw above that there are two ways of integrating the astonished non-understanding of a state of affairs into the broader horizon of one's own cognitive activity: Thaumazein can either be regarded as an end point of the cognitive effort, as a final state, based on Plato the formation of theories, which is achieved when all explanation has come to its end. Or, with Aristotle, it can be seen as the beginning and incentive of the search for explanations and for a more in-depth, appropriate understanding. The latter, that explanation seekers Amazement is the motivational driving force behind many empirical sciences. Therefore it is not a specific feature of philosophy. However, it can also occur within philosophy. However, there it cannot refer to causal and other modes of empirical explanation as long as philosophy tries to maintain its disciplinary stubbornness. In principle, however, it can aim at conceptual explanations - for example in the subdisciplines of the philosophy of mind and the philosophy of language. For example, one who conducts an investigation in these areas may at first wonder how mental states or meaningful speech acts fit into the physical world in order to then look for reductive conceptual analyzes of these phenomena that pave the way for their systematic naturalization . The initial astonishment is then wondering how, to take up Wilfrid Sellars' famous formula, things - in the broadest sense of "things" - are related to one another - and also in the broadest sense of "related to one another". This amazement drives you to use philosophical-conceptual reflection to better understand how everything is connected with everything. It can therefore be said that philosophy does share the explanatory form of thaumazein with other sciences, provided that the category of explanation is grasped in a general enough way.

The only genuine peculiarity of philosophy is therefore that final astonishment to which Platonic thinking invites and which, in so far as it only occurs at the end of all explanation, in contrast to the amazement seeking explanation as explanation-saturated Amazement can be characterized. As Tugendhat also emphasizes, this involves paying attention to an issue, which is accompanied by the awareness that this issue simply transcends every possible explanation and remains incomprehensible in this sense.

Indeed, such a state of affairs seems to be the fact that something exists at all and not nothing. If one disregards the logically problematic maneuver of the ontological proof of God, there can obviously be basically no explanation for the existence of beings as such. Because every explanation would have to refer to an explanans, the existence of which in turn would have to be presupposed unexplained. In this sense, for example, every theological explanation of the existence of the physically describable world only pushes the problem back one step by postulating a creator god, whose existence in turn appears as a groundless factum brutum and therefore remains explanatory not understood. Anyone who claims that the world exists because God created it is not explaining why something exists at all, and rather nothing. Every explanation is based on an explanation that remains unexplained within the explanation itself, and this state of affairs ultimately forms a condition for the possibility of the explanation. Logical insight into it can therefore show us that it cannot be explained why there is something at all and not nothing. Thus, this knowledge is at the end of a philosophical reflection process and not at the beginning. It can therefore justify a final astonishment, as it corresponds to the Platonic-Neoplatonic idea.

Before I would like to consider whether there are actually other facts in addition to the existence of something that could in principle form the object of the same kind of final astonishment, I would like to come back to the question of where the astonishment understood in this way is more possible within the complex spectrum intellectual attitudes to reality can be classified. How exactly does it relate to rational knowledge on the one hand and religion and mysticism on the other?

Let's start with the mysticism. We have already seen that Tugendhat understands paying attention to the world as a whole as a prerequisite for the mystical withdrawal from oneself and one's selfish desires. But even if it should be true that one can only step back from oneself insofar as one concentrates on the whole of beings and thereby takes an expanded standpoint that extends beyond the egological horizon, the simple semantic reference to this is obviously sufficient for this Whole, which as such does not yet contain a cognitive evaluation: I do not have to characterize the totality of beings as "incomprehensible" at the same time in order to take that decentered point of view in which I identify myself with the universe of things, as it were. As a result, amazement does not appear to be a necessary part of the mystical attitude.

In addition, it is just as obvious that vice versa there is no requirement that amazement be accompanied by a definitive step back from oneself and one's own desires. The astonished person need not display this genuinely practical attitude. The amazement that consists in the awareness of being confronted with an inexplicable state of affairs does not require a greater disregard of one's own practical interests and needs than any other theoretical-contemplative form of reference to reality does. In any case, the abstraction from one's own volitive orientation should not be confused with its habitual abandonment or overcoming.

We can therefore state that there is no internal connection between wonder and mysticism, either in one or the other logical direction. Rather, thaumazein represents its own form of reference to reality, independent of mystical vision and self-transcendence. It is also easy to see that amazement has no internal proximity to religious attitudes or convictions in the sense defined by Tugendhat. In principle, it is conceivable that a believing person is amazed at the assumed existence of a creator god in whom he sees an unexplained explainer in the same way as an atheist is amazed at the existence of the world, which he regards as an inexplicable fact. But this possible religious content of amazement is a contingent content and is not based on the form of the intellectual attitude that constitutes amazement as such. Second, it should be emphasized that the formal nature of amazement is not only independent of religious objects or content, but that it is also a fundamentally different type of intellectual attitude than that of actual religious belief. Because if we understand that final astonishment that interests us here as an attention to a state of affairs in the awareness that it cannot be explained, then this means that there is always a rational reason for the astonishment. This reason is the insight into the inexplicability of the marveled facts.

Anyone who, to use the previous example, is amazed that there is something at all and not nothing, and who does not exemplify astonishment seeking explanation in the sense of Aristotle, but a final thaumazein in the sense of Plato, is amazed precisely because he realized that there can be no explanation that anything exists and not nothing. His reason for knowledge is the above-mentioned logical insight that the existence of unexplained explanators is one of the conditions for the possibility of explanation. In other words: the final astonishment is a justified astonishment. However, because amazement is an intellectual attitude based on reasons, amazement remains an attitude that essentially arises from reason. If, in contrast, the actual religious belief is not - or at least not necessarily - based on rational reasons, the final amazement must be clearly distinguished from religious forms of consciousness.

In a certain sense, being amazed at the existence of the world is contrary to the religious belief of Christianity as an intellectual attitude. Because whoever believes in a Creator God provides a kind of explanation for the existence of the world, even if the metaphysical premise of this explanation is not based on good reasons or reliable facts, but on an unfounded postulate. By providing the existence of things with an explanation according to their form, however, he loses the possibility of marveling at it, because the final thaumazein presupposes, as I said, the awareness that it cannot be explained.

In a famous passage of the Critique of Pure Reason explains Kant: "I had to (...) keep knowledge in order to have room for faith." Kant thus describes the consequences of his epistemological analyzes, the quintessence of which is that it is about things like God, the freedom of will or the immortality of the soul cannot give any theoretical knowledge for reasons of principle. That it is god Not gives that soul Not is immortal and that we none Having free will, however, can neither be the result of theoretical knowledge, since the latter only relates to the world of appearances, but not to the intelligible sphere of things in themselves.Thanks to this limitation of the subject area of ​​theoretical knowledge, which can be seen through arguments, there is, according to Kant, room for a kind of religious belief formed by postulates of practical reason.

In analogy to the quoted passage by Kant, one could now formulate the quintessence of the considerations presented above in the sentence that one has to abolish knowledge and belief at the same time in order to Amazement To get space. Because to be amazed that a world exists and not nothing is first of all only possible if one is aware that there is no possible theoretical knowledge that gives us an explanation for the totality of beings. The awareness of the inability to explain that is inherent in amazement is the awareness of the impossibility of such explanatory knowledge. Second, amazement is only possible if the lack of explanatory knowledge is not replaced by a form of explanatory belief that provides an explanant that is not known but is religiously postulated. In this respect, the final, non-explanatory amazement is an intellectual attitude to reality that is located both beyond knowledge and beyond belief. Both knowledge and belief must be “saved” so that amazement can develop meaningfully.

The fact that amazement excludes knowledge does not mean, as I said, that amazement is not a well-founded attitude and therefore not an attitude of reason. The fact that we cannot gain any explanatory knowledge about reasons for the facticity of the real is a state of affairs which, in turn, can be seen through philosophical knowledge and whose insight can therefore serve as a reason for amazement. This reason takes the form of a meta-knowledge that carries amazement as an intellectual attitude.

Possible alternative objects of philosophical astonishment

As a possible content of astonishment, we had previously cited the fact that something exists at all and not nothing. However, are there other facts about which one can be amazed with the same right and in the same way?

The fullness of beings

From a purely intuitive point of view, it initially seems as if not only the fact that something exists at all, but also the fact that the universe of beings houses an immense abundance of things is a solid reason to be amazed. After all, the world as we know it - in the context of our lifeworld experience, but also from the perspective of the empirical sciences - does not contain innumerable objects of a qualitatively identical or similar type - such as atoms, molecules, planets and spiral nebulae - not only in purely numerical terms - but also instantiates an enormous qualitative variety of phenomena - such as different colors, shapes, sounds, smells, feelings, sensations, states of consciousness, etc. Isn't this numerical and qualitative abundance of beings as astonishing as the simple existence of something at all? In any case, the aesthetic experience of the immensity of the starry sky, which can already arouse astonishment at the existence of beings as such, undoubtedly also evokes this intuition in many people at least inexplicably.

The crucial question is whether that abundance gives an additional and independent reason for the final thaumazein? From this it would follow that the existence of a numerically and qualitatively baroque world as a whole would represent a more astonishing fact than the existence of an ontically only sparsely equipped world. On closer inspection, however, it becomes unclear whether this can actually be said. For the sake of simplicity, let's first look at the numerical abundance and assume, hypothetically, that the whole of reality contains only a single atom. Its existence would still be an example of the fact that something exists at all and not nothing. It would thus be the legitimate subject of a final thaumazein. If the world now also contained a second, third or fourth atom, the presence of each of these particles of torture would again give us the same cause for astonishment - provided that the possibility of an explanation could be excluded that makes it understandable how other particles can emerge from an already existing particle. In this respect, on the one hand, it looks as if the astonishment of the baroque world, which can be summed up, is greater than that of the sparse world. However, the content of the added use cases of astonishment is always the existence as such, which contrasts with the possible non-existence. There is no really new object of astonishment. Therefore, on the other hand, one seems to be able to say: If at all an entity has brought about the mystery of groundless existence, no miracle that goes beyond this will occur if many entities exist for no reason. Furthermore, on sober observation, the different qualitative properties of beings do not seem to give any additional cause for astonishment. Because it is obvious that everything that exists at all has to be of some kind. Existence as such does not, however, establish a specific quality. If there are many things that each exist independently of one another for no reason, it is therefore not surprising if, in addition to their numerical identity, their nature also differs. On the contrary: given this assumption, it would appear rather surprising if all things had the same qualitative face.

For the time being, it can therefore be stated that the pre-philosophical intuition, in the abundance of beings, lies next to existence as such a second reason for metaphysical astonishment, on closer logical consideration begins to falter. To what extent the numerical-qualitative diversification of reality can be regarded as a metaphysically equally striking fact like the fundamental fact that something exists at all and not nothing is therefore a question that has to be asked within the framework of a philosophical research program that conceptually and epistemologically reflected the legitimate scope of a Thaumazein is still in need of more detailed philosophical clarification.

The order of beings

In addition to the numerical-qualitative abundance of beings, there is, however, another contender for the position of the possible content of a final thaumazein: namely, the peculiar systematic order in which the phenomena that make up reality in their totality are located. What is meant here is the fact that the existing entities and natural processes taking place in their given diversity and abundance do not form a lawless chaos, but are subject to strict laws. Obviously, this state of affairs is neither a trivial repetition nor a mere consequence of the fact that something or that something manifold exists. In any case, we are dealing with an event that could give an equally fundamental cause for astonishment, such as the existence of beings as such.

Of course, this would only be so under the specific assumption that it is a fact that is also located beyond the horizon of being able to be explained. We have seen before that all that has this required property of explanatory transcendence, which counts among the conditions of the possibility of explanation. The fact that there is something at all and not nothing belongs to the conditions of the possibility of explanation, for example, because every explanation, according to its logical form, must assume the existence of an explanan. The fact that there are natural laws is one of the conditions for the possibility of an empirical-scientific explanation. Because every scientific explanation of causation appeals to corresponding laws. The fact that the phenomena of which reality is composed in its totality are ordered according to law cannot, for its part, be provided with an empirical explanation of the same type. Rather, it is a matter of fact that lies beyond the horizon of scientific explicability.

Unlike the fundamental fact that something exists at all and not nothing, it does not per se also transcend the horizon of any philosophical explanation. As is well known, Kant has in the Critique of Pure Reason attempted to give just such a philosophical explanation. Admittedly, this is based on the construct of a metaphysical dichotomy of the world of phenomena and the intelligible world and, from today's point of view, should therefore no longer provide a really viable answer to the question of the why of the natural law order. But the possibility of an alternative philosophical explanation cannot be ruled out a priori either. Consequently, it cannot be asserted without further ado that the lawful order that governs the empirical fullness of beings transcends the horizon of everything that can be explained. Therefore it is only a possible one Candidates for a content of final philosophical astonishment. It can only become a legitimate object of such a final thaumazein in a context in which it is evident that there is definitely no philosophical explanation for the regular order of the phenomena - be it transcendental philosophical or classical metaphysical. To clarify more precisely whether it is actually behaves in this way and the stable order of the phenomena is one of the utterly irreducible and inexplicable original phenomena in every respect, is therefore also a task that has to tackle a possible expanded theory of philosophical astonishment that does not want to limit itself from the outset to to see the only adequate object of a genuinely philosophical thaumazein in the existence of beings at all.

The moral ought

So far we have only considered possible extensions of the subject area of ​​a final amazement, which are additional descriptive facts. Not only the fact that entities exist at all, but also the enormous abundance and the lawful connection of the phenomena are facts that can be asserted in sentences that only serve to describe reality. These sentences do not contain any normative vocabulary. They are about what the world is like, not what is right or wrong, or what should be. However, can the focus of philosophical amazement justifiably also be on normative issues, such as B. the moral ought to judge?

Kant worked out that moral commandments do not apply relative to a presupposed subjective purpose, but rather independently of any presupposed interest. As can be easily seen, this is a prerequisite for the moral ought to even be a candidate for a potential object of wonder. Because the intended validity of a purely interest-related prudence norm has nothing amazing about it from the start: When I say to myself “I shouldn't commit murder so that I don't have to go to prison”, the subjective advantage of impunity gives me a comprehensible explanation for the fact that I shouldn't kill anyone. However, if one looks at the categorical commandment “You shall not kill!”, One may in fact consider it utterly inexplicable and thus find it astonishing that this commandment should also apply to one in situations in which observing it does not give one any advantage.

When viewed abstractly, it even looks as if the categorical moral ought to which rational beings are susceptible is best suited to provide a logically just as fundamental object of astonishment as the existence of beings in general. The fact that something is at all and not nothing corresponds in formal terms to the fact that something should be at all and not nothing. However, two philosophical prerequisites must be fulfilled so that the moral ought can actually deliver such an equally original object of the final thaumazein.

The first prerequisite is that no deeper - and therefore explanatory - reason for the binding validity of elementary moral norms can actually be identified, be they of a formal nature such as Kant's categorical imperative or of a material nature such as the prohibition on killing cited above as an example. If, in the end, moral imperatives can be justified in systematic recourse to subjective interests, as assumed by contractualist theoretical approaches, or if they are accessible in their capacity as categorical norms to a reflexive ultimate justification, as envisaged by Frankfurt's transcendental pragmatics, what is articulated in them delivers Shouldn't be a real cause for amazement. Only when moral demands - as is the case in the tradition of ethical intuitionism - are viewed as axioms that are irreducible in terms of justification theory, obviously there is a reasonable possibility of making them the object of a final thaumazein at the same time.

The second prerequisite for this, which must also be fulfilled, is a realistic interpretation of the so far irreducible normative ought as an objectively existing state of affairs. This corresponds to the conception of so-called moral realism. According to her, valid moral statements deal with moral facts that are included in the inventory of reality in an analogous - if ontologically diverging - manner like observable natural facts. The fact that something should be categorical at all and not nothing can only be astonished in a really equally original way, as can the fact that something exists at all and not nothing, if the fact of the ought to be - in the sense of moral realism - as such objective fact and not a mere construct of the human mind.

The more detailed investigation of the sustainability of a realistic interpretation of moral judgments is therefore also one of the specific tasks that a philosophical research program has to shoulder, which endeavors to investigate the systematic possibility and the potential subject area of ​​that final astonishment, of which in beginnings in Plato and Scheler and Heidegger is talking about a larger area of ​​content. I would like to end my reflections on this with one final unorthodox reference to Kant. In the final section of the Critique of Practical Reason Kant writes in a famous passage: "Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and more persistently the reflection occupies itself with it: the starry sky above me and the moral law in me."

If this quote is placed in the context of the considerations made here, the starry sky can be seen as a concrete, aesthetically tangible symbolization of those three descriptive facts that, according to our previous investigation, come into question as potential objects of a philosophical thaumazein: existence, abundance and the lawful order of the cosmos. In the fact that Kant also cites moral law as an object of admiration and awe, the premonition that ultimately something should be and not nothing - and that should be categorical - can be justifiably astonished. It is true that another element of meaning is central to Kant's concept of reverence, namely that of respect that we, qua rational beings, cherish for the commandments of morality. Nevertheless, the parallel established between the starry sky and morality seems telling, and from admiration and awe to amazement - if we are ready to take a step beyond Kant - it is possibly only a small step in the end.


Sebastian Knell is a private lecturer in philosophy at the University of Bonn. In 2015 he published “The Conquest of Time. Basics of a philosophy of extended life spans ”(Suhrkamp).