Tuesday, May 05, 2020

Five Books of Philosophical Wonder

Over at Five Books, I've shared some thoughts on philosophical wonder, alongside five book recommendations and reflections about those books in conversation with Nigel Warburton.

The books are:

  • Zhuangzi (c. 300 BCE/1964). Chuang Tzu: Basic Writings. Trans. B. Watson.
  • Montaigne, Michel de (1580-1588/1957). The Complete Essays of Montaigne. Trans. D.M. Frame.
  • Borges, Jorge Luis (1940-1960/1964). Labyrinths. Ed. D.A. Yates & J.E. Irby.
  • Sacks, Oliver (1985). The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales.
  • Egan, Greg (1998). Diaspora.
  • Ah... such wonderful books! I'm pausing right now to relish their awesomeness.

    [insert a momentary reverie here]

    Topics of the interview include:

  • the nature of philosophical wonder
  • Zhuangzi's butterfly dream
  • wu wei / "doing nothing" in the skillful flow sense vs. the nap-beneath-a-tree sense
  • Montaigne on cannibals, religious elephants, and the contingency of our cultural practices
  • Borges on the infinitely random "Library of Babel" and the non-identity of indiscernible works
  • Sacks's "Lost Mariner" -- a man stuck in 1945, incapable of forming new long-term memories
  • Egan on dream apes, radical freedom in value choice, and the amazing variety of forms of life that might open up in the future
  • ----------------------------------------------

    Five Books of Philosophical Wonder

    Before we discuss your books, let’s start with the topic, philosophical wonder. What do you mean by that?

    I was just wondering what I meant by that this morning. I don’t have an analytical philosopher’s definition of ‘wonder’ yet. Here’s what I have so far: We go through life with all kinds of presuppositions, which are usually implicit, about how things are and how they must be. Philosophical wonder occurs when we’re jostled out of that and we start to see new, interesting possibilities.

    The idea that did it for me when studying philosophy, that certainly changed my outlook on the world, even though I wasn’t convinced by the arguments, was reading Descartes’ First Meditation, and suddenly having that idea, ‘could I be dreaming?’ This was in the early 80s when we hadn’t had so many movies that addressed just that question. If you take it seriously, it gets you into a position where you have to think quite hard and change your attitude to things you had previously taken for granted.

    Right. We normally assume that we’re awake. But when I engage with Descartes or with Zhuangzi [or Chuang Tzu], the author of the first of the five books I’m going to talk about—then I start to wonder, is it possible that I could be dreaming right now?

    Probably the most famous passage in the Zhuangzi is this. One night Zhuangzi dreamt he was a butterfly, fluttering around, doing whatever he liked, and giving no thought to humans. Then he woke up and suddenly there he was, a human! So he wondered, is he a human who had dreamt he was a butterfly or a butterfly now dreaming that he’s a human? How could he tell the difference? That’s one of the earliest historical statements of dream doubt, in ancient China around 300 BCE, long before Descartes’ Meditations.

    Before we get on to Zhuangzi as a book choice, what part does this kind of philosophical wonder play in your life and your writing as a philosopher?

    I’ve always liked when philosophy pulls the rug out from under me. People come to philosophy with different aims and preferences. Maybe what I value most is when I’m reading a philosopher and suddenly something that I took for granted is exposed to me as merely contingent, or possibly untrue, or something I might not be 100% justified in believing. When that happens, the universe seems to expand. There’s this sense of more possibilities than I had assumed to exist before. The world gets bigger.

    That sounds very like the language that people who’ve taken psychedelic drugs use.

    I guess so! I have never actually tried psychedelic drugs, although my father was a collaborator with Timothy Leary on one of his classic papers.

    That’s amazing. Did your father take drugs to do that?

    Not for that paper. He was an observer during that experiment rather than a participant. But, yes, he took some psychedelic drugs in his life. Not a lot.

    So, you’re getting a natural high from philosophy.

    That’s one way of thinking of it!

    I took some LSD when I was a student. I would say that, in my experience, it wasn’t different from doing philosophy. It was continuous with it in some senses and it informed it. You don’t have to do it more than once or twice to discover that. It’s just that there are different ways of organizing experience. That’s for sure.

    Right. My father was also a licensed hypnotist. So I got to see how hypnosis worked. Dreaming is another kind of altered state of consciousness too, and it’s quite normal. There are lots of different ways that the human mind can encounter the world.

    Continue here