“Did I say that the only thing we require to be good philosophers is the faculty of wonder? If I did not, I say it now: THE ONLY THING WE REQUIRE TO BE GOOD PHILOSOPHERS IS THE FACULTY OF WONDER.”
All caps, that’s intense. But that’s how Norwegian writer Jostein Gaarder, author of “Sophie’s World: A Novel about the History of Philosophy,” put it on page 17 of his book. A book first published in 1991 that became an international bestseller, translated into 53 languages with over 30 million copies in print.
I now have one of those copies lying by my bedside table. This book called to me — as many do, from the shelves of the bookstore in which I work — but its cry was extra keen, and I asked my younger brother Jack to make it my Christmas present. Sometimes, I feel frivolous or over-the-top for wanting to learn more about philosophy, so I found the runaway success of this book comforting, like, hey, you’re not the only one.
Perhaps the world teems with would-be philosophers (like me) hungry to learn what thought and curiosity, discovery and astonishment has come before us — the names and key questions and contributions of all those who have made our body of knowledge what it is today: Socrates, Sartre, Aristotle, Baudelaire, Rousseau, Bohr, to name a few who I don’t know or recall enough about to call myself a philosopher.
But it turns out I don’t have to know.
Because philosophy, at its heart, is not about names or dates or books or theories. It is about a sense of wonder. Gaarder makes sure his worldwide readers know this: Before diving into the characters and discoveries of the storied history of philosophy, Gaarder überemphasizes the vital, unseverable connection between the faculty of wonder and being a good philosopher by writing it twice, and then in all caps to boot: That’s all it takes! He practically yells at us, WONDER is the only thing that is required.
Some key questions of philosophy presented by Gaarder in Sophie’s World are: “How was the world created? Is there any will or meaning behind what happens? Is there a life after death? How can we answer these questions? And, most important, how ought we to live?”
If you’ve wondered at all about these questions, you have practiced the art of philosophy.
“People who ask such questions are taking part in a debate that has gone on as long as man has lived on this planet,” reads page 14 of Sophie’s World. So, really, it’s no surprise lots of humans today continue to wonder about themselves and this world/universe; we always have.
We want to know more. And we only can find out more by admitting that, in wanting to know more, we do not know everything there is to know. That is why we are wondering.
Google dictionary’s definition of “wonder” as a noun is: “a feeling of surprise mingled with admiration, caused by something beautiful, unexpected, unfamiliar, or inexplicable.”
We can only see the unexpected if we stop expecting that we know everything we are going to see. Then, we see something unexpected, and we are amazed.
It is good to feel amazed by the world, no matter how familiar with it — or with any piece of it — we might become. It is good because the world is amazing, and it is amazing that we are here in this world.
Can you think of any specific group who seems to fully grasp and constantly celebrate the sheer amazement of simply being in this world? Bingo: Babies and children.
Scrolling through Facebook, as I procrastinated completing this column, I could be glad for my diversion because a friend’s post caught my eye and made me smile:
“Children are so pure and innocent filled with joy, Karson teaches and reminds me every day what it means to find joy in the simple things, that we as adults tend to overlook and get caught up in the craziness of this life.”
My friend Troy Myers accompanied these straight-from-the-heart words with photos of his son Karson, bubble-cheeked and bubble-handed in the bathtub; rosy-cheeked and blue-snowsuited in knee-deep snow, walking toward a neon orange sled, clearly enthralled by these simple and glorious activities.
Gaarder writes on page 20, “to children, the world and everything in it is new, something that gives rise to astonishment. It is not like that for adults. Most adults accept the world as a matter of course. This is precisely where philosophers are a notable exception. A philosopher never gets quite used to the world. To him or her, the world continues to seem a bit unreasonable — bewildering, even enigmatic. Philosophers and small children thus have an important faculty in common.”
Children naturally feel the surprise and amazement (opposite assumption and ennui) that come from engaging a faculty of wonder, and that allows for discovery. We adults, as both Gaardner and Troy suggest, tend to trade wonder for efficiency.
Yet only wonder can both inspire us toward the questions and lead us to the answers of those great philosophical mysteries, those that shake us gently, and then more urgently and more urgently still, as humans: Who are we? And where does the world come from?
We’ve learned a great deal toward answering these questions, but surely there is more to know.
In Sophie’s World, there is a mysterious philosopher who has set out to inspire 14-year-old Sophie’s philosophical imagination. Why?
“My concern is that you do not grow up to be one of those people who take the world for granted, Sophie dear.”
And how do we keep from being one of those people who takes the extraordinary, cosmic, epic, enigmatic, nature of life in this world for granted? We stay FULL OF WONDER.
I wonder what we will find?