As hard as it is to believe, philosophy, stated simply, is the process of figuring out what things are and why. This task seems simple enough, but it is actually a goal that cannot definitively be accomplished. You may respond by saying that science (physics, chemistry, etc.) does this all the time. The world of natural science is filled with descriptions and definitions of what is. The truth, however, is that natural science has given itself very strict limits on what may and what may not be included when giving a proper definition of something. Take, for example, man. Does man have a soul? Natural science does not include ‘soul’ in its working definition of man, but can we then say, therefore, that man has no soul? Maybe we can, but the argument must take on a much more complex form than this. We cannot assume, without proper justification, that whatever cannot be described by natural science, ipso facto, does not exist at all. I do not seek to argue one way or the other now, for my current objective does not concern itself with this debate but something else entirely. For now, my desire is to give a clearer picture of what philosophy is.
Western histories of philosophy usually begin with Thales, an Ionian man who lived before the time of Socrates and Plato. The story goes that a Thracian woman saw Thales trip and fall into a well because he was not watching the road ahead of him. What was he doing? He was gazing upward to the sky and to the stars above. Maybe Thales was clumsy. Maybe he would’ve fallen into the well no matter what direction his eyes were facing. The point of the story, however, is that Thales was preoccupied with something; something above him that he did not quite understand. What do we feel when we are so fixated upon something that we do not or cannot understand that all the things that immediately surround us are instantly rendered irrelevant? Maybe you’ve personally never felt this before. I honestly wouldn’t be surprised, for we live in a world where the proper words to describe this feeling are seldom used. If we did feel this way, however, we might call it wonder or awe. What do these words mean, though? The ancient and medieval world knew them well, but our modern world understands them only as naïve emotions belonging to children’s fantasies and anything else that cannot provide utility or practical efficacy. Nevertheless, I ask again. What does it mean to be awe-inspired? What are we really trying to say when we describe something as wonderful?
Wonder is much more than just not knowing. It is the realization of not knowing. It is knowing that you do not know and understanding that the world in which you live will never be able to be captured properly with just words or definitions. It is what we feel when we gaze upon a world that we did not make, and we are insatiably curious to meet the man who did. When we realize that the world in which we live is a gift; one that did not need to be given but, nevertheless, was, we experience wonder. We do not understand what a thing is, only that it does not have to be. We stand before a thousand doors, ready to open any one of them, but the one that we do open, the one that we are inextricably drawn to, is the one to this world. We did not walk through the door, however. We were pushed, but by whom? Well, different people will give different answers. What we can say, though, is that the hand that made the world is the hand that brought us into it.
The world, then, is not ours. It cannot be. We are the most intelligent beings within it, but it still eludes us. This is because we are first and foremost sojourners passing through this world and not wholly natural products from the ground below. We are flesh and blood, yes, but the part of us that knows we are flesh and blood is not. This is the part that experiences wonder.