– Autumn/Winter 2001

Autumn/Winter 2001 - Autumn/Winter 2001

On the Saying that Philosophy Begins in Thaumazein

John Llewelyn

He was a good genealogist who made Iris the daughter of Thaumas.

- Socrates


'Wonder is the only beginning of philosophy', Plato has Socrates say at 155d of the Theaetetus. And at 982b of the Metaphysics Aristotle says, 'it is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and at first began to philosophise'.

'Wonder', thaumazein, is one of those wonderful words that face in opposite directions at one and the same time, like Janus and the androgynous creature of whom Aristophanes tells in the Symposium. It seems possible to use it in opposite senses at once; thaumazein both opens our eyes wide and plunges us into the dark. It is both startled start and flinching in bewilderment. Reflection on it might well have made Theaetetus's head swim as much as do the aporias Socrates leads him into in the pages culminating at 155 in Theaetetus's exclamation: 'By the gods, Socrates, I am lost in wonder (thaumazô) when I think of all these things. It sometimes makes me quite dizzy'. His condition would be well described by analogy with the stunning effect of the sting-ray to which Meno likens the effect Socrates has on those he approaches. Theaetetus and Meno - and, according to the response he makes to Meno's comparison, Socrates himself - are perplexed by aporias. Theaetetus, for example, is puzzled at the suggestion that six dice can be both fewer than twelve and more than four. And Meno is paralysed by the less readily solved problem of

  1. The following abbreviations are used in the text: BW: Martin Heidegger, Basic Writings, New York: Harper & Row, 1977 EB: Martin Heidegger, Existence and Being, London: Vision, 1949 EE: Emmanuel Levinas, Existence and Existents, The Hague: Nijhoff, 1978 EGT: Martin Heidegger, Early Greek Thinking, New York: Harper & Row, 1975 EHD: Martin Heidegger, Erläuterungen zu Hölderlins Dichtung, Frankfurt a.M.: Klosterman 1981 EM: Martin Heidegger, Einführung in die Metaphysik, Tubingen: Niemeyer, 1953 ER: Martin Heidegger, The Essence of Reasons, Northwestern University Press, 1969 GP: Martin Heidegger, Grundfragen der Philosophie, Frankfurt a.M.: Klostermann, 1984 IM: Martin Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics, New York: Doubleday, 1961 LHP: G.W.F. Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy, Vol. 1, London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., 1892 PH: G.W.F. Hegel, The Philosophy of History, New York: Dover, 1956 SD: Martin Heidegger, Zur Sache des Denkens, Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1969 SZ: Martin Heidegger, Sein und Zeit, Tübingen, Niemeyer, 1967 VA: Martin Heidegger, Vorträge und Aufsätze, Pfullingen: Neske, 1954 W: Martin Heidegger, Wegmarken, Frankfurt a.M.: Klostermann, 1976 WP: Martin Heidegger, What is Philosophy?, London: Vision, 1958

  2. Sigmund Freud, Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works, London: Hogarth Press and the Institute for Psycho-analysis, Vol. Xl, 1957, pp.154ff

  3. See Jacques Derrida, 'Plato's pharmacy', in Dissemination, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981

  4. See especially Robert Bernasconi, 'The Question of Language' in Heidegger's History of Being, New Jersey: Humanities Press,1984

  5. For a discerning treatment of the question whether scientific explanation reduces the scope for wonder, as well as of other topics related to the ones raised in the present essay, see R.W. Hepburn, 'Wonder', The Aristotelian Society Supplementary Vol. LIV, 1980, pp.1-23

  6. Freud, Standard Edition, Vol. XVII, 1955, pp. 218 ff. See also John Llewelyn, Derrida on the Threshold of Sense, London: Macmillan, 1986, pp.94 ff

  7. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Le Visible et l'invisible, Paris: Gallimard, 1964, p.171

  8. Alexander of Aphrodisias, In Aristotelis Metaphysica Commentaria, Berlin: Reimer, 1891, pp.15-16