Kierkegaard said in his journal well over a hundred years ago that it was a “positive starting point” when Aristotle asserted that “philosophy begins in wonder.” Wonder, not doubt was the place for all love of wisdom to begin. What child does not know that life begins in wonder.
Socrates was no nihilist; his I know nothing presents an affirmation of what little is known in face of what could be known; however, today we affirm that we cannot know anything, that there is nothing that could be known, or worse, should be. Ours is a Song of Ignorance, not Innocence. Socrates, the Platonist ever (anachronism intended), asserts knowing nothing as a positive starting point. What can I know? is the flipside of this epistemological coin; what are the limits of knowledge? I might ask in turn. I understand how difficult it might be to stand firmly under this form, from a generation drunk on indeterminacy. Current trends in philosophy have cut deeply to the heart of doubt, eclipsing any glimmer of wonder. Darkness ensues everywhere; the horror, the horror.
To wonder, it must be recalled, was the starting point of everyone’s love of wisdom; and wisdom was something to love, but like anything or anyone loved, it must always be too much to be enough. Where then does doubt as the new highest form of wisdom leave us, where is it leading us; we are fully exclusive of wonder and with that our culture and its civilization have run amiss.
Socrates’s position reminds me of the one a Buddhist monk takes in an anecdote I learned many years ago, I think I was an undergraduate then, majoring in one or another of the useless majors, at least according to one or another of the more simian of those I grew up with. If there ever was a completely non-utilitarian life, it’s been mine.
The anecdote was one about a professor who decides he must learn all there is to know about Zen. This professor decides he must visit a resepcted Zen Master to learn what he can. The professor is after all an intelligent man, a curious man, a respected man himself. He is also gracious; the Master should want to explain Zen to him.
When the professor arrives at the home of the Zen master, the monk invites him in to sit, as the monk has been expecting him. The professor is anxious to ask questions, but the monk first offers the professor to sit and have some tea. The professor accepts. He sits and waits; the monk prepares.
As the professor sits patiently, the time for brewing passes. The monk then pours tea into the professor’s cup that he had placed in front of the professor before he boiled the water to brew the tea. So, the monk pours the tea to the rim of the cup and over, spilling the tea onto the table. As the tea overflows the cup, the monk continues to pour. The professor, in disbelief, stands and shouts for the monk to stop pouring. “Stop,” he says, “can’t you see that the cup is full and that no more will go in.” And with this, the monk stops, he pauses. He then puts down the pot. The professor stares silently at the monk. The monk then says, “You are like this cup, full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I reveal Zen to you unless you first empty your cup?”
At the heart of Kierkegaard’s critique is what he called the childishness of the philosophy of doubt, and I agree. His criticism rested on the simple maxim that philosophy was to begin with the positive, and that it couldn’t begin with the negative and still be philosophy, and I agree. Skepticism is not a viable philosophical position even if it uses all the tools and methods of philosophy, much the way that atheism is a disingenuous theological position. I agree. The atheist employs the methods of theology but denies a God; yet in denying God, he has asserted a great metaphysical certainty, and with the tenacity of many atheists to go along with their belief, atheism becomes a religion in the same way as Judaism or Christianity. That’s me. How can we disunderstand the inquisitions of the Bolsheviks or later, Stalin.
Nevertheless, Kierkegaard further suggested that any philosophy of doubt could not really give itself over to doubting as a beginning because to do so would implode itself. This philosophy of doubt, as he said of the then current tradition in philosophy, never really gave itself over to the negative, thus, they never did what they said they were doing. They were disingenuous from the start. At best, it was just, as fore mentioned, child’s play, a child’s game. Socrates on the other hand had emptied his cup.
I wonder if this childishness that Kierkegaard had noted in western philosophy at the time is what persists today, or is it more, is there a serious nihilism at the core of what was once our philosophical tradition. Has the twentieth century, along with the dogmas of empiricism given a weight to this special form of nothingness that is displacing or has displaced our wonder. The density that doubt has acquired can draw its analogy to the astrophysical phenomenon of what happens when a star collapses. We have all of us fallen into an intellectual black hole?
My pessimism for our future is not the nihilism that maintains itself as the center of our intellectual life, particularly our contemporary American anti-intellectual intellectualism, part of what allowed American liberals to believe Obama was the answer. The fore mentioned nihilism pervades the hedonism of our popular culture; but more than our popular culture, I’m talking about the college educated man and woman in America. We are intoxicated by our passion for doubting as well as by our hedonism. I am, though, far, far from ascetic myself. However, I do wonder what will be, but I wonder first of being. But whose being, what being, where, when, how and why? Wherefore am I at all? I ask and wait again for someone to respond, but even echo’s voice has vanished.