Wonder

Both Plato and Aristotle famously said that philosophy begins in wonder [1]. Rather than being a pursuit that we are driven to undertake by reason or logical inquiry, the origin of philosophy is in this feeling of wonder in the face of what is. A kind of awe or amazement at the world in which we find ourselves. Descartes considered wonder the first of the passions, because it is the passion that has no opposite [2]. While love is opposed to hate, joy opposed to sadness, wonder has no opposite. It is the original feeling that corresponds to our relation with the world, and that drives the pursuit to understand the world and our relation to it that we call philosophy. 

In English, we not only have the noun ‘wonder,’ but also the verb ‘to wonder.’ I use the word ‘wonder’ in such everday contexts as “I wonder if it will be sunny today.” In French, the verb translated as ‘to wonder’ is se demander, or to ask oneself. In French, for me to wonder if it will be sunny today would be for me to ask myself if it will be sunny today. I like that the English version forecloses this reflexivity, this circular self-relation. I like that ‘to wonder,’ unlike to ask myself, leaves us open to the world, gestures outward, recognizes the way that I am always open to and affected by the world around me even as I wonder at it. 

I’ve been teaching feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray in class this week. She talks a lot about wonder. She emphasizes that wonder is both passive and active, and that it leaves open a place for otherness. It doesn’t try and make everything reducible, comprehensible, digestible to myself. And she says this about it:

“Wonder is the appetite for knowledge of who or what awakens our appetite.” [3]

We also, in English, have the adjective ‘wonderful.’ When I say, “That’s wonderful!” what I literally mean is That fills me with wonder. Wonder is something that, if I really allow it to fill me, leaves me open to a constant, ecstatic appreciation of the miraculous nature of everyday life.

I wonder if wondering more about wonder will make life more wonderful.

I have a feeling that it will. Continue reading

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Reflecting on Reflection: Me, Myself, and I

You know what’s weird?

I will never see my own face.

Sure, I see my face every day, looking in the mirror. But seeing my own face always requires mediation, through a mirror or camera. When I was in college, a philosophy professor teaching phenomenology–the careful description of experience– asked our class, “Right now, how do you know you have a head?” Through inference only. I cannot see my own head. I might be able to touch my head and feel that it is a round shape at the top of my body, but I would never know what it looked like if I never saw it in a mirror. Right now, I can see the edges of my glasses around my face, and feel the tip of my ponytail grazing my back: those are my only indications that I have a head. I can alter my field of vision by looking to the left or to the right, up or down, but I can never look directly at my own head doing this looking. 

And my head is not the only place on my body that I can never see (even on the surface of my body!). What about my back? What about my neck? They simply do not exist in my field of immediate vision.

A mirror is needed to reveal these things to me. I think this is a metaphor for reflection in general, for our relation to ourselves not only for perception of our bodies but also when it comes to knowledge of our thoughts, feelings, and the like. When I reflect on my thoughts and feelings, what is being reflected? What is doing the reflecting? There is never an unmediated relation to myself. Nietzsche speaks of the person as being made up of a “multiplicity of souls.” Aren’t we all such a multiplicity? And don’t I need to objectify one “part” of myself in order to be able to “see,” let alone, “work on,” another part of myself? In relating to oneself, there is always mediation that occurs: I am not an individual in the sense of being indivisible. And reflection on any dimension of my life, including on my life as such, always requires this doubling of self: the one looking at the face in the mirror, and the face being looked at.

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A mirror selfie seemed the appropriate visual accompaniment.

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9 year old philosopher

“It’s just…very complicated, because you have no proof…that there’s anything out there. The only proof is yourself, and where you are in the universe.”

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Friendship Brings Beauty into Your Life

It is the depth and vibrancy of friendship that brings beauty into your life. Friendship is the ground you plant your tree in, the fertile basis of your flourishing. Friendship creates a continuous vitality around you, and in you. The friend may be a bird, or a cat, or a frail person who is dying. Still, if the friendship is strong, it will purify the circle of your living as a drop of the prophet’s blood does the ground it falls on.
True friends sacrifice wealth and reputation, everything, for each other. When asked why, they say, I wish I had more to give. Abu Bakr and the other companions of Muhammad lived in such friendship.

- Bahauddin
(trans. Coleman Barks & John Moyne)

Thinking today about being a friend to oneself.

Friendship Brin…

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The Parthenon…?

Last week I was in Nashville to present at a conference at Vanderbilt. It was my first visit to Nashville, so I did some sightseeing and the like, and found myself at The Parthenon. So, the city of Nashville created a replica, to scale, of the original Parthenon in 1897 as part of the Tennessee Centennial Exposition. Of all the times in history I’d like to go back and visit, the turn of the century, pre-WWI Gilded Age is high atop my list, in large part because of the “world’s fair” culture, of which this Centennial Exposition was a part (maybe it’s just because I watched “Meet Me in St. Louis” one too many times as a child). Anyway…so Nashville created a replica of the Parthenon, at least, a replica of how it was thought to look, back in the glory days of ancient Greece before it was reduced to a pile of marble and an assortment of crumbling Doric columns.

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The Parthenon, Nashville, Tennessee

I’ve been to the original Parthenon, high atop a hill in Athens, as well. And I have to say: I left the Parthenon in Nashville feeling like I actually had had a more accurate experience of the Parthenon there.

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Me at the “real” Parthenon, Athens, Greece, 2009

I struggle with the question of the status of reproduction and restoration in art, architecture, and the like. What is it that makes an original an original? When I went to the acropolis in Greece, I couldn’t help but feel like I wasn’t getting a true understanding of the acropolis at all. The Parthenon and the surrounding buildings, once wondrous testaments to feats of engineering and aesthetic beauty, were nothing more than a pile of rocks. Sacrilege, I know. But, art and architecture lover that I am, that is nonetheless the experience I had there. Going into the Parthenon in Nashville, however, I really felt the wonder of the building, with its clean and ordered exterior and soaring interior…complete with a hilariously gaudy statue of Athena. Debates about the way the statue would have looked are inconclusive (and, of course, there’s the lingering question of the coloration of Greek statuary and architecture dating back to the Hittorff debates in the 19th century), but there is good evidence that there was a massive gold statue of Athena inside the Parthenon. And I have to say, the one they produced in the Nashville Parthenon looks like it could be of a piece with Koons’s 1988 sculpture Michael Jackson and Bubbles. But maybe the massive Athena statue really was that gaudy?

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Even if it wasn’t, I had an affective experience in the Nashville Parthenon that was entirely lacking to me when I visited the actual Parthenon in the acropolis of Athens. And the absence of that emotional reaction to the real thing made me wonder, is this the real thing? Sure, these are the literal blocks of stone of the original Parthenon. But they are bleached white over centuries, they’ve been damaged and weather beaten, leaving–at least for me– no impression of what the original Parthenon would have been like. That impression is precisely what I got from the Nashville Parthenon, with its beautiful colored stones and absurdly gigantic Athena statue and finished, polished grandeur. Does it matter that it’s not the “original”? Was the experience I had of the Parthenon more “original” when I saw the reproduction than when I saw the original itself?

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Philosopher Face-Off: Laughter

Saint Augustine:

“Take joking and laughing. Anyone judging human nature most rightly holds that these features are indeed human, but the least important part of a human being.” [1]

vs. Walter Benjamin:

“It may be noted, incidentally, that there is no better trigger for thinking than laughter. In particular, convulsion of the diaphragm usually provides better opportunities for thought than convulsion of the soul.” [2]

 

Saint Augustine thinks that reason is the highest power that humans possess and thus the most important, but that laughter and joking are the least important. Twentieth-century thinker Benjamin, on the other hand, locates laughter as a trigger for thinking. Laughter, on Benjamin’s view, is thus deeply tied to human reason. Oh, you curmudgeon, Augustine.

 

Continue reading

Emojis: promoting white supremacy and orientalism?

Anyone who texts me regularly knows that I have a penchant for Emojis. I think they are a brilliant feature of the iPhone and I regularly use them in the course of text conversations, with more or less relevance: the coffee cup symbol is gets a lot of play at the end of a “Want to get” ? text to great effect, but sometimes I like to give the less obvious Emojis a little use– the eggplant is a personal favorite.

However, there is a striking feature of the Emojis that tempers my passion for them: they are extremely white. Many people praised the update to Emojis that went along with the iPhone iOS 6 update a few months ago for adding same-sex couples to its list of images, where previously the only couple had been hetero (except for the two dancing blondes in cat outfits, an oft-used, albeit befuddling, icon). Obviously, that is a much-needed correction. But people who expected to see more racial diversity in Emojis were disappointed. Among the human images, there are only Caucasians.

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Though a couple of these men look potentially-Asian.

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Well, almost. Out of over 40 Emojis featuring human images, two are clearly non-Caucasian. And, most importantly, they are not generic human images the way the majority of the others are. One is a dark-skinned man in a turban, and the other an Asian man in a red and green ‘Oriental’ hat. Both of these images are highly stylized portrayals of non-Caucasian people, and thus serve to worsen the already problematic ethnocentrism of the ‘generic’ white Emojis. Next to these two icons are three other men in hats, all Caucasian: one a police officer, one apparently a construction worker, and the third what appears to be a Russian in an Ushanka hat. The first two of these are clearly hats that pertain to a career rather than a race. Way to promote the idea that the white man is the one who can “wear many hats,” who is neutral except for when donning a cap for a specific job, while the dark-skinned or Asian man is always marked by wearing a certain “hat”– is not neutral, but always already belonging to a race that relegates him to a certain specificity. The Asian and the dark-skinned man appear only in their headpieces. The white man might wear a hat for a job, but has the freedom to take this off at any moment. There are no non-white individuals unmarked by a stylized headpiece; no non-white females; and no non-white people holding hands with a partner (neither another non-white nor white person) or doing some other activity. Isn’t this weird?

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On the other side of things, there is the cherub Emoji and the princess Emoji (see image 2 above). Both are not only white, but blonde. 100% Aryan– as all cherubic and royal people are, right? In fact, there is only one blonde female Emoji, and she is the princess wearing a crown. (Which causes problems for me, as a blonde female, when I want to depict myself in Emoji form but don’t want to intimate that I’m royalty. #problemsthatarenotreallyproblems)

There are over 60 animal Emojis. There is a blue whale Emoji, an alligator Emoji, and a puffer fish Emoji. Hell, there are three baby chick Emojis, and two dragons! (And, interestingly, tons of images of food, many of which are of Japanese food– this is, after all, where the iPhone Emojis originated). And not even one non-Caucasian person not wearing a marginalizing headpiece?? Get it together, people. Sure, Emojis are just silly images people with smartphones use while texting. But racism is racism, and it is perfidious wherever it may appear. After all, some of us use these every day.

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Yeah. Two dragons. And a puffer fish.

Here is an interesting article on Emojis in general.

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“This destructive and monstrous opinion that no one, or few, should philosophize, has much invaded the minds of almost everybody. As if it were absolutely nothing to have the causes of things, the ways of nature, the reason of the universe, the counsels of God, the mysteries of heaven and earth very certain before our eyes and hands, unless someone could derive some benefit from it or acquire profit for himself.”
- Pico della Mirandola, “On the Dignity of Man”

“This destructi…

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