On the importance of being surprised (Part 1)

In the following series of posts, I’d like to say some things about the kind of genre philosophical inquiry is and about the kind of character the practice of inquiry can cultivate. First, I’ll say some things about the nature of surprises in general and about the kinds of surprises–perplexities and illuminations–that emerge during philosophical inquiring. Then, I’d like to offer the thought that inquiring prepares a conversation partner to be on the look-out for ordinary surprises and, when these occur, to suspend judgment and to be courageous and light. I’ll conclude with some thoughts about how inquiring can train us to see surprises as occasions for moving from perplexity to illumination. This inquiring cast of mind, I’d venture, can be discerned as much in inquisitive children as in joke-tellers, in mathematicians as in Nietzsche’s playful gods.

1. On the Importance of Being Surprised

We’re surprised, naturally, when we don’t see it coming. Some event occurs unexpectedly or contrary to our expectations and, during the occurrence, the event shows itself, going unnamed. The pronoun without an antecedent is apropos in this instance, and the name has to ‘grow some legs’ so that it can ‘hurry’ to ‘catch up.’

There are any number of instances where we might not see something coming and thus be surprised. The punch line of a joke may come as a surprise, despite the fact that we’ve learned to expect a punch line to be forthcoming. It’s this punch line at this particular moment that that we hadn’t foreseen. Or suppose a friend’s dropping by comes as something of a surprise; it was not that he came by that caught you off guard but rather that he popped in without calling first and, as it happens, while you were in the middle of eating dinner. Or take the end of a marriage: both spouses know that one is bound to die before the other, but a wife may not have expected her husband to ‘pull a Bertrand Russell’–going off on a bike ride, suddenly realizing he’s not in love with his wife, and coming back to ask for a divorce. In all these cases, the surprise has to do both with the way that, and the time in which the unfamiliar ‘springs’ upon us, ‘breaking into’ and ‘opening up’ the familiar.

Many surprises carry little weight or importance apart from momentarily arresting our attention (the etymology of surprise suggests being seized or arrested by something beyond or in excess of one’s thought), yet some may tell us something significant about our encounter with the new and, in some circumstances, about our understanding (or lack of understanding) of ourselves. The kind of surprise I have in mind–the kind in which we learn something about ourselves that we did not know before–can occur in the context of philosophical inquiry. These surprises can serve either to perplex us (because we thought we knew this about ourselves but, it turns out, we do not) or to bring us greater illumination (because we learn something about ourselves that we could not have conceivably grasped before or outside of this specific inquiry).

There is a proper sequence to these two surprises, perplexity coming before illumination. That is, we can’t be surprised about the nature or degree of our self-understanding unless we’re first bewildered about something important concerning ourselves. So, the first kind of surprise I have in mind could be expressed as follows:

Before this inquiry, I knew for certain that I was such and such kind of person (say, a recluse) or that this way of life was best (e.g., the life filled with personal accomplishments), or that I tend to act in such and such a way (say, compassionately). But this question at this time and in this way I didn’t see coming, and it has cast me into such a state of doubt that now I’m not sure whether I’m actually this kind of person, whether I typically act in this sort of way, or whether this form of life is actually best. I’m stirred up, turned about, bewildered.

This state of bewilderment is nicely illustrated in Elizabeth Bennett’s declaration at the heart of Pride and Prejudice that ‘Till now, I never knew myself.’ She has just received a letter from Darcy, and the fresh revelations contained in the letter arrest her. Taken aback, she realizes that her moral assessments of other characters turn out to be based on an overvaluation of her own self-worth and prove, in certain cases, to be woefully inaccurate. Despite this, she longs to but doesn’t know how to come to a more considered view of others and herself. Her bewilderment has agitated her, stirring her up so that she has now the desire to inquire into what a clearer view of the world would be like without knowing what it will actually be like or how to begin. Her plight is reminiscent of Meno’s and, of course, our own.

Thereby, perplexity generates the desire for illumination. And the answer to the second inquiry issues a second kind of surprise: the flash of self-illumination. The first inquiry reveals to us the right question, for this is the question to which we are hungry to find the answer in the hope of better understanding ourselves. And yet, the answer that actually arrives we also did not see coming. That is, through inquiry, the conversation partner does not see that this is the answer to the question, say, of what is missing in her life. The second surprise, then, is that both philosophical guide and conversation partner recognize this as being the answer to the question and both of us discover the same thing at once about the one whose life has been put to the question. However, what neither of us saw coming was that this process of reasoning would unfold in this way nor do we know that this conclusion would be approximately or exactly where we would end up.

The beautiful realization is that nothing revealed can be taken back. After the fact, each step can be reconsidered and reconstructed; after the fact, the conclusion can be tied down and will no doubt settle in. But in the moment, we recognize ourselves in a way we had not before: there is lightness as well as joy in this. This sort of illumination might feel like ‘getting used’ to having a new name or to hearing our name pronounced slightly differently, more resonantly and harmoniously.

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