A philosophical surprise and a philosopher by surprise

A philosophical surprise has the following structure:

  • While I was on the road to my destination, something happened that stopped me and held me in amazement.

Unpacking this statement:

1.) ‘While I was on the road to my destination’: I was proceeding absentmindedly, and I was bent on getting somewhere in particular. I may have been in a hurry, but even if I wasn’t in a hurry, I was concertedly moving toward a goal.

2.) ‘something happened’: in this instant, I do not know what this ‘something happening’ is or means. It is not clear to me what it could ‘turn out to be,’ and I have not ‘turned it’ into something recognizable or intelligible yet.

3.) ‘stopped me’: this sense of ‘stopping me’ is not the same as its being an obstacle, hurdle, or impediment for me. Though I do not know what it is or means, for some reason I do not regard it as something to cross, get around, slip past, sidestep, etc. It seems that I cannot help but regard it, inspect it, focus my attention on it.

4.) ‘held me in amazement’: in the context of a philosophical surprise, my inspection is of a certain special kind. Naturally, I can regard, inspect, and take notice of many things around me. But there is something unspeakably perplexing about ‘what is happening here’ and about what it could mean for my life. So much so that I am at a loss: I can neither pass it by or brush it off nor grasp and possess it in an instant. It is holding me and it is as if it were speaking a foreign language that I shall have to learn. I can’t not.

Here, I would add:

  • A philosopher (in the true sense) holds others gently so that they can give him a considered account of their lives.

Thus, a philosopher comes upon us by surprise, doubling and doubling the surprise we experienced from having already been dislocated from the set path in life.

Corollary: philosophical surprise as the opening onto conversion (epistrophe). Pierre Hadot: ‘Education is conversion.’

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