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.’

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The magical coat room

You hand the man your ticket but either the ticket, which looks pretty ratty, coincides with some other performance, or else its matching partner to this performance is nowhere to be found. Either way, your coat is gone and the coat check man has no recollection of having seen the coat you describe. Try as you might, he shakes his head. You resign yourself to its absence.

Still, you’re perturbed by this recent turn of events. You reckon you could leave without a coat, but you realize that it’s very cold outside, one of the coldest days on record. For an instant, you imagine yourself living the rest of your life in the coat room–this place where others come and go, drop off and return for their wearables. You then imagine tricking yourself into believing that your coat never existed. Or perhaps you steal another’s and are better off (or worse off) in the bargain. Or, no, you’ll dash off into the winter night and, since you’re hardier than the common lot, beat the cold at its own game.

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