Encountering the Beautiful.

Author:Knepper, Steven
Position:Book review

The Vision of the Soul: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty in the Western Tradition, by James Matthew Wilson. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2017. 444 pp. $29.95.

There is a modern tendency to reduce wonder to curiosity about how things work. Wonder becomes a state of ignorance, one that can be remedied by inquiry. Francis Bacon, for instance, called wonder "broken knowledge." What gets lost in this reduction, though, is a deeper sense of wonder at the mystery of being, wonder at the sheer thereness of it all, at there being something rather than nothing. Martin Heidegger, of course, sought to reawaken us to this mystery, but he also claimed that the reduction of wonder to curiosity had a much older lineage than Bacon. For Heidegger, this reduction--and the attendant "forgetfulness of being"--is the faulty foundation for the whole tradition of Western metaphysics from Plato onward. It issues in our contemporary predicament, where being has been reduced to use value, to an exploitable "standing reserve." Heidegger's account of the Western philosophical and religious tradition is highly tendentious. Still the tendency to reduce wonder to curiosity is indeed recurrent, as is the danger of the reduction of being--inevitably extended to human beings themselves--to a "standing reserve." Even Aristotle and Aquinas can talk about wonder as if it were merely curiosity. Yet, as Mark Shiftman and D.C. Schindler have argued, Aristotle and Aquinas also give us resources to rethink the relationship between deep wonder and curiosity, to resist reifying this relationship as a stark opposition.

Schindler argued in The Catholicity of Reason (Eerdmans, 2013) that the Thomist tradition at its best has held that as reason discovers more determinate knowledge about the world our wonder at it should actually deepen--not only our wonder at its sheer thereness, but also wonder at its intelligibility.

Shiftman and Schindler were longtime colleagues of Wilson's in Villanova University's Department of Humanities. (Schindler has since joined the faculty of the John Paul II Institute at the Catholic University of America.) With the publication of The Vision of the Soul, Wilson has joined them in recovering this relationship between wonder and reason. He does so via a rich aesthetics. Countering the argument that Aristotle champions a reductive curiosity, Wilson writes:

But wonder cannot merely be the desire to move from an absence of knowledge to knowledge, a desire that diminishes in proportion to our arriving at knowledge. Nor, for that matter, is knowledge...

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