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The Elemental Sallis: On Wonder and Philosophy’s “Beginning”
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One will never be able to interrogate wonder philosophically except by way of a questioning that the operation of wonder will already have determined.

john sallis, Double Truth

It is a well-known teaching in the writings of both Plato and Aristotle that wonder (thauma) is the beginning of philosophy. But few philosophers have given wonder much thought—certainly, no philosopher that I am aware of has, like Professor Sallis, returned time and again to think through wonder. Sallis’s thinking through wonder is guided by his reading of ancient Greek philosophy, and furthermore, as I hope to show, it opens up a reengagement with Greek philosophers—in particular, with those early Greek thinkers who are known collectively as the “Pre-Socratics.” In what follows I hope to make clear, first, what Sallis understands by wonder as the archē of philosophy and, second, how his own “rememorative” thinking of this archē—especially by way of what he calls “the elemental”—remains attentive to the wondrous in such a way as to return us to the insights of Pre-Socratic thought. But to understand wonder in the way that Sallis does requires that we have a sense of what it does not mean for wonder to be the beginning of philosophy.

As Sallis reminds us in his book Double Truth, Aristotle understands wonder as the beginning of philosophy in Metaphysics, book I (982b12ff.), but in such a way that it is only a beginning, since it amounts to the initial awareness of one’s ignorance that will be overcome by the knowledge that philosophy then makes possible. Sallis captures this Aristotelian take on wonder as follows: “Thus, in the end knowledge is opposed, as the better, to wonder. Though it is through wonder that one comes to pursue knowledge, that pursuit has the effect finally of dissolving wonder. In the end there would be no place for wonder in knowledge, no place for a knowledge to which wonder would be essential and not merely an incitement. In the end there would be only knowledge, beyond the wonder of perplexity, beyond the wonders that comprise mythos. Philosophy would achieve its end by putting an end to wonder.”1 But it is not just that Aristotle understands the end of philosophy as a kind of knowledge that has put an end to wonder—he interprets his philosophical predecessors as carrying out philosophy in just this manner, offering us accounts that, if sound, would put an end to the wonder that was their beginning. Of particular importance to Sallis on this point is the fact that Aristotle systematically interprets the earliest Greek philosophers as offering accounts of material causes (hylē)—an interpretation that has the effect of putting an end to the encounter with the wondrous that we find when we go back to the Pre-Socratic fragments.2

To recover this encounter with the wondrous, Sallis calls into question Aristotle’s predetermination, in Metaphysics I, that the so-called elements in Pre-Socratic thought (earth, air, fire, water) are to be understood as the “from-which” of composition. On this point Sallis writes: “What is, rather, required of philosophy at the limit is that it turn back to the elements as constituting the from which, not of composition, but of manifestation, that it return to the elements as they bound and articulate the expanse of the self-showing of things themselves” (154–55). To understand the elements as the from-which of composition is to understand them, ultimately, as things.3 Yet the “elemental,” as Sallis calls it—that is, the elements understood as the from-which of manifestation—are not “things.” Elementals are distinguished from things not only by an indefiniteness of sorts (lacking or exceeding the proportionality with respect to things and to those to whom things show themselves) but also by what Sallis calls “monstrosity”—that is, “their exceeding the things of nature while also themselves belonging to nature” (158). But herein lies the power of the elemental to evoke wonder in us, as Sallis describes: “When an elemental obtrudes, it shows itself as prodigious, as hypernature within nature, as of extraordinary extent and/or power, as monstrous, as evoking...



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