The Philosophy of Wonder

William Covino on the Art of Wonder in Philosophy

“The art of rhetoric underlines the ambiguity of language; to practice the art, one remains mindful that all conclusions are provisional, tentative. The art lies not in the completion of a text, but in the transfiguration of one text — one system of possibilities — into another.”

William A. Covino, The Art of Wondering


William Covino - The Art of WonderingPlato taught us one of the most profound lessons of all: “Wonder is the feeling of the philosopher and philosophy begins in wonder.” The philosophy of wonder celebrates experience and promotes intuition over reason. Reason emphasizes certainty and whereas a posture of wonder leaves room for change. William Covino shows the continental drift from the the philosophy of wonder and beauty to rhetorics emphasizing style, reason, and argumentation in his 1988 work, The Art of Wondering. 

In an effort to revise the histories of rhetorics, William Covino leaves room for the elaboration of ambiguity and a turn to open discourse. The Art of Wondering: A Revisionist Return to the History of Rhetoric invokes this two-pronged attack described as a posture of wonder. He prompts his reader to forfeit their associations with the word ‘history’ that appears in the title of his book, reading not merely for information but reading in a way that is receptive to provocation. This is precisely the sentiment at work in his book. When we understand the histories of rhetorics as a way to perpetuate rules and principles, then we forfeit the playfulness and uncertainty inherent in literary studies. In short: we sacrifice wonder.

One of the most inspiring aspects of Covino’s argument is in his specific deconstructive method. He not only destroys the notion of rigidity constructed in the sixteenth century with figures like Peter Ramus, he rebuilds rhetorics through the art of wonder by using contemporary thinkers who offer an alternative to the principles and precepts commonly associate with rhetorics. His first task is rewriting the classic philosophers, Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero. He then pivots to three skeptical figures of the enlightenment: Montaigne, Vico, and Hume. The third chapter challenges readers to embrace language that celebrates exploration. In his final comments, Covino ends with celebrating three postmodern thinkers of the 20th century: Derrida, Feyerabend, Geertz.


Art of Wonder in Philosophy

In the first chapter, Covino challenges the classical view of rhetorics by reminding the reader that it was not until the sixteenth century in which Ramus reduced the notion of rhetorics to style, whereas invention and arrangement are categorized under logic. This is merely one illustration, albeit a powerful one, in which thought was reduced to rigid and stable categories. Covino’s revision of classical rhetorics is in his attempt to show “The forgotten rhetorics are those who elaborate Plato’s conception of rhetoric as an art of wondering, and writing as a mode of avoiding rather than intending closure.” In other words, philosophy begins and continues in wonder.


Plato’s Phaderus “evokes multiple perspectives, disdains and mocks petty precepts, and leaves the debate over the nature of rhetoric unsettled, inconclusive.” Covino reads Phaedrus in a manner similar to Benjamin Jowett – a reading that invites intellectual play. Echoing Martin Heidegger’s argument on Parmenides and truth, Covino insists, “The writing in the Phaedrus reveals rather than conceals ambiguity and exploits incompleteness and play.”


In a similar vein, Covino rethinks Aristotle’s principles and precepts to reveal the way Aristotle’s rhetorics that “demonstrate the impossibility of reduction.” Covino elaborates, “Lurching about here and there, Aristotle does not present a weak or flawed rhetorical theory; one might say, rather, that he presents a true one, an unpretentious one, a theory that welcomes the instability (with its attendant problems) of thought and language.” 


The third classical figure Covino takes time to revise is Cicero, a figure who is far more complex than is traditionally accepted. Covino asserts that Cicero’s rhetoric is characterized by “diversity, open speculation, and ambiguity.” When Cicero claims, “A vast number of things is necessary,” this reminds the reader that he does not exposit what wonder is but demonstrates how wonder is enacted, or even invented: “the keeper of the matter and words that are the fruits of thought and invention.” To this end, Covino offers the following insight, “Memory makes meaning, and acts to conjoin multiple perspectives across time.”    


The Art of Wondering in Philosophy

Covino wades through the prose of Michel de Montaigne, Giambattista Vico, and David Hume to show how these thinkers “continue the Ancient emphasis on rhetoric as philosophy, and look toward the postmodern alliance of language, literacy, and open speculation.” These thinkers embrace a dynamic epistemology that leaves room for expansive thought processes.


Covino emphasizes Montaigne’s exaltation of imagination, a posture that counters his contemporary, Francis Bacon, and emphasizes the process of meaning making: “For Montaigne, generosity of spirit is “boundless and without form; it’s food is wonder, the chase, ambiguity… It is an irregular, perpetual motion, without model and without aim. Its inventions excite, pursue, and produce one another.” Speaking of the many subjects that Plato considers, Covino applauds Montaigne’s view of invention, specifically, piling up perspectives. Following this, Covino then calls writing as philosophy an assemblage borrowing from earlier assemblages and celebrated as a kind of patchwork.


Covino pivots to the famous Italian Professor of Rhetoric from Naples who promoted ingenuity and depth as qualities of the philosophical imagination. Vico teaches Covino that the enlightenment’s emphasis on certainty and reason trades the ability to judge ideas with the ability to generate them. Covino invokes Vico to assert, “Invention is the habit of a mind constantly gathering, sorting, synthesizing, not to arrive at any final solution on true, but to make decisions ‘in the field of action.’” Perhaps most profoundly, Vico considers eloquence a byproduct of “mature philosophic imagination” a result achieved by “the continual synthesis of knowledge and experience.”


Covino points to David Hume, student of Montaigne and challenger to Locke and Berkeley, and his erasure of all absolutes from empiricist philosophy. It is no surprise that the final thinker in this triad is also concerned with the association of ideas. Covino demonstrates that for Hume, “Ideas are connected by ‘resemblance, contiguity in time or place, and cause or effect.” Once again, experience continues to refine the truth. Hume’s philosophical inquiries “emphasize the potential of the internal fabric of the mind for creative expression.”


The Art of Wondering in Philosophy

Despite the emphasis on how complex associations lead to ingenuity and depth and advance the art of wonder, Covino recognizes the reader’s desire for unity that is one of the consistent elements of reading. The psychology of reading, then, is a yearning for exactitude, pure language, or ultimate knowledge. The rhetorics of reading reminds us that the physicality of a material book often misleads the reader into associating finality with the words in the text. 


Hugh Blair taught his students that language is constantly refined to express a more adequate meaning. Inherent in this belief is a conception of language known as “transparent.” In other words, no two words have the same meaning and every word has only one meaning. Despite the emphasis on certainty that Covino seems to forfeit earlier in this work, this belief in linguistic certainty points to a tendency toward linguistic precision that helps refine the art of wonder, among other experiences. Covino points out that Blair advances the belief that language is in the process of becoming more and more accurate, leading to what is called pure language. “Fear and surprise, wonder and astonishment, are their most frequent passions. Their language will necessarily partake of this character of their minds.” Blair is a bit of an outlier on this list of renegades embracing complexity over certitude, but Covino points out that Blair’s doctrine of perspicuity – clear, lucid writing – is a service to the reader and something to aspire to as a writer.


Lord Bryon immortalizes the legend of Don Juan in the poem that wholly met reader’s eyes in 1824. Covino invokes both Roman Jakobson and Kenneth Burke to discuss Byron’s eye for the figure of speech called metonymy. Covino demonstrates that the skill of metonymy is more than trading one term for another, but “the process that links imaginative worlds in subtle ways.” Throughout the poem, then, the reader crosses a bridge between the visible and invisible. Covino recognizes the notion of progress toward ultimate knowledge is one that is feigned again and again. Readers look to the plot to advance action, and movement feigns a sense of progress that does little more than numb the reader’s desire for totality. Covino writes, “we can at least seem to make progress, we can participate in a world of action without reflection, peopled by characters who appear to “get somewhere.” This emphasis positions readers to find more value in information than in form, a posture that Burke critiques in Counter-Statement. Covino’s explication of Lord Byron’s poem, “Don Juan,” reveals its contemporary reception that connects the seemingly inarticulate lines with immortality that “arises from thoughtlessness.” This poem and its reception function to reveal the reading public’s continual yearning for a kind of unity promoted by Blair.


Returning to a more playful intellectual posture, Covino turns to Thomas DeQuincey who offers that to “practice rhetoric is “to hang upon one’s own thoughts as an object of conscious interest, to play with them, to watch and pursue them through a maze of inversions, evolutions, and harlequin changes.” Like Covino, DeQuincey appreciates a patient and careful consideration of the text, allowing the reader to explore different possibilities. Covino allows DeQuincey to rewrite the common misconception of reason, reminding the reader, “Rhetoric’s energy is elliptical, illustrating the rhetor’s own labyrinthine movement of mind, and significantly, the polymorphous shape of reflective and fanciful discourse corresponds to the act of reasoning.” Covino appreciates DeQuincey’s emphasis on community. There is also alignment with Wordsworth who calls style the incarnation of thoughts rather than the dress of thoughts. Covino describes the tension inherent in DeQuincey’s posture of wonder:

“Rhetoric maintains a tension between convention and invention, mechanic and organic, closure and wonder, and one becomes a rhetorical animal thought involvement in intellectual play.”


Covino’s efforts so far demonstrate that the epistemological crisis that emerges in the 20th century was really there all along. Paul Feyerabend Against MethodNonetheless, he drives his point home in the afterward, noting that the effort to maintain “unity, coherence, perspicuity, and certainty” has stifled investigation, invention, and discovery. Covino invokes Feyerabend in an attempt to show how rigid systematic thinking kills the student’s ability to think for oneself.  

“Do not work with stable concepts. Do not eliminate counterinduction. Do not be seduced into thinking that you have at last found the correct description of “the facts” when all that has happened is that some new categories have been adapted to some older forms of thought, which are so familiar that we take their outlines to be the outlines of the world itself.”

Anticipating the common misconception that postmodern criticism perpetuates the notion that there is no truth, a belief that leads to anarchy, Covino reminds readers that Derrida emphasizes convention gleaned from the text of a heritage in meaning-making: “Derrida counters any misconception of play as solipsistic meandering with his implication that members of a culture can play together.” This is the belief David Foster Wallace burrows into Infinite Jest, acknowledging the utter hell of solipsism. Clifford Geertz is a proponent of a free play ethnographic process, acknowledging “conscious and unconscious assumptions and presuppositions” that inform any anthropological study. Covina’s concluding thoughts celebrates the potential for “uncertainty that provokes the investigation of possibilities beyond one’s stock response; uncertainty necessarily sends us into conversation with other ideas and people.”

William Covino on the Art of Wonder in Philosophy