Surprise: There’s Philosophy About That


If you ask a person on the street what philosophy is about, that person may respond with…

  • “No thanks.”
  • “Do I know you?”
  • a faster gait
  • pepper spray

or perhaps some examples of big philosophical questions about the meaning of life, right and wrong, knowledge, freedom, minds, rationality, and crystals. Apart from the crystals, that’s not too bad a characterization, even if it leaves out a lot.

Among what it leaves out are topics that (a) are of interest to plenty of people who aren’t philosophers, (b) are not the kind of thing the average person expects there to be philosophy about, yet (c) are indeed the focus of work by philosophers.

I’m thinking of topics about which a non-philosopher might reply, “I didn’t know there was philosophy about that.”

So I thought it might be useful to compile some examples of philosophical work on “surprising” topics. In the comments, please offer up your suggestions. Your comments should include not just the topic, but an example of a philosophical work on it (include the title and author at least, and a link if you care to). Who knows—maybe we’ll be surprised ourselves at what turns up.

guest
47 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Henning Boje Andersen
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
3 months ago

Is anything and everything really a worthwhile subject for philosophy? An equally interesting question may be: what would be non-worthwhile topics of philosophical analysis?Report

Matt L
Reply to  Henning Boje Andersen
3 months ago

what would be non-worthwhile topics of philosophical analysis?

The philosophy of floor sweepings? The philosophy of what I just ate for breakfast? The philosophy of wet-naps? The philosophy of christmas tinsel? I mean, we can maybe make up something for all of these things, but I’m not sure it would be worth-while.Report

jp schwa
jp schwa
Reply to  Matt L
3 months ago

you could validly argue that Zen has a philosophy about floor-sweeping.Report

Alex Petkus
Alex Petkus
Reply to  jp schwa
3 months ago

In “Walden,” Henry David Thoreau does mention the pleasure he receives when emptying his cabin of furniture and sweeping the floor. – From memory though, I couldn’t tell you which page, edition, etc…Report

Matt L
Reply to  jp schwa
2 months ago

about sweeping of floors, or about the stuff swept from floors? Even in the first case, it seems more like an instance of a more general idea than a topic in its own right, but it was the detritus I had in mind.Report

david thurmann
david thurmann
Reply to  Matt L
2 months ago

I thought that was philosophy. I tend to focus on the philosophy of philosophy it’s one magic step more objective than plain ole philosophy! Of course my friends are into studying the philosophy of philosophy, they insist I am an idiot and I believe them to be a a cult.Report

Henning Boje Andersen
Reply to  Henning Boje Andersen
2 months ago

I thought that Justin’s excellent question would lead to analysing what is common to phenomena that are worth doing philosophy about – and likewise, what is common to phenomena that it isn’t worth at all to philosophise about.Report

Eric Hagedorn
3 months ago

That there’s extensive philosophical reflection on the nature and purpose of games, from Bernard Suits’s classic The Grasshopper to C. Thi Nguyen’s recent Games: Agency as ArtReport

Tom Hurka
Tom Hurka
Reply to  Eric Hagedorn
3 months ago

It’s gratifying that The Grasshopper is now regularly described as “classic” (which it is). At the time it was turned down by any number (maybe 17?) different publishers.Report

Eric Hagedorn
Reply to  Tom Hurka
3 months ago

I believe I first learned of it from your work, Tom!Report

Sean McAleer
Sean McAleer
Reply to  Eric Hagedorn
3 months ago

It’s a wonderful book. And Tom Hurka’s introduction to the 3rd edition has one of the best lines ever to appear in a philosophical text: “His book is therefore a precisely placed boot in Wittgenstein’s balls.” Hilarious and spot-on.Report

Andreas Mogensen
3 months ago

How about the Philosophy of Surprise? Roughly, the question here is why some improbable events are surprising or striking or crying out for explanation and others aren’t, despite being at least as improbable. The key discussion on which most of the literature builds is in chapter 5 of Horwich’s Probability and Evidence; a recent paper by Martin Smith on this (“Why Throwing 92 Heads in a Row is not Surprising,” Philosophers’ Imprint 17) won the inaugural Sanders Award for Public PhilosophyReport

Matthew
Reply to  Andreas Mogensen
3 months ago

Oh, excellent, Andreas! Your question about why some improbable events are striking and others aren’t reminds me of The Pattern Recognition of Humor, by Evolutionary theorist Alastair Clarke. It addresses the emotional reward of something very like surprise, as an essential element of the evolution and survival of our species.Report

Landon Hedrick
3 months ago

Here’s a quick list of article titles from a brief glance at Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. I’m sure there are many, many more examples just on SEP that we could add on here, but I’ll just list the ones I see right now:

(1) The Philosophy of Dance
(2) Philosophy of Theater
(3) Philosophy of Sport
(4) Philosophy of Film
(5) Philosophy of Architecture
(6) The Philosophy of Music
(7) The Philosophy of Digital Art
(8) Philosophy of Technology
(9) Philosophy of Immunology
(10) The Philosophy of Childhood
(11) Philosophy of Humor
(12) Philosophy of Medicine
(13) Philosophy of Money and Finance

*Note: I skipped over a whole bunch of sub-fields in philosophy of science that would be surprising to a lot of people.Report

Patrick Lin
3 months ago

Since no discipline or area of study is immune to needing independent scrutiny, I’ve always thought that there might be a philosophy of everything from A to Z (e.g., from philosophy of art to philosophy of zoology). But I’ve never tried to find an example for each letter.

Has that been done yet? If not, it’d be cool to see such a list arise from this page…Report

James Lee
3 months ago

If conceptual analysis is a philosophical method, then for any subject matter for which there are terms that are amenable to analysis, there is a philosophy of that subject matter in at least this minimal sense.Report

David Wallace
3 months ago

Physics is actually an example of this, in the sense that almost everyone outside academia who asks what I does is amazed that there could be a philosophy of physics.

It’s an unusual example in that inside academia it’s quite widely known :giving examples probably isn’t necessary in this case.Report

Matthew
Reply to  David Wallace
3 months ago

The Concept of the Positron, by Norwood Rusell Hanson is an excellent book about an example of this! 🙂Report

Carolyn Dicey Jennings
Carolyn Dicey Jennings
Reply to  David Wallace
3 months ago

Yes, agreed. (I used to do philosophy of physics while simultaneously holding odd jobs like waiting tables, and people were always shocked and intrigued. David Bohm got a lot of book recommendations from 2003-2009!) I even know physicists who are shocked by this!Report

Chris Letheby
3 months ago

Just here for a bit of shameless self-promo: I have a book coming out on the philosophy of psychedelic drugs. Chris Letheby, Philosophy of Psychedelics, OUP 2021.Report

Candice Shelby
Candice Shelby
Reply to  Chris Letheby
3 months ago

I have a chapter in Guidebook to Hallucinogens… can’t wait to see your book!Report

Candice Shelby
Candice Shelby
Reply to  Candice Shelby
3 months ago

… HANDBOOK FOR MEDICAL HALLUCINOGENS…Report

Chris Letheby
Reply to  Candice Shelby
3 months ago

Yes, I saw that – haven’t gotten round to ordering it yet, but that handbook looks amazing!Report

Alan White
3 months ago

Isn’t philosophy just meta-X for any X that is a coherent concept?Report

Angelina
3 months ago

Phenomenology of psychedelic experiences is fascinating. The book is: Noumenautics: Metaphysics – Meta-ethics – Psychedelics, by Peter Sjöstedt-H.Report

Matthew
3 months ago

Philosophy of Mathematics, I think most people have no idea there is such a thing. Seems people have the idea it’s a completely objective, no different points of view kind of thing.

People don’t think about the invention of the Zero, for example.

One terrific book on the subject is:Greek Mathematical Thought and the Origin of Algebraby Jacob KleinReport

Matthew
3 months ago

Philosophy of Language — the meaning of meaning

Philosophy of Humor – “Pattern Recognition Theory of Humor,” by Evolutionary theorist Alastair ClarkeReport

Matthew
3 months ago

David Wallace in these comments mentions physics, which is a wonderful example. More generally, then, is philosophy of science itself.

People seem to think “science” is “truth” and objective and free of dogma and opinion, but that’s a rather dangerous delusion that actually leads people *away* from good science.

Here’s a terrific book on Methodological Variance!

Methodological Variance: Essays in Epistemological Ontology and the Methodology of Science, by Pandit, Giridhari LalReport

William J Rapaport
3 months ago

For any x, there is a philosophy of x. A quick Google search turned this up: http://www.stormthecastle.com/stamp-collecting/articles/the-philosophy-of-stamp-collecting.htmReport

Goran-Edgar
Goran-Edgar
Reply to  William J Rapaport
3 months ago

For any “philosophy of x there is at least one philosophy of philosophy of x”.Report

Justin E. H. Smith
3 months ago

This is going to seem completely out of left field, but pace Justin’s opening comment there’s plenty of important philosophical writing about crystals too: Aristotle (Meteorologia), Theophrastus (De Lapidibus), Pliny (Natural History), Sennert (Hypomnemata physicae), Leibniz (Protogaea), Steno (De solido inter solidum), Louis Bourguet (Lettres philosophiques sur la formation des sels et des cristaux), Kant (Critique of the Faculty of Judgment), just off the top of my head. People you encounter who don’t know this history and are getting their enthusiasm for crystals from recent New Age sources are at least expressing a sort of late-stage, diluted and demotic interest in natural-philosophical questions that were at the center of philosophical attention until the mid-18th century, concerning, broadly speaking, the forms and powers of natural substances. I myself spend a lot of time trying to work New Agers back, when I meet them, to the historical roots of our shared interests, rather than dismissing them. But even before this work is done, I consider them generally more aware than most academic philosophers of the range of questions in which a philosopher should be expected to take an interest.Report

Dan
Dan
Reply to  Justin E. H. Smith
3 months ago

Interesting turn of phrase: “I consider them generally more aware than most academic philosophers of the range of questions in which a philosopher should be expected to take an interest”
What sorts of questions are those? And expected by whom?Report

Justin E. H. Smith
Reply to  Dan
3 months ago

Roughly the same range of questions Aristotle tackled. The “should” is mine, and you can take it or leave it I suppose.Report

James
Reply to  Justin E. H. Smith
3 months ago

Ditto, Justin.

In one sense, I stop myself rushing gto judgment, thinking that they lack objectivity with their beliefs held as their own truths, with respect to crystals. In the same, I can’t say say they are completely Subjective by some sort of occult science mysticism when crystals have had a profound place throughout antiquity.

If you asked New Agers their thoughts on a ‘lucky rabbits foot’ and holding superstition, they might say it depends on the energy it imparts or absorbs or collects in its space. But, the foot is not in itself lucky, there is another component. Being open-minded on exploring such nature of physical and non-physical materials, is one part major Aristotelian and another minor part Bacon.

Theory & Practice,
Evidence based practice vs practice based evidence, inductive vs deductive s abductive,…

Academia can be a very close-minded environment and I spent many years inside of it and outside of it, researching & conceptualizing numerous science disciplines. It’s first an art before it becomes science, and fundamentally it is based in philosophical reasoning. If you live in academia and rush to finger it as, “woo”, check your bias to open your bias on world view. That refresh and learning to flip subjectivity into objectivity just may change your life in how you perceive and think about everything. We know a lot about ourselves, yet we know almost nothing about anything that’s truly out there. Maybe there is some fundamental nature to crystals and more, but we havent found the right inquiry to set a hypothesis that we can measure & observe. Quantum physics and relational interpretation of interactions, has you not focusing on distinct entities but on the interactions. Waves of probability or particles of instantaneous experience… The notion of particles is a human derived concept, there is no such thing as a hard material mass, it is something based on energy, vibrations/oscillations, fields of force, electromagnetism (gravity is not truly a force but a representation of a field of force relating to curvature in space-time).

Consciousness is there somewhere, too, but for now it is held in mysticism. I still believe in prayer, though, as a form of meditation, reflection and introspection.

Cheers.Report

James
Reply to  James
3 months ago

IN QUANTUM PHYSICS, “REALITY” REALLY IS WHAT WE CHOOSE TO Observe.

Physicist Bruce Gordon argues that idealist philosophy is the best way to make sense of the puzzling world of quantum physics

https://mindmatters.ai/2021/04/in-quantum-physics-reality-is-literally-what-we-choose-to-observe/Report

Laurie L Carpenter
Laurie L Carpenter
Reply to  James
2 months ago

Whoa James.. uh, I need you to critique a book I’ve been at for 3+ yrs.Report

Dan
Dan
Reply to  Justin E. H. Smith
2 months ago

It shouldn’t be surprising academics work in limited areas; with the sheer amount of knowledge and ideas we have about the world these days, aiming for the range of Aristotle seems to risk spreading oneself too thin – even with a mind as exceptional a mind as his.

Anyway, if I may ask about crystals. Are there still any philosophically interesting issues in the 21st century, given that their effects are indistinguishable from those of wishful thinking?Report

Lionel
3 months ago

Help! Now we’ll need to come up with The Philosophy of PhilosophyReport

Edgardo
Edgardo
Reply to  Lionel
3 months ago

Yes! Like a infinite loop! Gödel theorem and the philosophy of methaphilosophy!Report

Matt L
Reply to  Lionel
3 months ago

Timothy Williamson already has that taken care of! https://www.wiley.com/en-au/The+Philosophy+of+Philosophy-p-9781405133968Report

J Adam Carter
3 months ago

There is a surprising amount of thoughtful philosophical work on the normativity of archery.Report

Last edited 3 months ago by J. Adam Carter
James
3 months ago

The aspect of Creativity.

Albert Rotherberg, Harvard psychologist, has spent decades studying the nature/ fundamentals, distinct processes in fusion of thinking or holding simultaneous perspectives (he termed as, ‘Janusian & Homospatial Thinking’, being two-sided Janus of differing perspectives), the multifaceted ability for an evolving inquiry, the underlying habits that may spark creative juice to flow, and so on.

Investigating the creature minds and processing of Einstein, Planck, Darwin, numerous other Nobel winners, along with artists (all inclusive).

The last time I checked in on his Researchgate/ Academia projects, he was looking into whether individuals with such modes of thinking process time in itself differently.

“Flight From Wonder – An Investigation of Scientific Creativity”, Albert Rotherberg.

https://www.amazon.com/dp/019998879X/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_apa_glt_fabc_A131VCMHWM2GHHJX7MAYReport

James
Reply to  James
3 months ago

Typo.
Lol, not ‘creature minds’.
–> ‘creative minds’Report

Simon Kohli
2 months ago

Perhaps the philosophy of surprise is that we shouldn’t really be surprised about anything as if it happened then it must be possible, therefore not surprising. That is why we aren’t particularly surprised by throwing 92 heads in a row, because if one is educated in mathematics you know that it is possible though rare. I imagine that might be how an AI would see everything, they wouldn’t be surprised at anything. Humans are only surprised at things because of ignorance, no one can possibly know anything.Report