SENSES OF MYSTERY ASKS what is perhaps the most fundamental question in philosophy: what is the nature of our being in the world? Answering it implies a way we should endeavor to live in the world. Two ways are presented of understanding our understanding of the world. They give us a false dilemma, as they are not exhaustive. There is a third way, which is not only true, but also involves a better way of living in the world.
The book’s author, David E. Cooper, is one of the most outstanding philosophers of recent times. It’s hard to think of another figure who better combines erudition with rigor of thought and argument. I cannot imagine any other living philosopher whose knowledge extends, so easily and confidently, across analytical philosophy, continental philosophy, and Eastern philosophy.
Senses of Mystery is a concise and more practically illustrated version of the position presented in denser academic form in Cooper’s The Measure of Things: Humanism, Humility, and Mystery (2002). What is offered here is a Big Idea, and it is the result of a lifetime’s philosophical reflection.
Here’s the false dilemma: either we stand to the world as disinterested spectators such that the world is totally independent of our interested understanding of it, while being fully comprehensible in its own terms by a disinterested understanding, or we stand to the world such that it can be no more than the totality of our interested understanding of it, and such that it is fully comprehensible in terms of that interested understanding. Either the world chops itself up into things such as rocks, and trees, and electrons, which work by laws regardless of the differentiated interest we happen to take in things, or the world is chopped up by us into trees, and rock, and electrons, and their consequent laws, because of the differentiated interest we happen to have in things. Both positions are mistaken, according to Cooper, and we need not be forced to choose one of them.
We stand in some kind of relation to the world in understanding it: there appears to be our understanding of the world and then there is the world itself. One line that we might take Cooper calls “raw humanism.” This proposes that a division between the world and our understanding makes no sense. What could the world be if it’s not in some way our understanding of it? The other line on the relation, which Cooper calls “absolutism or scientism,” is to suppose that the way the world is is totally independent of how we happen to understand things, but that we can come to understand it as it is in itself. Surely the world is as it is regardless of the contingency of how we happen to think about things.
So, let us be clear what the alternative is here: a world that makes no sense independently of our interested understanding of it, and so one we can fully comprehend, and then a world that is as it is independently of our interested understanding of it, but yet one that we can fully come to comprehend in its own terms. What these two positions have in common, and Cooper challenges, is the hubristic claim that the world is fully comprehensible. He also challenges their opposing claims of the world being either fully dependent or fully independent of our understanding of it. Denying both these claims leaves something over: an aspect to the world that is a mystery by being neither fully comprehensible (because all it can be is as our interested understanding would have it) nor fully comprehensible independent of our interested understanding of it. In the case of raw humanism, the world is fully comprehensible because human-interested understanding is the only understanding there is, and in the case of absolutism or scientism the world is fully comprehensible because by adopting a disinterested understanding we may understand how things are in themselves.
Again, both these positions are wrong. First, that the world may only be understood by us in relation to human understanding does not mean that it does not make sense to talk of aspects of the world that may elude that understanding. Second, that the world is as it is independently of our human understanding does not mean that we may be able to fully understand how the world is. This leaves a non-comprehensible aspect of the world, a mystery. We may sense that mystery, become aware of it, albeit in indirect ways. We may attune to it not by some extraordinary act of visionary contemplation, but by engaging with awareness in the everyday things we do: walking in a garden, listening to music, feeling the wind on our faces and sun on our heads. We may then be aware that there are things that are beyond us.
Why should we think this view is correct? Here a bit of philosophical background is needed. It might be supposed that to understand reality the thing to do would be to strip that understanding of all that makes our perspective, and come to see things in a totally impartial, disinterested way — a view from nowhere. This is what René Descartes had in mind as the “absolute conception.” But it turns out there is a flaw in this plan — and we find a critique of it in the works of Henri Bergson, Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Ludwig Wittgenstein — namely, that it gives no credit to the way in which any concepts we might use to think about the world arise. That way is only through our active, interested engagement in the world as reflects the contingently embodied partial creatures that we are. A simple example: Things are out of reach to us in a quite different sense from that of a bird. Take those kinds of considerations away and there would be no ways any world delineated in concepts, any understanding, would arise at all, and so nothing would “ex-ist” in the literal sense of “stand out” — at best, the world would be an undifferentiated homogeneity.
The view from nowhere turns out to be no view at all. This might lead us to swing to the other extreme and say that it makes no sense to talk of the world independently of human understanding and that our way of understanding is all the understanding there can be. But this would be obviously false and overlooks the fact that there may be various ways of understanding the world that arise from other ways of engaging with it by creatures who are embodied differently and have another set of interests from our own. Cooper illustrates this point by reference to animals. As Wittgenstein said, “if a lion could speak, we would not understand him” — and this because the lion’s embodied partial engagement with the world is different from our own: he has a different “form of life” — things matter to him in a way that they do not matter to us, and thus the world’s existence is different for him. This leaves something that eludes any view — and any view is a limited view, and only with a limited view may there be any view at all. There is a mysterious otherness to the world, an extraordinary bare isness, that we may be aware of through reflection on the ways that we do understand the world not being all ways of understanding.
Cooper finds gardens particularly good at making us aware of this sense of mystery. This is because of the way they fall between town and country. In the town, humanity is, as it were, the master and measure of all (“raw humanism”). In wilderness, nature is totally other and we have made of it nothing and are the measure of nothing (absolutism and scientism). But in a garden, we see that we are partly the master and measure of what we contemplate as we engage in its making, and partly not, as nature is also there independently as something beyond that of which we are the master and measure. This is not just a metaphor for Cooper; the engagement with something like a garden is an actual way of our becoming aware of the truth of mystery. Sensing that mystery is rather like the phenomenon where something is seen not by looking directly at it but by looking off (in the way one may see faint stars).
This should lead us to a better way of living in the world. One where we neither think the world is a mere instrument for our own use (for there are aspects of it that are beyond us that may have value too) nor suppose that the world is a totally alien otherness with no place for any of the value we appear to place on things (for the world has value through our interested engagement with it).
Cooper’s book introduces these complex and profound ideas in a way that is elegant and pellucid — never austere and distant. Every philosopher should read this book, indeed every thoughtful person should, for it addresses and attempts to answer the question of what it is fundamentally like for us to be in the world and what we are to make of the strangeness of existence. It is the issue that got most philosophers studying philosophy, one suspects.