The notion that philosophy begins in wonder is as old as Socrates. In his dialogue "Theaetetus," Plato quotes him as saying that "the sense of wonder is the mark of the philosopher" and that in fact, philosophy has "no other origin" but wonder. More than 2,000 years later, Immanuel Kant wrote that "only two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing wonder." These were "the starry heaven above me and the moral law within me." Of course, neither Socrates nor Kant remained content simply to bask in their wonderment. Awe acted as an irritant to their minds. It prompted questions, often of the most searching sort.
The history of Western philosophy can be seen as a record of this baffled interrogation of reality, in which each attempt at an answer serves chiefly to provoke yet further questions. In his "Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing? 23 Questions From Great Philosophers" (Basic Books, 234 pages, $20), the distinguished philosopher and historian of philosophy Leszek Kolakowski uses such questions — each one fundamental and each one associated with a specific philosopher — to provide a concise and witty guide to this riddling discipline. Mr. Kolakowski warns that his little book is not intended as "philosophy in a pill" and indeed, though he is unfailingly lucid, he never oversimplifies. Such is his skill, however, that his discussions — translated into clear and elegant English from the Polish original by Agnieszka Kolakowska — make surprisingly gripping reading. Since he opens each chapter with a question and then concludes with questions of his own (some of them quite barbed), the book possesses the tension of dialectic; no thinker, however venerable, goes unchallenged. As a result, even the driest ideas — Plato's ghostly Theory of Forms or William of Ockham's radical nominalism — suddenly spring into life like actors in some floodlit theater of the mind.
Mr. Kolakowski begins with Socrates in fifth-century Athens and ends with the German phenomenologist Edmund Husserl (1859–1938) in pre-war Freiburg. The specific questions he associates with each philosopher range from "Why do we do evil?" for Socrates to "What is real?" for Parmenides to "Could God not exist?" for St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033–1109) and even "Should we commit suicide?" for Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860). They are, in other words, real questions, of vital importance to us all. Of course, no single question, however astute, can illumine the entire complex thought of Plato or Descartes or Leibniz. Even so, by using his chosen questions like wedges, Mr. Kolakowski succeeds in splitting open even the knottiest systems.
Thus, in outlining Nietzsche's doctrine of "the will to power," he remarks, "Nietzsche tells us to exercise the will to power and create the meaning of life for ourselves, regardless of traditional moral laws and inherited ideas of good and evil," and he then asks, "How, on this view, does a great artist differ in his greatness from a great criminal? Are we to admire both equally, since both created the meaning they wanted in their lives?" Sometimes, refreshingly, he throws up his hands. Regarding Schopenhauer's rejection of suicide — not because it's wrong but because it's pointless — he exclaims, "Who can make sense out of these arguments? They defy understanding."
In a wonderful presentation of the "creative evolution" of Henri Bergson (1859–1941) — including his prescient attacks on intelligent design — Mr. Kolakowski praises the great French philosopher particularly for his notion of intuition. For Bergson, he notes, intuition "unites with the thing in itself and grasps it from the inside, in its uniqueness." Bergson believed that "what is real is always unique in the world."
I don't know whether Mr. Kolakowski is himself a Bergsonian; his discussions are admirably nonpartisan. True, he does poke a little fun at Nietzsche for his "spectacular self-assurance" and notes mischievously that Kierkegaard wrote in a deliberately muddled way just to vex "that most repulsive, for him, of all figures — the university professor." But he still applies Bergsonian intuition to their thought: Each of his philosophers is seen as unique and he grasps their thought, however outlandish he may find it, "from the inside."
Mr. Kolakowski is also good at showing how his 23 thinkers, and their obsessive questions, overlap and echo one another. Questions posed by St. Augustine in the fourth century about divine predestination resound later in Pascal's impassioned arguments. William of Ockham (c. 1285–1347) — he of the celebrated Ockham's razor — taught that abstract categories, such as humanity or goodness, had no independent existence; this nominalism resurfaces, in new guise, in Bergson's insistence on the uniqueness of individual beings. In Mr. Kolakowski's account, only Spinoza stands apart; as he remarks, "In the whole history of philosophy, there is no figure as lonely as Spinoza."
The questions of philosophy may be ancient but they remain astonishingly fresh. But this isn't because the questions are unanswerable. As Mr. Kolakowski shows, the answers outnumber the questions, and sometimes swamp them. They persist and continue to possess us because they arise out of wonder, and that too remains inexhaustible.