Wisdom and Wonder in Metaphysics A: 1-2

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We must consider carefully why Aristotle's Metaphysics opens not with the question of being but with the question of knowledge.(1) "All human beings desire to know" is the first sentence and raises the issue of the first two chapters, which, along with Nicomachean Ethics book 6, constitute Aristotle's fullest treatment of the question of wisdom. Clearly, if we take seriously the order of the books of the Metaphysics as they have been transmitted to us,(2) Book A is an introduction. Yet what does it mean to be an introduction? We need not work backwards from the question of being in order to see the significance of the opening treatment of knowledge. In what follows I will argue that the question of wisdom is not simply Aristotle's "informal introduction to the investigation of being,"(3) but rather raises important questions which themselves generate a turn to an examination of being.


In his first sentence Aristotle states unequivocally that human beings desire to know, without saying what it is they desire to know. That he begins with the fact that we desire to know, without specifying the content, suggests that the content is in some sense irrelevant. If there is something to be known--even an unsubstantiated rumor or an "inside joke"--anyone would rather be in the know than out of the loop. Aristotle uses the perfect tense of the verb "to see": we desire to be in a state of knowing (eidenai). This state of knowing is what we desire and aim at, even more so than the object of knowledge or the content of what is known. In other words, it is the "knowing" (a state of mind) that we desire more than the "known" (useful content).(4) Aristotle emphasizes this by referring immediately to the pleasure that knowing gives us, as opposed to its utility. We want to know primarily for the sake of knowing, and only secondarily for some other purpose. Aristotle's emphasis on pleasure rather than utility indicates that what is sought is self-conscious knowing. Consciousness of one's own knowledge is necessary in order to take pleasure in its possession. What we desire, ultimately, is to know that we know.

The Metaphysics opens with Aristotle's investigation of this state of knowing. He seeks to know the knowing that human beings desire. Yet it is difficult to isolate this state of knowing in order to know it, since knowledge is always knowledge of something and thus knowing never exists apart from what is known. Aristotle's investigation of knowing could easily turn into an investigation of the particular things that are known. It is one thing to say that content is secondary, and quite another to bracket content in order to see "knowing" itself. This is the difficulty that leads Aristotle to focus first on knowledge in all its forms, then on the knower par excellence (the wise one), then on a particular kind of not knowing (wonder), and finally on being, which is the most wonder-provoking thing of all.

Aristotle begins by sketching a hierarchy of different modes of knowledge, beginning with sensation, which all animals have because it is necessary for mere life. At the next level, memory comes into being in some animals but not in others. Memory enables such animals to learn and the ability to learn provides the basis for experience. Experience, which now ushers in the distinctively human forms of knowledge, is defined as many memories of one thing. That is, many memories of one object or situation provide one with a general sense of what to expect from it. This general sense is what we term experience.

Art comes into being when we form one idea from several experiences. It is at the level of art that we first encounter eidenai. Aristotle's attempt to isolate eidenai leads to an apparent disconnection between the state of knowing and the content of what is known. Aristotle says that to know what benefits one sick man is a matter of experience rather than art,(5) whereas the doctor who has art "has the logos without experience and knows the universal but is ignorant of the individual included under this universal" and, Aristotle points out, "will often fail to cure. …