The Psychology and Philosophy of Wonder

 …wonder is the feeling of a philosopher, and philosophy beings in wonder. —Plato

Ceiling of the Blue Mosque, Istanbul

Ceiling of the Blue Mosque, Istanbul

In Plato’s Theaetetus, Socrates presents the young Theatetus with a number of contradictions. This is the exchange that ensues.

S: I believe that you follow me, Theaetetus; for I suspect that you have thought of these questions before now.

T: Yes, Socrates, and I am amazed when I think of them; by the Gods I am! and I want to know what on earth they mean; and there are times when my head quite swims with the contemplation of them.

S: I see, my dear Theaetetus, that Theodorus had a true insight into your nature when he said that you were a philosopher, for wonder is the feeling of a philosopher, and philosophy begins in wonder. He was not a bad genealogist who said that Iris (the messenger of heaven) is the child of Thaumas (Wonder)…

In the Metaphysics, Aristotle says that it is wonder that led the first philosophers to philosophy, since a man who is puzzled thinks of himself as ignorant and philosophizes to escape ignorance and accede to knowledge.

In his commentary on the Metaphysics, St Thomas Aquinas appears to agree, adding that, ‘Because philosophy arises from awe, a philosopher is bound in his way to be a lover of myths and poetic fables. Poets and philosophers are alike in being big with wonder.’

If wonder truly is the impulse for philosophy and, by extension, science, religion, art, and all else that transcends everyday existence, it becomes important to ask the question, what exactly is wonder?

Wonder is a complex emotion involving elements of surprise, curiosity, contemplation, and joy, and is perhaps best defined as a heightened state of consciousness and feeling brought about by something very beautiful, rare, or unexpected—that is, brought about by a marvel.

‘Marvel’ derives from the Latin mirabilia (‘wonderful things’) and ultimately from the Latin mirus (‘wonderful’). ‘Admire’ shares the same root as ‘marvel’ and originally meant ‘to wonder at’, although this sense has been steadily attenuated since the 16th century—along, one might say, with wonder itself. If Aquinas speaks of philosophers and poets in the same breath, this is because both are moved by marvels, with the aim of poetry being to record and recreate marvels.

Wonder is most similar to awe. However, awe is more explicitly directed at something that is much greater or much more powerful than us; and it is more closely associated with fear, respect, reverence, or veneration than with joy. Without this element of respect, reverence, or veneration, all that remains is fear, that is, not awe but terror or horror.

Another important difference between wonder and awe is that wonder is more detached, allowing for greater and freer contemplation of its object.

Wonder has a number of other near-synonyms, including astonishment, amazement, and astoundment. In essence, to astonish means to fill with sudden and overpowering surprise or wonder, to amaze means to astonish greatly, and to astound means to amaze greatly. This overbidding ends with dumbfounding, which means—you guessed it—to astound greatly.

Wonder involves significant elements of surprise and curiosity, which both are forms of interest.

Surprise is a brief and spontaneous reaction to something unexpected, immediately followed by at least some degree of confusion and one or more emotions such as joy, fear, disappointment, or anger. Surprise is the gap between expectations and reality, and serves to our attention to a possible threat and incite us to examine and revise our expectations.

The meaning of ‘surprise’ is ‘overtaken’. In the Tusculan Disputations, Cicero argues that real sapience consists of preparing oneself for every eventuality so as not to be surprised by anything. He cites the example of the pre-Socratic philosopher Anaxagoras, who, upon being told of the death of his son, said, Sciebam me genuisse mortalem: “I knew that I begot a mortal.”

Curiosity derives from the Latin cura, ‘care.’ To be curious about something is to desire knowledge of that thing. With the knowledge satisfied, the curiosity is extinguished. Wonder, in contrast, cannot be extinguished by knowledge. In Modes of Thought (1938), the philosopher AN Whitehead concurs with Plato and Aristotle that ‘philosophy begins in wonder’, and adds that, ‘at the end, when philosophic thought has done its best, the wonder remains.’

So while wonder involves significant elements of surprise and curiosity, it is both other and greater than either.

Wonder is incited by grand vistas, natural phenomena, human achievement, extraordinary facts, and so on, whether on travels, at the circus or theatre, or in a film, museum, or book, and is evidenced by a bright-eyed stare sometimes accompanied by an opening of the mouth and a suspension of the breath.

By drawing us out of ourselves, wonder does make us feel small and insignificant, but it also gives us right perspective by reconnecting us with something much greater and vaster and higher and better than our daily struggles. Wonder is the ultimate homecoming, returning us to the world that we came from and were in danger of losing.

This account of wonder, however convincing, does not seem to correspond with the more active, pregnant kind of wonder that inspired Theaetetus to philosophy. Socratic wonder is not so much wonder in the sense of awe, but, as hinted by Aristotle, wonder in the sense of puzzlement or perplexity: wonder that arises from contradictions in thought and language, and gives rise to a desire to resolve or at least understand these contradictions.

T: Yes, Socrates, and I am amazed when I think of them; by the Gods I am! and I want to know what on earth they mean; and there are times when my head quite swims with the contemplation of them.

Socrates himself only turned to philosophy after being puzzled by the Delphic Oracle, which, though he believed himself to be ignorant, pronounced him to be the wisest of all men. To discover the meaning of this contradiction, he questioned a number of so-called wise men and in each case concluded, “I am likely to be wiser than he to this small extent, that I do not think I know what I do not know.”

Wonder is a universal experience, found also in children and perhaps even in higher-order primates and other animals. Socratic wonder on the other hand is much more rarified, and, as Socrates implies, not given to everyone. Yet both kinds of wonder share a concern for what is in some sense beyond us, or beyond our grasp.

In the Advancement of Learning, Francis Bacon called wonder ‘broken knowledge’, and there is certainly a sense in which wonder breaches us (‘wonder’ may be cognate to the German Wunde or ‘wound’). This breach requires filling, whether passively or actively, not only with philosophy but also with science, religion, and art, giving rise to a third and even higher form of wonder, which is the wonder of discovery, knowledge, and creation.

Culture does not sate wonder but instead nourishes it. For instance, scientific discoveries are often more wondrous than the perplexities that they resolve, while religious buildings and rituals are designed to make us feel small while at the same elevating us. Through culture, wonder inspires yet more wonder, and the end of wonder is wisdom, which is the state of perpetual wonder.

Unfortunately, many people do not open themselves up to wonder for fear that it may move them to ponder or linger, overwhelming their resources or upsetting the fragile status quo. After all, to wonder is to wound, and thauma is only one letter off ‘trauma’.

Instead of being encouraged or cultivated, wonder is dismissed as a childish emotion that is to be grown out of. It is true that wonder is natural and abundant in children, before it is banged out of them by need and neurosis.

Whenever we do something not for its own sake but for the sake of something else, we stifle wonder. Today, most students go to university not for the sake of learning but for the sake of coming out with a competitive degree, and so pass by the wonder and wisdom that could have saved them.

According to Matthew, Jesus said, “Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.”

Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven … whosoever shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.


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