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A Study of Wonder

The psychology and philosophy of wonder. Why wonder is the beginning of wisdom.

Alhambra ceiling
Source: Pixabay/Sarah_Loetscher

In Plato’s Theætetus, Socrates presents the young Theætetus with a number of difficult 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 surmises that it must have been wonder that led the first philosophers to philosophy, since puzzled people think of themselves as ignorant and turn to philosophy to escape from their ignorance. Aquinas concurred, adding in his commentary on the Metaphysics 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.’

The Psychology of Wonder

If the likes of Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas are correct in attributing philosophy—and, by extension, science, religion, art, and all else that transcends the mundane—to wonder, then it behoves us to ask, what exactly is wonder?

Wonder is a complex emotion involving elements of surprise, curiosity, contemplation, and joy. It can be thought of as a heightened state of consciousness and emotion brought about by something unusually beautiful, rare, or unexpected—that is, by a marvel.

‘Marvel’ derives from the Latin mirus [wonder] via mirabilia [‘wonderful things’]. ‘Admire’ shares the same root and originally meant ‘to wonder at’, although, since the sixteenth century, this sense has been steadily eroded—along, some might say, with wonder itself.

Aquinas spoke of philosophers and poets in the same breath because both are moved by marvels, with the purpose of poetry being, broadly, to record and in some sense recreate marvels, to inspire wonder.

Wonder is most similar to awe. Compared to wonder, awe is more explicitly directed at something that is much greater or stronger than ourselves. As such, it is more closely associated with fear, reverence, or veneration than with joy. Without this element of respect and reverence, all that remains of awe is fear, that is, no longer awe but terror or horror. Awe is also less detached than wonder, which allows for much greater and freer contemplation of its object.

Wonder can be excited by grand vistas, natural phenomena, human intellectual and physical feats, and extraordinary facts and figures, among others. It is expressed by a bright-eyed stare, sometimes accompanied by an opening of the mouth and suspension of the breath. By drawing us out of ourselves, wonder reconnects us with something much greater than our routine. It is the ultimate homecoming, returning us to the world that we came from and were in danger of losing to ourselves.

Socratic Wonder

But notice how this kind of wonder is not the same as the more abstract wonder that moved Theætetus to philosophy. The wonder of the philosopher, also called Socratic wonder, is not so much wonder in the sense of awe as wonder in the sense of puzzlement or perplexity. Rather than grand vistas and the like, Socratic wonder arises from contradictions in thought and language, and impels us to investigate these contradictions in the hope of resolving them.

T: Yes, Socrates, and I am amazed when I think of [these questions and contradictions]; 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 first came to philosophy, or his revolutionary method of doing philosophy, after being bewildered by the Delphic oracle, which, in spite of his professions of ignorance, pronounced him the wisest of all men. To get to the bottom of this seeming contradiction, Socrates questioned several supposedly wise men—first the politicians, then the poets, and then the artisans—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 in the sense approaching awe is a universal experience found also in little children (picture a child at the circus or zoo) and even in higher-order primates and some other animals. Socratic wonder, in contrast, is much more rarefied, and, as Socrates implies by calling it ‘the feeling of a philosopher’, not given to all and sundry.

In his Advancement of Learning (1605), Francis Bacon called this kind of Socratic wonder ‘broken knowledge’, and there is a sense in which wonder, which may be cognate to the German Wunde [wound], breaches us and draws us out of ourselves. This breach yearns to be filled, not only by philosophy but also by science, religion, and art, giving rise to a third and even more exalted kind of wonder, which is the wonder of insight and creation.

Like Plato and others, the philosopher AN Whitehead (d. 1947) noted that ‘philosophy begins in wonder’, adding that, ‘at the end, when the philosophic thought has done its best, the wonder remains.’ But more than remain, the wonder grows. Scientific breakthroughs such as Kepler’s laws of planetary motion and the periodic table of the elements are often more wondrous than the perplexities that they had been intended to solve. Wonder begets culture, which begets 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 distract or derail them. After all, wonder is wounding, and thauma is only one letter removed from ‘trauma’. To wonder is also to wander, to stray from society and its norms and constructs, to be alone, to be free—which is, of course, deeply subversive and why even organized religions need to tread a fine line with wonder.

To rationalize the fear of it, wonder is dismissed as a childish emotion that is to be grown out of rather than encouraged or nurtured. So much is true, that children brim with wonder, before it is leached out of them by need and neurosis.

Today, most young people who go to university do so not for the sake of marvelling or even learning, but of obtaining a piece of paper by which to advance their suicidal careers—entirely bypassing the wonder and wisdom that might have saved them from needing a career in the first place.

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.

Read more in Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions.

More from Neel Burton M.A., M.D.
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