A Study of Wonder

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

Posted Dec 02, 2014

Wikicommons
Ceiling of the Blue Mosque, Istanbul
Source: Wikicommons

[Article revised on 1 May 2020.]

In Plato’s Theaetetus, Socrates presents the young Theaetetus 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 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 from his ignorance. In his commentary on the Metaphysics, Aquinas seems 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 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 becomes important to ask, what exactly is wonder?

Wonder is a complex emotion involving elements of surprise, curiosity, contemplation, and joy. It is perhaps best defined as a heightened state of consciousness and emotion brought about by something singularly 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 this sense has been steadily eroded since the sixteenth century—along, some might say, with wonder itself.

Aquinas speaks of philosophers and poets as one 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. But awe is more explicitly directed at something that is much greater or stronger than ourselves. Compared to wonder, awe 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 greater and freer contemplation of its object.

Other near-synonyms of wonder include 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 important elements of surprise and curiosity, both of which are forms of interest. Surprise is an immediate and short-lived 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 spans the divide between expectation and reality, directing our attention to something unexpected and prompting us to re-examine and revise our notions and beliefs.

‘Surprise’ literally means ‘overtaken’ [Old French, sur + prendre]. In the Tusculan Disputations, Cicero argued that true sapience is to prepare oneself for every eventuality so as never to be surprised, or overtaken, by anything. Cicero cites the example of the pre-Socratic philosopher Anaxagoras, who, upon being told of the death of his son, said, ‘I knew that I begot a mortal’ [Sciebam me genuisse mortalem].

Curiosity derives from the Latin cura, ‘care’. To be curious about something is to desire knowledge of that thing. Knowledge extinguishes curiosity, but not wonder. Like Plato and Aristotle, the philosopher AN Whitehead noted that ‘philosophy begins in wonder’, but then added that, ‘at the end, when philosophic thought has done its best, the wonder remains.’

And so, although wonder involves significant elements of surprise and curiosity, it is other and greater than either.

Wonder can be excited by grand vistas, natural phenomena, human intellectual and physical achievement, 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 daily grind. It is the ultimate homecoming, returning us to the world that we came from and were in danger of taking for granted.

But notice that this kind of wonder is not the same as the more engaged, pregnant wonder that moved Theaetetus 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 and perplexity. Rather than grand vistas and the like, Socratic wonder arises from contradictions in thought and language, and invites us to examine 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 turned to philosophy after being bewildered by the Delphic oracle, which, despite his professions of ignorance, pronounced him the wisest of all people. To discover the meaning of this apparent contradiction, he questioned a number of people with a claim to wisdom 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.’

Wonder in the sense approaching awe is a universal experience found also in children (picture a child at the circus) and perhaps 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 everyone.

In his Advancement of Learning, Francis Bacon called wonder ‘broken knowledge’, and there is certainly a sense in which wonder, which may be cognate to the German Wunde [wound], breaches or exposes us. This breach requires filling or repairing, 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.

Culture does not sate but nourishes wonder. Scientific theories and discoveries such as the Big Bang theory and the periodic table of the elements are often more wondrous than the perplexities that they had been intended to solve. Religious buildings and rituals make us feel small and insignificant while at the same time elevating and inspiring us. Wonder begets culture, which begets yet more wonder, and the end of wonder is wisdom, which is the state of perpetual wonder.

Sadly, many people do not open themselves to wonder for fear that it may distract them or upset their equilibrium. 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 and self-indulgent 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 for the sake, not of marvelling or even learning, but of gaining a piece of paper with which to advance their career prospects—entirely bypassing the wonder and wisdom that might have rescued 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.

Neel Burton is author of Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions and other books.