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A Brief History of Awe

The complexity of awe is revealed in how it has been conceptualized across time.

The emotion of awe long has been thought to be important to human experience, a speculation that increasingly has been supported by empirical research. However, awe also is an extraordinarily complex phenomenon. This is reflected in how substantially the conceptualization of awe has changed over time.

The verb “to awe” stems from the 13th century Old Norse word “agi,” which literally translates as “fright” or “terror.” This initial understanding of awe came from an almost exclusively religious perspective that historically has been dominant. Trying to understand the meaning of a key passage in the Bible’s first testament that usually references “the fear of the Lord,” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heshel alternatively translated Psalm 111:10 as saying that “The awe of God is the beginning of wisdom.” Another example of a religious understanding of awe is found in the theological classic, “The Idea of the Holy,” in which Rudolf Otto develops the idea of the “mysterium tremendum.” According to Otto, this experience consists of two intertwined components. One aspect is a sensation of trembling, which comes from a perception of being in the presence of something uncanny, overpowering, and vibrantly alive. Second, there is mystery, which typically leads a person to fascination, a general term used by Otto to refer more specifically to feelings of being astonished, thunderstruck, transfixed, or dumbfounded.

A significantly different perspective on awe started to develop in 1757 when Edmund Burke wrote “A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful.” In addition to religious sources, Burke noted that awe also can be evoked when hearing thunder, viewing art, and listening to a symphony. This led people to begin thinking of awe in broader, more positive, terms.

Also relevant to this discussion is a distinction that occurred between the terms “awful” and “awesome.” To some, “awful” refers to a reaction in which one encounters a negative awe event or where a potentially awe-inspiring experience cannot be embraced for some reason. In contrast, the word “awesome” originally referred to an experience where one has a positive awe encounter. As Jonathan Haidt writes in “The Happiness Hypothesis,” however, the meaning of “awesome” also has changed relatively recently. Young people, for instance, now use the word “awesome” to convey something akin to “double-plus good.” Perhaps this is why Neil Pasricha, author of the popular blog, “1000 Awesome Things,” can refer to experiences such as “kindergarten class photos,” “the three paycheck month,” and “putting a slice of lasagna on your plate and having it all stay together” as “awesome.” Rabbi Heschel may have been on to something when he remarked that “the awareness of grandeur and the sublime is all but gone from the modern mind.”

C. S. Lewis once advised that individuals should not “use words too big for the subject. Don’t say ‘infinitely’ when you mean ‘very;’ otherwise, you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.” The same might be said for the words “awe” and “awesome.” Perhaps we would do well to reserve these words for experiences that truly are “awesome.” As psychological scientists continue to explore this elusive emotion, we would do well to remember some of these conceptual complexities. It very well may be the case that awe has more sources, causes, and effects that are being considered at present.

Andy Tix, Ph.D., often writes about experiences of mystery and awe at a new blog devoted exclusively to these topics: Reflections on Mystery and Awe. His primary specialization is in the psychology of religion and spirituality.

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