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Harvesting the Fruits of Wonder
Post #1666 • March 25, 2014, 1:06 PM • 1 Comment
Philosopher Jesse Prinz wonders how wonder works.
First, let’s be clear what we’re talking about. My favourite definition of wonder comes from the 18th-century Scottish moral philosopher Adam Smith, better known for first articulating the tenets of capitalism. He wrote that wonder arises ‘when something quite new and singular is presented… [and] memory cannot, from all its stores, cast up any image that nearly resembles this strange appearance’. Smith associated this quality of experience with a distinctive bodily feeling — ‘that staring, and sometimes that rolling of the eyes, that suspension of the breath, and that swelling of the heart’.
These bodily symptoms point to three dimensions that might in fact be essential components of wonder. The first is sensory: wondrous things engage our senses — we stare and widen our eyes. The second is cognitive: such things are perplexing because we cannot rely on past experience to comprehend them. This leads to a suspension of breath, akin to the freezing response that kicks in when we are startled: we gasp and say ‘Wow!’ Finally, wonder has a dimension that can be described as spiritual: we look upwards in veneration; hence Smith’s invocation of the swelling heart.
March 27, 2014, 7:03 PM
Plato first identified wonder as the root motive of the philosopher in Theaetetus. Aristotle repeated the observation in his Metaphysics. Then Thomas Aquinas expanded on it in his Summa Contra Gentiles, saying "even the most imperfect knowledge about the most noble realities brings the greatest perfection to the soul."
Aquinas's remark strikes me as especially germane to getting art. Aesthetics is direct knowledge of the beautiful. We can know what that knowledge does for us, but not for anyone else. Hence all the arguments and the commonplace that there is no explaining taste. But the experience is a good part of what makes life worthwhile.