Part 1 in a series discussing the meaning of Wonder
Plato would be mad at me. So would be Alice, for that matter.
I didn’t try to define my subject (which would have upset Plato), and (against the King’s only good bit of advice to Alice) I didn’t begin at the beginning.
I’ve had the nerve to subtitle my blog, “Looking for Wonder in All Things,” and to name it after one of the most famous expressions from (you probably knew this) Alice in Wonderland. Yet at no point, in the year or so it’s been up, did I even try to explain what this Wonder thing is!
I’ve had my reasons, of course; the first being that it is a very difficult thing to do. I have a very narrow comfort zone; doing something difficult is already stepping out of it…
Secondly, Wonder and Philosophy go a long way back. Plato makes Socrates say (in Theaetetus) that “this sense of wonder is the mark of the philosopher,” no less, and that philosophy, indeed, has no other origin than wonder. After Plato, many great philosophers – and hundreds of minor ones – have written magnificent things about it. So the task is reasonably daunting. Especially since I plan to do it blog style.
What got me started, then? Well, this: I teach Philosophy. I brought my students to the library to do some hunting. Among the questions I posed was, how do you define ‘wonder’?
Easy, I thought. Just go into one of the many encyclopedias of philosophy we’ve pulled out for you and look into the index. Well, here’s what they found.
In fact, I think I should center it for emphasis. Here’s what they found:
Yep. They looked in Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 10 volumes, and the word wasn’t even in the index. They looked in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and got just a few inconsequential hits, of people, well, wondering about something, but never about wonder itself. Somehow we’ve gone from “the mark of the philosopher” to “not worth writing an article about,” and this is certainly puzzling. A screaming silence, if you will.
I’m talking, of course, of the peer-reviewed heavyweights. Wikipedia, which is awesome (another word for “wonderful”), but so far unquotable in the academic world, has a somewhat discombobulated article that amounts to, let’s see, 700 words. Fewer, probably, than any minor supervillain from Marvel (yet another word for “Wonder”). Certainly less than Wikipedia’s entry on Wonder Woman (which, come to think about it, is such a silly name for a character: it applies to about half the population on Earth!)
Yet wonder is very, very important. Not just for philosophers, but for human life.
Without wonder, it’s like the light has died inside you.
* * *
Just bring these two images to your mind: two traditional high school classrooms. In one students are slumped, their eyes glassy, their whole body language lazily screaming, “when is this class going to end?” In another, students are not just sitting upright but a bit forward, itching to speak, nearly falling from their desks in their efforts to catch the teacher’s attention so they can share what is buzzing through their minds…
The difference? Easy. Wonder. Call it curiosity or interest, if you want; that’s wonder at its lowest intensity. Bring it up all the way to mind-blowing (or sometimes mind-numbing) puzzlement, disbelief, the impossibility to reconcile what they think they know with what is being proposed, and you have something closer to what Plato meant by it.
Do you begin to see why wonder is important? Maybe you’ve been present at a class, or a meeting, where “nobody cares.” It feels like people are breathing, but not really alive. We can lose our capacity for wonder – that interior light. It is rather common, actually.
If you’ve read this far, it means you haven’t lost your capacity for wonder – at least it’s a very good sign. But maybe you are considering – wondering, yes – how to recover it, wake it up when someone has lost it. If you teach, or if giving presentations is one of your career hazards, you may be asking yourself how to wake up this wonder in your students, in your audience.
I’ll put down a few thoughts in my following posts. I can’t claim them as mine, since some of my favorite philosophers have been working on this for a very long time; but the least I can say is that they are “time-tested” – for at least twenty three hundred years or so.
In the meantime, I’d very much like to hear your thoughts on the matter!
<To be continued…>