Wonder (emotion)

Wonder (emotion)

Wonder is an emotion comparable to surprise in that it is most commonly felt when perceiving something rare or unexpected. Unlike surprise however, it is more definitely positive in valence and can endure for longer periods. It has also been specifically linked with curiosity and the drive for scientific investigation. [http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog/FISWON.html Harvard University Press: Wonder, the Rainbow, and the Aesthetics of Rare Experiences by Philip Fisher ] ]

Descartes described wonder as one of the primary emotions because he claimed that emotions in general are reactions to unexpected phenomena.

Wonder [L’Admiration] When the first encounter with some object surprises us, and we judge it to be new, or very different from what we knew in the past or what we supposed it was going to be, this makes us wonder and be astonished at it. And since this can happen before we know in the least whether this object is suitable to us or not, it seems to me that Wonder is the first of all the passions. It has no opposite, because if the object presented has nothing in it that surprises us, we are not in the least moved by it and regard it without passion. (Descartes "The Passions of The Soul" Article 53.)

The above sentiment is reflected in earlier authors like Thomas Hobbes using words such as Curiosity, Joy and Admiration. See "Elements of Law" I (Human Nature) IX, paragraph 18.

Forasmuch as all knowledge beginneth from experience, therefore also new experience is the beginning of new knowledge, and the increase of experience the beginning of the increase of knowledge; whatsoever therefore happeneth new to a man, giveth him hope and matter of knowing somewhat that he knew not before. And this hope and expectation of future knowledge from anything that happeneth new and strange, is that passion which we commonly call ADMIRATION; and the same considered as appetite, is called CURIOSITY, which is appetite of knowledge.

In "De Homine" XII, we see Hobbes going into more detail about the related “joy” of “admiration” (and making the difference with animals somewhat finer).

Moreover, this passion is almost peculiar to men. For even if other animals, whenever they behold something new or unusual, admire it as far as they behold something new or unusual, admire it as far as they are able to judge whether it be harmful or harmless to them; men, when they see something new, seek to know whence it came and to what use they can put it.

Adam Smith in "The History of Astronomy" dwells on wonder not to explain the difference between human an animal thinking, but rather to explain why we study natural science. An uncivilised person, or child, is still clearly different from animals because “it beats the stone that hurts it”. In other words, the child is concerned with finding an account of cause and effect, but it is limited in its ability to do so.

But when law has established order and security, and subsistence ceases to be precarious, the curiosity of mankind is increased, and their fears are diminished. [...] Wonder, therefore, and not any expectation of advantage from its discoveries, is the first principle which prompts mankind to the study of Philosophy, of that science which pretends to lay open the concealed connections that unite the various appearance of nature; and they pursue this study for its own sake, as an original pleasure or good in itself, without regarding its tendency to procure them the means of many other pleasures. (Section III).

Melvin Konner in "The Tangled Wing" reviews the biologist’s view of this pain and pleasure of learning:

If the problem is too unfamiliar, it will evoke attention; if it is difficult but doable, it will evoke interest, attention, and arousal and, when solved, it will evoke pleasure, often signalled by a smile. (p.242)

He agrees that “wonder” is “the hallmark of our species and the central feature of the human spirit”.

Concerning the special importance of wonder ("thaumazein") to philosophy see Plato "Theaetetus" 155D and "Metaphysics" I.ii.982b11-24. For Aristotle see "Poetics" IV: “understanding [manthanein] gives great pleasure not only to philosophers but likewise to others too, though the latter have a smaller share in it”. Indeed, he says, people like looking at images because of the pleasure of contemplating ["theôrizein"] what something is through "manthanein" and "syllogizesthai" (syllogism: a bringing together of "logoi" or accounts). We even “enjoy contemplating the most precise images of things whose sight is painful to us”.

Wonder is also compared to the emotion of awehttp://faculty.virginia.edu/haidtlab/articles/keltner.approaching-awe.pdf] but awe implies fear or respect rather than joy. While wonder is said to be the emotion leading to science. Awe is associated with revealed religion.


Philip Fisher, "Wonder, The Rainbow, and the Aesthetics of Rare Experiences" (London: Havard University Press, 1999)

Keltner, D., & Haidt, J . (2003). Approaching awe, a moral, spiritual, and aesthetic emotion. Cognition and Emotion, 17, 297-314.

Haidt, J. & Keltner, D . (2004). Appreciation of beauty and excellence. In C. Peterson and M. E. P. Seligman (Eds.) "Character strengths and virtues". Washington DC: American Psychological Association Press. pp. 537-551.

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