Why wonder is the most human of all emotions | Aeon Essays - Deepstash
Why wonder is the most human of all emotions | Aeon Essays

Why wonder is the most human of all emotions | Aeon Essays


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Why wonder is the most human of all emotions | Aeon Essays

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Wonder is said to be a childish emotion. However, as adults, we experience it when gaping at something unexpectedly spectacular.

Adam Smith, an 18th-century moral philosopher, describes wonder as something new and singular that is presented, and memory cannot find any image that nearly resembles this unique appearance.


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The bodily symptoms of this strange appearance point to three dimensions:

  • Sensory: The marvelous things take hold of our senses - we stare and widen our eyes.
  • Cognitive: We are perplexed because we don't have a past experience to understand them. It leads to a suspension of breath, similar to when we are startled.
  • Spiritual: We look upwards in veneration, which makes our heart swell.


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At the mild end of this emotion, we talk about things being marvelous. More intense emotions might be described as astonishing. The extreme of this experiences is met with expressions of awe.


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  • French philosopher René Descartes described wonder as the emotion that motivates scientists to investigates phenomena.
  • Socrates said that philosophy begins with wonder - wonder leads us to try to understand our world.
  • Richard Dawkins portrayed wonder as the core from which scientific inquiry emerges.


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  • In a way, science shares much with religion: Both are used to explain life's unknown. Similarly, they have the ability to make us feel insignificant and elevated. Awe, an intense form of wonder, makes people feel smaller than they are.
  • Art primarily appeared in a religious context, but when it parted company from religion, it started to crop up in private collections. These collections began to mix with animal specimens, exotic weapons, and decorative books. Art became associated with science.
  • The link continued into the 19th century. The British Museum included everything from animal bones to Italian paintings.
  • By the end of the century, science and art had parted company. Major cities started to open dedicated art museums, where people could view paintings. These days, we don't think of museums as places of curiosity, but they remain places of wonder.


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Science, religion, and art are unified in wonder. Each engages our sense, draws out curiosity, and instills reverence.

They are all uniquely human institutions and reflect the cultural maturation of our species. They are inventions for feeding the appetite that wonder excites in us, generating creativity and enduring inquiry.


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