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

https://aeon.co/essays/why-wonder-is-the-most-human-of-all-emotions

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Why wonder is the most human of all emotions | Aeon Essays
One emotion inspired our greatest achievements in science, art and religion. We can manipulate it – but why do we have it?

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Describing wonder

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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Bodily symptoms

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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The scale of wonder

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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Wonder is crucial for science

  • 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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Science, religion, and art

  • 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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Curiosity, creativity, and inquiry

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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Getting clear on thought

Getting clear on thought

The knowledge of our thoughts can be effortless and instantaneous. Other times, our thoughts are obscure and we must work hard to gain clarity.

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Articulating our thoughts in the hard cases

To succeed in articulation, we need to chisel away at imprecise words, while guarding against words that would blur what we think.

We often discover what we think by reflecting on what we find ourselves saying. Immediately articulating our thoughts can also come out of us as buzzwords that might hardly reflect what we think at all. (eg, 'What a mess!') These words could come as a result of habit and obscure your thoughts even from yourself.

The paradox of articulation

The careful searching for words we need stands in tension with the ignorance we hope it will remedy. The clarity we want seems to consist in the knowledge that we're thinking some specific thought.

Jean-Paul Sartre touched on this paradox when he stated: "This is indeed what linguists and psychologists have perceived … they believed that they discovered a circle in the formulation of speaking, for in order to speak it is necessary to know one's thought. But how can we know this thought as a reality made explicit and fixed in concepts except precisely by speaking it?"

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Dinosaurs by different names

Dinosaurs by different names

People have always known about dinosaurs but called them by different names.

  • Old legends that put Western dragons in caves or underground may have originated with fossils.
  • ...

An attraction to dinosaurs

Children's attraction to dinosaurs suggests that the giant creatures appeal to something innate in the human psyche.

A simple explanation is that images of dinosaurs convey the excitement of danger while posing no real threat. From a child's point of view, dinosaurs are very old and very big, just like grown-ups.

Inspiring fantasy

By inspiring fantasy in children, dinosaurs can reduce a child's feeling of helplessness. Unlike the power of adults of assertive peers, dinosaur power is under a child's thumb.

Dinosaurs appeal to a Victorian sort of "childhood wonder," emerging spontaneously in children, with little adult encouragement.

Museum

Museum

A museum is a place and an institution that collects, maintains and interprets valuable articles of human history and nature and makes them available for viewing to the general public.

The meaning of "museum"

  • The word "museum" comes from Ancient Greek "mouseion" which meant "seat of Muses." It was used as a place for contemplation.
  • In Rome, "museum" was a place used for philosophical discussions.
  • In the 15th century, the word "museum" was used to describe the collection of Lorenzo de Medici in Florence.
  • Only in the 17th century was "museum" used to describe collections of curiosities.
  • In 1677, the collection of John Tradescant was moved to the University of Oxford and made available for public viewing. It marks the moment when “museum” starts being an institution and not just collection of items.

Alternative forms of museums

Over time, museums expanded to accommodate different types of artefacts.

There are now open-air museums that have preserved buildings as objects, ecomuseums, virtual museums, history museums, maritime, military and war museums, and many more.