Wonder

Both Plato and Aristotle famously said that philosophy begins in wonder [1]. Rather than being a pursuit that we are driven to undertake by reason or logical inquiry, the origin of philosophy is in this feeling of wonder in the face of what is. A kind of awe or amazement at the world in which we find ourselves. Descartes considered wonder the first of the passions, because it is the passion that has no opposite [2]. While love is opposed to hate, joy opposed to sadness, wonder has no opposite. It is the original feeling that corresponds to our relation with the world, and that drives the pursuit to understand the world and our relation to it that we call philosophy. 

In English, we not only have the noun ‘wonder,’ but also the verb ‘to wonder.’ I use the word ‘wonder’ in such everday contexts as “I wonder if it will be sunny today.” In French, the verb translated as ‘to wonder’ is se demander, or to ask oneself. In French, for me to wonder if it will be sunny today would be for me to ask myself if it will be sunny today. I like that the English version forecloses this reflexivity, this circular self-relation. I like that ‘to wonder,’ unlike to ask myself, leaves us open to the world, gestures outward, recognizes the way that I am always open to and affected by the world around me even as I wonder at it. 

I’ve been teaching feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray in class this week. She talks a lot about wonder. She emphasizes that wonder is both passive and active, and that it leaves open a place for otherness. It doesn’t try and make everything reducible, comprehensible, digestible to myself. And she says this about it:

“Wonder is the appetite for knowledge of who or what awakens our appetite.” [3]

We also, in English, have the adjective ‘wonderful.’ When I say, “That’s wonderful!” what I literally mean is That fills me with wonder. Wonder is something that, if I really allow it to fill me, leaves me open to a constant, ecstatic appreciation of the miraculous nature of everyday life.

I wonder if wondering more about wonder will make life more wonderful.

I have a feeling that it will.

[1] Plato in the Theaetetus, Aristotle in the Metaphysics.

[2] René Descartes, The Passions of the Soul.

[3] Luce Irigaray, An Ethics of Sexual Difference.

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