Wonder as flicker and as mood

Consider two common ways we talk about wondering. On the one hand, there’s wondering whether, when, what, who, why, or how. In such wondering, we confront the world as a question: the unknown strikes us, and we linger before it, as if approaching what remains undisclosed. On the other hand, there’s wondering at: the experience of standing in astonishment.

Wondering of the first kind can inspire inquiry. In fact, this is often thought to be the key to its value: that it prompts us to seek after knowledge. Socrates’s famous declaration in Plato’s Theaetetus that philosophy begins in wonder is often understood in this way. Hence, the clichéd invocation thereof to wax romantic about intellectual aspiration of various kinds. If we embrace this picture, when such wondering doesn’t lead to inquiry, it will seem idle, or even feeble, spineless, or lacking resolve. And, when it succeeds in inspiring some inquiry that nevertheless fails, it will strike us as little more than a source of frustration.

Wondering of the second kind likewise has certain common consequences. In particular, it can be the prelude to all sorts of awfulness. We wonder for a moment at the oncoming car, but snap out of our stupor to jump out of the way in abject fear. Or, we wonder at the spectacle of the delusional homeless person ranting and raving on the subway, only to go on to laugh mockingly or wince with disgust. Such reactions are due to the fact that the things that astonish us are precisely those for which we feel unprepared, and before which we therefore—at least for a moment—feel helpless. And, the discomfort of such an experience, more often than not, leads to terror or prideful contempt.

Both kinds of wondering, though, ought to be distinguished from these various reactions they sometimes yield. And this is because the failure to do so can obscure the significance of a kind of wonder that we can inhabit, and which combines these two kinds of things we can do.

The sort of wonder I have in mind is a kind of ignorant wow. However, this way of putting it might be a bit misleading. It might suggest a reaction we can have to some particular things at particular times, whereas what I have in mind is something more like a mood.

Heidegger’s metaphor for moods in Being and Time is quite apt here: a mood is a way of being attuned. Consider his own way of introducing the notion by way of contrast to emotions of other sorts. Generally speaking, an emotion is an attitude toward something. We’re happy about this or that, are envious of some particular person, take pride in something that’s been accomplished or done. Further, part of having the attitude is that the thing towards which we have it shows up to us as having some particular character. More precisely, it seems to us to matter in some way—to have a certain import or significance. Heidegger’s own initial example is of fear: part of fearing something is its showing up to us as threatening.

In contrast to the above examples, moods aren’t attitudes we have toward this or that particular thing, person, event, or situation. Heidegger’s principal example of a mood in Being and Time is anxiety. Of course, we can be anxious about this or that, but what Heidegger has in mind is something more general: something more like nameless fear. As with other emotions, anxiety characterizes its object in a distinctive way. However, this object is the world as a whole. Anxiety, as he thinks of it, is a mode of experience in which the world seems overwhelming, in which it seems to be hiding itself behind a facade around which there’s no way at all to peer. In this way, just as the tuning of an instrument in the orchestra concerns its relation to all the other instruments, so our being in anxiety (or any other mood) is a way we’re oriented to everything around us. It’s a manner in which we’re ‘tuned into’ the world: things show up to us as mattering in particular ways, such that we see it under a single, global aspect.

What I’m calling wonder is a mood in something like Heidegger’s sense. In fact, it has something in common with anxiety as I’ve just characterized it. The key point of connection lies in the fact that in wonder, the world shows up as something beyond both our ken and control. In the former respect, it’s like wondering in the first sense; and in the latter, like wondering in the second. However, wonder lacks the negative connotations that the term “anxiety” carries with it. In wonder, the world as unknown and untamed doesn’t show up as overwhelming, but rather as imbued with expansive openness.

Such an experience can, of course, have the consequences I mentioned above. As with wondering in the first sense, it can prompt us toward inquiry, and thus lead us to knowledge or frustration. And, as with wondering in the second sense, it can move us to fear or flights of hubris. However, it can also elevate us: that is, through inspiring, not attempts to overcome our finite condition, but rather, in stark contrast, a kind of joy therein. The spectacle of a world that exceeds us in inescapable ways can, in other words, strike us as its majesty, its grandeur.

Wonder in this sense has something in common with the kinds of experiences we can have looking up at the night sky, at storm-tossed seas, and the like: the mysteriousness and sheer power of something filling us with awe. Such feelings of wonder, though, tend to be rare, short-lived, and localized to something that seems remote: a feeling we experience in fleeting moments. The voice of a Carl Sagan or Neil DeGrasse Tyson speaks to us from the nature documentary, and for a moment we feel a swelling in our breast. But the commercial break comes, the humdrum business of life comes back into focus, and the feeling flits away as quickly as it came.

What would it be like, though, for wonder in this sense to be the dominating mood of one’s living—something that imbues our every moment, and every encounter with anything? To imagine this is, I think, to imagine what Spinoza has in mind when he talks about the intellectual love of God.

I can’t claim to have successfully imagined it, let alone having come close to achieving it. At the moment, though, I feel as if is Charles Ives’s composition The Unanswered Question provides an apt image for it.

For many years, this has been one of my absolute favorite pieces of music. In its foreground, a single horn repeats its question, and a raucous woodwind quartet flails as it endeavors to answer. Just as is the case with our attempts to understand and master a world that refuses our efforts at so many turns, the tension of their futile dialogue could easily be profoundly unsettling, were it not for the hum of stately, meditative strings that persist throughout, turning interrogation and fumbling response into something like pure wonder in musical form.

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