Is the “Need to Worship” Part of the Human Condition?

In the chapter, “The Heart and the Life of Feeling: A Phenomenological Sketch” of Robert Wood’s upcoming book Being Human, Wood discusses the different types of intrinsic human feelings. One type, which he calls religious feelings, are the feelings that we have in reference to the whole, the human desire to turn toward something eternal and all-encompassing. Wood remarks:

Essential to religious sensibility is a deep sense of the presence of God . . . that fills the empty space of reference to totality with something more than an inference or a conventional belief and calls forth adoration that might break forth in praise . . . which can be experienced as . . . the feeling of being called, as in the Biblical tradition[1]

I wonder if we can take such remarks a step further and make a fundamental observation about the human condition: every human desires to admire, praise, and be part of something greater than himself or herself. In other words, can we say that humans have a need to worship? Ignoring the theological connections with this idea for a moment, we can see evidence for this in human behavior all around us. In political contexts, there is the eagerness with which people join a cause or a political group to feel part of something important. In social settings, there are the lengths that people will go through to be part of certain communities such as sororities, fraternities or clubs. In “religious” settings, there is the tendency of people to follow after those who promise prosperity in this life and happiness in the next, despite the irrational requirements which a leader may have on his followers.

Part of this human behavior is the desire to be with others and in community, but it also entails a desire to adore something and praise something. Humans seem to know that there is something that they are supposed to be adoring, and even on a deeper level, worshipping, but what that thing or being consists of is fraught with confusion. In their eagerness to worship something, people may choose the wrong idea/person/thing and as a result, waste their adoration on something unworthy. Perhaps part of our human quest is searching for what is worthy of our utmost devotion.

I end with two questions for further study: Can we discover the need to worship without turning to theological principles? How would we go about such an investigation?

  1. [1] Wood, Robert. Being Human, unpublished, 23-24, italics his.

Reflections on Wonder (with Reference to Marcel)

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I am fascinated by human fascination. I have titled this blog, Through Wonder, purposefully, because I feel that wonder and fascination are essential in pursuing truth. Wonder is both the starting point, as Aristotle and Plato point out (see my About page for their direct quotes), and, I would add, the ending point to true philosophic study. We end in wonder, not because we are finished, but because it is a state of consciousness that we cannot escape. The more one pursues philosophy, the more one realizes that such a pursuit must be constantly done in the presence of wonder.

What does it mean to wonder? Does it mean that we look at a math problem, such as 5000 divided by 5, and wonder what the solution is? And then, when we have discovered the solution is 1000, do we no longer have the need to wonder? Due to Aristotle’s scientific approach, his notion of wonder appears to be more along these lines: we have a curiosity about how things in the world work, we do the necessary steps and we can discover the solution. I would argue though, perhaps more in the vein of Plato, that wonder is much broader than this.[1]

Human wonder is not only the human desire to solve a puzzle, but, it is also our response to puzzles which cannot be solved. We have all had this experience in studying a particular subject: the more we study, the more we feel that we do not know. Having played the piano since I was little girl, I told myself that once I learned how to play the piano, then I would begin a new instrument. But as I studied the piano through high school and then through my degree in music in college, I continued to find more and more things that I did not know and that I wanted to learn. As a result, I have never learned to play another instrument (at least, not yet).

As we plunge into a subject, we begin to feel small, in contrast to the vastness of the knowledge that it includes as well as the unsolved complexities buried within its structure. Marcel puts this beautifully when he says that the thaumazein (wonder) of the Greeks “lies on the borderline between wonderment and admiration.” [2] Wondering as exploring, as opposed to wondering as solving, allows us to find admiration because we are forced to recognize how little we actually know.

Socrates praises Theaetetus for his pursuit of this kind of wonder, a wonder that brings him to admiration as opposed to arrogance. It’s easy to get away from this wonder and start to view philosophy as a chore, something to be attacked or sorted out. Through his interaction with Theaetetus, Socrates is reminding us of the starting place of philosophy: wonder at how certain things that seem true at first glance unravel upon investigation.

According to Marcel, when we have “progressed” beyond wonder, we are no longer doing philosophy. He writes, ” . . . a philosopher remains a philosopher only so long as he retains this capacity for wonderment in the presence of certain fundamental situations, despite everything surrounding and even within him that tends to dispel it.” [3]

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Thinking of wonder as the starting place for philosophy reminds me of the words of Christ. Jesus tells his followers that in order to enter the kingdom, they have to become like little children: “Truly, I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes a humble place – becoming like this child – is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” [4]. Children let their wonder and curiosity guide them without reserve. Socrates praises Theaetetus, a young boy, for allowing his wonder to bring him to philosophy and Jesus encourages us to be like children, creatures of wonder, to draw us to Himself.

  1. [1] Granted, the url of this blog is based off the quote from Aristotle so I am in no way implying that Aristotle’s understanding of thaumazein is inaccurate. I am only suggesting, as the footnote on my About page also mentions, that his concept of thaumazein may need to be expanded to include the delight in wondering about mysteries. Thanks to Robert Wood for pointing out the distinctions between Plato and Aristotle’s views on wonder.
  2. [2] Gabriel Marcel, Existential Background of Human Dignity (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1963), 11
  3. [3] Ibid., 12.
  4. [4] Matthew 18:3-4. See also Matthew 19:14, Mark 10:14-15, and Luke 18:16-17.

Sculpture: An Exemplar for the Unreal Nature of Art

Sculpture plays a unique role in the philosophy of art by bringing to light some of the often overlooked characteristics of artworks. All artworks, in my opinion, point us toward another world, but sculpture reflects attributes of the other world in a way that no other artwork is capable of. With its solid and durable materials, sculpture symbolizes a stability and a rigidity, which can withstand the weathering of time. Robert Wood points out:

Bronze and stone, and to a lesser extent wood or ceramic clay fired at extreme temperatures, have a fixity, a solidity less subject to the decay of time than paint on canvas or plaster . . . A sculpted piece suggests an endurance, a hardness, a resistance and is particularly fit for memorializing – especially in stone and bronze. It renders its subject “immortal.”[1]

The permanency of the sculptural materials reflects permanency in another realm; though we know that the materials are not immortal, the longevity of their life suggests to us things or beings which are immortal. But, how exactly does a material artwork, such as a piece of sculpture, reflect something immaterial?

Sartre offers a helpful answer to this question through his description of the real and the unreal (imaginary) worlds. He believes that each work of art participates in both the real and the unreal worlds. The artwork in the real world is the ‘physical analogue’ because it contains the material and physical dimensions of the artwork. A sculpture excellently typifies this due to its permanency of materials, but other artforms have their physical nature as well: the frame, paint and canvas of a painting, the sound waves of a musical piece, or the page filled with words of a poem, for a few examples. The ‘physical analogue’ is not the complete work of art, as it also symbolizes the imaginary artwork in the unreal world. A sculpture, as the ‘physical analogue,’ holds the place in the real world for the sculpture in the imaginary world; it acts as its file name or reference number. Behind the reference number, or ‘physical analogue’, an artist has created an unreal object or image.

Sartre gives us an example of the statue of Ganymede (see image above), a handsome mortal in Greek mythology, to illustrate the way a sculpture symbolizes both the real and the unreal. He proposes:

Consider Ganymede on his pedestal. If you ask me how far away he is, I will tell you that I don’t know what you are talking about. By ‘Ganymede’ do you mean the youth carried away by Jupiter’s eagle? If so, I will say that there is no real distance between us, that no such relation exists because he does not exist. Or are you referring to the block of marble that the sculptor fashioned in the image of the handsome lad? If so, we are dealing with something real, with existing material and can draw comparisons.[2]

Ganymede is both a statue of marble, 15 feet away, as well as an imaginary figure of Greek mythology. An artwork is free to live in both of these worlds: it will stand in front of us, as real as marble, but it will also dwell in the imaginary world of the unreal.

Sartre’s definition of an artwork as both real and unreal gives us a language to understand more fully the power of art, and in particular, the power of sculpture. Though a decidedly physical object, sculpture ironically represents a lasting nature in both the mortal and the immortal worlds.

  1. [1] Robert Wood, Nature, Artforms and the World Around Us, Forthcoming, 76.
  2. [2] Jean-Paul Sartre, “The Quest of the Absolute,” in Essays in Aesthetics, ed. Wade Baskin (New York: The Citadel Press, 1963), 86.

Andy Goldsworthy: Nature, Metaphor and Humanity


I recently had the opportunity to view a screening of a documentary on the nature artist, Andy Goldsworthy, entitled Rivers and Tides. Goldsworthy has developed a unique form of art, which involves going into nature, using the natural materials around him and then creating an artwork, which complements or accents the natural surroundings. Due to the nature of such work, his artworks are often temporary, taken back into nature by wind or water. The actual work of art, then, is not only found in his structure of the natural material, but also in the process by which he makes it and in the photographs and film used to preserve it. He spends all morning, for example, building a wooden round structure, resembling a beaver dam, on the shore of a lake (shown in photo above). At the top of the wooden structure, there is his signature hole, representing eternity or infinity. When the tide comes in, the structure slowly moves away from its original location, breaks free from its foundation and is gradually carried out into the water. The beauty of the art is found not only in the way it is created, but also in the way it is broken down as it returns to nature.


Another example, which I found particularly beautiful, was where he placed brightly colored leaves according to a particular pattern in a small pool at the side of a creek (similar to the photo on the right). The vibrancy and brilliance of the colors were astonishing; it was almost as if the water was on fire! And yet, all the colors were from the surrounding trees, simply arranged in a striking way. Again, this work was only temporary, for when the creek rose, the leaves were carried away.

I will admit, however, that at the beginning of the documentary, I was skeptical of the value of Goldsworthy’s work because I felt uncomfortable with its temporality. With some of his pieces only lasting a few hours or less, I wondered if their value and impact would be diminished. Others, who have encountered Goldsworthy, most likely have posed similar objections. Yet, after reflecting on the power of his art, I realized that all art, and all of humanity, for that matter, is as temporary as the leaves being taken away down the stream. The prophet Isaiah reminds us of this:

All people are like grass, and all human faithfulness is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall, 
because the breath of the Lord blows on them. Surely the people are grass. The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever.[1]

Robert Wood eloquently remarks on this fleeting characteristic of humanity as represented in Andy Goldsworthy’s work in Nature, Artforms and the World Around Us: “ . . . it brings to mind the way in which every form that we introduce into Nature eventually succumbs to its processes as do we who emerged out of Nature. [Goldsworthy’s] work makes a powerful case for the metaphoric use of Nature.”[2] Many other metaphors, in addition to the temporality of humanity, speak to us from Goldsworthy’s profound use of nature.

What is it about Goldsworthy’s nature-art that attracts us and allows us to explore such metaphors? The attraction of his projects, in my opinion, does not lie in his reliance on the natural environment or in his human skill at creating art, though both of these are important and attractive elements of his work. The source for such profound beauty is in his wedding of the natural and the human. Although they are inspired by natural forms and processes, his artworks are not nature look-alikes; each of them is uniquely human in their design and execution. On one hand, his artwork shows the stark contrast between wild, untamed nature and rational humanity, but, on the other hand, it also displays connections and similarities between them through elements of temporality and unpredictability.

Kant speaks of the power of this type of aesthetic contrast towards the end of the first book of the Critique of Judgment. He gives an example of how a pepper garden in itself is not so amusing, but if one were to stumble upon a pepper garden in the middle of a forest, it would be much more attractive. For, he states, “wild beauty, apparently irregular, only pleases as a variation from the regular beauty of which one has seen enough.” [3]. He argues that the variation between wild beauty and regular beauty is what is attractive to us and draws us in. This variety is necessary for aesthetic experience, according to Kant, because it allows us to have free play between our imagination and our understanding.

Goldsworthy’s art certainly does allow our imagination and understanding the freedom to explore new metaphors, and, I would argue, through such exploration, we can be brought to meditate on even deeper metaphysical and spiritual reflections. If you can spare the time, I would encourage you to view the documentary, Rivers and Tides, and allow yourself further meditation on the metaphors between nature and humanity. I welcome comments on Goldsworthy’s work here as well.

  1. [1] Isaiah 40:6-8 (Quoted again in 1 Peter 1:24-25).
  2. [2] Robert Wood, Nature, Artforms and the World Around Us, Forthcoming, Quote at End of Ch.1.
  3. [3] Kant, Critique of Judgment in Philosophies of Art & Beauty: Selected Readings in Aesthetics from Plato to Heidegger, eds. Albert Hofstadter and Richard Kuhns (Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1976), 307.

A Starting Point for Metaphysics: Kant and Lonergan

Immanuel Kant’s famous distinction between the noumenal and the phenomenal world naturally poses problems for metaphysics. The noumenal world is the intelligible world or the world of things-in-themselves where, if we had access to it, we would be able to understand our sensible experiences in the phenomenal world. Access to the noumenal world would include understanding pure ideas such as justice and courage as well as an understanding of causes and effects seemingly found in our world. But, according to Kant, we do not have access to the noumenal world and are stuck in the phenomenal world, the world of appearances, where we can only make speculations about what is really going on. We cannot make synthetic a priori judgments; in other words, we cannot make any universal truth claims based on our experiences in the world. Our link between experience and truth is cut off. In light of this, Kant must reject metaphysics since we are unable to make any metaphysical claims about reality. Metaphysics may exist but we have no way of knowing anything contained in it.

However, Kant appears to take a step closer to the noumenal world in his third critique, Critique of Judgment. In this Critique, he discusses how aesthetic judgment links art to morality. As Wood puts it, “Our shipwreck in the theoretical order points to the real purpose of our faculties: moral action in this world” [1] Art brings out our act of judging and through this act which reflects both freedom and nature, Kant may be finding a unity between the world of appearances and the world of truth. Wood argues, “The whole region of reflective judgment – the beautiful, the sublime, and the organic – points to the possibility of the insertion of causality through concepts into the mechanical world of nature and thus serves to bring together the fractured halves of the field of thought . . .” [2]

Though Kant would not claim that human judgment is a starting point for metaphysics, others, such as Bernard Lonergan, do offer such a proposition. Lonergan seeks to understand the human faculty of judging (along with the other human faculties) in order to first, find a method for how we come to know things (epistemology) and second, to discover a starting point for metaphysics. In his carefully structured 700 page masterpiece, Insight, he slowly finds that the capacity to judge or “revise” the world is where we can find truth about the sensible world. In the Chapter 14, “Method of Metaphysics,” he states, “Bluntly, the starting point of metaphysics is people as they are.” [3]

Sadly, Kant was unwilling to make such a claim, although perhaps he was drawing closer to it in his third critique. Lonergan, in contrast, offers this rather simple starting point for metaphysics: people as they are. People have the unusual capacity to judge the world around them, have insights, revise insights and slowly build up a dynamic set of metaphysical principles. Though all other metaphysical principles are able to be questioned, the fact that we are questioning is unquestionable. Thus, the fact that we are revisers cannot be revised: “for there is no revision of revisers themselves.”[4] It may seem like an obvious principle to grant, but as Lonergan attempts to do, from it, one can begin to discover many other metaphysical principles along the way.

This is not to say that this principle is the only starting point for metaphysics. Certainly, there are many other points on which to begin as philosophers have shown over the centuries. For, if there really is a metaphysics, there will be more than one way to find it.

  1. [1] Robert E. Wood, Placing Aesthetics: Reflections on the Philosophic Tradition (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1999), 125.
  2. [2] Ibid., 145
  3. [3] Bernard Lonergan, Insight: A Study of Human Understanding (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008), 422.
  4. [4] Ibid., 302

Our Senses and Art

Have you ever been on one of those 4D rides at an amusement park? Not only do you experience the film 3D (because you are wearing those stylish 3D glasses), but there is a supposed fourth dimension which includes water being sprayed on you or the feeling of bugs crawling up your leg simultaneous to the corresponding scenes in the film. While the experience is diverting, do the additional effects enhance or detract from our aesthetic experience? If the purpose is to draw us in to the imaginary world of the film by stimulating more of our senses, I’m afraid it has the opposite result. Just as we are about to enter the imaginary world of the film, the shock of touch calls us back to the real world. We may try to enter into the fantasy world of “Shrek”, for instance, but are jolted back by a spray of cold water on our legs! As a result, the experience becomes awkward and disjointed diminishing the aesthetic experience.[1] This may simply be a personal preference or it may actually relate to how our senses interact with art.

In Robert Wood’s “Introduction” to Placing Aesthetics, he observes that seeing and hearing are the primary senses used in fine arts. By listing off the primary forms of the fine arts: prose, poetry, music, dance, architecture, sculpture and painting, we can agree with his observation that each of them are experienced through either sight or sound (or both). Wood references a few obscure arts that do have other senses such as the culinary arts or perfume making, but we do not usually associate those with fine arts. Wood questions the reason for this emphasis: “What is there about seeing and hearing that sets off their field of operation from that of the other senses?”[2] He suggests that the other senses (taste, smell and touch) are proximity senses; in other words, those senses give us information about an object which is close to us and as a result, produce an immediate sensual experience. The proximity senses relate directly to the body: for example, when we smell, the odor enters through the nose; when we taste, the food enters the mouth; when we touch, the object must come in contact with our body. With seeing and hearing, however, though sight is done with the eyes and hearing with the ears, the experience and reaction takes place more in our mind. We do not have a “somatic self-experience,” as Wood puts it, and thus, these senses can be considered away from the body or distant senses.[3] The distance created between the body and the aesthetic experience by these senses allows the participants to transcend to something above a bodily experience. Participants can engage and connect with the universal world through the ideas referenced in the art. Art, then, is primarily through the senses of sight and sound because it provides us with a deeper, more meaningful experience and pushes us to think upon ideas that are bigger than ourselves.

Think, for example, of reading a good novel. We use our sense of sight to read, but the words on the page are not the form of art in itself. The art is actually found in the imaginary world. The words from the novel paint the world in our minds and we transcend to this place as we read. The better the descriptions and the more relatable the characters, the more we are able to truly engross ourselves in this imaginary world. The sense of sight then uses a real object to call us to an imaginary world which includes universal ideas. As we go deeper into the imaginary world, we connect ourselves more to these universal ideas. If we attempted to use the same techniques found in the 4D theatre experience while reading a good novel, our experience would immediately change. What if we were able to touch the texture of the clothes of the characters or smell the food described in a dinner scene? I would argue that these physical elements would only distract and detract from the aesthetic experience. The novel carries the reader to an imaginary world and the proximate senses, most likely, will only bring him or her back to the real world.

Could incorporating all the senses ever be beneficial to our aesthetic experience? There may be times where, though it is an aesthetic experience, the purpose is not to carry us into the universal or imaginary realm but, rather, to call us to something in the present and real world.[4] In high mass, all of our senses are incorporated: we are listening to the music, touching and tasting the bread and the wine, smelling the incense, reading the Scriptures on the page and seeing the beauty of the art in the cathedral around us. Here it seems that our experience is enhanced because we are able to worship more fully – with all of our body and our mind completely engaged. The purpose of the service is not for us to transcend to an imaginary world, but to fully dedicate all of our being in the present world and in that present moment to God.

The emphasis, then, on the senses of sight and sound in the fine arts is not arbitrary, but goes hand in hand with the usual purposes of the fine arts: to turn us out of ourselves toward universal ideas and to connect us to an imaginary world. There are some aesthetic experiences which successfully use the proximity senses, such as a church service, but here the purpose of such an aesthetic experience differs from the norm.

  1. [1] Though it falls short as an aesthetic experience, I still enjoy the ride!
  2. [2] Robert E. Wood, Placing Aesthetics: Reflections on the Philosophic Tradition (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1999), 19.
  3. [3] Ibid.
  4. [4] Certainly, good art, which may carry us away to the imaginary world in the moment, will also encourage us to change our present reality. Its connection to the universal ideas can be a powerful motivator for reform.