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.