18 August 2014

Wonder, astonishment

“Wonder,” Descartes wrote, “is a sudden surprise of the soul,” reserved for what is rare and extraordinary. In his classification, it is the first of the passions, the only one unaccompanied by fluttering pulse or pounding heart. Disinterested but not indifferent, wonder is a cool passion that fixes on objects for what they are, instead of what they are for us. The wonder of wonder consists in the paradox of a cognitive passion: it has all the force of other passions like love or hate, but it helps rather than hinders reason. It is the passion aroused by anomalies, and the anomaly among the passions. [1]

Descartes [struck a balance] between just enough wonder and too much wonder. He recognized the utility of wonder “in making us learn and hold in memory things we have previously been ignorant of.” But this serviceable ‘wonder’ (admiration) was to be distinguished from stupefying ‘astonishment’ (estonnement), which makes the whole body remain immobile like a statue, such that one cannot perceive any more of the object beyond the first face presented and therefore cannot acquire any more particular knowledge. Astonishment differed only in degree from wonder - “astonishment is an excess of wonder” - but their cognitive effects were diametrically opposed...Wonder stimulated attentive inquiry, astonishment inhibited it. [2]
Note: [1] is from a review of Lorraine Daston of Wonder, the Rainbow and the Aesthetics of Rare Experiences by Philip Fisher (1999).  [2] is from Wonder and the Orders of Nature by Lorraine Daston and Katherine Park (1998). The quotations from Descartes are from Les Passions de l'âme (1649)

Image: Star trails over Indonesia by HuChieh via APOD 

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