13 September 2015

Awumbuk, Basorexia, and a cognitive passion

Judging by this extract, The Book of Human Emotions by Tiffany Watt-Smith looks like a lot of fun. Whose does not feel better for learning about Awumbuk is the feeling of emptiness after guests depart and Basorexia is the sudden urge to kiss someone? But the section on wonder seems off kilter. Watt-Smitth writes:
With its bewilderment, fear and dazed submission, wonder was thought such an important human experience for God-fearing scholars that when RenĂ© Descartes made his inventory of the six “primitive passions” in 1649, he gave wonder top billing.
For Descartes, however, wonder was not about bewilderment, fear or dazed submission.  See this by Lorraine Daston:
“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.
Watt-Smith continues:
In the centuries that followed people have tried to reinvest wonder with the cultural authority it once had...But for most today, curiosity, with its urgent need to discover and explain, has eclipsed slack-jawed wonder as an appropriate emotion.
I'd don't doubt the value of curiosity, but I don't think wonder has lost its 'cultural authority.' Here's John Herschel:
Accustomed to trace the operation of general causes, and the exemplification of general laws, in circumstances where the uninformed and uninquiring eye perceives neither novelty nor beauty, [the scientist] walks in the midst of wonders: every object which falls in his way elucidates some principle, affords some instruction, and impresses him with a sense of harmony and order.

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