Two Kinds of Wonder

“Wonder or radical amazement is the chief characteristic of the religious man’s attitude toward history and nature. One attitude is alien to his spirit: taking things for granted, regarding events as a natural course of things. To find an approximate cause of a phenomenon is no answer to his ultimate wonder. He knows that there are laws that regulate the course of natural processes; he is aware of the regularity and pattern of things. However, such knowledge fails to mitigate his sense of perpetual surprise at the fact that there are facts at all. Looking at the world he would say, “This is the Lord’s doing, it is marvelous in our eyes” (Psalms 118:23).

That “wonder” is the feeling of a philosopher, and “philosophy begins in wonder” was stated by Plato and maintained by Aristotle: “For it is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize.” To this day, rational wonder is appreciated as “semen scientiae,” as the seed of knowledge, as something conducive to, not indigenous to cognition. Wonder is the prelude to knowledge; it ceases, once the cause of a phenomenon is explained.

But does the worth of wonder merely consist in its being a stimulant to the acquisition of knowledge? Is wonder the same as curiosity? To the prophets wonder is a form of thinking. It is not the beginning of knowledge but an act that goes beyond knowledge; it does not come to an end when knowledge is acquired; it is an attitude that never ceases. There is no answer in the world to man’s radical amazement.”

— Abraham Joshua Heschel from God in Search of Man


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