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99 - Wonder

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 July 2019

Mary Baine Campbell
Affiliation:
Brandeis University and 2019 Kennedy Professor of Renaissance Literature at Smith College.
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Summary

Wonder is a word for an important ‘cognitive emotion’. It has been much studied and theorized over the past 20 years as academic interest in affect increased, but started, at least in the Euro-American philosophical tradition, with Aristotle, for whom wonder itself is the starting point of philosophy.

In fact, Aristotle can be found at the roots of both the epistemological and what we might call the ‘spectacular’ discourses of wonder. These are fused in the preprofessional history of ethnography, which overlaps significantly with the corpus of travel writing. The popularity of this branch of knowledge was for millennia based in the frisson of wonder invoked by descriptions and illustrations of foreign bodies, climates and customs. In the Poetics Aristotle explains the importance of spectacle for drama, which by his account is emotional instruction in the form of a rollercoaster of cognitive-emotional experience, resolved at last by the rational or objective spectacle, however pitiable, of justice. The pleasurable or satisfying stupefactions of wonder (meanings of the useful Arabic móha include ‘delusion,’ ‘stupefaction’) remain a powerful force of social control – now bent towards market growth rather than subjection to Aristotelian tragedy's ‘Law of the Fathers’.

In the Metaphysics, Aristotle makes a different pedagogical claim for the usefulness of wonder: ‘it is owing to wonder that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize. They wondered originally at the obvious difficulties, then advanced little by little and stated difficulties about the phenomenon of the moon and those of the sun and stars, and about the genesis of the universe’ (Metaphysics 1.2, 982b10-1). In the right contexts, then, the cognitive emotion of wonder can lead to what we now call curiosity, and investigation of causes. TED talks, science magazines and introductory lecture courses rely as heavily as Aristotle on the chain reaction he outlined in one of the first texts of natural philosophy in the Mediterranean world.

The English verb ‘wonder’, a Germanic word with no Indo-European root (whose spelling is suggestively similar to Old Frisian wondrian, to wander), introduces predications meaning ‘to ask oneself’, as in the French se demander, or be curious (‘I wonder if she's from Samarkand?’); it can also refer to being astonished or entranced by something.

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Chapter
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Keywords for Travel Writing Studies
A Critical Glossary
, pp. 292 - 294
Publisher: Anthem Press
Print publication year: 2019

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