Wonderstruck: How Wonder and Awe Shape the Way We Think by Helen De Cruz - review by Julian Baggini

Julian Baggini

Sublime Intervention

Wonderstruck: How Wonder and Awe Shape the Way We Think

By

Princeton University Press 232pp £22
 

I often do things that other people tell me are ‘awesome’, tremendously quotidian achievements like handing over the right change or having my booking reference to hand. Clearly, the bar has been lowered since the days when only something on the scale of miracles and grand cathedrals could be awe-inspiring. It therefore seems like a good moment to remind ourselves of the true meanings of awe and its related emotion wonder, and to seek to understand better why they matter. In Wonderstruck, philosopher Helen De Cruz rises to these tasks wonderfully.

For De Cruz, both awe and wonder take us beyond our current understanding. Awe achieves this by confronting us with incomprehensible vastness, while wonder can be elicited by anything that provides a glimpse into the unknown: ‘an insect seen under a microscope, an unusual fossil or strangely shaped crystal, and an unexpected astronomical event’. Both alert us to gaps in our knowledge and so ‘motivate us to explore our environment and learn more about it’. This is why several ancient Greek philosophers claimed that philosophy – which at the time meant all rational enquiry – begins with wonder. Today, empirical evidence suggests that awe inspires scientific thinking in scientists and non-scientists alike.

But wonder is more than the catalyst for philosophy. It is also its result. By making the familiar strange, philosophical ideas enable us to see things as though for the first time, and this sense of ‘firstness’ is central to both awe and wonder. Enquiry and wonder therefore create a

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