How can wonder transform us?

Frontispiece for Rachel Carson’s Sense of Wonder (1965)

In A Wizard From Earthsea, young Ged (also known as Sparrowhawk) is an apprentice to the taciturn and wise older wizard Ogion. Part of his apprenticeship involves learning the true names of things. A wizard (in Le Guin’s Earthsea universe) can have power over a thing if he learns its true name in the old (dragon) speech.

Ogion is an unusual wizard and teacher. Rather than seeking prestige and renown for his deeds, as many other wizards, he is a recluse, spending most of his time in nature, collecting various herbs. Ged, who is a brilliant quick learner, and whose temper is ill-suited to this relaxed learning pace, wonders what the point of it all is. In the following scene, Ged asks Ogion the names of various of the plants they are collecting.

“Fourfoil, they call it.” Ogion had halted, the coppershod foot of his staff near the little weed, so Ged looked closely at the plant, and plucked a dry seedpod from it, and finally asked, since Ogion said nothing more, “What is its use, Master?”

“None I know of.”

Ged kept the seedpod a while as they went on, then tossed it away.

“When you know the fourfoil in all its seasons root and leaf and flower, by sight and scent and seed, then you may learn its true name, knowing its being: which is more than its use. What, after all, is the use of you? or of myself? Is Gont Mountain useful, or the Open Sea?” Ogion went on a halfmile or so, and said at last, “To hear, one must be silent.”

From Ursula K Le Guin, a Wizard of Earthsea (1968)

Ogion holds that his apprentice is only ready to learn the true nature of things if he does not merely, or even mainly, see them as a means to an end. However, the tendency to reduce the natural world to things we can use (even exploit) is all-encompassing and difficult to get rid of. Part of the central conflict in A Wizard of Earthsea is that Ged is (at this point in the narrative) unable to achieve that perspective-shift.

Nowadays, many of us want to preserve the natural world and protect it from ecological collapse and devastating climate change. Yet even so, we still frame this narrative in terms of usefulness. Climate change is bad for the US and globally because of its enormous costs to the economy, or to human wellbeing.

This anthropocentric framing will not help us achieve the environmental aims we want to achieve. How can we shift perspective, and (like Ogion) see the wondrousness of fourfoil for its own sake?

Rachel Carson (1907 – 1964), philosopher, activist and biologist, thought that the answer lies in the sense of wonder. She hoped to write a big “wonder book”, discussed its ambitious scope with her agent and writing that it would be “Heaven to achieve”, but other projects (notably Silent spring 1962), her activism to achieve environmental protections, and her cancer that would eventually kill her, prevented this.

So, instead of a big and ambitious wonder book, she left us a slender volume entitled The Sense of Wonder (1965) that is basically an expanded version of an article she wrote for a women’s magazine, Women’s Home Companion, Help your child to wonder. She describes there the pure joy she experienced together with her nephew Roger, a toddler, at the sea and other places of natural beauty, where she helped him to discover the delights of the natural world. Seeing nature on its own terms, enjoying it for its own sake, gives Carson the fuel to keep on going, especially in the light of significant obstacles:

What is the value of preserving and strengthening this sense of awe and wonder, this recognition of something beyond the boundaries of human existence? … Those who dwell, a scientists or laymen, among the beauties and mysteries of the earth, are never alone or weary of life. Whatever the vexations or concerns of their personal lives, their thoughts can find paths that lead to inner contentment and to renewed excitement in living. Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.

Carson, Help your child to wonder, p. 48
Picture from Carson’s Sense of Wonder (1965)

In Carson’s view, the sense of wonder is transformative. It helps us to see the world differently, and in this way, because we see the world differently, it helps us to transform ourselves. How is wonder able to achieve this? A potential answer is offered by feminist philosopher Sara Ahmed.

Ahmed connects the emotion of wonder to feminism. Arguing against the portrayal of feminism as an overtly negative philosophy that is only born out of negative emotions, such as rage, anger, or pain, she argues that her (and other people’s) impulse to feminism is also born out of wonder (relevant excerpts on her blog, here). Drawing on Descartes’ notion of wonder as the first passion (in his Passions of the soul), she premises wonder on first-ness, were we encounter an object as if we see it for the first time. In Ahmed’s view, to wonder is to assume an as-if stance, the stance where we cease to take the object we wonder at for granted, and in this way “wonder works to transform the ordinary, which is already recognised, into the extraordinary” (Ahmed 2014, 179).

Ahmed here joins the tradition of wonder as a philosophical emotion par excellence, which allows us to see the old and taken for granted with new eyes. As an illustration, she mentions works in Black feminism by authors such as Audre Lorde and bell hooks, which has shown that certain categories we use such as patriarchy or women, have political, and sometimes exclusionary effects. This wonder affects us bodily, and in affecting us bodily, helps us to reorient ourselves to the world.

Thus, in Ahmed’s view, wonder not only transforms how we see the world, it also transforms the person who wonders. As such, it is a transformative emotion. As philosophers such as Wittgenstein, or Asanga in the Yogācāra tradition already noted, if you shift your perspective on the world, you can transform yourself. How does this transformation happen?

One possible clue is in ecological psychology, notably Gibson’s theory of affordances. Affordances are action possibilities in your environment (for example, a couch invites you to sit on it very differently than a chair without an armrest). Because we are embodied in a specific sort of way, we will experience different affordances in our environment. We can change affordances by modifying our environment. But we can also do so by modifying ourselves and how we see the environment. Jean-Paul Sartre argued in Sketch for a Theory on the Emotions that emotions are a way to do this. Likening emotions to magic, he argued that we can transform the world, and hence our own sense of limitations and possibilities, by seeing things through specific emotional lenses.

Wonder, thus construed, helps us to see the world as valuable for its own sake, and thus helps us not only see it as a means to human ends. A person who sees the natural world as intrinsically valuable will not be tempted to use it as a mere means, and thus end up with very different attitudes and relationships to the environment.

However, this does not explain the link Carson draws between wonder and strength and resilience. Carson is not the only scientist and activist to make this connection.

For example this twitter thread by climate scientist Jacquelyn Gill is illuminating:

When things are hard, I often turn to the natural world for inspiration, strength, and yes, even joy. Sharing this sense of wonder with others makes me feel more connected and grounded, and gives my life meaning. It also reminds me of what I fight for.

Inevitably, when I do this, someone will comment that it’s all going to end because of climate change, or they present mass extinction and civilizational collapse as an inevitability. The people who do this are angry, afraid, and hurt.

So if it seems like I’m leaning into wonder more these days, it’s not because I’m ignoring the struggle: it’s that I felt like I was becoming disconnected from the *reason* I do what I do. And that reason? Love. I love this big, curious, wonderful, messy, fascinating planet.

Jacquelyn Gill, twitter thread of Nov 30, 2021

Wonder here is a grounding emotion. It attunes the perceiver to the things they find valuable, and away from the sense of inevitability that sometimes looms. Though Carson did not draw explicit moral conclusions in her Sense of Wonder, others have done so while interpreting her work. Notably, Kathleen Dean Moore interprets Carson in virtue ethical terms. More specifically, she argues that wonder “closes the distance between “this is wonderful” and “this must remain,” between the “is” and the “ought.” It is a bridge of moral resolve that links the physical world and the moral world. … a sense of wonder may well be a moral virtue, perhaps the keystone virtue of an environmental ethic.”

This virtue ethical reading brings us a bit closer to a possible explanation of how wonder not only helps us to see the things we wonder at as intrinsically valuable, but also how wonder can be a source of hope. As Denise Vigani argued, virtue is primarily seen as a limiting condition (e.g., a virtuous person would not accept a bribe), but it is equally something that affords us possibilities. That is because the action-schemas available to a person of virtue (or with a specific set of virtues) are quite different from those of a vicious person. By making some paths of action non-options from the start, a virtuous person can see other paths of action that are not available to a vicious person.

To bring it all together, wonders helps us to move away from seeing things as means to an end to things that are valuable in themselves. Carson is clear that we need to cultivate our sense of wonder, otherwise it fades, just like other virtuous dispositions need to be cultivated. Once we have the sense of wonder, our sense of what is possible shifts, our action-schemas become different. A person without wonder for the natural world might feel: it’s useful to preserve nature but short-term interests will prevail, and so it is inevitable that we go toward ecological collapse/unmitigated climate change. But when you cultivate the sense of wonder, you might think: this is worth preserving and beautiful, how amazing is our world!

By focusing our minds away from our own control, actions, and what we can achieve, from the view of usefulness and utility, wonder allows us a broader scope of thinking what is possible, and that things are worth preserving and valuable in themselves, even if we can’t quite figure out how to achieve that.


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