Reflections on ‘Wonder & Co. – Varieties of Intensified Experiences’

Jan B. W. Pedersen reflects on the Wonder & Co. – varieties of intensified experiences symposium that took place on the 19th March 2014 at Kenworthy Hall, St Mary’s College, Durham:

Being aware that ‘the beautiful’ can be a great source of wonder, it seemed as though St Mary’s College would be an ideal venue for the second symposium on the subject. Yet as I entered the college and walked through the beautiful corridors to Kenworthy Hall I found that I all of a sudden entertained doubts. Doubts about the whole wonder-business and the notion that a group of people from various backgrounds with different agendas could say something meaningful to one another about a topic that some say is not really a topic. Fortunately my doubts were nothing but the effect of some imp of the perverse and as soon as Co-director of the Centre of Medical Humanities (CMH) Professor Martyn Evans had ‘broken the ice’ and put Dr. Ian Kidd onto the stage with his illuminating meditations on ‘Deep and Shallow Wonder’ it was obvious that the symposium was going to be a memorable event.

I enjoyed all speakers at the symposium but for this post will focus on the three who made the most significant impact on me. These are the antagonist to self-serving and buck-passing behaviour, philosopher Dr. Ian Kidd; the elegantly evolved evolutionary anthropologist Professor Rob Barton and finally the aquatic and illuminated anthropologist Professor Veronica Strang.

Dr. Ian Kidd started the symposium with a talk contrasting ‘Deep and Shallow Wonder’ – the former as driven by an ethical imperative, the latter as guided ‘merely’ by an intellectual one. Shallow wonder corresponds to the kind of wonderment that unweavers of the rainbow such as Richard Dawkins defend, and Kidd argued that although such wonderment can be powerful it merely inspires further scientific work. To harbour a deep sense of wonder is for Kidd to engage with the metaphysical and ethical; to undergo a self-transformation that leads ultimately to wisdom.

Professor Rob Barton’s talk on why sponges don’t wonder alerted the interlocutors to the notion that wondering beings like us are the product of evolution. Noting that wonders are frequently described as visual and as patterned, Barton argued that the foundation for the experience of wonder is the mammalian brain’s visual capacities. Wonder arises, he suggested, in the gap between apprehension and comprehension, in the time between perceiving something and grasping its essence, function or logic.

Entitled ‘Wonderful light: affect and transformation in engagements with light and water’, Professor Veronica Strang’s paper was glitteringly and elegantly formulated. Using sparkling visual effects in the form of colourful and aquatic photographs and motifs, Strang explored the relationship between water, light and vitality in places ranging from St. Augustine’s well in Dorset and the elegant gardens of Stourhead to the indigenous cultures of Cape York.

St Augustine’s Well, Dorset

The day ended with group discussions of the various themes and topics the talks had inspired with the aim of compiling themes that could be transformed into viable research questions for future investigation. For me this part of the symposium was quite exhilarating because here the ‘non-speakers’ also came into play, and interested parties from different backgrounds were able to undertake a nuanced exploration of wonder. I joined the ‘Wonder and Human Nature’ discussion group alongside colleagues in theology, literature, freelance writing and philosophy. During our discussion it became clear to me that although each participant exercised a careful approach to wonder the waters were divided between those who roughly speaking were for wonder and those entertaining a sceptical attitude towards the topic. This led to a playful exchange of positions and exploration of questions such as the distinction between the sublime and wonder; the idea of an ethical appeal in wonderment; speciesism and whether other animals can wonder; the problem of defining human nature; human diversity and how wonderment is coloured by the individual.

The discussion aligned closely with my own research on wonder, and I will end this post by listing of some of these questions it raised for me:

  • Why is it that some become ethically engaged following an experience of wonder whilst for others freedom from moral constraints and human cultivation is the natural outcome of such an experience?
  • Is wonderment purely of the individual subject or is it meaningful to speak about collective wonderment?
  • Does the refusal (or inability?) to wonder connect solely with scepticism towards the idea of ethical cultivation or the notion of something beyond the natural world?
  • Is wonderment a remedy for boredom? Is it an epiphenomenon? Could it be grounded in fear or angst of Horror Vacui?
  • What is the relationship between wonder and religious/spiritual experiences?
  • Can wonder be promoted as a state of mind that may bind human beings together across cultural borders?

I would be delighted to continue this discussions in the comments on this post, or alternatively you can send me a message via Twitter @Janbwpedersen. See also Caspar Henderson’s ‘Looking for Wonder‘!

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