A Sense of Wonder: Cross-disciplinary Perspectives

4 June 2008 - 5 June 2008



Deadline for Registration: 28 May 2008 


Convenor: Sophia Vasalou (University of Cambridge) 

Since the time of Descartes' naming of wonder as the master passion in his taxonomy of the emotions in The Passions of the Soul, neither modern handbooks of psychology nor philosophical discussions of the emotions have had much to say about the experience of wonder. Partly, this may be due to a conceptual economy dominated by the presuppositions of evolutionary biology, in which emotions with evident survival value (such as fear or anger) present themselves as more amenable to analysis; partly, due to the difficulty of identifying the emotion of wonder through its cognitive content or object as unambiguously as when one fixes the content of fear, anger or grief.


Yet the experience of wonderment occupies a position of special importance across a variety of human practices and concerns. Its link to philosophical inquiry had been marked from early on by Plato's oft-rehearsed remarks in Theaetetus, resumed by Aristotle's in the Metaphysics, which named wonder as the beginning of philosophy. Its value as a beginning is reproduced in many other fields of human inquiry, most notably in the natural sciences, in which wonderment at natural phenomena may provide both the captivating stimulus to inquiry and the motivation for the continued pursuit of explanation. In the arts, wonderment imparts beginnings - the initial stimulus to create - perhaps less prominently than it imparts the ends that are sought, in constituting a strong ideal for the aesthetic experience which works of art should produce. At only a short remove from these spheres, and potentially involved in all of them, the experience of wonderment plays a special role in religious practices, and especially those which accord primacy to the notion of a creative divinity, whose natural expression is an interest in heightening the response to the created world as something extraordinary and worthy of human amazement.


The aim of this cross-disciplinary conference will be to bring together people working in several of these different domains in order to consider the variety of roles which wonderment plays in each. Imparting structure to the exchange will be a focus on wonder as a response that, far from constituting a natural and spontaneous given, has to be cultivated in the context of the emotional and intellectual discipline pursued in each practice. This is a discipline that involves developing the capacity to see the ordinary in its extraordinariness, and thus a negotiation of the boundary between what is ordinary and what is extraordinary. Among the many questions with which to take our questioning forward, the following provide us with some of the guiding lines: By what means and what techniques is the ordinary rendered extraordinary in these different domains? What narratives of change and development in the objects of wonder could one write in which to situate individual responses? And why do we value an abiding capacity for wonder? Is it simply, then, a passion of instrumental value whose function is to be extinguished in the achievement of knowledge? Or can we make any sense of the idea that wonder is, and is to be prized as, a way of life in its own right?


Confirmed speakers:

  • Marcel van Ackeren (Ruhr-Universität Bochum)
  • David Burrell (Professor Emeritus, University of Notre Dame)
  • Arnold Davidson (University of Chicago)
  • Olivier Doron (Université Paris VII-Denis Diderot)
  • Robert Fuller (Bradley University)
  • Emmanuel Halais (Université de Picardie Jules Verne)
  • Douglas Hedley (University of Cambridge)
  • Michel Hulin (Professor Emeritus, Université Paris IV-Sorbonne)
  • Derek Matravers (Open University/University of Cambridge)
  • Mary-Jane Rubenstein (Wesleyan University)
  • Sophia Vasalou (University of Cambridge)



Progamme and Registration

Please click on the appropriate links on the right of the page to see the programme and book online.

University of

A Sense of Wonder


Location : CRASSH Date : 4-5 June 2008

Wednesday 4 June





Welcome and Introduction


Marcel van Ackeren (University of Cologne)
No need to wonder: a Stoic critique

Commentator: Brad Inwood (University of Toronto)


Tea/coffee break


Derek Matravers (Open University/University of Cambridge)
Wonder and Cognition

Commentator: Jane Heal (University of Cambridge)


Emmanuel Halais (Université de Picardie Jules Verne)
The mystical viewpoint in Wittgenstein and Schopenhauer

Commentator: Claude-Olivier Doron ((Université Paris VII-Denis Diderot)




Mary-Jane Rubenstein (Wesleyan University)
Heidegger's Caves: On dwelling in wonder

Commentator: Sophia Vasalou (University of Cambridge)


David Burrell (Professor Emeritus, University of Notre Dame)
Wonderment today among Jews, Christians and Muslims, with homage to Charles Taylor

Commentator: Douglas Hedley (University of Cambridge)







Thursday 5 June


9.00 - 10.00

Claude-Olivier Doron (Université Paris VII-Denis Diderot)
The microscopic glance and the practice of wonderment in the 18th century

Commentator: Patricia Fara (University of Cambridge)


Michel Hulin (Professor Emeritus, Université Paris IV-Sorbonne)
Camatkâra:the conception of wonderment in Indian aesthetics

Commentator: Derek Matravers (Open University/University of Cambridge)


Coffee Break


Douglas Hedley (University of Cambridge)
The sublime and the sacred

Commentator: Michel Hulin (Professor Emeritus, Université Paris IV-Sorbonne)




Robert Fuller (Bradley University)
From biology to spirituality: the emotional dynamics of wonder

Commentator: David Burrell (Professor Emeritus, University of Notre Dame)


Sophia Vasalou (University of Cambridge)

Senses of wonder and the sense of wondering: an overview