Philosophy: Field of Wonder

Last Thursday, the Scholars were treated to a “crazy little romp” through 2,500 years of human thought as Dr. Mélanie Walton of Belmont’s Department of Philosophy presented “Philosophy as Wondering: The Meaning of Life and Art.”


Dr. Walton began by reviewing the definition of philosophy, which combines love (philos) with wisdom (sophia). This raised the question of what wisdom actually is, which according to Socrates is knowing what you do not know–that is, recognizing your limits by understanding that your knowledge about anything only goes so far. This not knowing, Dr. Walton explained, leads to desire for more knowledge in certain persons–explorers, for example, or philosophers. Wonder, therefore, is the disposition a philosopher needs to have, a willingness to be perplexed and to seek out new answers and questions.

Dr. Walton then traced the notion of wonder through the history of philosophy, from Aristotle, who explored more fully the ways wondering leads to knowledge and vice versa; through the early moderns, like Rene Descartes, who found use in wonder as far as it assisted reason; to mid-moderns like Emmanuel Kant, who linked wonder with judgment, specifically in the judgment of art.

Art and wonder are often connected through the notion of sublimity, the idea of the mind being overwhelmed in the presence of something that defies what we know. Art can challenge us, lifting us out of our mundane existence in order to get us to question the answers we have arrived at through day to day living. Wonder is a way to see the extraordinary in seemingly ordinary things.

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The Scholars then were asked to respond to a series of works of visual art, examining how their own senses of wonder were engaged in each case. Very lively discussions ensued, especially about Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World and Odilon Redon’s The Eye.

Throughout the evening, Dr. Walton explained how her love of philosophy grew out of her own wondering in the face of sublime art or ideas, things that “overwhelmed” her and “lifted her to vocation.” She urged the Scholars to consider, in the extreme busyness of their lives, whether and how often they allow themselves to be perplexed and to be reawakened to a sense of wonder.

Images in the slideshow:

Andrew Wyeth, Christina’s World, 1948, Tempera on Panel, MoMA
Odilon Redon, The Eye (Vision), 1881, Charcoal, incising, pastel, Baltimore Mus. Of Art
Pablo Picasso, The Old Guitarist, 1903-04 or 1910, Art Institute of Chicago
Jean-Michel Basquiat, Boy and a Dog in a Johnnypump, 1982, Acrylic, crayon, spray paint on canvas, private collection
Vincent Van Gogh, The Corridor in the Asylum, 1889, Oil, chalk, on paper, Met


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