Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Heidegger and Wonder

  • Nassim Noroozi
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_138


Heidegger’s analysis on wonder is comprised of detaching wonder from its commonly assumed connotations and associating it with seemingly unconventional ones. As such, Heidegger parts ways with the customary interpretations of wonder as being synonymous with curiosity. He reflects on and “de-structures” the history of wonder as the origin of philosophy in the West by affiliating it with ideas like need, necessity, distress, lack, creative suffering, an engagement with the known and the usual, and, finally, with his theories on truth and being. Such connections and abstractions provide the conceptual vista for Heidegger to establish what he calls a “retrospective sketch” of wonder (1994, p. 148).

Heidegger substantially deliberates on wonder in one of his works in particular, a lecture in a series of lectures given in Freiburg from 1937 to 1938 entitled “The Need and the Necessity of the First Beginning and the Need and the Necessity of an Other Way to Question and to Begin” (1994, pp. 131–164). One of the central ideas he builds his study on is Plato’s Theaetetus (2004). This is an oft-quoted classical reference for wonder in the West, in which Socrates glorifies thaumazein – wonder – as being the origin and beginning of philosophy. Readers of this entry will find the dialogue a helpful resource in illustrating some dimensions of wonder that Heidegger preoccupies himself with in his work.

Wonder and the Need for Other Ways of Questioning and Beginning

Even though Heidegger devotes an entire lecture mainly to wonder, he does not immediately engage with it in his piece. He first elucidates how certain, supposedly negative, concepts that usually connote a lack or absence of thinking are in fact imperative elements for thought. Indeed, for Heidegger these concepts “arise out of surpluses or abundances” of thought provided that we are willing to tune out of the field of view of our calculating reason (1994, pp. 6, 22 &132). The first such concept on which Heidegger builds the foundation of his sketch on wonder is the “need” of the first beginning for thinking. Heidegger’s take on need as “the ground of necessity for primordial questioning” is not related to vacuity nor perplexity; it is not a beginning for thinking waiting to be assimilated into a mode of knowledge (e.g., into a theory or a school of thought).

This need, whose essence according to Heidegger we need to have “the most profound understanding of,” arises from the distress of not knowing the way in or out (1994, p. 132). Distress for Heidegger is that between-space for thought where thinking has not yet become categorical, determined, or finalized. The distress does not guide us into another mode of knowledge, nor does it propel us to assimilate into a theory. In Heidegger’s own words, “it does not simply compel us into already determined relations to beings, ones already opened up and interpreted in their beingness” (1994, p. 134). Instead, it is an implicit self-opening – as well as a between, a mode of being, and a space that is not yet determined and controlled by any concrete theory or idea – that humans are thrown into or disposed in (1994, p. 132). This is surely not an ordinary space that existed before the experience of distress. Because the in-between is not appropriated by preestablished ideas, it is a place where beings emerge for the first time in their beingness. It causes humans to see things without being limited to, for example, concepts immediately associated with them. That is why this not-yet-determined-by-ideas space has great potential for thought. It disposes us “into the beginning of genuine thinking and thoroughly determines it” (1994, p. 136). In doing so, it affects who we are, and it is therefore a space for the highest possibilities for human standpoints to come to light and to be created.

This between-space does not designate a space between two modes of knowledge. In essence, wonder caused by distress and need does not make you grow out of a kind of knowing, nor will it make your thoughts grow into another form of knowing. “What here permits neither an out nor an in oscillates back to itself in an extraordinary sense as this between” (1994, p. 139). It is this dwelling and turning inside one’s own knowledge, and not turning outside toward an unknown object, that Heidegger delights in when it comes to discussing his ideas of wonder. Rather, this oscillation helps a whole to surface that contains all the directions that thinking can go in, all the “whence”s and “whither”s of thought (Heidegger 1994, p. 137). The usual, existing, predefined concepts and beings that created our knowledge will look weakened with thaumazein, and the possibility of looking at our thoughts is brought forth and brought to light (Noroozi 2015, pp. 12–13) (See, e.g., when Socrates makes Theaetetus dizzy with wonder as he questions him on his knowledge of mathematics and makes him reflect of the limitations of knowledge in general, yet Socrates does not provide an escape out of this wonder and instead celebrates it as the origin of philosophy). Heidegger calls this the surfacing of an “undifferentiated” whole; “the measurelessness of the undifferentiatedness between what beings as beings are as a whole and that which presses forth as inconstant, formless and carrying away, which means here at the same time what immediately withdraws” (1994, p. 139). He regards the undifferentiatedness as a sign of abundance of thinking and not a lack thereof, acknowledging that this mode of undifferentiated “between” is very difficult to create; nonetheless, it is a gift for thought, one whose importance society has unremembered and one whose loss is to be grieved (1994, p. 133).

Wonder as enmeshed in distress and the need of an undifferentiated between is in sharp contrast with theories that deem wonder as a prelude to more certain knowledge. Correspondingly, it is antithetical to what can be called an analytic look at wonder: one that legitimizes the presence of wonder as a beginning epistemic activity provided that it eventually becomes “wedded to a concern for truth” or absorbed to knowledge and one that is necessary so far as it “gets the ‘real’ inquiry going” (Kingwell 2000, p. 88). Wonder in this light can be regarded as what Francis Bacon calls a broken knowledge (1895, p. 270), with its sustenance being ultimately preclusive to real knowing.

Wonder and Its Conceptual Affiliates

Once we are familiarized with Heidegger’s preference for associating concepts like distress and need to structure a discussion on wonder, it becomes easier to imagine that for him, common representations of wonder – associating it with concepts like curiosity and awe – are insufficient and objectionable.

Indeed, that wonder, as having been described as the beginning of philosophy by Socrates, which is interpreted as something close to curiosity is for Heidegger a “weak and pitiful determination of origin” (1994, p. 135). For Heidegger, curiosity is a thief of wonder or, at best, a degenerated form of it (Stone 2006, p. 207). In his work Being and Time, Heidegger completely refuses to see curiosity as identical with wonder. Curiosity is in search for novelty and unknown and has at least three constitutive elements that make it different from wonder: “a specific not-staying with what is nearest,” “distraction by new possibilities,” and “never dwelling anywhere” (2010, p. 161 emphasis in original). For Heidegger, Western philosophy did not originate in curiosity but in a need for another way of questioning. The primordial beginning of thinking was created out of a distress of not knowing the way in or the way out: a distress determined at oscillating back to itself as opposed to assimilating into another structure of thought or instead of being amused by an unknown object of awe.

Indeed, regarding philosophy in general as an activity that was initiated in curiosity and as being infatuated with unknown and unusual objects is a form of trivialization of philosophy. Heidegger critiques the “readily cited” approach to wonder as the origin of philosophy, arguing that this robs philosophy of wonder and the wondrous. Philosophy rose because we faced questions about knowing and truth that we found inexplicable. In order to recapture philosophy, Heidegger exhorts us to acknowledge that philosophy is not only wondrous in essence but it becomes “more wondrous the more it becomes what it really is” (1994, p. 141).

By the same token, Heidegger also engages in a certain “dispelling” of concepts – other than curiosity – that are normally regarded as synonymous to and associated with wonder. Concepts like admiration, astonishment, and awe share affinities with wonder because they encounter elements of surprise and unexpectedness juxtaposed to or set against the exceptional and the unexpected. Similar to the experience of wonder, they all start with “the wondrous” (1994, p. 140). Admiration, to take a case in point, sees the unusual foregrounding from its usual surrounding as wondrous, together with astonishment and awe, which have positions of suspense taking when dealing with the wondrous. They are all however mainly enamored with the unknown and the unusual, whereas wonder is more like a hinge (Miller 1992) that oscillates back to the known and the usual.

Heidegger’s Sketch on Wonder

Heidegger ultimately develops thirteen theses in order to construct his theories on wonder. A few of the theses are: (a) In wonder, what is most usual itself becomes the most unusual; (b) In wonder, what is most usual of all and in all, in whatever manner this might be, becomes the most unusual; (c) The most extreme wonder knows no way out of the unusualness of what is most usual; (d) Wonder as between the usual and the unusual, wonder as dwelling in a between, between the most usual, beings, and their unusualness, their “is”; (e) The eruption of the usualness of the most usual in the transition of the most usual into the most unusual. What alone is wondrous: beings as beings; (f) Wonder displaces man into the perception of beings as beings, into the sustaining of unconcealedness; (g) Wonder as a basic disposition belongs to the most unusual (1994, pp. 143–153).

A reciprocal interplay of need and distress of another way to question and begin, wonder through these thirteen theses is portrayed as having a very critical relationship with the known and the ordinary. Through wonder, we are taken out of our ordinary involvement with things. Wonder thus “makes what is ordinarily unquestioned, questionable, makes what ordinarily seems familiar, strange” (Malpas 2006, p. 259). The unusualness of the usual creates a reflective stance toward one’s knowledge. Thinking can be seen as having become an interrogatory position toward the known (Noroozi 2015, pp. 12–13) or a formative peculiar return to beginnings (Sallis 1995, p. 244). Wonder does not seek to escape from this unusualness of the usual by attempts to dominate it. It does not seek control over the unknown, nor does it seek mastery over the known per se. It dwells on beings and their “is” by turning to the usual (1994). “It cast back wholly on itself, knowing that it is incapable of penetrating the unusualness by way of explanation, since that would be precisely to destroy it” (1994, p. 145). It thereby creates the necessity to feel a need for another way to begin thinking about the usual, the known, and the truth.

Another concept Heidegger links to wonder in his statements is the idea of creative suffering and tolerating. Not every activity requires this creative suffering according to Heidegger. Ski jumping or acting, for example, might need admiration and can live on without the wondrous, but philosophy or any other “essentially creative power” needs to preserve the suffering (1994, p. 141). Heidegger’s notion of suffering does not refer to the orthodox meanings of the word, resembling a “Christian-moralistic-psychological way of a submissive acceptance” or “a renunciation of all the pride” but more a sense of what he calls an “acceptance of what overgrows man and in that way transforms him and makes him ever more tolerant for what he is supposed to grasp when he has to grasp beings as such and as a whole” (1994, p. 151). This borders on aesthetic suffering: being patient with thinking and not hurrying to incorporate it into an already established thought. He turns to Holderlin’s poem “The reflective god hates all untimely growth” to illustrate the aesthetic essence that this suffering bears for the sake of the growth of thoughtful questioning (p. 153).

Heidegger ultimately brings in what he calls aletheia as an imperative element inherently related to thaumazein. Aletheia is the Greek word for truth, but this is not truth as projecting its common meaning of actuality, facticity, or correctness. In fact, Heidegger pleads to win back for language “the hidden power of naming the essential” (1994, p. 132). He questions the practice of relying on common meanings as a norm for interpretation – truth being one of them – and returns to the Greeks and the pre-Socratics to determine and reevaluate what truth means. He thus hopes to determine and celebrate the correlation between wonder and truth, to thereupon call our attention to their pivotal relationship and thus reverse the course of modern history in dealing with contemporary philosophical problems (Korab-Karpowicz; Stone 2006 p. 207).

Truth, from the Greek word aletheia, embodies what Heidegger calls unconcealedness. Aletheia for Heidegger is “a progressive ‘disclosure’ of an entity” (Mccumber 2005 p. 590). Heideggerian truth does not imply dissection or an “explanatory dissolution” of something unusual in order to make it similar, familiar, controlled, or something to eventually be turned into a fact (1994, p. 148). Through this unconcealedness the entities and beings approach us not as preformulated definitions or to-be-formulated ideas but as “beings as beings.” This disclosure of beings displaces us into “the essence of one who perceives and gathers in the open and thereby first experiences the hidden and closed as such” (ibid). Socrates’ dialogue with Theaetetus and him feeling dizzy with wonder when Socrates questions his knowledge of mathematics and calculation can be one example of experiencing unconcealedness through the distress of wonder that takes you “to the point of not understanding” (Heidegger 2010, p. 161).

For Heidegger, this truth as unconcealedness has two Greek concepts as its leitmotivs: phusis and techne. Phusis (from which the word “nature” is also derived) can refer to a number of things: growth, becoming, generation, decline, degeneration and death (Vallier 2005, p. 414), “the manner in which something appears or manifests itself and the conditions of one’s birth” (Keltner 2005, p. 318), or what Heidegger himself describes as “beings as a whole, beings qua beings” (1994, p. 146), as well as what “emerges into the light,” “to shine forth and therefore to appear” out of itself and to “remain standing” (2000, p. 75).

Techne is the other word related to truth and wonder. Techne here does not denote technology nor a sense of a skillful mastery but more a sense of knowledge, a know-how, “to grasp beings as emerging out of themselves in the way they show themselves… to care for beings themselves and let them grow” (1994, p. 155). Techne embraces a special relationship with being and with phusis. The pure acknowledgment of beings (phusis) in truth is to happen through techne; techne helps prevent the incorporation of phusis into the realm of reason and as such creates the need for a primordial other beginning for thinking about phusis. Techne thus helps with grasping of beings and getting transformed by them. In the meantime, techne releases that very grasping and does not allow calculations to be brought in to dominate it. Phusis can thus be protected from being turned into principles. In essence, techne can “maintain the holding sway of phusis and the wondrous in unconcealedness.” (1994, p. 153). As such, techne is critically related to wonder as it unfolds and establishes the preservation of the wondrous as opposed to assimilating it into previous or future forms of thinking.

However, if techne metamorphoses into a “know-how” in the sense of “getting an idea,” grasping will no longer be a creative suffering but a constant assimilation that can have grim consequences: phusis (as what comes forth and comes to light) becomes something to grasp, to calculate, and to make ordinary for one’s knowledge. This way, techne serves as the method for the transformation of truth as unconcealedness into sameness (homoiosis). This is a subtle yet profound process of “the loss of the basic disposition, the absence of the original need and necessity” which, Heidegger warns, ultimately degenerates the original essence of truth (1994, p. 156).

If this type of techne prevails, carrying out wonder can in fact destroy wonder. If truth as unconcealedness is substituted with truth as sameness and correctness, we will then also have the possibility of “positing of goals.” The danger is that once goals are posited, “the avidity for learning and calculation” (1994, p. 155) gets in place of basic disposition of wonder, and thinking can consequently escape out of the necessity of the primordial need in order to reach a goal. We are therefore to resist bringing aletheia into the realm of calculative reason, to preserve its wondrousness and “to let it stay as the wholly other” (Heidegger 1994, p. 155). The end product of wonder – as the most simple and greatest “all-decisive beginning” – is for Heidegger not a formation of a theory or an end in a comfortable or comforting resolving law. It is to transform the current modes of knowing and to create needs for other ways to question and think (1994, p. 150).

Furthermore, if postulating aims to become predominant, philosophy will become institutionalized and will turn into a practice of reaching goals and thus end up not needing the distress and in-between. As such, wonder as “a need for an otherwise beginning for thinking” has to surrender its originality and is thus violated by attempts to be assimilated, formed, and educated on the grounds of proposed goals. In fact, the more philosophy aims to educate according to posited goals, the more insidious it gets. That is why Heidegger critiques aspirations for philosophy becoming an institution and even for philosophers to be rulers. Genuine philosophical knowledge for Heidegger is not to engage in calculative speculation and representation or to “limp behind a being” that is already known and institutionalized. Rather, it is a knowledge that starts in a distress and need for another way to question beings and knowings, one that “leaps ahead, opening up new domains of questioning and aspects of questioning about the essence of things, an essence that constantly conceals itself anew” (1994, p. 5).

Incidentally, the danger of positing goals for wonder (thaumazein) had historical repercussions. Heidegger points out that the Greeks were primordially the custodians of aletheia, which originated in wonder, before the calculating reason took over philosophy. The West then moved away from aletheia, and man became animale rationale (Heidegger 1994, pp. 20 & 163). Philosophy then got “entangled and hostaged” by theology, and in the modern period, it became a factor of culture belonging to the realm of calculative notions of being. Philosophy was then deemed as having started in curiosity. Accordingly, in contemporary times, truth as unconcealedness and wonder as rising from the need and distress of another way to think became the “most unquestioned” (1994, p. 158). Those who romanticize philosophy by calling for its return are, according to Heidegger, referring to the time when philosophy was a cultural asset. This leads to a misconstrued notion as it actually overlooks the origin of philosophy having been in a need for a sustained unconcealedness, the need for other ways to begin thinking, and the need to establish, engage with, and sustain the wondrous. We humans forgot that our task was to “become prepared for the necessity of the question and the necessity for the inexplicability of the truth” (Heidegger 1994, p. 141).

Essentially, for Heidegger, discussions of wonder as a hinge between connecting the need of a primordial way of thinking with truth are to result in transforming perspectives on knowing and grasping, relinquishing the search for a new doctrine, refraining from assimilating truth as unconcealedness caused by wonder into facts and general knowledge, and leaping into what he calls “a more original and more simple course of essential occurrences in the history of Western thinking” (1994, p. 162).


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.McGill UniversityMontrealCanada