There’s a photograph of me sitting in the middle of a field, squinting up at the open sky, an expression of patient interest on my face. I’m about 3 years old. When I look at that photograph now, I like to think that it captured a moment of pure wonder. I’ve always tried to channel that kid as much as I possibly can, as wonder is an important sensation, one that allows me to deal with the vicissitudes of time and fortune. If one can learn to wonder, one can learn to live.
It’s easy to see how wonder might be in danger of becoming obsolete these days. If anything could eliminate wonder from our store of reactions to the world, it would surely be our uninterrupted engagement with the virtual world. Sure, that video of the three-legged bear is cool, but have you seen OK Go’s latest take on the Rube Goldberg machine in their new music video? When the next stimulation is just around the corner, we tend not to linger on what makes particular experiences truly meaningful.
In a world of diminished attention spans, we are faced with the question of how to prevent ourselves from becoming hopelessly jaded with anything we might see or hear or feel. How do we make our wonderment last longer than the moment, the intake of breath, that signals something new and exciting?
James offers a solution: the question “How?” For example, in the OK Go video, he might ask how the whole contraption was assembled, or how the video was executed so smoothly in one take; and then he might ask how the computer on which we see the video can display such a video: what wondrous system of machines brings it to the screen?
Aristotle claimed that philosophy begins in wonder. James, on the other hand, wants to use philosophy to arrive at wonder. He claims that we have only to slow down and attend to the processes that undergird our frenetic world and we will attain a perspective that can act as a life-preserver of contemplation in the bottomless sea of information.
Yet I’m not sure I agree with James that the way to wonder is through “hows.” To me, wonder comes through openness to the natural world, through the eyes of the child in that old photograph. Looking out my window at the morning doves playing on the storage crate that sits in the garage next to my apartment, I have simply to focus on those birds, the way they flit about and peck at the wet leaves on the crate, and imagine their world, the way they feel and live—and I am full of wonder. I close my laptop and consider them: five minutes pass, then ten. The doves fly off, I open my laptop, and go on YouTube.