The Worldview of Wonder

Why is it that wonder is the term one invokes when trying to sell a non-enchanted, non-religious worldview? Why has wonder become the go-to consolation prize for our loss of some greater power in the universe, a soul, a god?

A short-hand phenomenology of wonder may point to its easy assumption of this areligious, atheistic role. Wonder as a state of mind seems to propose a heightened transcendence. It brings us outside our small ordinary sense of self opening into something bigger, beyond self, outside of self. We think of wonder today associated with the speechless apprehension of the vastness of planets in the starry sky, beyond the scope of human ability to map it, or wonder at nature’s rich ability to weave a web of sunset colors over the mountains, or wonder in the face of the mind-boggling complexity of the human immune system.

Part of wonder’s appeal as a cultural trope is that it operates as a kind of praxis. Akin even to a spiritual praxis, wonder ferries us into the giddy high of transcendence, but still manages to stop short of the certainty of faith. Historically, transcendence has been the provenance of religion. Wonder offers transcendence without the religious strings attached. 

Wonder for Abhinavagupta’s philosophy of Recognition (Pratyabhijñā) simply is what reveals the bond between matter and subjectivity. This for us may seem counter-intuitive. From our vantage point, subjectivity is linked to consciousness. It is as unlike matter as it can possibly be. This stark divide is precisely what Abhinavagupta aims to overturn with his panentheism. He nudges us towards a materiality underwrit by consciousness. To put this another way, wonder is a phenomenological portal that makes bare the essential subjectivity undergirding everything. His take on wonder also reconfigures the basis of transcendence, pointing to its dependence on the very thing it transcends:  matter. And with this we find a deeper liveliness, a Tantric panentheism that discovers subjectivity, a first-person perspective not only in our own self-aware thoughts, but also as an enlivening force, embedded within the matter of bodies and objects.

Abhinavagupta’s sophisticated phenomenology helps us to rethink the very idea of transcendence. Moving away from a notion of transcendence as uplifting flight away from matter, Abhinavagupta’s conceptualization helps us reconstruct a notion of transcendence that can avoid a pervasive trap of transcendence, what Thomas Nagel calls a “view from nowhere,”—that is, the idea that we might somehow transcend to a universal true reality, a perspective that encompasses all views, above the fray. Abhinavagupta’s model linking wonder to subjectivity, locates the transcendence that wonder offers always within an “I,” with its particular first-person embodied perspective, moving inward instead of up and out.


The Matter of Wonder: Abhinavagupta’s Panentheism and New Materialism (Oxford Univ Press 2023). 30% off with code: AAFLYG6