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A Political Theory of Wonder: Feelings of Order in Modern Political Thought


How has wonder, an emotion tied to religion and philosophy in premodern European political thought, been used in the context of a modern, supposedly disenchanted politics? The past few decades have seen a dramatic reassessment of the importance of the emotions in the history of political thought. However, this broad reassessment has yet to address how canonical political thinkers conceptualized and deployed wonder in their theories of politics. I argue that we find in the writings of Thomas Hobbes, Immanuel Kant, Karl Marx, and Hannah Arendt a subterranean debate on the proper conceptualization and political use of wonder in modernity.

When Western political thought departed from a vision of the world as pre-structured by a divine, admirable order, there was no longer a readily available interpretation of the meaning of the potentially disruptive experience of wonder. Competing individuals and groups could make claims for wonder to be directed towards emerging aspects of political life as the foundation of political order. By using wonder to channel disruptive feelings of novelty into the cognition of order, these claims could structure the realm of possible actions. Moreover, a feeling of wonder could be used to secure temporal stability within the fundamentally precarious conditions of modernity. Thus, I argue that Hobbes responded to the political use of divine signs during the English Civil War by incorporating wonder into his design for the emotional apparatus of the sovereign state; that Kant argued for a transformation of the feeling experienced by political and religious enthusiasts into a form of wonder befitting a republican and cosmopolitan order which became possible after the French Revolution; that Marx argued that the rise of capitalism was accompanied by a re-enchantment of political life through an affective attachment to the commodity form; and that Arendt attempted to redirect the wonder of political theorists and citizens towards the unexpected events and deeds of political life. In each of these political interventions, ancient Greek and Roman texts were used as a resource for rethinking wonder. Understanding this history helps us navigate the wonders of modern political life.

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