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

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 systematically how canonical political thinkers have conceptualized and deployed wonder in their theories of politics. Within the supposedly disenchanted politics of modernity, wonder remains as a fundamental emotion. How then has wonder, an emotion traditionally tied to religion in premodern European political thought, been used in the context of a supposedly disenchanted politics? In my dissertation I argue that we find from Hobbes to Arendt a subterranean debate on the proper conceptualization and use of wonder in modern political life. Is wonder properly to be experienced toward the awesome structure of the modern state? Or perhaps towards the capacity which human beings have to live rational, free lives? Might it instead be the seemingly spontaneous order of the market, which either addresses or ignores our basic needs? Finally, might the greatest and proper source of our wonder and admiration be the fact that human beings can radically restructure the institutions and contours of political life according to action? This dissertation project – situated at the intersection of the history of political thought, the history of the emotions, and secularization studies – excavates these different attunements and seeks to understand them from within their own discursive and historical contexts so that we may better understand the appeals which are made to our sense of wonder in contemporary political life.

Chapter Outline:

1. Introduction. The Problem of Wonder in Modern Politics

2. The Admirable Order of the Leviathan: Hobbes and the Sovereign State

3. Wonder Taken for a Sign: Kant and an Order of Freedom

4. The Whole Mystery of Commodities: Marx’s Critique of Wonder

5. Thinking Out of Order: Arendt and Political Wonder

6. Conclusion. Politics and Wondering: From the Rainbow to the Tempest