• Our mental operations interpret experience so as to offer preferences to choosing, nearly always for hypothetical utility, an operation that repeats itself continuously.
  • The sensation of awe interrupts this ordinary operation, producing a sense of uniqueness, intense interest, and disorientation.
  • Research indicates awe’s inspiration to be the natural world, aesthetic products, human beauty, or religious intimations.
  • Immanuel Kant theorized that awe mirrors the “free play of the imagination” that characterizes artistic creation.
  • Religious mystics have mastered mental techniques to summon and extend sensations of awe.
  • Like spiritual intimations, awe’s contents are non-conceptual and therefore non-categorical.
  • Awe inspires a sense of holiness long associated with religious intimations of the divine.
  • Because it cannot be conceptually linked to knowledge, awe remains a spur to imagination and wonder rather than a kind of knowledge.

 Nearly every human activity is inherently rational, meaning each is understood in terms of preconscious organizing principles that are presented to the mind as unmediated reality (The Tyranny of Rationality). This categorization of sense data introduces a logical structure congenial to the conscious mind that manipulates it by whatever operation of natural or preferential freedom it employs in the moment to determine truth (see “The Essential Transcendental Argument“). From that determination, it proceeds to choose goodness or beauty. Such operations, repeated thousands of times daily, accumulate to what we call experience. Nothing short of neurological dysfunction can interfere with the processes of consciousness that present both an intelligible facsimile of reality and a sense of freedom to prefer whatever we happen to value in it. Both preconscious and conscious mental operations rely on the rational categorization of experience. But occasionally this clockwork operation stumbles upon a moment so rare and so disruptive that we are brought up short, are dumbfounded, gobsmacked, speechless, and emptied of thought. These rare instances bring unmistakable sensations of disorientation and wonder. We call them moments of awe. Because they are exceptions to the ordinary processes of determining truth and choosing whatever goods we happen to value from these determinations, they call attention both to their uniqueness and to the ordinary mental operations they disrupt, and for that reason they deserve investigation. Further, because they are universal in cultures and history and they contribute to a full human life as admirable ends in themselves, they are components of the totum bonum, the basket of needs that conduce to flourishing. Cumulatively, these needs form the foundation of morality (see “Needs Anchor Morality”).

Awe is indefinable, and that is a valuable clue, for a definition is an analytic concept. Awe seems beyond conceptualizing and resistant to analysis. Though we cannot quite say what it is, experiential memory can summon some slight flavor of it to present thought: a desert night under a crown of stars with the Milky Way spanning horizons, a first look at a long-treasured Vermeer painting, the rose window at Chartres Cathedral, the measured breathing of your sleeping child, a spiritual awakening in the midst of deepest loss. It seems a double-barreled effect: first the thrill of perceiving something disconnected from customary life and then the equally strong sense of its ephemeral nature combined with a hint of something momentous. Awe has been called an emotion, but I don’t think that is correct. Rather it is a sensation, a mental intuition, followed almost immediately by intense interest. Paradoxically, it focuses on the present moment while removing the self from life’s center stage, perhaps by virtue of a corresponding sense of brooding immensity of some alien quality almost flickering into clarity. It is a sensation both discomfiting and reassuring: it disorients us while also communicating a sense of rediscovery of something almost forgotten or never quite fully grasped. We can be assured of one thing: it cannot be mistaken for any other sensation.

Having recently become a study of neurological and psychological study, awe reveals some predictable data. First, it truly is ubiquitous in contemporary cultures and also widely reported in literary history. Respondents in surveys report sensing its presence an average of two times per week. Subjects report an increase in subjective feelings of self-satisfaction in its wake, a response supported by quantitative studies marking a decreased release of cytokines, an inflammatory marker linked to depression. Respondents report a combined sense of stillness and flow, indicating both the lapse of structured thought and the total concentration that often accompanies a deep focus on complex tasks. Now this is a curious correlation since the experience of awe also seems to empty the mind of the kind of inductive thinking that would otherwise be required for precisely this kind of work. And this seems a universally experienced reaction that must call attention to itself. In the absence of a reasonable explanation, it seems necessary to ask if any general type of experience produces this kind of reconciliation of emptiness and fullness.

Nearly everyone can recall an example of such a moment. Current investigations reveal the most common source of sensations of awe to be the natural world. Less frequently, respondents report awe induced by aesthetically satisfying manmade products: architecture, art, music, or literature. Even less frequently, human beauty leads to the same sensations. It is less the particular stimulus to awe that impresses us than the intimations it provokes, but the expansiveness of what is implied must return our attention to the stimulus that triggers it. We are led then to ask two questions: what is it about these kinds of experiences that conduces to awe, and is there a common factor that helps to explain the nature of the experience?

What is at first striking about the stimuli is that they seem so different, so much so that awe may be the only connection between them. They hint at unplumbed depths of truth, goodness, and beauty, or to be more precise, they auger newly discovered means of exploring these broad avenues, the pathways of all of our declarations. Were we to categorize them, we would say sensations of awe most commonly concern aesthetics and spirituality. Since these have traditionally been subjects of philosophic interest, we have a long analytic trail of commentary on awe alongside very recent investigations by experimental neurology. Both confirm its benefits and both also indicate that it cannot be summoned or forced but can be nourished through certain practices of attentiveness.

Aesthetics concern both natural and artistic beauty. Feelings of awe associated with nature were the particular provenance of the Romantic writers, who frequently reported just this kind of immersion of self into some larger but hidden pattern of meaning. So what happens to consciousness at such moments? By far the best analysis was proposed by Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Aesthetic Judgment, a work of unparalleled value in explaining both the mental operation of awe and what it demonstrates about ordinary thought. Interestingly, Kant also deals with another kind of judgment in this work: teleological judgment, a subject usually undertaken by theologians and religious mystics. Critics have always been puzzled by the apparent disconnectedness of the two seemingly distinct kinds of judgment Kant investigates in a single work, but it seems to me the common factor is awe.

Broadly speaking, Kant approaches questions of aesthetic judgment using the same template from which he approaches mental operations in his earlier works on practical reason (i.e. on goodness choices) and on pure reason (i.e. on judgments of truth). Kant regards all such efforts as consisting of a two-stage process. First, the mind produces a preconscious rational assembly of random sense data by virtue of universal categories into a discrete image that it naively assumes to be reality itself. In this manner, reality is taken by the human mind to be orderly and receptive to conscious interpretation that frames it in terms reason can process. Once understood as a true picture of reality, that composite is subjected to natural freedom that frames options that are then sorted into preference by whatever modalities the person chooses to employ to exercise choice. This complex and universal operation is what we call ordinary perception and thinking.  It not only convinces everyone of the inherent rationality of reality and of their own freedom to maneuver within it but also allows persons the confidence to communicate notions of truth and goodness to one another with a reasonable conviction that each will understand what is being discussed despite obvious variances in experience. What strikes us in reviewing these very commonplace operations is the antinomy of their immense complexity and their utter ordinariness. We are all accustomed to their constant employment in perceiving, sorting, and choosing truths and from those operations in preferring goods with which to live our lives. Kant is specific about the means by which these processes are accommodated. All of them are intensely rational. From the preconscious structuring of percepts into categories of unity, number, cause, effect, modality, and so on, our minds proceed without a pause from their initial conceptualizations to determinations of value. We sift the reality our minds have given us for utility, quality, and morality and then act according to what we value to pursue the goods we have identified (see “Truth and Goodness Do a Dance). This is so ordinary a process that it takes an effort to identify it in the stream of experience. But awe’s oddness hints that it must act on some other principle that roils the mind. By its own lights, it signals some difference from this quotidian rational process of discerning truth and choosing goodness. What marks that difference?

Kant concludes that such experiences break into the steady stream of determining truth and goodness. Every common judgment organizes percepts into categories of probabilistic truth, utility, quality, or morality by means of ranking or comparing or classifying the percepts with prior ones the mind draws into relation with them, and so our ordinary experience is sifted for truth and goodness through a synthetic analysis of experience, first by preconscious sorting and then by conscious mental effort. All of it relies on our mental proclivity to categorization. But on some rare occasions, an experience seems to resist any sorting of experience for meaning and use that might suit the ordinary mining of situations for the truths and goods we can derive from them. The mind attempts to place the experience into a rational relationship with earlier ones, to do what it usually does and derive meaning and preference from this new input. But the effort is rebuffed. The experience resists classification, denies use, refuses qualification. That anomaly alone produces a sense of dislocation, of oddness. Percepts don’t usually operate this way. But this disorientation is almost immediately followed by a thrill of pleasure at experiencing a percept that cannot be brought under categorical—meaning rational—control, that refuses domestication for use. It is an open question whether the intimations of importance that follow this realization can be traced purely to the rarity of a percept that refuses conceptualization or whether that refusal opens to supra-rational vistas beyond ordinary experience. Here is an experience that not only seems resistant to the normal operation of reason but that also is purely itself, that registers to the mind no purpose of even ultimate utility. Kant called what follows the “free play of the imagination” acting upon reason, of a kind of purposeful purposelessness. They are fountains of rarity in the steady stream of ordinary experience.

In this respect, they resemble aesthetic ones. Kant reminds us that art’s appeal to the mind is its creativity. It is a kind of manufactured play. It has no other use than the “disinterested pleasure” it provides to the partaker. Indeed, to the degree that it does appeal to other use, its aesthetic attraction is diluted. A fully restored classic automobile may be viewed as a work of art or as a snazzy conveyance, but not at the same time. To the degree that it is valued as a mode of transport, an investment, an entry in a contest, or for any other purpose than as a thing of pure beauty, Kant tells us its value as art must be proportionally diminished. When viewing objects of art, the mind strains to find some category of meaning and use. This explains why we often feel comfortable with the formalism that suffuses aesthetics: we seek to find some class of things to which this thing belongs, so we can find use for it. We say it is an elegy, from the futurist school, from the artist’s blue period, worth $30,000,000. All of these efforts are actually stabs at comprehension and integration of the thing into the more familiar realm of meaning and utility. And all of them deny or defuse the disinterested pleasure that is the defining quality of the aesthetic experience, the realization that this object delights us upon being contemplated. It actually takes practice to relinquish the practical reasoning that aims to find some utility in the object we contemplate, for once we embark on the effort of building categorical knowledge relative to the object, the mind wishes to return to the safety and practical value of classification rather than to experience each new aesthetic experience purely. And this forces us to walk a narrow tightrope in negotiating it. On the one hand, our minds work best with the everyday demands of categorization. The Cappadocian Father and Catholic saint Gregory of Nyssa remarked on this in the fourth century: “Every concept grasped by the mind becomes an obstacle in the quest to those who search.” On the other hand, the flash of wonder stales without the mental discipline to prepare for it. The Romantics remind us that the simple aesthetic thrill is easily dulled by repetition. Who cannot recall the malaise that accompanies the extended museum tour or the yawn that greets the twentieth breeching of the orca? The mind is made for use and it quickly grows tired of even the most stunning aesthetic vista, though it is also true that some minds seem more naturally drawn to it than others. The same thrill that marks pure aesthetic pleasure characterizes the experience of awe, which is in part an experience of the same kind. Awe removes us from utility, self-involvement, and customary experience. But since every aesthetic experience does not produce it, we must acknowledge that awe has some additional component that intensifies the uniqueness of the experience. Yes, it is rare, unique, and valuable only for itself. It removes us from the ordinary calculus of determinations of truth and goodness that are inherently entailed to reasoning and valuing our experience. In these ways, awe is like aesthetic appreciation of beauty. But something additional must be added.

I would argue that the extra ingredient in all experiences of awe is a sense of holiness, meaning it concerns the non-conceptual and the ineffable specifically in modes usually associated with the nature of the divine. We surmise the meaning of terms like “eternity” and “infinity” without understanding them because our minds are incapable of grasping the concepts they define. Such notions suggest the spiritual. It is not too challenging to see that connection with some awe-inducing experiences. Some easily lend themselves to religious interpretation: intimations of the universe’s immensity or complexity, of our own mortality or insignificance in the great chain of being. These are essentially spiritual realizations, or since the awe-inducing moment is a sudden appreciation of the impossibility of subjecting such thoughts to ordinary reason, perhaps “realizations” implies a more fully formed thought than such intuitions deserve. But this deficiency is precisely my point, for the awe that such moments induce seems to arise as unbidden as the percepts that inspire them. They seem pregnant with implications conscious reasoning cannot deliver. They produce both the sense of exterior immensity and interior flow so characteristic of feelings of awe. These rare moments seem the impetuous manifestations of sensations that mystics train for years to bring to conscious awareness: by imagining infinite numbers squared or by contriving endless apophatic descriptions of God. These efforts have two things in common with awe: first, the inability of the mind to encompass a vastness that can only be sensed rather than known through the introduction of a percept resistant to ordinary classifications for use; and second, the intuitive awareness that no reasoning can place this unique object of thought into any useful context, implying that it lies both beyond ordinary experience and the operations of reason upon it. The only things that qualify for that particular category are the traditional characterizations of the divine as lying beyond the bounds of either reason or experience, of God as a unique being of whom even the vagueness of “being” must prove distortive since its use implies a category of which God must be a part contrary to the reality. So just as awe shares elements of aesthetics and beauty, it also seems to share elements of the deepest religious awareness, which always move us to wonder and to silence and that invariably highlights the limits not only of language but of reason itself (see “Religious Knowledge as Mobius Strip).

These implications reflect back upon the more earthbound categories too. The universalism of awe, its indefinability, and its resistance to rational interrogation also speak to core notions of both aesthetics and theological speculation. If aesthetic beauty does imply some universal appeal, if the deepest thoughts of God move us less to eloquence than to silence, and if awe illuminates rather than elaborates these truths, then we would do well to be both attentive and grateful when it strikes our minds like the flash of lightning on the horizon or the gauzy memory of a momentous dream. But this soaring possibility must be balanced by some limitations. It is fine to say sensations of awe are universal and non-conceptual, but doing so also means we have no way to confirm that the ineffable sensations you and I feel are in any way comparable, much less identical. Truth to tell, we might be discussing entirely different percepts or mental operations upon them. The ambiguities of awe guarantee that. And just because such oddities seem revelational is no guarantee that they are. We may generate our own spiritual impulses without any help from the external forces that awe promises us.

In light of its ambiguity, it is reasonable to ask why awe should qualify as one of those very few human needs that are required for a full human life (see “A Virtue Ethics Primer). I have so far described it as more resembling a hiccup than a human good: it arrives without our effort, it expresses itself briefly, and then is gone. When our other needs require so much thought and effort, how can the experience of awe be considered comparable? If mere universality is the criterion, then maybe hiccups should be added to the list, but if awe is a true human need, then a better question might be what can it add to human flourishing? If that question can be answered affirmatively, a second must also be addressed: how can it be cultivated?

While some needs are largely instinctive — physical health comes to mind — others instruct us by their absence. We can live without skill or the love of friends, but we will feel an absence and in responding to it will realize the fulfillment that adds to a complete human life. Awe is like that, always teasing us toward answers to questions we didn’t know we had. It inspires a powerful sense of wonder about large-scale issues that reduce the grip of utility on our minds. By disrupting the ordinary processes of thought, those that require determinations of truth and the subsequent calculations of preference that follow it, it minimizes egotism. If our wonder concerns ourselves, it concerns our place in some larger vision of reality than our everyday grasping of desires and thinking on utility . If it concerns beauty, it admires without desiring. If it touches upon the spiritual, it catalyzes an enlargement of vision. Religious history of all the major faiths pictures such yearning in terms of ascent. One climbs out of custom and toward something perhaps finer and more worthy of desire. This sense of ascent strongly correlates to many of the non-discursive efforts of houses of worship to communicate some hint of the divine: monumental architecture, stained glass that “admits the Godly light” to illuminate statuary or mosaics, the profound intimations raised by sacred music, and the poetic quality of prayer. Interestingly, while mystics find they can more clearly summon sensations of awe through spiritual disciplines and in doing so both refine and intensify them, they also find that the object of their search remains ineffable and obscure, a thing beyond both reason and perception and one far beyond the powers of language. Jewish, Muslim, and Christian accounts of such experiences share a common sense of immensity, fear, and yearning, but when they attempt to describe what they have learned, they find themselves unable to make sense of an experience so powerful that they seek to return to it again and again. As Rudolf Otto put it in his landmark study, The Idea of the Holy, awe and the mystical experiences it involves cannot be conceptual, cannot be interpreted by reason, and cannot be made amenable to language. These must always be deeply private experiences.

Their incommunicability has profound meaning for both subject fields in which such experiences are most often reported. What theory of aesthetic value can properly respond to our awe for objects of beauty or our disinterested delight in artistic creation? What theology can explicate or add meaning to conversion experiences occurring beyond the boundaries of reason, the senses, or perceptual language? What holy book can combine the stimulus to awe and moral instruction? How could any theory of aesthetics or theological authority universalize such deeply private sensations of wonder without reasoning about them and in doing so subjecting them to the categorizing structures of utility and thus making them just an ordinary determination of truth, an act so deformational that it must destroy the very thing it seeks to communicate (see “Religion and Truth)?

The Kantian categorization of aesthetic and teleological judgment differs so radically from the modalities of practical judgment and pure reason that no effort to transmute one kind of judgment to the other can be successful. Gregory of Nyssa captured that dilemma perfectly: “[The soul] cannot fix its mind’s eyes on that which it has with hasty glance seen within itself, because it is compelled by its own habits to sink downwards. It meanwhile pants and struggles and endeavors to go above itself but sinks back, overpowered with weariness, into its own familiar darkness.”  Some analysts take that realization to mean that some irrational or even counter-rational effort might facilitate wonder and prompt awe (see “Theology’s Cloud of Unknowing”). But so powerful and necessary is rationality to our building of a mimesis of reality that the best such efforts might do is to open us to wonder as so many mystics have discovered. Every major religious movement has regarded such irrationalisms as being awe’s prelude rather than its substance. But for Kabbalists, Sufis, Zen Buddhists, and Christian Gnostics, the discipline required to produce irrationality seems well worth its pains. Meditation, trance states, chemicals, mortifications of the flesh, koans, poetry, and rituals may in some practitioners counterbalance the stultification of wonder the Romantics inevitably fell into and may be productive in facilitating conscious states of awe. But these disciplines should not be mistaken for the ineffable intimations of aesthetic or spiritual truths that they seek to induce, and to confuse such efforts for the mysteries they promise would be yet another mistaken imposition of the utility of practical judgment (see The Problem of Metaphor in Religion”).

It is not a fit subject for an inquiry into the nature of knowledge to speculate on whether moments of awe are only mental aberrations or something more, a natural hint of something beyond the natural. Neither position can be justified by a preponderance of the evidence, so either conclusion about its nature cannot rise to the level of knowledge. Nor is either position entailed by what we do know about the workings of the mind and the nature of wonder. About the best we can hope for is to align beliefs about awe with what we know and then to fill in gaps in our knowledge with permissible beliefs, meaning those that do not violate prior knowledge. Skeptics may regard these seemingly revelatory experiences as a neurological oddity, the brain’s equivalent of a hiccup, and dismiss their importance just as they consider near-death experiences as entirely explicable by natural processes. A more open mind might find the very ubiquity and power of awe to be pulling us to other speculations. It is tempting to contemplate the historical and cultural universality of such experiences, tempting to consider the evolutionary supererogation of wonder’s entrée into contemplations of beauty and the spiritual, and tempting to link its mysterious sense of hidden import to the larger mystery of the action of the divine in material reality, a subject that reflects the same opacity and counterpoise in broad strokes that awe reveals in miniature. But all of this is a proper subject of belief rather than of knowledge and so must begin at the frontier where knowledge fails us (see “Knowledge, Trust, and Belief). Finally, this proper orientation also reveals an impediment that aesthetes and religionists might take more seriously as they seek to conceptualize their fields, meaning to make them subject to rational utility. After all, the common root of “mysticism”  and the divine mysterium tremendum is the Greek word for “concealed.”