Abraham Joshua Heschel

2. Radical Amazement

Reason and Wonder

The greatest hindrance to knowledge is our adjustment to
conventional notions, to mental clichés. Wonder or radical
amazement, the state of maladjustment to words and notions,
is, therefore, a prerequisite for an authentic awareness of that
which is.
      Standing eye to eye with being as being, we realize that we
are able to look at the world with two faculties—with reason
and with wonder. Through the first we try to explain or to
adapt the world to our concepts, through the second we seek
to adapt our minds to the world.
      Wonder rather than doubt is the root of knowledge. Doubt
comes in the wake of knowledge as a state of vacillation be-
tween two contrary or contradictory views; as a state in
which a belief we had embraced begins to totter. It challenges
the mind's accounts about reality and calls for an examination
and verification of that which is deposited in the mind. In
other words, the business of doubt is one of auditing the
mind's accounts about reality rather than a concern with real-
ity itself; it deals with the content of perception rather than
with perception itself.
      Doubt is not applied to that which we have an immediate
awareness of. We do not doubt that we exist or that we see,
we merely question whether we know what we see or whether
that which we see is a true reflection of what exists in reality.
Thus, it is after perception has been crystallized in a concep-
tion that doubt springs up. 
      Doubt, then is an interdepartmental activity of the mind.
First, we see, next we judge and form an opinion and there-
after we doubt. In other words, to doubt is to question that
which we have accepted as possibly true a moment ago.
Doubt is an act of appeal, a proceeding by which a logical
judgement is brought from the memory to the critical faculty
of the mind for re-examination. Accordingly, we must first
judge and cling to a belief in our judgement before we are able
to doubt. But if we must know in order to question, if we
must entertain a belief in order to cast doubt upon it, then
doubt cannot be the beginning of knowledge.
      Wonder goes beyond knowledge. We do not doubt that
we doubt, but we are amazed at our ability to doubt, amazed
at our ability to wonder. He who is sluggish will berate doubt;
he who is blind will berate wonder. Doubt may come to an
end, wonder lasts forever. Wonder is a state of mind in which
we do not look at reality through the latticework of our
memorized knowledge; in which nothing is taken for granted.
Spiritually we cannot live by merely reiterating borrowed or
inherited knowledge. Inquire of your soul what does it know,
what does it take for granted. It will tell you only no-thing is
taken for granted; each thing is a surprise, being is unbeliev-
able. We are amazed at seeing anything at all; amazed not
only at particular values and things but at the unexpectedness
of being as such, at the fact that there is being at all.

Philosophy Begins in Wonder

A philosophy that begins with radical doubt ends in radical
despair. It was the principle of dubito ut intelligam that pre-
pared the soil for modern gospels of despair. "Philosophy
begins in wonder" (Plato, Thaetetus 155D), in a state of mind
which we would like to call thaumatism from thaumazein—
to doubt) as distinguished from skepticism.
      Even before we conceptualize what we perceive, we are
amazed beyond words, beyond doubts. We may doubt any-
thing, except that we are struck with amazement. When in
doubt, we raise questions, when in wonder, we do not even
know how to ask a question. Doubts may be resolved, radical
amazement can never be erased. There is no answer in the 
world to a person's radical wonder. Under the running sea of
our theories and scientific explanation lies the aboriginal abyss
of radical amazement.
      Radical amazement has a wider scope than any other act of
man. While any act of perception or cognition has as its ob-
ject a selected segment of reality, radical amazement refers
to all of reality; not only to what we see, but also to the very
act of seeing as well as to our own selves, to the selves that
see and are amazed at their ability to see.

The Mystery Within Reason

The ineffable is not a particular puzzle to the mind as, for
example, the cause of volcanic eruptions. We do not have to
go to the end of reasoning to encounter it. The ineffable is,
as we have said above, something with which we are con-
fronted everywhere and at all times. Even the very act of
thinking baffles our thinking, just as every intelligible fact is,
by virtue of its being a fact, drunk with baffling aloofness.
Does not mystery reign within reasoning, within perception,
within explanation? Where is the self-understanding, that
could unfurl the marvel of our own thinking, that could ex-
plain the grace of our emptying the concrete with charms of
abstraction? What formula could explain and solve the
enigma of the very fact of thinking? Ours is neither thing nor
thought, but only the subtle magic blending the two.
      What fills us with radical amazement is not the relations
in which everything is embedded but the fact that even the 
minimum of perception is a maximum of enigma. The most 
incomprehensible fact is the fact that we comprehend at all.
      It is impossible to be at ease and to repose on ideas which
have turned into habits, on "canned" theories, in which our 
own or other people's insights are preserved. We can never
leave behind our concern in the safe-deposit of opinions, nor
delegate its force to others and so attain vicarious insights.
We must keep our own amazement, our own eagerness alive.
And if we ever fail in our quest for insight, it is not because it
cannot be found, but because we do not know how to live, or
how to beware of the mind's narcissistic tendency to fall in
love with its own reflection, a tendency which cuts thought 
off its roots.
      The tree of knowledge and the tree of life have their roots
in the same soil. But, playing with winds and beams, the tree
of knowledge often grows brilliant, sapless leaves instead of
fruits. Let the leaves wither, but the sap should not dry up.
What is subtle speculation worth without the pristine insight
into the sacredness of life, an insight which we try to trans-
late into philosophy's rational terms, into religion's ways of
living, into art's forms and visions? To maintain the stir and
flow of that insight in all thoughts, so that even in our doubts
its sap should not cease to flush, means to draw from the soil
of what is creative in civilization and religion, a soil which
only artificial flowers can dispense with.
      The sense of the ineffable does not hush the quest of
thought, but, on the contrary, disturbs the placid and unseals
our suppressed impressionability. The approach to the ineffa-
ble leads through the depth of knowledge rather than through
ignorant animal gazing. To the minds of those who do not
make the universal mistake of assuming as known a world that
is unknown, of placing the solution before the enigma, the
abundance of the utterable can never displace the world of the
      Souls that are focused and do not falter at first sight, falling
back on words and ready-made notions with which the mem-
ory is replete, can behold the mountains as if they were ges-
tures of exaltation. To them all sight is suddenness, and eyes
which do not discern the flash in the darkness of a thing
perceive but series of clichés.

Experience Without Expression

Always we are chasing words, and always words recede. But
the greatest experiences are those for which we have no ex-
pression. To live only on that which we can say is to wallow
in the dust, instead of digging up the soil. How shall we ig-
nore the mystery, in which we are involved, to which we are
attached by our very existence? How shall we remain deaf
to the throb of the cosmic that is subtly echoed in our own
souls? The most intimate is the most mysterious. Wonder
alone is the compass that may direct us to the pole of meaning.
As I enter the next second of my life, while writing these 
lines, I am aware that to be swept by the enigma and to pause
—rather than to flee and to forget—is to live within the core.
      To become aware of the ineffable is to part company with
words. The essence, the  tangent to the curve of human espe-
rience, lies beyond the limits of language. The world of things
we perceive is but a veil. Its flutter is music, its ornament  sci-
ence, but what it conceals is inscrutable. Its silence remains
unbroken, no words can carry it away.
      Sometimes we wish the world would cry and tell us about
that which made it pregnant with fear-filling grandeur. Some-
times we wish our own heart would speak of that which made
it heavy with wonder.

The Root of Reason

Do we owe all we know to discursive thinking? Does our
syllogistic power bear the whole brunt? Reasoning is not the
only motor of mental life. Who does not know that more is
contained in our convictions than has been crystallized in de-
finable concepts? It is a misconception to assume that there is
nothing in our consciousness that was not previously in per-
ception or analytical reason. Much of the wisdom inherent in
our consciousness is the root, rather than the fruit, of reason.
There are more songs in our souls than the tongue is able to
utter. When detached from its original insights, the discursive
mind becomes a miser, and when we discover that concepts
bring no relief to our outraged conscience and thirst for in-
tegrity, we turn to the origin of thought, to the endless shore
that lies across the logical. Just as the mind is able to form
conceptions supported by sense perception, it can derive in-
sights from the dimension of the ineffable. Insights are the
roots of art, philosophy and religion, and must be acknowl-
edged as common and fundamental facts of mental life. The
ways of creative thinking do not always coincide with those
charted by traditional logicians; the realm where genius is
at home, where insight is at work, logic can hardly find access