Research Topic 1

Truth by Astonishment

This research topic examines the use of wonder in discourses of knowledge, truth and authenticity. The topic can build upon research in the first Sinergia project, which, taking up other scholarship, managed to trace the trajectory of the Aristotelian understanding of astonishment as the beginning of philosophy and knowledge well into the 20th century, but also demonstrated that the influential (Platonic) concept of wonder as a means to glimpse into eternal ideas can be found in epistemic as well as religious and poetological discourses. Thus, on the one hand, the topic of truth by astonishment looks at the instrumentalization of wonder to gain and promote knowledge and to establish its pertinence. On the other hand, it examines truth-claims that consider wonder to be a naïve or an intuitive approach to the world that may however grant access to a higher truth. Depending on the various possible critical viewpoints, the latter understanding of wonder stands in contradiction to enlightened, cognitive, rational, or technocratic ways of dealing with the world. Important figures to whom this naïve wonder is attributed include the child, the so-called man of nature [“Naturmensch”] or the artist, who can be seen to re-appropriate this attitude. Their wonder is believed to provide access to a truth, which carries religious or ontological connotations. This truth, in turn, is referred to in order to make cultural and/or socio-political value judgments, which support a critique of civilization and, at the same time, verify, legitimize and propagate an alternative world-view [Weltanschauung]. Thus, wonder is used to connect cultural patterns, religious, scientific, or political interests and explanatory models to both an anthropological essence and a truth of experience, in a legitimizing and affirming way. While this concept of wonder is of special importance to the anti-Enlightenment movements, its relevance can also be shown for an earlier phase, namely political and social utopias of the 17th century, as well as pastoral poetry (Schäfereien) with its visionary views of a natural and authentic life.



Utopian Knowledge (Dissertation)

Henrike Gätjens

Visualization of Johann Valentin Andreae's  Christianopolis  (1619); engraved folded plate attached to the first edition. Artist unknown. (c) Getty Research Institute.

Visualization of Johann Valentin Andreae's Christianopolis (1619); engraved folded plate attached to the first edition. Artist unknown. (c) Getty Research Institute.

The project aims to elucidate the function of wonder in utopias of the seventeenth century. A hundred years after the publication of Thomas Morus’ Utopia, the seventeenth century saw a “boom” of utopian literature: among others Johann Valentin Andreae’s Reipublicae Christianopolitanae Descriptio (1619), Tommaso Campanella’s Civitas Solis (1623) and Francis Bacon’s Nova Atlantis (1627). By linking German studies, the history of science and the history of architecture, this dissertation project is interested in forms of legitimization and hierarchization of knowledge and truth. To this end, the utopian texts are inquired as epistemological documents within the context of early modern experimental cultures. The role of wonder is of particular interest not only concerning the acquisition of knowledge, being depicted as a means of generating curiosity and an urge for insight, but also in regard to the materialization of wonder in the structuring of space and architecture envisioned in utopian texts. While the spatial structures both potentially overwhelm the subject and control perspectives, they are also designed to induce admiration for the well-organized utopian society. Against this background, this project will explore how wonder epistemologically and spatially shapes practices of representation and (de)legitimization of knowledge and power. While some early modern utopias present a powerful state as the truly ideal form of government, others explicitly draft anarchic visions of utopian societies. A central motive in utopian texts is the contrasting juxtaposition of bad, inhumane, and nonsensical elements of the respective historical circumstances characterized by the conflicts and destructions in the course of the Thirty Years’ War on the one hand, and the description of the good, humane, and meaningful life in utopian societies on the other hand. One key question of the project is then: How do the utopian texts proceed in making truth claims about the good society, in defending or establishing certain values and in legitimizing the possibility of another marvelous reality? The dissertation project investigates staged and provoked wonder as the aesthetic emotion which is able to both call reality into question and constitute it anew.

(Advisors: Prof. Dr. Mireille Schnyder, Prof. Dr. Philip Ursprung)


Henrike Gätjens studied Philosophy, History, and Sociology in Freiburg and Paris. During her studies, she worked as a teaching assistant in both Philosophy and History and as a coordinator for the “Erasmus” mobility program. She held a scholarship of the “Studienstiftung des Deutschen Volkes”. In Freiburg, she organized lecture courses on the topics of identity, language as well as on the question of what philosophy is good for. Since May 2018, she is working on her dissertation within the framework of the SNF Sinergia project The Power of Wonder, and she is also a member of the doctoral program “Mediality – Historical Perspectives” at the University of Zurich. Publications: Günther Anders, Die Weltfremdheit des Menschen. Schriften zur philosophischen Anthropologie, München 2018 (co-ed. together with Christian Dries); Heidegger und Husserl, Husserl und Heidegger. Interpretationen einer Konstellation, in: Philosophisches Jahrbuch 121 (2014), pp. 333–350 (together with Tobias Keiling).


The “Wondering Child”. Progressive Education and Literature around 1900 (Dissertation)

Tim Hofmann

Enfant Surpris  (1770). Grafik von Carl Wilhem Weisbrod.

Enfant Surpris (1770). Grafik von Carl Wilhem Weisbrod.

The dissertation project explores the construction of the figure ‘infantile wonder’ in pedagogical, philosophical, aesthetic and literary discourses of the early twentieth century – a period that was shaped by substantial reforms in almost all societal and cultural areas and by a re-emergence of the concepts of child and wonder. Against this background, the project aims at studying the semantics of ‘child’ and ‘wonder’ in philosophical concepts (e.g. Nietzsche, Heidegger, Fink, Bloch), aesthetic theories (e.g. Ruskin, Baudelaire) as well as pedagogical writings, particularly those related to practices in art education (e.g. Hartlaub, Sully, Key). The project starts from the hypothesis that, in these concepts and texts, the infant and ‘infantile wonder’ are not represented as a stylized ideal (e.g. in Romanticism, esp. Novalis). Rather, they are conceptualized in a very concrete manner and, as such, transferred to other practices (of education, art production, and epistemology). The variations of the figura (in the sense of a changing terminological construct) of the ‘infantile wonder’ will be examined with regard to their relevance in literary texts around 1900. The question why authors of literary Modernism extensively drew on texts from the field of progressive education and furthermore stepped into a personal exchange with each other (e.g. Rilke, Kafka, Benjamin, Musil) is crucial here. How can the apparent affinity between both discourses be explained? Has there been a consensus concerning a common project along the lines of a cultural criticism? In which ways does the ‘infantile wonder‘ act as a concept vague enough to be compatible to different cultural fields? Does it stand for a detachment of conventionalized ways of perception and thinking? Or was it rather an activist concept? Beyond these questions, ‘infantile wonder’ will also be considered as a concept relevant to the formulation of a theory of aesthetic experience, particularly due to its specific temporality or instantaneity, its aesthetic effects as well as to its object.

(Advisors: Prof. Dr. Nicola Gess, Prof. Dr. Meike Baader)


Tim Hofmann, born in Villingen-Schwenningen, studied German Language and Literature, Philosophy, and Political Sciences in Heidelberg and Freiburg. After successfully completing a compulsory educational intership in Singen (Hohentwiel), he attained his Master of Literary Studies degree from the University of Basel in 2017. Whilst engaging in several cultural fields of interest, he also worked as a bookseller and acted as elected board member for the German Bookstore Prize in 2015 and 2016. He has been a member of the doctoral program at the University of Basel since 2017 and is the student representative on its managing board. As a doctoral candidate, he is a member of the SNF Sinergia project The Power of Wonder since May 2018.