Aesthetic Theory / Aesthetics / Childhood / Cognitive Science / Creativity / Education / Incompleteness / Philosophy / Quality


Surprise can be viewed as a basic component of human existence[1]. Reality always has more properties than our knowledge about it predicts. Our knowledge can be viewed as consisting of limited sets of knowledge covering limited parts of reality (see Analytical Spaces). Each of these sets of knowledge is incomplete. Taken together they are always incomplete as well. You cannot unify all of these sets of knowledge into one consistent theory of everything, or, if you do so, some uncovered part of reality will remain.

A consequence of this incompleteness is that we will always encounter surprises. We encounter situations not covered (or predicted) by the knowledge we have at a given time. Surprises may be seen as anomalies or gaps in the knowledge present at a given moment. They can form the starting point of the development of new knowledge, of the creation of new analytical spaces or their integration or reorganization into new and more comprehensive ones.

To use a term introduced by Scheler, human beings are “world-open”. They do not contain a fixed and unchanging, genetically determined body of knowledge. Instead, their knowledge develops by interacting with the world. As a result, the way in which human processes of perception and thought are functioning is not stable. It can change both during an individual’s lifetime and during history. We start with some genetically determined set of initial knowledge, but this is then modified by experience, by encountering surprises[2]. Surprises are moments when we gain new information. Some of this information is kept and can influence the way we perceive, think and act at a later time. The surprising information, i.e. a bit of information that was not derivable from the information we had before, is being integrated into the working of our mind[3].

Surprises then are the stepping stones in the way we are learning and growing. And it looks like we are even predisposed to seek surprises. Our genetic program, it seems, does not contain fixed ways of interacting with the world but a desire to find new ones. If there are no surprises, we get bored. A small child might start crying simply because nothing new is happening. It plays in order to be surprised. Too much surprise, on the other hand, leads to confusion. The playing child will, therefore, steer a course between boredom and confusion. In doing so, it will extend itself. On the level of perception, a similar process seems to drive us to seek sensual experiences that are neither too simple nor too complex (see On Beauty). So the process of learning by playing is a self-regulating process that extends the capabilities of the child and optimizes its own speed (see also Aesthetics and Pedagogics). Good pedagogics will take advantage of this natural process. As adults, we should maybe change our attitude towards playing. We should not view it merely as an activity to pass, or even kill time (and one should keep in mind that we have only a limited amount of time).

There are industries that provide games and toys and stories (in different media) for us and our children. A lot of this stuff is of very little value and quality[4] if we look at it as something that can provide a learning process in which there is the right level of surprise. We should look at such things very critically.

Next time you feel like playing, look for something that can make you grow. You will be surprised.

(The picture is from


[1] This post was inspired by a recent interesting Post by N. Filbert that can be found here.

[2] In a way, it does not make much sense then to talk about “human nature”. Humans are self-reprogrammable and creative, so they do not have much of a fixed nature. The “nature” of humans consists of a small initial stage of development that is then changed and adapted.

[3] A description of the previous state of the mind in terms of a formal theory or algorithm would not be capable of predicting the new information, but if we would produce such a description of the new stage of development, that information could be derived in it because it has been integrated. As a result, there is no single formal theory capable of describing all cognitive processes. In each stage of development, we can be surprised again, and as a result, extend ourselves. One result of this is that we can also surprise others, because being creative in this way we cannot describe human cognition, human cultures and human societies completely.

[4] This has something to do with the way these industries and our economic system work, but that is a topic beyond the scope of this article. See also Falling off the Ridge and The Planetarium – On Quality.

One thought on “Surprise

  1. merci, so thankful it motivated you to say… And I was just telling visitors today that “world-open” is what I most wish to be, and therefore love to be caught in any expressions or thoughts that indicate closure…in order to correct them 🙂

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