What Makes Something Surprising?

Dan Baras, Oded Na’aman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Surprises are important in our everyday lives as well as in our scientific and philosophical theorizing—in psychology, information theory, cognitive-neuroscience, philosophy of science, and confirmation theory. Nevertheless, there is no satisfactory theory of what makes something surprising. It has long been acknowledged that not everything unexpected is surprising. The reader had no reason to expect that there will be exactly 190 words in this abstract and yet there is nothing surprising about this fact. We offer a novel theory that explains when and why an unexpected fact is surprising. We distinguish between descriptive and normative notions of what is surprising; clarify the sense in which surprising facts are unexpected; and, finally, develop and defend the significance account of surprise, according to which a fact is surprising to an agent if and to the extent that it is both unexpected and significant to the agent. Since a surprising fact can be significant to an agent in various ways—personal, moral, epistemic, and aesthetic—surprise is not merely or primarily epistemic. Fitting surprise reflects more than a person’s view of what is; it reflects a person’s view of what is significant.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)195-215
Number of pages21
JournalPhilosophy and Phenomenological Research
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jul 2022
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Many people helped us in the development of this paper. For commenting on previous drafts, we thank Mike Deigan, Eran Eldar, David Enoch, Barry Maguire, Juan S. Piñeros Glasscock, Levi Spectre, Daniel Telech and an anonymous referee for this journal. For helpful conversations and written exchanges, we thank Ori Beck, Selim Berker, Justin D’Arms, David Kovacs, Chris Howard, Marc Lange, Arnon Levy, Yair Levy, Ittay Nissan-Rozen, Aaron Segal, and Roger White. For teaching us about the state of the art on surprise in other disciplines, we thank Yehuda Baras, Jesse Dunietz, Yael Greenberg, Ayelet Landau, Christopher Miller and Tomer Ullman. We thank our audiences at our presentations at the Buber Philosophers’ Group, Josh Tenenbaum’s Computational Cognitive Science Group at MIT, the 23rd Meeting of the New Israeli Philosophy Association, as well as participants at an interdisciplinary workshop on surprise that we organized. This article was written with the support of the Martin Buber Society of Fellows at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Inc.


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