What makes the right question right? (II)

I have been writing about the art of inquiry with a view to understanding, in a preliminary fashion, how any philosophical inquiry of the kind I have in mind can ever get underway. The implicit aim in this endeavor is to show that philosophical inquiry is ‘self-transformative': that it is the kind of activity that, minimally, brings us to a state of greater clarity about ourselves and our standing with our fellows.

Last week, I spoke of one sort of inquiry, one that is meant to confront us with our way of thinking in general, leaving us in a state of mental confusion (aporia). This first inquiry is, in turn, intended to supply us with the sufficient motivating force we need, a force so strong that it compels us to seek clarity. On Saturday, I examined whether certain questions are of the kind that, by their very nature, they will not let us get started or will quite soon set us off course. There I asked, “What makes the wrong question wrong?”

I owe the reader now a brief account of what makes the right question right. This I attempt to furnish in what follows.

I think, for my purposes, things will be clearer if I divide the question into four parts: 1. specification; 2. spirit; 3. process of reasoning; 4. conclusion.

1. Specifications

Getting the specifications right helps us to ‘set up’ an inquiry. I need to know, first of all, that I do not know what I am after (if I did know, why would I feel the need to inquire in the first place?), but (second) I also need to have some vague idea concerning what might count as being a good answer. Third, I need to have a good reason for inquiring, with this reason being that ‘I am alive to…’ or ‘I am fraught about…’ We return, as ever, to Meno’s paradox of inquiry.

Perhaps I can say a bit more about the ‘set-up.’ Negatively, I may have already ruled out certain answers that can’t satisfy and have held fast to these conclusions. So, I know that the right answer cannot be A or B or C (etc). But knowing that the wrong answer cannot be A or B or C should, in the case of a good inquiry, tell me something about my specifications: should help me to tighten my specifications so as to exclude answers like A, B, and C (etc.).

Positively, I can say that I have ‘some vague notion’ of what a right answer would be like. It has to be something like this, something with this shape or form or whatever.

Finally, I can say, especially when I am working with a good guide, that there is a certain ‘crystallization’ evident in the right question. “Yes,” we say in unison, “that is the right question. Let’s begin here.”

2. Spirit

The spirit of inquiry is one of novel possibilities. I am inquiring into I (or we) know-not-what and it is new (to us). In this respect, I do not listen to those pre- or unphilosophical nay-sayers who speak only of actualities (this is how things are, this is what people believe, it is what it is, and so forth). Rather, I am open, all open, to the possibility of learning about myself and the world.

Perhaps I am saying that my spirit is suffused, negatively, with bewilderment and, positively, with curiosity. We do well to contrast the bewilderment-curiosity pairing with the despair-apathy pairing.

3. Process of Reasoning

The process is very difficult to describe in abstract terms, especially because inquiries unfold in many different genres and because they rarely head ‘directly’ from a set of premises to a conclusion. On the other hand, an inquiry is not like free associating or rambling or concocting a dreamwork.

So perhaps I can say that an inquiry feels like going along with a river (not fighting its natural course), like moving in a particularly good direction, like leading forth (the guide) and–perhaps for the first time in my adult life–truly allowing myself to be led forth (the pupil). The guide must be humble, and the pupil mustn’t act like a disgruntled robin. Instead, they walk along together in the same direction toward a conclusion that (1) neither sees (clearly) beforehand but (2) both see together and at the same time.

4. Conclusion

A good conclusion brings the inquirers a sense of clarity. Accompanying clarity are the emotions of joy (laughter), justifiable sorrow (good crying), or lightness (smiles).

Let’s say that there are three (only three?–I don’t know) kinds of conclusions.

a.) ‘Yes, of course! This is it!’ (affirmation, insight, realization, convergence)

b.) X is possible–who knew? (opening into future inquiries)

c.) Inevitability, i.e., X will happen; necessity, i.e., Y has to be the case; timeliness, i.e., it is the right time to do Z (resoluteness concerning action)

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