Inquiry illuminated

Excerpt from The Art of Inquiry, Chapter 1.


1. Inquiry Illuminated

What is it — Distinguishing Inquiry from Other ‘Genres’ (Methods, Theories) — Why it matters

1.1. Preliminary Definition

An inquiry is an unrehearsed genre whose principal aims are, first, to reveal to us what we don’t know but thought we did and, second, to bring us a greater sense of clarity than we could have possibly imagined.

Most discourses are rehearsed: professors read out lectures, politicians give speeches, businesspeople present PowerPoint presentations, know-it-alls quote what they have heard, doctors cite important studies, journalists conduct interviews with prescripted questions, experts work off theoretical knowledge, and so on. Most personal conversations are scripted, with each party asking questions with which the other is familiar and the other, in turn, offering replies that are instantly intelligible.

Doubtless, these discourses serve many purposes: conveying information, airing opinions, expressing emotions, making exclamations, discussing opportunities, reassuring participants, evoking common images, confirming common sense. However, to a large degree, these discourses also cordon us off from our vulnerabilities, making it impossible for us to learn something new about ourselves and our fellows. What is staked in telling me that you’re from a small town in the US? And what do I learn, in any substantive way, about myself when I read about fluctuating exchange rates?
Perhaps the goal of many discourses is to assure us in our received understandings and to reassure us that we know what we are doing.

One end of a philosophical inquiry, by contrast, is to draw our life into question. There is no sense in which this drawing into question can take place unless we are able to lose our footing, come to stutter, get muddled by what we mean, flail about in confusion–unless, in short, we come to know that we do not know what we thought we did, that we do not grasp what we had for so long taken for granted. Considered, sincere utterances (note, here, the first condition–an utterance being considered–as well as the second–the supreme virtue of sincerity) such as “I don’t know,” “I’m not sure,” and “I couldn’t say” illustrate how far we have come from terra firma. How rare to be in newfound territory, befuddled and turned about!

Inquiry does not leave us forever in a state of ignorance; it also lets us arrive at greater mutual understanding. This clarity could be likened to finally saying what is on the tip of our tongues, with the caveat that this something is novel. There is something we want to say but do not know yet; there is somewhere we want to head but this somewhere remains elusive; there is something missing we want to find but the discovery has, as of yet, remain hidden. The conclusion to an inquiry, accordingly, is like naming, a new destination, a novel discovery. “Yes,” we say, “This is it!”

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