When a vague question is asking to be asked

In his actions, gestures, demeanour and speech, the [Daoist] sage shows himself to be responsive but steady, focused but spontaneous, firm but flexible, reserved but accessible. He follows no rigid plans, and does not espouse goals that are to be achieved come what may. Hence, he does not force people or things to fit in with plans or goals.

–David E. Cooper, Convergence with Nature: A Daoist Perspective


In my philosophy practice, I have had the experience more than a couple of times in the past year of feeling that a question is asking to be asked but not knowing exactly what needs to be asked. But something. I say: “I see an opening.” I say: “There seems to me something here.” I say: “Hold. Stay with me. I think something important could happen if only we persist.”

(I hear a voice saying: “Be firm but flexible.” I hear: “Follow no rigid plans.” I hear: “Be calm but careful, cautious but persistent.” I hear and I do not know. It offers no instructions.)

The time is dangerous and the air is fraught because I don’t know what I am doing, I could hurt the other in my folly, and the sought-after insight may not arrive at all or on time. I want to be careful, therefore, and in this long moment I am not sure whether to resist further inquiry or to press on in the face of not knowing. In which direction does courage lie? How much patience is required? Am I exercising good judgment (phronesis) by persisting, by not persisting, by persisting lightly or pointedly, forcefully or nurturantly? I do not know.

(“Be firm but flexible. Follow no rigid plans.”)

Reader, you must understand that this is not some intellectual exercise; a life is not the kind of thing to play around with; there are vital concerns at stake, tender souls open to inquiry. Know that I have cried with others during glimmers of insight, and know too that I have felt sorrow for having misled them (us). Know that, when we examine our lives in the sacred space of philosophical intimacy, the wrong question at the wrong time can unravel a person, a relationship, a life. I grant this tragic shade to life. I honor it.

(“Do not force people before their time, but act spontaneously when the time comes.”)

Before you, I want to be answerable for my life. I want to understand what it means to sense that a question is asking to be asked but having no better sense of what question exactly needs to be voiced.

In one classic Daoist text, the Zhuangzi, we come upon a craftsman who seeks to make a bell stand. In order to do so, he must cut down a tree. But how does he know which tree would serve his purpose and how to do so in accordance with the Way? He reasons thus:

When I am going to make a bell-stand… I enter into the mountain forests, viewing the inborn heavenly nature of the trees. My body arrives at a certain spot, and already I see the completed bell-stand there: only then do I apply my hand to it. Otherwise I leave the tree alone.

(Beautiful, I cry, beautiful: I cry. Here, the grace exhibited in bringing a reverent hand into the flesh of a living being in the hope of transformation.)

To begin with, the craftsman is called forth by a need; he would not enter the forest to cut down a tree unless this were so; nor does he cut down any more trees than would suit his immediate purpose. Second, he has a conception in mind of a completed bell-stand. Third, he walks about in search of a tree that would accord with the idea of a completed bell-stand. And, fourth, he selects the particular tree just because he can “see the completed bell-stand there.” That is, this tree is a fit for the conception he has in mind. Colloquially, we say, pointing: “Ah! This is it.”

We have, in short, (1) a need, (2) a specification, (3) an inquiry directed at the specification, and (4) the fitting together of thing and specification. This should look like the basic shape of a good inquiry.

Unless I’m mistaken, most of my life is spent moving, gracefully and not so, through 1-4–this with one minor modification. I would venture that the specification is rarely so clear as “the completed bell-stand.” More often, in a philosophical conversation, we are inquiring about something or other at the same time that we are discovering our reason for inquiring about something or other as we go along.  When an inquiry is going well, the criterion or specification becomes clearer in and with the going. Not so easy. If only it were so easy as seeing the completed bell-stand there!

Notice, however, that the question I presented at the outset only satisfies the first condition fully and the third condition somewhat. There is a need, one that pulls me up to it, one to which I am attuned. In my heart, I feel disquietude, urging, displeasure, demand–I know not what the intimation is, but a need of or about something in connection with the other. Yet here I pause or stutter or mumble or gasp. I put my hands behind my head. I breathe and search. I close my eyes. Should I ask when I don’t know at what the question is directed, especially when I do not know how this question, here and now, will be received?

I may give pain.

I am speaking of vagueness. How dim must a specification be before it is no specification at all? And if there is no specification or none to be had, then in what sense could we say, after breathing deeply, after putting the vague questions, after unnerving each other enough or unraveling our relation–after all this, in what sense can we say that we have arrived at something: at some insight, some realization, some greater clarity?

(Am I forcing things? Am I succumbing to impatience?)

But then perhaps the aim of the inquiry just is to put us in the ditch, showing us that something is amiss. If so, do we have the strength to persist despite the fact that doing so will surely draw us further apart? But perhaps we are pressing at something that isn’t there or questioning something that isn’t ready to be questioned? But if that something is not ready to be revealed, not open to us yet even despite some vague intimation, then perhaps this is the truth of the inquiry, a truth that could not have otherwise been known had we not had the fortitude to forge on a little further? I do not know: the possibilities are dizzying, the inferences quiet, unforthcoming.

Before you, I want to be answerable for my life. I want to inquire further about myself, my part, my failures, my responsibilities, my guilt. Our ethical lives demand this much from us.

Let’s suppose, as I have done in the instances I alluded to in the opening line, that I have essayed a question or a thought on the understanding that the other’s reply or the next or the next might “tell us something,” perhaps allowing us to draw nearer to a–to the–well-formulated question that will, in the end, let itself be asked. From this perspective, it feels as though this inquiry is a propaedeuctic to inquiring further.

The danger lies near, nearer still, almost here, in the shadows, provided the opening reveals nothing in the way of insight.

(Do I sense the danger? Its magnitude? Am I still attuned to him, to her, to us? Should I ease off now or is that cowardice?)

For soon enough it shall become clear that we don’t know what we are looking for (an intersubjective realization); that we have no idea how to go on ‘from here’ (a dizzying abyss, without coordinates); and that we do not know how to get out (a lostness beyond lostness). The terminus of “what are we doing here?” is the splitting of the ‘we’ into an ‘I’ and a ‘you,’ with the further consequence that I am causing him, her, you harm. And since I initiated, led the inquiry, and persisted, I am now causing you pain.

(What does it mean to honor the pain I have caused another? Is there a ritual for this, an action akin to tossing sand and ash and dry spit into the wind? Are we staring face to face at our human vulnerabilities? If so, was that what this was all about all along? Or am I missing the point again?)

In the face of sorrow, we draw on strength. We slacken, we shake out, we walk apart, we dwell in great silence, we return. Before you, reader, I honor the sorrow, my fallibility, our desire for insight. I must acknowledge the void. We return to the last stepping stone, recalling what more intelligible, fruitful inquiries were like, and start again from there, scratching marks with calloused hands in the dry dirt.

I imagine us holding a stick together and, with slow hands, scratching a few loose marks in the dirt.

(I can feel sorrow for having harmed you and I can have no regrets. I can owe you something, something further, and have no regrets. I can love my fallibility and know sorrow and be sorry to you and have no regrets. Our ethical lives are dents, dense, complex.)

Have I learned anything from this? (Or is this, just now, the wrong question?) Perhaps I have learned, as if I had never bled, as if I had never wounded another till now, to be more mindful, more attentive and responsive, knowing full well that the lesson of the vagueness may arrive somewhere down the road and thereby be redeemed–or not at all. It may never arrive. I have learned that I can do no more but learn to practice again, practice and, after, toss earth as insufficient amends, to act this time again with the greatest care I can urge: and then, again, with greater care than that.