‘I spilled the ink across the page’: Reflections on inquiring about life


I spend a lot of my time trying out novel experiments, watching them unwind, and then puzzling through what I can learn about their reasons for unraveling. (Mine, a life in letters spelling out failures. All spilled ink across the page.) I worked at two start-ups, have run my own businesses, have conjured up in fancy countless others, and generally tinker and scratch about most every day. What amazes me is how delicate a new idea is, how much thought is required to bring this idea into being, and yet how easy it is for this fragile idea to pass out of existence. I marvel: creation all toil and care, destruction a stray word. God has always had a sense of humor and, like God, so have I.

(Conversation partners: there is a lesson, here in the final lines of the opening paragraph, about the fragility of good relationships.)

Not long ago, I ran an experiment in philosophical inquiry. The idea was to bring together some people I knew with others I did not and to see what might happen, if anything. I noticed that the inquiry, being such a tender thing, started to get going in a good direction and then foundered. Why did it stall and founder, I wondered. The answer that occurred to me then and that I have not had reason to doubt since was that there was a sense of impatience. What, I want to know, might impatience have to tell us about the activity of inquiry?

First, I thought about what being impatient meant in this context. Then, I came to see that there was need of a meta-inquiry–i.e., an inquiry about the nature of this inquiry–which would then have to be broadened so as to include the reasons why any inquiry such as this one might conceivably founder. Then, I realized that in order to understand the reasons why any inquiry of this kind might founder I would need to examine what kind of inquiry I had in mind in the first place. And, lastly, I needed to examine what conclusions could be drawn from this experiment.

This is more or less what I offer the reader below: a consideration of the nature of a particular kind of inquiry (an inquiry into life), an examination of the vices that may, at any time, lead to an inquiry’s coming to an end ‘before its time,’ and a gathering together of provisional conclusions, especially those that bear on the course of my philosophical life.

In the following, the reader should bear in mind, first of all, that the contaries of the vices can be “read off” the vices, the idea being to read a “no” (a vice, a form of misguidance) as the via to the “yes” (a virtue, an inquiry-guiding strength). Second of all, the reader should be mindful of the fact that I have exercised all the vices mentioned under the second header. I exercised them for 25 years and then slowly excised them during the past 8.

The Nature of Inquiry Concerning Our Lives

1. Any inquiry that matters ownmost (hereafter simply: inquiry) must arise from a life need. The question must be ‘fraught’ for me or it must be something that I am ‘alive to.’ The only inquiry I have in mind as counting as an inquiry that matters ownmost is of the following form or is some softer variant thereof: ‘if life is brought into question.’

I am putting a great deal of weight on the qualifer, ‘that matters ownmost,’ because I want to rule out most of what regularly goes for so-called interesting inquiry and what seems to me a great waste of time and breath. I want to rule out most academy inquiry (e.g., about whether or not Henry James was a homosexual). I want to rule out, e.g., mathematical inquiries into string theory. I want to rule out, e.g., second-order modal logic. If these activities count for something, they do not count as inquiries of the kind I have in mind.

I want also to rule out chit chat, idle philosophical questions not arising from ‘fraughtness’ or ‘aliveness,’ academic conferences, public lectures (in virtue of their not being inquiries: but see Public Form below), and so on.

None of these will qualify as ‘life inquiry’ or, simply, ‘inquiry,’ as I mean to use the term in what follows.

2. Any moment in an inquiry must be open to what has come in the moments just before. Accordingly, every moment is a ‘response’ to a ‘call,’ an attunement to a voice, a tender attention to another, this other before me.

One new friend is a writer, teaches writing in a prison. I have never met a person so attentive in the sense of point 2.

3. Any moment in an inquiry must (also) open itself out onto further examination. In saying this, I am saying that any utterance must not just be a ‘point’ or a ‘statement’ but concomitantly an ‘invitation.’ In making this utterance about such-and-such, I am simultaneously saying, “Let’s…” or “let’s also…. Now you? Come with? Let’s go on….”

This point, requiring great finesse, takes years to learn. In my life, I have come across few who are so able.

4. An inquiry is not about you or me but about the possibility of its perdurance, a carrying forth by virtue of ‘you’ and ‘me’ but not ‘causally’ the result of ‘you’ or ‘me.’ Puzzlingly, neither I nor you ‘make’ an inquiry go or go on but–god knows how–it gets on by means of the ‘we.’

The ‘we’ is very fragile. I must be careful. So must you. Our responsibility is immense.

5. An inquiry, therefore, is never mine or yours but, provided it gets underway and goes somewhere, possibly ours. This is its gift.

Now, to say that “we submit ourselves to inquiry” is to say, in part, that we are profoundly humbled before each other, deeply humbled also in the ‘eyes’ of the inquiry. The inquiry is like a god.

What, therefore, can lead an inquiry to its premature ending, lead it to end, as we say, ‘well before its time’?


1. Intellectualism. If the inquiry does not matter ownmost to me, you, or to us, then there is no way that this inquiry can ever get underway. Not in good faith anyway. Rather, we are merely chit-chatting, seeking to impress one another (cf. academic posturing), or abiding our time (oh, well, we still have 30 min. till dinner is served, so…)

If, e.g., I ‘cut into’ an inquiry that is not fraught or ‘alive’ for me, then I am turning what is ‘fraught’ or ‘alive’ into dead matter. The inquiry founders here.

When I do this, I am not wise.

2. Inattentiveness. In any inquiry, one may not hear the call of the other who spoke prior. Or not hear what is needed here and now in virtue of all that has come before: moments before or ages before. These are all grave dangers indeed.

(Attention can only be learned by means of a long education in attending. I am putting in my time. Watch me lord.)

3. Impatience. The impatient one flexes his muscles and applies a certain force. He presses for the inquiry’s heading in a particular direction. Or he insists that it must go into a particular place. Or he is in a hurry to ‘get to the end’ as if the result were all that mattered. Or he has no sense that all inquirers must get in tune, must walk at roughly the right pace, but rather hastens on ahead, wondering why others do not follow him. (What is the matter with them, he thinks.) The impatient one is the embodiment of exasperation. In his eyes, all others are slow pokes.

I have been impatient. Less so these days but many days before these.

4. Hubris. Hubris reveals itself in any inquiry when the ‘we,’ so delicate and light, is severed into ‘me’s’ and ‘you’s.’ Examples: This is what is the case period. I am making assertions (or I am making assertions that are absolutely final). I am not open to examination before you or others. I have made up my mind, but you are welcome to ask for clarification, should you so desire. You may agree with me or you may disagree with me (no matter whichever), but know that the ‘terms’ are only ever ‘agreement’ or ‘disagreement’: these are the terms and there can be no other. Yes? I would be happy to think with you but only under these conditions. Here is where things end, whether you see this or not.

I was hubristic for three decades, now less so I hope, god willing.

5. Pre-answeredness. My life was always already answered. My life, as if well before I lived, was answered. Why bother asking (at all, let alone further)? I can hear no questions (at all or from you or from life). Consequently, I cannot possibly hear your questions, cannot take these utterances as questions.

6. Incapacity to carry on (a species of cowardice?). I am not able to let this line of thought ‘pass through me’ and onto another or an elsewhere. Accordingly, not only am I inattentive; I am also unsure of ‘what might suitably come next.’ That is, I stop things or let them stop because I cannot key into a next step or cannot make it there. It’s as if I can’t get into the flow (of the river), can’t get the hang of things, can’t hear how things might go.

7. Fear, temptation. Things are starting to get ‘interesting’ and ‘hard’ and I am afraid. I turn away, renounce, crumple up, or flee.

Yup, I sense this in you sometimes, in myself also. Let’s not be so tempted but laugh.

8. Lack of phronesis. Phronesis first. Any inquiry of this kind requires a guide with ‘dual consciousness.’ The guide must be attuned to the other with the highest order of attention. At the same time, he must have in mind some specification of ‘where this might lead,’ where would be a good way for it to go, and sometimes where it must go for us to reach clarity or for this inquiry to arrive at an appropriate end. The guide must, as it were, hear the call of the next, the one or two steps after this, perhaps even all the way up to the end of the inquiry. The guide must lead the way but let all arrive at exactly the same time, let all see the same together, let himself also be in awe of the conclusion that is not of his making. (It is never clear what exactly the guide ‘does.’) The good guide, exercising good judgment, is ever humble in the face of this awesome responsibility, knowing both that he made it possible and that he did not bring it about.

Lack of phronesis can, in this context, come in one of three forms. One form: the guides ‘forces’ the other to ‘get to the end’ (recall impatience): ‘forces the other’s hand,’ thereby spoiling the idea of invitation. If this happens, then they cease to be fellow inquirers, the one dragging the other or others along in tow.

Or the guide focuses too much on the here and now and thus loses the thread of the inquiry, loses sight of this inquiry: its nature and direction. If this happens, then the inquiry ‘gets stuck,’ ‘trails off,’ or ‘dot dot dots.’

Or the guide, out of weakness, impatience, or fatigue, fails to attend. When this happens, he knows he is not wise, turns to humility.

Provisional Conclusions

By ‘provisional,’ I mean both that I am committed to the following thoughts and that they seem true to me as of April 3, 2012. This is not a contradiction. After further inquiry, I may need to revise them or let go of them. The future is opaque and I must be open to it.

1. I feel confirmed in an earlier conclusion I drew that there is no necessary condition between formal philosophical training and inquiry so understood. In fact, I do not believe that my formal training prepared me in any significant respect for this kind of inquiry, and I do not see in others with formal philosophical training the cultivation of the gift for inquiry, except contingently. (An exception: some training in elementary formal logic and imaginative literature would be useful but is not necessary.)

On the contrary, my formal training taught me to turn away from others and to cultivate many of the vices so evident above. (Could it be said that formal training bred these vices in me? I would not rule the thought out.) And I see in those who have spent time around others in need a much greater understanding of attunement.

(I hope I will soon have the courage to leave off the Ph.D. in my email signature. I fear that I will be too weak to do what is right.)

2. I am letting go of the idea that an inquiry so understood can take place in a Public Form. During the past 10 years, I have not found anything ‘interesting’ (see point 1 under the first section) happen in the university courses I taught, the Cafe Philo events I put on, the general education seminar courses I taught to the elderly or the young, etc. Nothing truly ‘hot’ or ‘alive’ was at stake, and I have taught so many things at so many times to so many people to think myself justified in drawing this empirical conclusion.

Additionally, I no longer think that philosophical progress can transpire in a Public Form whose first premise is that citizens are rational persons and strangers at once. The Public Form–I am thinking of a large public space, real or virtual–is the proper place of the lecture. And that is a fine thing for what it is, so long as we ask nothing more from it.

3. A necessary condition for undertaking an inquiry so understood, I now realize, is a long education in this kind of inquiry. In the future, I believe I will be less inclined to inquire with those whom I have not already trained in the nature of inquiry. (This training, I have learned, takes hundreds of hours, and that is a good thing. It is also a lot of work. Good work of the highest kind. We roll up our sleeves, my conversation partners and I.)

It is as if, with those who are not within my philosophy practice, we were strangers speaking different languages, getting into semantic debates, and asking for stipulative definitions. This is probably because we are strangers and share no common language. It would be better if we acknowledged this upfront and went either with lovely chit chat or with an open-ended conversation. I am fairly decent at both, like both well enough. See point 4 immediately below.

4. In my own life, I want to begin distinguishing between chit chat (which I rather like in moderation), open-ended conversations (to be undertaken with non-philosophical friends I meet through the internet or in person), and philosophical conversations/philosophical inquiries. Chit chat seems an excellent way of being bonhomie with neighbors, acquaintances, and store clerks. Open-ended conversations seems a good way to treat ‘one-off’ Skype conversations with acquaintances and non-philosophical friends. I believe, however, that I want to spend most of my life involved in the last category.

I do not think most people know how to examine their lives, and I do not believe that that is my responsibility. (Yes, I am thinking of you, of our conversation, Catlin.) I see my responsibility in more local terms: as helping those who come into my practice to learn the art of inquiry. Toward those who have not learned this art, I must be congenial and compassionate and friendly.

5. I am coming to the conclusion that there is no such thing as inquiring without some guide leading the inquiry. David E. Cooper, Alasdair MacIntyre, Pierre Hadot, and Charles Taylor have been some of my guides. Aristotle, Montaigne, and Hegel have been others. I hunger for others and have found few. In my practice, I aspire to be a good guide myself.

If I am right, then this puts the lie to the too strong egalitarian conception according to which we are inquirers always ‘on the same level.’ True, we are ‘on the same level’ in that we are all committed to leading philosophical lives and this, for a time or till we die, together. Yet we are not ‘on the same level’ in that one is the guide, the other the guided, and yet we are both–or, rather, if more than two, then ‘all’–humbled before the inquiry and in relation to the philosophical life we wish to uphold.

NB: a guide may also teach others to be guides. And a guide may be guided by others when it comes their turn to lead, provided they are ready to do so and provided also he is wise enough to be let, to let himself be led.

I do not see how this asymmetry could be otherwise. I love St. Benedict, stand humbled before him, for his having reminding me of this.

A Note on the Title of the Post

Singularly and collectively, my conversation partners are trying to educate me in the ways of good music. My idea of music, so far, has been morning and midday birdsong. I am a slower learner, but I am learning otherwise. “I spilled ink across the page” is the opening lyric of “Paper Aeroplane,” a song written and performed by Angus and Julia Stone. So Pandora tells me.