Toward a better understanding of the art of inquiry

Dear C,

You ask what is the difference between friends and conversation partners. That is a very good question. The truth is that I have a hard time distinguishing between the two except by saying that the latter contribute to philosophical life within a gift economy whereas the former quite naturally would not think to do so. It is also true that in philosophical life I am the guide-friend and the other is the pupil-friend.

And now I want to muddy the distinction between friends and conversation partners somewhat. Friends seem not always to have been trained in the art of inquiry, this is true, but perhaps that is where the mutual task lies. I now think that good philosophical friendships consist of guidance and tutelage but in a “taking turns” sort of way. Maybe the other “puts me to the question” in such a way that allows us to move toward greater self-understanding. And then I do the same for him. It does seem that he is guiding me and I, in turn, am guiding him.

What seems to unify my philosophical life is the idea of inquiry. In inquiry, my life is up for examination as much as that of the other’s. When we examine our lives together, we hold ourselves to the question, stay there even when things seem tetchy or tight, and lovingly move toward clarity. If I can’t provide a definition of inquiry, still I feel pretty certain that “we know it when we see it, we learn through good exercise in inquiry, and we can feel when this one has come to an end.”

I am intrigued about what “prepares” one for philosophical life and I confess I do not know from the outset. The MIT Ph.D. may have no idea how to inquire and may not be able to learn whereas the high school graduate, now in his early 40’s, may have the virtues and the curiosity that conjointly make the art of inquiry possible. So, there does not seem to be any identifiable formal educational prerequisites to inquiry and I have no criterion with which to judge one’s general fitness aside from the case by case, the conversation by conversation, the question by question. Yet when I ‘see’ readiness or unreadiness, I ‘see’ it and know it for sure.

I can say with certainty that inquiry is not like scholarship or research or lecturing or sharing and that I had never undertaken inquiry until I began leading a philosophical life. In this sense, it is still new and fresh to me but perhaps this is always so. Perhaps too I am saying that an inquiry must be unscripted, unrehearsed, but directed; that there has to be something we hunger or thirst for with respect to ourselves and our lives; that the right question may take our breaths away, leading us into silence and confusion; and that the right answer may reveal to us the extent of our unknowing or the limp delight that accompanies knowing ourselves as if for the first time.

I can also say without hesitation that inquiry–daily, by the moment, nearly always–has deepened my life beyond anything I could have imagined years ago. It has deepened my voice, my sense of compassion, the sorrow I feel for others and the joy I experience from the first morning. It has been so life-altering, so soul stirring, so transformative as to leave me feeling full and fuller still and breathless and more fully breathless. And grateful. And grateful.

In gratitude,