What makes the wrong question wrong? (I)


One aim of a good inquiry, I have urged, is clarity in the broadest possible sense. Only a good question can allow for an inquiry to get underway. I would like to examine what makes a wrong question the wrong one (Part I) and what makes the right question the right one (Part II).

What makes a wrong question wrong?

To begin with, it does not allow for an inquiry to get underway. A necessary condition for an inquiry to count as being an inquiry is that it can ‘move’ somewhere. In what ways might might inquiring be impossible from the very start?

  1. One could ask a question whose answer is or is said to be obvious or self-evident. We might think of the know-it-all child who knows for sure that the state capital of New York is Albany.
  2. One could ask a question whose answer is or is said to be unknowable. “Why is there something rather than nothing” has remained unanswerable either because of the way that it is posed or because it goes beyond the bounds of human compehension.
  3. One could ask a question in such a way that she cannot but be at a loss as to what to say. To say that one is “at a loss” is just to say that one has no idea what a possible answer could “look like.” Perhaps, this sense of being “at a loss” implies that the question is unwieldy or overly narrow or devilishly unwieldy.
  4. One could pose a simulacrum of a question or a pseudo-question. When a father asks his son, “Why are so bloody stupid?,” he is not actually asking a question. Depending on the context, he is making a moral appraisal or posing a threat of harm.

The first reason a question is not a good one is that it does not allow for an inquiry to get off the ground. Let’s consider a second reason why a wrong question could be wrong. In this case, an inquiry can get started but ‘goes nowhere.’ What do I mean when I say that it ‘goes nowhere’? I mean

  1. that it ‘arrives’ at doxa, i.e., at common sense. Someone concludes that this is what everyone believes; this is (just) the way we do things here; that this is how things have always been; this is what is commonly held to be true. The problem with common sense is that it cannot take us anywhere–into an inquiry into what we do not know but would like to understand.
  2. that it ‘arrives’ at stuckness. The inquirer feels stuck because he senses that he has reached these conclusions before. The person who is stuck believes that there is only A or B (etc.) and neither is palatable. Stuckness suggests that, in truth, the inquirer went nowhere, only repeating or rehearsing what he had already thought before. The stuck person is perhaps doing no more than registering his dissatisfaction. I’m not sure that I would count this genre as thinking.
  3. that it ‘arrives’ at discord, creating a sense of dissonance. I may say that conclusion P is true but I don’t want to believe it (cognition). Or I may say that I should do Q but I don’t want to do that (volition).

So, I am claiming that a wrong question will make it impossible for us to gain greater clarity either because it won’t allow for an inquiry to get underway (the first reason) or because it won’t let an inquiry ‘go anywhere’ (the second reason). Perhaps there is a third reason, something I mean to inquire further about.

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