The Art of Inquiry: Patience, courage, and openness

Excerpt from The Art of Inquiry. In this section of the book, I consider the importance of the virtues for living through a time of unclarity.



Let’s recall that we are confused not about something insignificant but rather about what matters most to us. We were once hubristic, believing that we knew what we didn’t. We are now ignorant, unable to give a good enough answer for what matters most. And even though we want to search for something better, we don’t yet know how to do so or what that suitable answer would be.

We are faced with two temptations. On the one hand, we could give up on the grounds that a suitable answer is quite simply well beyond us. On the other hand, we could be stubborn and persist in doing the same thing over and over again. Both giving up and stubbornness, however, seem to turn us away from inquiring with fresh ears and eyes. Those who give up too soon seem like cowards while those who persist in the same course despite that course being a dead-end are reminiscent of megalomaniacs (I think of Captain Ahab). Both camps, being too hard on themselves for different reasons, are acting foolishly.

Patience is not about waiting; it is giving us the time we need to think seriously in the hope of extricating ourselves from this sense of confusion. Without patience, there is no ‘slipping the trap,’ let alone ‘turning the key.’ Patience seems, if not to be the act itself, then to be the condition of possibility for focusing our attention on broader questions. Being patient, I am not attending to this design flaw (let’s say: I’m not ‘troubleshooting’), this disagreement between co-workers, or this instance of poor communication. I am concerned with the relationship between this design flaw and design more generally; with the nature of amity within this organization; or with the nature and structure of communication.


Courage invites us to stand firm in the face of fear. In this way, it introduces us to a set of important questions we need to ask about ourselves.

  1. What is it that we are afraid of? Is this something worth being afraid of?
  2. Are we strong enough to endure a time in which things do not make sense to us?
  3. If we have asked the right question (about which more in the following chapter), do we have what it takes to ‘see the question through to the end’? For how long can we put ourselves into this project?

At the same time that patience gives us the time we need to think seriously without feeling under duress to make up our minds or do something too quickly, courage makes it possible for us to get somewhere with the inquiry we are undertaking. Courage lets us move from where we are to where we could be.

Courage should not be confused with timidity (drawing back, turning back, retreating too soon) or rashness (speeding on, going forward, rushing headlong into an unknown future). While the timid person gives in the fear due, perhaps, to overestimating its magnitude or likelihood of harm, the bold person has not assessed her fear or the limits of her capacities. Courage, combined with patience, keep us within a space of inquiry in which we are open to examining novel possibilities.


The third and final virtue which is vital for living through a time of great confusion is openness. Most people have made up their minds and are closed to their thoughts going in a new direction. Few are willing to start over, especially once they have reached their 40s, 50s, or 60s. Individuals who speak of being on a ‘career path’ are a case in point. They believe that there are stepping stones which were laid out by some institution and which they must follow. Needless to say, most people are closed: they stick to their plans, play by the rules, do what they’re told, imagine career advancement.

Recall that inquiry has drawn us into confusion such that what we thought we knew we do not really know. If we are brave, then we have acknowledged our ignorance. If we are patient, then we are holding out hope for a better way of thinking. If we are open, then we have learned to live according to what Immanuel Kant terms ‘regulative ideas’ or ‘postulates.’

Despair marks a defect in logic and imagination. In The Critique of Pure Reason, Kant offers that the scientist who wishes to investigate nature must postulate that it is organized in a such and such a way despite the fact that he does not know (yet) whether it is organized in such and such a way. The logical point seems to be that in order to inquire seriously we must first posit some hitherto unknown possibility that is as good as, if not better than, the reality we are living through. Do we have reason to think that there is some better embodiable possibility? Certainly not if we draw our reasons only from the fund of past experience, history, and the current evidence of the senses. Certainly yes if we dare to imagine that there must be something, if only we look in the right way for this something.

On this understanding, a postulate is inquiry-guiding yet, importantly and as the inquiry gets underway, it does not run contrary to the mounting evidence. A postulate thus dares us to be open even while it cautions us to keep our eyes on the evidence of the senses. It provides us with two kinds of ‘looks’: the look beyond what we have tried out already as well as the look at the right and now to ensure that we are not flying off into fantasy.

In short, patience slows us down, courage moves us along, and openness points us in novel directions. Here, we are beginning to get a sense of what the kind of inquiry which provides clarity is like and why exercising the virtues matters.