What makes the right question right? (II)

I have been writing about the art of inquiry with a view to understanding, in a preliminary fashion, how any philosophical inquiry of the kind I have in mind can ever get underway. The implicit aim in this endeavor is to show that philosophical inquiry is ‘self-transformative’: that it is the kind of activity that, minimally, brings us to a state of greater clarity about ourselves and our standing with our fellows.

Last week, I spoke of one sort of inquiry, one that is meant to confront us with our way of thinking in general, leaving us in a state of mental confusion (aporia). This first inquiry is, in turn, intended to supply us with the sufficient motivating force we need, a force so strong that it compels us to seek clarity. On Saturday, I examined whether certain questions are of the kind that, by their very nature, they will not let us get started or will quite soon set us off course. There I asked, “What makes the wrong question wrong?”

I owe the reader now a brief account of what makes the right question right. This I attempt to furnish in what follows.

I think, for my purposes, things will be clearer if I divide the question into four parts: 1. specification; 2. spirit; 3. process of reasoning; 4. conclusion.

1. Specifications

Getting the specifications right helps us to ‘set up’ an inquiry. I need to know, first of all, that I do not know what I am after (if I did know, why would I feel the need to inquire in the first place?), but (second) I also need to have some vague idea concerning what might count as being a good answer. Third, I need to have a good reason for inquiring, with this reason being that ‘I am alive to…’ or ‘I am fraught about…’ We return, as ever, to Meno’s paradox of inquiry.

Perhaps I can say a bit more about the ‘set-up.’ Negatively, I may have already ruled out certain answers that can’t satisfy and have held fast to these conclusions. So, I know that the right answer cannot be A or B or C (etc). But knowing that the wrong answer cannot be A or B or C should, in the case of a good inquiry, tell me something about my specifications: should help me to tighten my specifications so as to exclude answers like A, B, and C (etc.).

Positively, I can say that I have ‘some vague notion’ of what a right answer would be like. It has to be something like this, something with this shape or form or whatever.

Finally, I can say, especially when I am working with a good guide, that there is a certain ‘crystallization’ evident in the right question. “Yes,” we say in unison, “that is the right question. Let’s begin here.”

2. Spirit

The spirit of inquiry is one of novel possibilities. I am inquiring into I (or we) know-not-what and it is new (to us). In this respect, I do not listen to those pre- or unphilosophical nay-sayers who speak only of actualities (this is how things are, this is what people believe, it is what it is, and so forth). Rather, I am open, all open, to the possibility of learning about myself and the world.

Perhaps I am saying that my spirit is suffused, negatively, with bewilderment and, positively, with curiosity. We do well to contrast the bewilderment-curiosity pairing with the despair-apathy pairing.

3. Process of Reasoning

The process is very difficult to describe in abstract terms, especially because inquiries unfold in many different genres and because they rarely head ‘directly’ from a set of premises to a conclusion. On the other hand, an inquiry is not like free associating or rambling or concocting a dreamwork.

So perhaps I can say that an inquiry feels like going along with a river (not fighting its natural course), like moving in a particularly good direction, like leading forth (the guide) and–perhaps for the first time in my adult life–truly allowing myself to be led forth (the pupil). The guide must be humble, and the pupil mustn’t act like a disgruntled robin. Instead, they walk along together in the same direction toward a conclusion that (1) neither sees (clearly) beforehand but (2) both see together and at the same time.

4. Conclusion

A good conclusion brings the inquirers a sense of clarity. Accompanying clarity are the emotions of joy (laughter), justifiable sorrow (good crying), or lightness (smiles).

Let’s say that there are three (only three?–I don’t know) kinds of conclusions.

a.) ‘Yes, of course! This is it!’ (affirmation, insight, realization, convergence)

b.) X is possible–who knew? (opening into future inquiries)

c.) Inevitability, i.e., X will happen; necessity, i.e., Y has to be the case; timeliness, i.e., it is the right time to do Z (resoluteness concerning action)

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.

Commitment as a precondition to inquiry

Earlier today I was speaking with Pete Sims at Kaos Pilots about the art of inquiry. Based in Denmark, Kaos Pilots is a three-year program of study in social entrepreneurship. During the third year, students are invited to create a social business project that will take them, quite possibly, to faraway places and put them in touch with community members and business leaders. On August 28 and 29, I’m giving a two-day workshop on the art of inquiry in hopes of setting them off in the right direction.

The first day, I told Pete, would be focused on the theme of confusion, the second on that of clarity. The point of departure for any inquiry would be our sense of ‘great care’ about ourselves or some project. I clarified this point about ‘great care’ by asking what question would be especially fraught or alive to them. The reason I begin with the question of ‘fraughtness’ or ‘aliveness’ is that I want to convey to the pupil some sense of being gripped by the question, of its urgency or viscerally personal character. I wanted also to avoid my common experience in the academy in which individuals spoke of ‘being interested’ in something or other but without the sense that this question, were it to go unanswered, would leave the inquirer feeling depleted, lost, or unsatiated. Something of the greatest importance, the inquirer of the kind I imagine, would have gone missing.

I was struggling to convey to Pete the exact nature of the kind of question I had in mind and so later on I equated this ‘great care’ or fraughtness or aliveness with ‘basic commitment.’ Pete was patient and curious but nonetheless puzzled. He said that, of the class of 35 students, many of the Kaos Pilots students would likely be relativists and thus may not be committed to anything in the sense of ‘basic commitment.’ And if they are not so committed, he implied, then how will it be possible to show them–a few steps later–that they are confronted with their thinking in general? How, in other words, would it be possible to bring these non-committed relativists to a state of not-knowing, of mental confusion, of bewilderment when they were not willing to allow the inquiry to get underway in the first place?

The challenge of relativism suggests that one may ‘follow along’ with an inquiry without having any ‘skin in the game.’ In this respect, one remains a spectator rather than a participant, remaining unchanged from beginning to end.

I think the challenge of relativism is a serious one–serious enough that it called me to put pen to paper in January of 2009 when I was deep in despair–but in this case it needn’t be met head on. Rather, a suitable  reply might go as follows.

As self-reflective persons, we want our lives not to be spent in vain. Students who attend a school like Kaos Pilots needn’t have applied, let alone enrolled at a school whose mission is to effect “positive social change through personal growth.” Consequently, students are committed, at a minimum, to the claim that they do not want to waste their lives. But the claim that they do not want to waste their lives seems sufficient to imply that there is at least some way of life that is worth leading.

So it behooves them to ask what it would mean not to waste their lives and, presumably, their time at Kaos Pilots. Thus they are thrown back on two questions: one general, the other particular.

1. What is a worthwhile final aim, one that a reasonable person can ‘throw his weight behind’?

2. What is a project one can set to work on that is consonant with this final aim?

The first question suggests that there is a ‘recognitive dimension’ built into the notion of a worthwhile final aim. That is, only if a sensitive observer could also recognize this final aim as being worthwhile (and possibly take it as ‘her own’?) could it be so. Nietzsche wrote books only for kindred spirits; Kafka must have imagined that his book manuscripts, provided they were not destroyed, would be read by the right sorts of people; great socialites, however misled, presume that others envy them their refinement and social standing.

Some good candidates for worthwhile final aims, all of which are culled from history, would be financial success, ambition, glory, fame, social justice, care for the unfortunate, saintliness, communion with the divine, the common good, a life of contemplation, a life devoted to the search for truth, romantic love, gentility, and beauty.

The second question invites the inquirer to consider whether her particular third-year project is in tune with her final aim.

I believe these two questions are, conjointly, sufficient to answer the relativist charge that one is not committed to anything. If the pupil is committed to leading a worthwhile life and is further committed to creating a project that ‘chimes with’ this final aim, then it is possible to undertake an inquiry whose goal–it is a gamble–would be to arrive at a state of not-knowing.

The conclusion to the first day, “What now, now that I know that I know not?,” would motivate the need to go in search of greater clarity. On the second day, we learn how to inquire–how to identify the wrong questions, how to ask the right questions, and how to find livable answers to the latter–about the things that matter most.

Confronting our thinking in general

I want to say that the focus of my life is on teaching the art of inquiry. Yesterday, I said that one of the aims of a good inquiry is to disabuse us of our ignorance. To be humbled in this manner is to enter into a time of exceptional confusion. Can anything interesting be said of this state of confusion?

For starters, the kind of confusion I have in mind needs to be understood in its fullness. It is not the confusion of not knowing whether the train is running on a particular track or on time; whether my friend and I are meeting at the right place or time; whether there are closer to 8 million or 9 million people living in New York City; whether one dinner item should be put into the oven before or after another. Presumably, all these matters, which have to do with getting a state of affairs right or with following the proper sequence in order to arrive at the desired end, could be cleared up by verifying, by confirming, by consulting, or by referring to some authoritative manual. The ‘places we go to look’ in order to alleviate our bewilderment seem ‘on hand’ or ‘nearby’; clarity is a matter of course.

The state of confusion I mean to examine, then, seems to follow from a ‘confrontation with our thinking in its entirety.’ ‘Confronting our thinking’ is a phrase that came up during a conversation I had recently with Dutch education reformer Ed Weijers in reference to the work of the French philosophical practitioner Oscar Brenifier (whose work, admittedly, I’m not familiar with). I would say that this confrontation with my way of thinking in general renders the possibility of my returning to an old way of thinking impossible. I may desire to turn back, may be so tempted, but I have an intimation that that way is no foreclosed.

What now, we ask.

The first moment, a confrontation with our thinking in general, leads us to a second moment, a realization that the old way is foreclosed. The third moment is the leading on to a ‘space of possibilities.’ That is to say, we make the transition from a ‘space of actuality’ concerning how things have to be into a space in which novel possibilities are revealed to us. My life in this organization, not having to head one way anymore, might now head in any number of fruitful (or unfruitful) directions. In this instant, there is exhilaration as well as caution.

The temptation for any person or organization is to think, e.g., that this five-year plan was no good but that some other five-year plan would be more workable. Surely, if not this, then some other, no? At this point in the inquiry, we smile, recognizing that we not need some better five-year plan. Far wiser to have no five-year plan. In doing so, we welcome a time of life when exploring possibilities becomes vital, joyful, giddy.