Unstucking ‘stuckness’ (2)


Yesterday I argued that “stuckness” is the best single word description of the ‘place’ in which many people find themselves. Specifically, I said that being stuck involves

1. being unable to go forward toward a future state of being;

2. being unable to go backward, to return to a prior state of being;

3. having the desire to move one way or another;

4. wanting to will something to happen but recognizing, if only dimly, that one’s will is inconsequential;

5. hence, repeating the same gestures or remaining paralyzed while becoming half or fully aware of this repetition or this state of paralysis.

Today I want to provide a sketch of how philosophical inquiry can “unstuck” us.

Definition of Inquiry

In The Art of InquiryI define the latter as “an unrehearsed genre whose principal aims are, first, to reveal to us what we don’t know but thought we did and, second, to bring us a greater sense of clarity than we could have possibly imagined.”

Three Conditions

In late August, I put on a two-day workshop on the art of inquiry at Kaos Pilots, a school based in Aarhus, Denmark. On the second day, I put two cushions on the floor and asked someone, who was prepared to inquire about her life, who was willing to answer in direct speech, and who agreed to say “I don’t know” when she really didn’t know the answer, to sit down in front of me. The rest of the class was seated above us, only a few feet away. The conversation was slow moving and was punctuated by many long and important silences. In this way, we got somewhere together.

In sum, the three conditions for philosophical inquiry are (1) readiness to inquire about one’s life, (2) willingness to speak plainly (without jargon, subterfuge, avoidance, or circumlocution), and (3) a willingness to say “I don’t know” when one really doesn’t know.

The ‘Place’ of Inquiry

Inquiry begins where the claim to knowing ends. Yet it does not amount to ignorance. It resides, instead, in the ‘place’ between ignorance and wisdom. Hence it requires one to take risks without the guarantee that the risks will bear fruit.

‘Stuckness’ Revisited

We inquirers agree with premise 2 (above) that there is no going back and with premise 3 that there is a desire to make progress. However, we reject premises 1, 4, and 5: pace 1, we postulate that another way of life exists; pace 4, we believe that inquiry is concerned with self-understanding, not with volition. Therefore, we do not conclude that paralysis or repetition are the only ‘possible motions.’ We want, as it were, to put thinking in motion.

Unstucking ‘stuckness’: An Example for Future Inquiry

With one conversation partner who has been ‘stuck’ in the legal profession for about a decade, we know that working in law is simply untenable. It would seem, however, that no other form of work would meet his material needs as well as the needs of his children. It would seem as if he cannot–but must–stay put, cannot go back, and yet cannot go forward. What then, except despair?

We undertake one inquiry with the goal of setting the right specifications for another, future inquiry. These specifications would tell us how any line of work would have to look in order to count as being a good form of work period. The answer to our next inquiry would be a line of work that may exist or may not exist (entrepreneurship) but would, in any case, be one with which we are, at present, unfamiliar. We will have to make it up, so to speak, as we go.

The specifications would go as follows. In order to count as a good form of work, it would have to

a) Be a part of stable organization(s)

b) Have stable work hours

c) Have a good mission

d) Offer reasonable or good-enough pay

e) Be reconciliatory rather than adversarial model/atmosphere

f) Be creative–specifically in terms of the craft of writing.

Inquiry, accordingly, is not about ‘keeping searching’ or about ‘casting a wide net’ or even about applying for jobs. It is about thinking seriously in order to reach a greater sense of clarity than we could have possibly imagined.