Searching is not search

Nicholas Carr begins his blog post, ‘The Searchers,’ as follows,

When we talk about “searching” these days, we’re almost always talking about using Google to find something online. That’s quite a twist for a word that has long carried existential connotations, that has been bound up in our sense of what it means to be conscious and alive. We don’t just search for car keys or missing socks. We search for truth and meaning, for love, for transcendence, for peace, for ourselves. To be human is to be a searcher.

Whereas searching–a verb, an activity of a certain kind–is a key feature of the meaning of being human, a search query, believes Carr, as cogent a writer there is on the limits of the Internet Age, can sharply turn into its opposite: into an attempt to away with the question entirely. To bolster his case, Carr quotes Ray Kurzweil, a defendant of AI and new director of research at Google: ‘I envision some years from now that the majority of search queries will be answered without you actually asking. It’ll just know this is something that you’re going to want to see.

Searching is not search. There is a crucial distinction to be drawn between a search query and the art of philosophical inquiry. Searches of the Google kind seek to tell us what we already know: we want a picture of the image in the mind’s eye; a pair of shoes fitting certain specifications; a piece of information forgotten or misremembered and in need of being recollected–in a word, a narrowly construed object to satisfy our barely understood desire. In this sense, of course, Kurzweil cannot possibly be wrong, since the answer to this sort of question comes well before the question is ever asked.

Hence search terms can be regarded as rehearsals, as lines repeated ad infinitum, acts committed in a Sisyphean spirit. Yet must searching–that is to say, searching in the existential sense–be aimless and interminable? Carr implies as much: ‘In its highest form, a search has no well-defined object. It’s open-ended, an act of exploration that takes us out into the world, beyond the self, in order to know the world, and the self, more fully.’

Having begun with the wrong sort of question, Kurzweil makes the mistake of doing away with the need for one. Carr’s mistake is to do away with the possibility of reaching a good answer. For although searching is a meandering far from home and despite its not having any concrete object as its target, it is not, pace Carr, the same activity as wandering about without hope of finding. Quite the contrary, as I argue in The Art of Inquiry searching grasped as philosophical inquiry is an unrehearsed genre whose chief aims are to reveal to us what we do not know but thought we did and to bring us a greater sense of clarity than we could have possibly imagined. An inquiry is a stroll through a garden, a game of philosophical improv, a mysterious adventure whose clues lead one to the final unraveling…