A comparison of the genre of drama with that of philosophical inquiry

Compare a couple of the playwright David Mamet’s reflections on drama (the full text is available here) with my own thoughts about the genre of philosophical inquiry. (To read an excerpt from my book, The Art of Inquiry, go here):

Mamet: We know any drama ends when we find the answer to the question which gave rise to it. When we discover the answer simultaneously with the hero, the dramatist has done a very good job indeed.

Me: [Philosophical] Inquiry does not leave us forever in a state of ignorance; it also allows us to arrive at greater mutual understanding. This clarity could be likened to finally saying what is on the tip of our tongues, with the caveat that this something be novel. There is something we want to say but do not know yet; there is somewhere we want to head but this somewhere remains elusive; there is something missing we want to find but the discovery has, as of yet, remain hidden. The conclusion to an inquiry, accordingly, is like poetic naming: a new destination, a novel discovery, a long-sought-after homeland. ‘This,’ we say, ‘is it.’

Mamet: [Of the film Casablanca:] This is damned good writing. A man thinks he’s getting over a problem, the problem reasserts itself ([Ingrid] Bergman shows up), he tries to deal with it through revenge and then through fantasy (they can pick up where they left off), but finds these do not answer the question. The question is, “How does one deal with Betrayal?” He has tried distance, rage, and alcohol, and they do not work. The true solution, he finds, is, “DO NOT BETRAY OTHERS.” The answer, then, is found because the hero reformulates the question. It used to be, “What do I do about Ingrid Bergman?” but the deeper question, which alone has an answer, is, “WHAT KIND OF MAN AM I?” [my emphasis]

Me: [While reviewing earlier chapters of The Art of Inquiry] In Chapter 1, I distinguished philosophical inquiry from other genres. In Chapter 2, 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. In Section 3.2 (above), 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?’


Confirmation of previous hypothesis: Despite not being drama proper, philosophical inquiry has a necessary dramatic feature; every inquiry is an education in the spirit. By the end of an inquiry, the surprise one feels can stem both from the first conclusion that one has been asking the wrong questions–often for quite a long while, often for years–and from the second conclusion that one has achieved greater clarity–a view beyond the narrow confines of the self, a dispassionate view of oneself–than one could have ever conceived. Thereby, inquiry fools the imagination, ruptures one’s expectations, invites one away from tired questions whose answers have already been given, going beyond all of these to the sublime point of ‘this is it and this–whether good or bad or other–cannot be denied.’ The dramatic this is seen and said together and the process of inquiry, together with the conclusion, is most succinctly called learning.