‘I don’t know… Let’s find out.’

Earlier this week, one conversation partner asked me to give him a better account of the art of inquiry. I replied that a certain genre of discourse would arise and would be suitable for a certain age. Panegyric and encomia would arise during, and be suitable for, a heroic age, since the poet’s job would be to praise the victor. During an age of victimization, in which many are given to accusations of having ‘been offended,’ one might expect to find the apology as the dominant genre of discourse.  I argue that the art of inquiry springs forth during, and is especially fit for, unsettled time.

But why is this genre, rather than some other, ‘no longer a luxury’? In the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein shows that there is a ‘multiplicity of language-games,’ a diversity of ways in which words and sentences can be put, so that one would like to have a reason for believing that inquiry is the most proper genre for our time. In paragraph 23, Wittgenstein writes,

But how many kinds of sentence are there? [His interlocutor replies:] Say assertion, question, and command?— [Wittgenstein:] There are countless kinds:

Review the multiplicity of language-games in the following examples, and in others:

Giving orders, and obeying them—

Describing the appearance of an object, or giving its measurements–

Constructing an object from a description (a drawing)—

Reporting an event—

Speculating about an event—

My historical thesis–that ours is unsettled time–is that, first, what had previously been taken for granted on an everyday level has now been brought into question and, second, that the crisis of legitimate authority has been raised to such a feverish pitch that it is no longer clear how to ‘go on.’ In connection with the first part, one could take virtually any aspect of social life and show how what had been taken as common sense has now been churned up and turned into a question. How to have a relationship; what the aim of a relationship, of any kind, is; whether to have a child; how to have a child; how best to raise of child; what counts as good education; what role politics plays; what the nature of ‘the political’ is; what goes for good and decent work; what is work; where does one work; what is home; what is necessary, what unnecessary for a good life: these doubts, and countless others, have been thrown up as questions for those who are less than 50 years old, acutely for those who are less than 30.

These are the questions, then, but how shall we hit upon the answers? The crisis of authority seems to stop us before we can get started. It is concerned with how we come up with answers, and our doubt on this score can be stated in the simplest possible way: who leads forth and with what reason? Who is to follow whom? What does it mean to step in?

Inquiring, I argue, steps in, steps into the muddle, but in a gentle, graceful manner. Both leader and led, guide and pupil, inquirer and teacher recognize that our time is unsettled and, amid the unsettledness, one asks the other:

How do we go on?

The other, the one who is tenderly guiding, replies,

I don’t know. But I think, between us, we have the wherewithal to strike out and look. Shall we go forth and find out?

Tomorrow, I’d like to take my cue from the Daodejing and the early Socratic dialogues in order to draw some literary sketches of those unwilling to strike out (the know-it-all, the braggart, the Sophist, etc.) and of those who are.

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