Coming to an inquiring state of mind (Part 3)

How can we get the hang of being surprised?

In Part 1, I discuss the importance of being surprised, arguing that philosophical inquiring presents us with two kinds of surprises: perplexities and illuminations. In Part 2, I discuss the cultivation of lightness in the presence of surprise. Today, in the final part, I explore the difference between other states of mind and an inquiring state of mind.

An Inquiring State of Mind

Inquiring springs from a simple human urge: the desire to know something about ourselves that we do not already know. Once voiced, this sense of unknowing can repeat itself indefinitely in the guise of ‘I don’t know,’ can be denied and refused as though it had never been uttered or experienced, or, through proper training, can be transformed into a way of setting out. This last mode is an invitation to take a risk in the hope of finding something out together.

An ordinary surprise holds us in suspense but then inquiring can help to set us in motion. What we discover, by virtue of inquiring, is that we have adopted the right vocabulary for going and finding out. The modern world confronts us with many alternative, less honest, and less edifying ways of conceptualizing our sense of surprise. The wrong vocabulary may be concerned with taking human life as if it were an engineering ‘problem’ in need of ‘solution’ or a ‘defect’ that needs to be ‘fixed’; of regarding questions as if they were ‘diagnoses’ that thereby call for ‘treatment’; of necessarily being ‘conditions’ that had simply to be ‘lived with’ or ‘coped with’; of being mysterious and, accordingly, requiring some kind of ‘expertise’ in order to be ‘addressed,’ ‘monitored, ‘handled,’ or ‘managed.’

In contrast with these errant vocabularies, the words we learn in inquiring are simpler, more direct, and more earnest. If we’re perplexed, then we had better be neither preoccupied nor obsessed but puzzled, curious, nearly bemused. We had better be disinterestedly interested, fascinated, wry, and adventuresome as if the question occurring to us, however potent and stirring it may be and however sharply it bears on our lives, could be regarded impersonally, impartially, as if it could viewed by a god from above. The kind of state of mind I’m trying to describe is rather like a mathematician’s, a curious child’s, or like that of a reader who is engrossed by the characters of a well-wrought novel. In all these cases, one is paying good attention in the sense of simply looking on; one is open to a range of possible future states without wishing or wanting some state to come to pass; and one is dispassionately following along, feeling one’s way about, wherever things may lead.

If our time is indeed unsettled, then there can be no time for smugness, unceasing doubt, or cowardice. Where some remain smugly self-assured, others remain cast forever into doubt, and others still won’t think or have the strength to strike out, those of us who dare to call ourselves fellow inquirers may, with good fortune and good practice, be able to move out of doubt and into self-understanding. And much to our surprise, when, in the end, we happen to hit upon answers, the right ones will be such as to stretch and enliven us, illuminating our lives in wider and wider circles, allowing us to breathe more easily and to come to rest finally in a state redolent of gentle amusement. The right answer certainly feels like belonging in nearly every sense of the word.