The Art of Inquiry, Chapter 2: Confusion

Excerpt from The Art of Inquiry, Chapter 2. Please enjoy.


2. Confusion

2.1. Preliminary Definition

Rather than respond to Meno’s challenge head-on, Socrates shows him that and how a slave-boy can inquire. Afterward, Meno and Socrates put aside the search for a definition of virtue and resume their inquiry into the question of whether virtue can be taught. It can be inferred, then, that Meno is not fed up after all; he was simply confused and his (false) accusations flowed from his good sense of bewilderment. Thankfully, Socrates did not give up on him; instead, he was patient.

Plato’s dialogue invites us to examine the difference between confusion and woundedness. For it seems as if Meno has been wounded and, in this light, he reacts by calling Socrates a magician who bewitches and a torpedo fish that stuns and paralyzes. In reality, Meno has been led into the utter darkness of his understanding.

In woundedness, we are in a worse off state than we were in before. Furthermore, injury dis-ables some or many of our capacities–for a time or for good–and woundedness is a name for the lack of these relevant capacities. By contrast, confusion does not put us in a worse-off state; rather, we are brought to greater awareness about what we do not know. What is more, inquiry shows us our ignorance and, in so doing, enlivens us to further inquiry with the hope that this further inquiry will bring us out of confusion and into clarity.

But knowing that confusion is not woundedness does not inform us about what confusion is. Perhaps we can make some sense of the concept of confusion by considering the cases when we say we are confused. We do not, for instance, say we are confused when

  • someone asks us something we already know.
  • someone speaks gibberish (we are not confused; it is simply that he is not making any sense).
  • someone speaks too softly. Then we ask him to say it again, only more loudly.
  • we look at something we have already seen and say the name aloud.
  • it does not occur to us to ask a question.
  • we are headed somewhere, and we know where we are going.

Interestingly, this partial list implies that many utterances such as statements, expressions, exclamations, invitations, promises, etc. do not admit of the possibility of confusion. So it would seem that confusion arises (only?) in the context of asking questions and giving answers.

But of course not all questions create a sense of confusion. If the question doesn’t make sense, then we can’t be confused about (literally) what was said (for this we know), but we may be unsure what a good answer would be. Not making any sense, the question requires clarification: a different articulation of the same thought. Whatever confusion is, it is surely not the impetus for immediate clarification.

We seem to be getting closer to confusion’s ‘residence,’ its place of dwelling. Let’s say that philosophical confusion or, what is the same thing, an overriding sense of bewilderment seems to be lodged between a good question and an absent answer. In confusion, all of the following are the case:

1. I admit (or implicitly acknowledge) that I thought I knew something before and until you put me to the question (past hubris);

2. I don’t really know what a suitable answer would be or, quite possibly, would look like (insight into ignorance);

3. I want to know what a suitable answer would be (motivating force to inquire further).

Stubbornness won’t admit of 1. Ignorance admits of 2. Desperation settles in when only 1. and 2. are both the case. Unlike stubbornness, ignorance by itself, and desperation, confusion yearns for clarity and, in this way, sets off on the path of further inquiry.

2.2. Basic Commitments

More needs to be said about the idea that I thought I knew something before or until you put me to the question. Arguably, there may be matters of little or no importance to me. You might ask me where the restaurant is located and I may say that I thought I knew till you asked but now I’m not really sure. In no way, however, does this question throw me into a state of confusion. For starters, we both know how to find out, thereby making a philosophical inquiry unnecessary. More importantly, I may not care very much whether I know the location of the restaurant or not. Whether I’m right or wrong or don’t know bears very little on my self-standing, on how I see and regard myself. Hence, the subject of the claim in 1. cannot be trivial.

Accordingly, we will need to modify the claim in 1. so that it reflects some ‘basic commitment’ on my part. By ‘basic commitment,’ I mean a question that is ‘alive to’ me or about which I am ‘fraught.’ If a question is ‘alive to me,’ then the pursuit and discovery of a good answer raises my powers; during the inquiry and after I’ve hit upon an answer, I feel joy. Alternatively, if a question is ‘fraught,’ then it is one that ‘weighs me down’ so long as it goes unanswered; it draws away from my powers, diminishing my strengths, bringing me to sadness.

Not any subject whatever can count as something to which a reasonable person could be ‘alive’ or about which he could feel ‘fraught.’ Negatively, it could only be the idea of knowing that our lives–a significant stretch or the whole of them–were not spent in vain. Positively, it would have to do with striving for a worthwhile final aim. This can be cast in the form of two related questions:

1. What is a worthwhile final aim, one that any reasonable person could ‘throw his weight behind’?

2. Is the current project (etc.) consonant with this final aim?

And so, we can only be confused, at least in any philosophically interesting way, about questions relating–immediately or ultimately–to the final aims we’ve set for ourselves.

Commitment as a precondition to inquiry

Earlier today I was speaking with Pete Sims at Kaos Pilots about the art of inquiry. Based in Denmark, Kaos Pilots is a three-year program of study in social entrepreneurship. During the third year, students are invited to create a social business project that will take them, quite possibly, to faraway places and put them in touch with community members and business leaders. On August 28 and 29, I’m giving a two-day workshop on the art of inquiry in hopes of setting them off in the right direction.

The first day, I told Pete, would be focused on the theme of confusion, the second on that of clarity. The point of departure for any inquiry would be our sense of ‘great care’ about ourselves or some project. I clarified this point about ‘great care’ by asking what question would be especially fraught or alive to them. The reason I begin with the question of ‘fraughtness’ or ‘aliveness’ is that I want to convey to the pupil some sense of being gripped by the question, of its urgency or viscerally personal character. I wanted also to avoid my common experience in the academy in which individuals spoke of ‘being interested’ in something or other but without the sense that this question, were it to go unanswered, would leave the inquirer feeling depleted, lost, or unsatiated. Something of the greatest importance, the inquirer of the kind I imagine, would have gone missing.

I was struggling to convey to Pete the exact nature of the kind of question I had in mind and so later on I equated this ‘great care’ or fraughtness or aliveness with ‘basic commitment.’ Pete was patient and curious but nonetheless puzzled. He said that, of the class of 35 students, many of the Kaos Pilots students would likely be relativists and thus may not be committed to anything in the sense of ‘basic commitment.’ And if they are not so committed, he implied, then how will it be possible to show them–a few steps later–that they are confronted with their thinking in general? How, in other words, would it be possible to bring these non-committed relativists to a state of not-knowing, of mental confusion, of bewilderment when they were not willing to allow the inquiry to get underway in the first place?

The challenge of relativism suggests that one may ‘follow along’ with an inquiry without having any ‘skin in the game.’ In this respect, one remains a spectator rather than a participant, remaining unchanged from beginning to end.

I think the challenge of relativism is a serious one–serious enough that it called me to put pen to paper in January of 2009 when I was deep in despair–but in this case it needn’t be met head on. Rather, a suitable  reply might go as follows.

As self-reflective persons, we want our lives not to be spent in vain. Students who attend a school like Kaos Pilots needn’t have applied, let alone enrolled at a school whose mission is to effect “positive social change through personal growth.” Consequently, students are committed, at a minimum, to the claim that they do not want to waste their lives. But the claim that they do not want to waste their lives seems sufficient to imply that there is at least some way of life that is worth leading.

So it behooves them to ask what it would mean not to waste their lives and, presumably, their time at Kaos Pilots. Thus they are thrown back on two questions: one general, the other particular.

1. What is a worthwhile final aim, one that a reasonable person can ‘throw his weight behind’?

2. What is a project one can set to work on that is consonant with this final aim?

The first question suggests that there is a ‘recognitive dimension’ built into the notion of a worthwhile final aim. That is, only if a sensitive observer could also recognize this final aim as being worthwhile (and possibly take it as ‘her own’?) could it be so. Nietzsche wrote books only for kindred spirits; Kafka must have imagined that his book manuscripts, provided they were not destroyed, would be read by the right sorts of people; great socialites, however misled, presume that others envy them their refinement and social standing.

Some good candidates for worthwhile final aims, all of which are culled from history, would be financial success, ambition, glory, fame, social justice, care for the unfortunate, saintliness, communion with the divine, the common good, a life of contemplation, a life devoted to the search for truth, romantic love, gentility, and beauty.

The second question invites the inquirer to consider whether her particular third-year project is in tune with her final aim.

I believe these two questions are, conjointly, sufficient to answer the relativist charge that one is not committed to anything. If the pupil is committed to leading a worthwhile life and is further committed to creating a project that ‘chimes with’ this final aim, then it is possible to undertake an inquiry whose goal–it is a gamble–would be to arrive at a state of not-knowing.

The conclusion to the first day, “What now, now that I know that I know not?,” would motivate the need to go in search of greater clarity. On the second day, we learn how to inquire–how to identify the wrong questions, how to ask the right questions, and how to find livable answers to the latter–about the things that matter most.