The Art of Inquiry: Patience, courage, and openness

Excerpt from The Art of Inquiry. In this section of the book, I consider the importance of the virtues for living through a time of unclarity.



Let’s recall that we are confused not about something insignificant but rather about what matters most to us. We were once hubristic, believing that we knew what we didn’t. We are now ignorant, unable to give a good enough answer for what matters most. And even though we want to search for something better, we don’t yet know how to do so or what that suitable answer would be.

We are faced with two temptations. On the one hand, we could give up on the grounds that a suitable answer is quite simply well beyond us. On the other hand, we could be stubborn and persist in doing the same thing over and over again. Both giving up and stubbornness, however, seem to turn us away from inquiring with fresh ears and eyes. Those who give up too soon seem like cowards while those who persist in the same course despite that course being a dead-end are reminiscent of megalomaniacs (I think of Captain Ahab). Both camps, being too hard on themselves for different reasons, are acting foolishly.

Patience is not about waiting; it is giving us the time we need to think seriously in the hope of extricating ourselves from this sense of confusion. Without patience, there is no ‘slipping the trap,’ let alone ‘turning the key.’ Patience seems, if not to be the act itself, then to be the condition of possibility for focusing our attention on broader questions. Being patient, I am not attending to this design flaw (let’s say: I’m not ‘troubleshooting’), this disagreement between co-workers, or this instance of poor communication. I am concerned with the relationship between this design flaw and design more generally; with the nature of amity within this organization; or with the nature and structure of communication.


Courage invites us to stand firm in the face of fear. In this way, it introduces us to a set of important questions we need to ask about ourselves.

  1. What is it that we are afraid of? Is this something worth being afraid of?
  2. Are we strong enough to endure a time in which things do not make sense to us?
  3. If we have asked the right question (about which more in the following chapter), do we have what it takes to ‘see the question through to the end’? For how long can we put ourselves into this project?

At the same time that patience gives us the time we need to think seriously without feeling under duress to make up our minds or do something too quickly, courage makes it possible for us to get somewhere with the inquiry we are undertaking. Courage lets us move from where we are to where we could be.

Courage should not be confused with timidity (drawing back, turning back, retreating too soon) or rashness (speeding on, going forward, rushing headlong into an unknown future). While the timid person gives in the fear due, perhaps, to overestimating its magnitude or likelihood of harm, the bold person has not assessed her fear or the limits of her capacities. Courage, combined with patience, keep us within a space of inquiry in which we are open to examining novel possibilities.


The third and final virtue which is vital for living through a time of great confusion is openness. Most people have made up their minds and are closed to their thoughts going in a new direction. Few are willing to start over, especially once they have reached their 40s, 50s, or 60s. Individuals who speak of being on a ‘career path’ are a case in point. They believe that there are stepping stones which were laid out by some institution and which they must follow. Needless to say, most people are closed: they stick to their plans, play by the rules, do what they’re told, imagine career advancement.

Recall that inquiry has drawn us into confusion such that what we thought we knew we do not really know. If we are brave, then we have acknowledged our ignorance. If we are patient, then we are holding out hope for a better way of thinking. If we are open, then we have learned to live according to what Immanuel Kant terms ‘regulative ideas’ or ‘postulates.’

Despair marks a defect in logic and imagination. In The Critique of Pure Reason, Kant offers that the scientist who wishes to investigate nature must postulate that it is organized in a such and such a way despite the fact that he does not know (yet) whether it is organized in such and such a way. The logical point seems to be that in order to inquire seriously we must first posit some hitherto unknown possibility that is as good as, if not better than, the reality we are living through. Do we have reason to think that there is some better embodiable possibility? Certainly not if we draw our reasons only from the fund of past experience, history, and the current evidence of the senses. Certainly yes if we dare to imagine that there must be something, if only we look in the right way for this something.

On this understanding, a postulate is inquiry-guiding yet, importantly and as the inquiry gets underway, it does not run contrary to the mounting evidence. A postulate thus dares us to be open even while it cautions us to keep our eyes on the evidence of the senses. It provides us with two kinds of ‘looks’: the look beyond what we have tried out already as well as the look at the right and now to ensure that we are not flying off into fantasy.

In short, patience slows us down, courage moves us along, and openness points us in novel directions. Here, we are beginning to get a sense of what the kind of inquiry which provides clarity is like and why exercising the virtues matters.

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.

Art of Inquiry: Interlude–Meno’s Paradox of Inquiry

Excerpt from The Art of Inquiry. Interlude comes after Chapter 1 and before Chapter 2. Enjoy.


Interlude: Meno’s Paradox of Inquiry

Is Meno fed up with Socrates? Could he be throwing up his hands when he accuses Socrates–earnestly or in jest–of being a ‘magician,’ of casting spells and bewitching and enchanting him? Or, likening Socrates to a torpedo fish, of stupefying his victims, stunning their tongues so that they can’t speak rightly or make flowing speeches? Has Socrates taken away his power of speech, thereby casting him into a strange, frightful land?

Before, Meno thought he knew what virtue was and seemed to have no difficulty in giving speeches about it, extolling it, and going on about it with eloquence. He was not concerned with the nature of virtue, only with the question of whether it could be taught. But after an inquiry into the essence of virtue proves that he does not know what virtue really is, he is stunned, taken aback, speechless. In amazement, he poses his now famous challenge:

And how will you inquire, Socrates, into that which you do not know? What will you put forth as the subject of enquiry? And if you find what you want, how will you ever know that this is the thing which you did not know? (Plato, Meno, 80e)

This is known, variously, as Meno’s challenge, Meno’s dilemma, or Meno’s paradox of inquiry. It can be reformulated, more stringently, as

1. If you know what it is you’re looking for, then looking for it is unnecessary. For why would one need to look for the sort of thing one already knew?

2. However, if you don’t know what you’re looking for, then finding it is impossible. In the first place, how do you even go about searching for it? In the second place, even if you know how to search for it, how do you know when you’ve hit upon it?

3. So, inquiry is either unnecessary or impossible.

There are many ways of responding to Meno’s challenge–by rejecting one of his premises, by analyzing his concepts, etc.–but I want to wonder, more basically, about Meno’s moral character. What is his disposition–is he fed up with Socrates who has brought his life into question, or is it rightly perplexed (i.e., confused or bewildered) where this sense of confusion gives rise, point and purpose to his desire to inquire further or perhaps seriously for the first time? And what of his own virtues–persistence, disinterestedness, and receptivity? Will he be stubborn and seek to forget after they part that he ever met Socrates? Or will he be a coward, unable to persist in this inquiry or others like it? Will he take offense, fixating on the alleged harm done him or will he focus his attention on the general subjects in question?

Perhaps we need to understand more clearly what it means to be confused.

Confronting our thinking in general

I want to say that the focus of my life is on teaching the art of inquiry. Yesterday, I said that one of the aims of a good inquiry is to disabuse us of our ignorance. To be humbled in this manner is to enter into a time of exceptional confusion. Can anything interesting be said of this state of confusion?

For starters, the kind of confusion I have in mind needs to be understood in its fullness. It is not the confusion of not knowing whether the train is running on a particular track or on time; whether my friend and I are meeting at the right place or time; whether there are closer to 8 million or 9 million people living in New York City; whether one dinner item should be put into the oven before or after another. Presumably, all these matters, which have to do with getting a state of affairs right or with following the proper sequence in order to arrive at the desired end, could be cleared up by verifying, by confirming, by consulting, or by referring to some authoritative manual. The ‘places we go to look’ in order to alleviate our bewilderment seem ‘on hand’ or ‘nearby’; clarity is a matter of course.

The state of confusion I mean to examine, then, seems to follow from a ‘confrontation with our thinking in its entirety.’ ‘Confronting our thinking’ is a phrase that came up during a conversation I had recently with Dutch education reformer Ed Weijers in reference to the work of the French philosophical practitioner Oscar Brenifier (whose work, admittedly, I’m not familiar with). I would say that this confrontation with my way of thinking in general renders the possibility of my returning to an old way of thinking impossible. I may desire to turn back, may be so tempted, but I have an intimation that that way is no foreclosed.

What now, we ask.

The first moment, a confrontation with our thinking in general, leads us to a second moment, a realization that the old way is foreclosed. The third moment is the leading on to a ‘space of possibilities.’ That is to say, we make the transition from a ‘space of actuality’ concerning how things have to be into a space in which novel possibilities are revealed to us. My life in this organization, not having to head one way anymore, might now head in any number of fruitful (or unfruitful) directions. In this instant, there is exhilaration as well as caution.

The temptation for any person or organization is to think, e.g., that this five-year plan was no good but that some other five-year plan would be more workable. Surely, if not this, then some other, no? At this point in the inquiry, we smile, recognizing that we not need some better five-year plan. Far wiser to have no five-year plan. In doing so, we welcome a time of life when exploring possibilities becomes vital, joyful, giddy.