The Art of Inquiry: Bewilderment and the virtues

Excerpt from the end of Chapter 2 and the beginning of Chapter 3 of The Art of Inquiry. Enjoy.


2.6. Bewilderment, Redux

So far, our itinerary has taken us a good ways: from our basic commitments (alive to X, fraught about Y) to a confrontation with our thinking in general to a space of possibilities. On the one hand, our plans have been thrown into the wind and we seem without direction. On the other hand, we know what didn’t work, have some clue as to why it didn’t work, and are now so hungry that we want to discover something better.

There is a nice quote from Samuel Johnson about the meaning of bewilderment. To be bewildered, he writes in Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary, is to “lose in pathless places, to confound for want of a plain road.” The bewildered person, having been led astray, is lost, turned about, and disoriented, generally lacking a good sense of his bearings. By letting his basic commitments to be drawn into question, he has lost his place in the world. What is of great value? To what can one assign significance? What sign points the way forward?

The truth of bewilderment is an acknowledgement of the great complexity of the modern world. Fewer paths than ever are laid out in front of those of us living in the developed nations; the future seems as illegible as ever; regardless of how important our work is, it may founder for any number of reasons. Bewilderment allows us to face up to uncertainty in the proper spirit: namely, the spirit of honesty. What will be required of us in order to live through this time of confusion will be to cultivate the virtues of openness, courage, and patience.

Interlude 2: Living Meanwhile–The Time of the Virtues

Provisional definitions

Virtues are easier to live than they are to define. Still, we can provide some provisional definitions. We can say that being virtuous is performing an action over and over again in the right way (manner) for the right reason (justification) for the right end (final cause). Or we can say that a virtue is a ‘semi-permanent’ disposition of the good soul. Or we can say that it is a habit underwritten by reason. Or, lastly, we can define virtue as the identity of doing what is best with doing what we want. (E.g., being kind is the best thing to do and in the same breath I want also to be kind.)

Whatever their differences may be, these definitions share the characteristic of manner, way, fashion, and appropriateness. A virtuous man does not simply offer a guest tea. He does so in the right manner. A compassionate woman smiles at the hurt one and puts her hand on him with lightness and strength. There is thus a felt quality to a virtue that can only be experienced ‘from within.’

A second characteristic should be not be passed over. This is that a virtue is learned through the right kind of exercise. The philosopher who cultivates patience has exercised being patient when he is observing a young dallying child while tying his shoe; when he is scheduled to meet a friend who is running behind; when he is learning a new craft and has not yet got the hang of it; etc. It seems there is no dearth of occasions or circumstances in which patience can be exercised in just the right way and, in consequence, strengthened and supported.

The third characteristic is that virtues, once learned well enough, become ‘second nature.’ It is not as though I look at a drowning child, deliberate long about the best course of action, and then decide to jump into the water. Quite the contrary, I see him drowning and I immediately jump in after him. This is true of the virtuous man: he acts like water, not unthinkingly so much as undeliberately. If need be, he can adduce reasons for acting thus and so post facto.

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.

Inquiry illuminated

Excerpt from The Art of Inquiry, Chapter 1.


1. Inquiry Illuminated

What is it — Distinguishing Inquiry from Other ‘Genres’ (Methods, Theories) — Why it matters

1.1. Preliminary Definition

An inquiry is an unrehearsed genre whose principal aims are, first, to reveal to us what we don’t know but thought we did and, second, to bring us a greater sense of clarity than we could have possibly imagined.

Most discourses are rehearsed: professors read out lectures, politicians give speeches, businesspeople present PowerPoint presentations, know-it-alls quote what they have heard, doctors cite important studies, journalists conduct interviews with prescripted questions, experts work off theoretical knowledge, and so on. Most personal conversations are scripted, with each party asking questions with which the other is familiar and the other, in turn, offering replies that are instantly intelligible.

Doubtless, these discourses serve many purposes: conveying information, airing opinions, expressing emotions, making exclamations, discussing opportunities, reassuring participants, evoking common images, confirming common sense. However, to a large degree, these discourses also cordon us off from our vulnerabilities, making it impossible for us to learn something new about ourselves and our fellows. What is staked in telling me that you’re from a small town in the US? And what do I learn, in any substantive way, about myself when I read about fluctuating exchange rates?
Perhaps the goal of many discourses is to assure us in our received understandings and to reassure us that we know what we are doing.

One end of a philosophical inquiry, by contrast, is to draw our life into question. There is no sense in which this drawing into question can take place unless we are able to lose our footing, come to stutter, get muddled by what we mean, flail about in confusion–unless, in short, we come to know that we do not know what we thought we did, that we do not grasp what we had for so long taken for granted. Considered, sincere utterances (note, here, the first condition–an utterance being considered–as well as the second–the supreme virtue of sincerity) such as “I don’t know,” “I’m not sure,” and “I couldn’t say” illustrate how far we have come from terra firma. How rare to be in newfound territory, befuddled and turned about!

Inquiry does not leave us forever in a state of ignorance; it also lets us 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 is 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 naming, a new destination, a novel discovery. “Yes,” we say, “This is it!”

Hustle hustle hustle (Part 2): 2 chefs and a definition

2 Chefs

I’m sitting in a coffee shop in Soho. It’s dark, abnormally dark for a coffee shop, and I’m re-reading my copy of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue. On my right, two men, dressed in suits, are talking hurriedly. I take them to be investment bankers working on Wall Street, but I come to find, through the half-clipped phrases I can only barely make out, that they’re talking about food. They’re young chefs, just starting out. One says to the other: “Yeah, you’ve gotta hustle.”

Chefs also hustle?

The Scene of Hustling

In the most basic terms, P wants to get something from Q but that something is not easily gotten. So P resorts to words, not to force, or to the force of words rather than the use of force.

More specifically, P wants Q to purchase or accept something (transaction); to do or perform something, typically on P’s behalf (service); or to put him in touch with someone or with some institution (access).

Why all the roundabouts, the end-arounds, the back-door entries? We’ll come to that.

A Definition of Hustling

To hustle is to pursue your self-interest by means of cunning and without direct institutional support. The key ingredients: cunning and lack of direct institutional support.

Our World

Why is hustling the way we live now? Let’s first tease out the implications of hustling.

Hustling implies

  1. that there are high obstacles or great barriers to entry;
  2. that a supreme, and often praised, effort is required;
  3. that the agent is filled with great ambition;
  4. that the world abounds with individuals pursuing their own self-interests;
  5. that institutions, which had hitherto supported individual advancement, are in the midst of collapse or have already collapsed (consider that the notion of hustling would not occur, nor could it occur, to the Organization Man);
  6. that the use of cunning or cleverness seems to be necessary in light of conditions 1-5.

Our world is constructed, not entirely but increasingly, according to the metaphysical premise that we are first strangers who meet in the abstract land of the marketplace. In the marketplace, we do not know each other as neighbors, stewards, or hosts; we regard each other instead as abstract agents who strive to fulfill worldly ambitions. Is there an afterlife? We do not care nor do we think to ask. All this is what is; all this is what life offers. Yet because the opportunities are few and resources scarce, because institutions no longer guide us, we must use cleverness in order to make our way where others, essaying the direct route, have failed. We have learned from them and thus plot like chess masters.

And what are hustlers doing? A paradox: They are making strangers into acquaintances, making a stranger world less strange and more friendly without becoming genuine friends. They convince, when they do, because they are likable without being lovers; because they are are agreeable without becoming friends. This is not to say that they live without a sense of conscience: they are doing what they think is necessary in a fallen world. A necessary evil.

At night, they half-smile. They are almost wretched. To them, to us is bequeathed the not-quite. A necessary evil. Nothing to be done.

Terre Haute, Indiana

On the interstate, my car idling, Terre Haute, Indiana, a few miles off. Where I grew up, Terre Haute, Indiana, a dead city. It’s the last day of 2006, and I should have realized then that hustling could not be a way of life. I didn’t. That would come later.

Part 3: Terre Haute, the end of love, and the art of the conversation.