Tom Stoppard vs. Richard Rorty

I read a quote from the playwright Tom Stoppard about his view of playwriting. ‘My whole life,’ he tells his interviewer, ‘is waiting for the questions to which I have prepared answers.’ This view of things, albeit clever-sounding, is backward.

Some years ago, I read something very different in in one of Raymond Geuss’s books. He related that what he learned from the late Richard Rorty was that especially interesting philosophy goes about changing the topic of conversation. This means: inventing a novel question or changing the questions of deep significance we now think to ask.

When we invent a novel question (or change our deep questions) that strikes us as startlingly interesting, then the fact that no answer is forthcoming serves to give us pause. Within this capacious pause, we might very well reorient our entire lives. And how interesting that would be to be set, clear-eyed, on a higher course.

A comparison of the genre of drama with that of philosophical inquiry

Compare a couple of the playwright David Mamet’s reflections on drama (the full text is available here) with my own thoughts about the genre of philosophical inquiry. (To read an excerpt from my book, The Art of Inquiry, go here):

Mamet: We know any drama ends when we find the answer to the question which gave rise to it. When we discover the answer simultaneously with the hero, the dramatist has done a very good job indeed.

Me: [Philosophical] Inquiry does not leave us forever in a state of ignorance; it also allows us to 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 be 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 poetic naming: a new destination, a novel discovery, a long-sought-after homeland. ‘This,’ we say, ‘is it.’

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‘The fingers on the face reside on the face’: A short dramatic performance

This week, one conversation partner put a copy of Bruce Mau’s “An Incomplete Manifesto for Growth” into my hands. The “Manifesto” contains 43 design statements. My eyes came to rest on no. 39:

Coffee breaks, cab rides, green rooms. Real growth often happens outside of where we intend it to, in the interstitial spaces–what Dr. Seuss calls “the waiting place.” Hans Ulrich Obrist once organized a science and art conference with all of the infrastructure of a conference–the parties, chats, lunches, airport arrivals–but with no actual conference. Apparently it was hugely successful and spawned many ongoing collaborations.


The two, having never met before, know nothing of each other. They walk around on stage.

One licks, the other yips.

“And, Mr. Stevens, how are you today?”

“Yes, I quite agree with you: at night, the buildings do look remarkably like jack-o-lanterns.”

“O my word, look! It’s the bluest maize!”

Again one yips, the other licks. Then, the yipping one licks the licking one and the licking one grins. The licking grinning one makes the yipping licking one grin also. This one’s grin covers the entire face.

One touches the other’s shoulder. The shoulder twitches, then it tenses. The fingers of the hand on the shoulder flutter, flutelike, but stay on the shoulder. The muscles of the shoulder relax.

The fingers of the one, for many beats on the shoulder of the other, have been re-assigned to the face of the other. The fingers on the face reside on the face. Unlike the shoulder that first twitched, then tensed, the face neither twitches nor tenses. The face faces the fingers.

The fingers are now covering the face and the eyes have closed. The eyes of both have closed. The fingers are slowly brought along the face, as if there were finger replacing fingers, hands replacing hands such that the face were always covered, never uncovered, but movement never ceased.

The face receives.

“Dearest lover, how you?”

“Am… now.”