Specify and inquire, you hear

You don’t know what’s going on, you don’t know what’s setting things off. Time was that things made sense but that was long ago. Vaguely long ago. Now, there’s something you’d like to figure out or find out about yourself, the world, life–something–but you don’t know what it is or how. How to do so. You don’t know where to begin, how to begin, what it means to begin; you don’t know what you’re after, and you’re not sure how to recognize what you’re after as this thing here. Is it this thing in front of you, or is it that other thing far-off in the distance? Or not either right here or far-off? Or not some thing or any-thing at all? Lots of questions, one right after the other. Keep asking them, yes.

No answers.

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Looking for the man you’ve never met… On specifying

Let’s suppose that you’re a detective and that you’re looking for a man you’ve never met before. Let’s suppose further that your initial specification–‘a man I’ve never met before’–is correct: namely, that you are looking for a man (not a woman, an animal, a child, a god, an angel, or a spirit) and that you’ve never met him before.

You’re on a hunt for your quarry, and–let’s say–that you have no idea how to get the hunt underway. Put the question of search aside. Even so, it might occur to you that you will need to specify further in order to make your specification more fine-grained. After all, it will be either too easy to find this man (since, as it stands, it is any man you’ve never met before) or too difficult (the man in particular who’ve never met before). Well, perhaps you’ve been reading up about casuistry and from Jonsen and Toulmin’s The Abuse of Casuistry have gleaned that it would be an excellent idea to add clauses because it dawns on you that these would allow you to zero in on, e.g., who, where, why, how, by what means, to whom, etc. Thus: ‘The man with the scar across his lip who was last seen in the Aston Hotel on the night of the 23rd’ might help you to test whether a possible suspect could be the culprit.

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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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Design ethics: The good life and the art of inquiry

I’ve been invited to write two chapters for a forthcoming collected volume on design ethics. The first chapter will be concerned with philosophical inquiry and the good life, the second with three different conceptions of ethics: conviction, responsibility, and attention.

In my first chapter, I’ll be arguing, at least in part, that (a) philosophical inquiring is a more basic mode of thinking than design process thinking and that (b) inquiring about the nature of a good life is a more primitive, and vital, aim than asking design questions in order to complete a specific project or set of projects.

The following are my first thoughts for the opening chapter.


We might inquire why we design anything at all, and, were we to begin in this fashion, we might come up with a number of candidate answers:

  • To supply the user with what has, so far, been missing in his or her user experience.
  • To improve a product or enhance a service that is already existing.
  • To ‘optimize the function, value and appearance of products and systems for the mutual benefit of both user and manufacturer.’ (from IDSA.org).
  • To improve the quality of somebody’s life.
  • To allow some group to do something with greater efficiency or ease.

Our answers, so far, include satisfying certain preferences or desires, refining product or service quality, brokering mutual benefits, improving personal well-being, and increasing efficiency. From here, we might go on to consider whether this project is feasible. Feasibility might draw us into considering

  • the logical possibility of bringing the idea into being;
  • our capabilities and competences;
  • whether the materials and tools exist;
  • whether these materials, given the tools available to us, can be shaped in the desired fashion;
  • whether we understand the process of design (which tends toward an empirical, quasi-scientific method);
  • whether the possible design is cost-effective, in many sense of the word.

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Rehearsing a line of thought

Rehearsing a line of thought has its place in philosophical life. Saying this seems, however, to present us with a puzzle. If a philosophical 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,” then how could rehearsing a line of thought play any part  in a philosophical conversation?

Let us rehearse a line of thought, paying close attention to what we already know.

1. A necessary (but not a sufficient) condition of a philosophical life is that it consist of philosophical conversations.

2. A philosophical conversation consists of at least one philosophical inquiry. (Definition from The Guidebook for Philosophical Life)

Attend to the second thesis, since it leaves room in any philosophical conversation for other genres to come forth. In this meditation, the genre under consideration I am calling ‘rehearsing a line of thought’ or sometimes simply ‘rehearsing.’

I can think of two reasons why rehearsing a line of thought might be valuable. The first reason is that my conversation partner and I may need to establish what it is we already know. Knowing what we already know opens us up to the possibility of inquiring into what we do not already know but are looking for. Knowing what we already know thereby draws forth the virtue of openness (without which we would not be able to inquire into what we do not know) at the same time that it allows us to perceive that something specific and significant is missing. What is missing is precisely what we do not know but have some inkling of. Hence, the purpose of ‘rehearsing a line of thought’ is to call us back to what we know in order for us to to inquire properly about what it is that bewilders us.

The second reason rehearsing a line of thought might be of benefit to us (provided, of course, it occurs at the right time and in the right way) is that it reminds us of the conclusions we have reached in some prior inquiry, conclusions that we must ensure are ‘tied down’ before we can hope to go any further. The rehearsal is a memory device (rather like a chant or song or meditation) as well as a call to resolve, to gentle vigilance. (I have been told that some conversation partners reread old blog posts perhaps for this very reason.)

Speaking of rehearsing, I have been rereading Hadot’s book on Plotinus. Hadot writes, “Knowledge, for Plotinus, is always experience, or rather it is an inner metamorphosis. What matters is not that we know rationally that there are two levels of divine reality [Hadot is referring to the Intellect and the One in Plotinus], but that we internally raise ourselves up to these levels, and feel them within us as two different tones of spiritual life.”

From argument above, we can conclude that rehearsing a line of thought does not tell us something new about ourselves (as inquiry seeks to do) but rather deepens our experience of the ‘different tones’ of self-understanding.