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.