Inquiry is not theory…

Excerpt from The Art of Inquiry, Chapter 1.


1.2. Inquiry is not Theory

A theory can either provide a general explanation for particular phenomena or offer principles for action. In physics, the search for the Theory of Everything implies that the scientist wishes to arrive at a total explanation of all physical phenomena. His desire is a desire for totality and certainty.

The other kind of theory I mentioned seeks to be action-guiding. Management theories aim to provide managers not just with character types and reductive explanations of work motivation but also to direct their actions in specific directions. If, Theory X runs, all employees are inherently lazy, then the manager can motivate each employee best by threatening to punish her if she fails to meet expectations for productivity or efficiency.

Unlike theory understood in the first sense, inquiry does not make invariant and final claims about ‘how things are’; always underway, it longs to bring us to a better, albeit always provisional, understanding of ourselves and others. And unlike theory in the second sense, inquiry does not derive an Ought (you ought to do this) from a theory of human nature. Inquiry has no time for Briggs Meyers personality tests, Human Resource assessments, blank statements (All X are Y), or pat labels (narcissist, neurotic, etc.).

Inquiry is concerned with self-understanding first (pace theory in the first sense) and with nuanced, considered, situation-specific actions second (pace theory in the second sense).

1.3. Inquiry is not Method

Method, from the Greek, is a ‘rational procedure’ or a ‘mode of proceeding.’ Methods are, by their very nature, teachable, repeatable, step-by-step processes by which one arrives at the stated goal or, in some cases, at a novel discovery. Inquiry, however, does not follow set steps (first, then second, then third…) and even though it is teachable it is not repeatable.

An inquirer may ask of the methodical person whether he fears getting lost, fears not knowing his way about. For the methodical man may not need to know the answer straightaway, but he certainly has to know from the very beginning what exact route to take. Method, in the theoretical realm, is comparable to ‘rigid planning’ in the practical realm: there is no room for getting lost and thus no reason for searching.

An individual or organization that speaks frequently of theories (e.g., quant people in investment banking) or methods (e.g., 5 steps to financial success) is arrogant on the one hand (believing he knows or must know when he knows not) and fearful on the other (afraid of uncertainty, blind to ignorance). It is as if, so long as we abide by theories and methods, it would be impossible for us to stray off the prescribed path or admit to the possibility of being in error.

1.4. Significance; or, Direct vs. Indirect Speech

In a word, inquiry matters because it teaches us direct speech. Most of our lives have been spent partaking in indirect speech. We have become well-versed in grandiloquence, circumlocution, subterfuge, deception, evasion, omission, ellipses, hyperbole, self-deception, avoidance, insincerity, flattery, cunning, politeness, complaints, offenses… Direct speech partakes of none of these locutions. In direct speech, I say what is the case; I speak in good faith; I care for truth.

Inquiry, as a carrier of direct speech, teaches us directness, simplicity, parsimoniousness (love of the fewest words necessary), and awareness. We speak to, not around; we speak with, not over; we speak about, not away from. As inquirers, we have nothing to hide, so we speak plainly to and with each other.

1.5. Readiness

How do we know when an individual or organization is ready to inquire in earnest? Perhaps we can follow three rules of thumb.

a) Persistence: Can the person to which a question has been put ‘stay with’ the question? Or, on the contrary, does he ‘turn away’, saying that he is ‘uncomfortable’ or that ‘it’s too hard’? If he cannot persist with the question, then he is not ready to inquire about himself. (We will learn later what it means to pose the right question at the right time.)

Vice: Cowardice

b) Disinterestedness: Can the person who has been put to the question stand back, as it were, and grasp that the inquiry is not about him or this or that but rather about something more general? It may not be about whether this is a good friend but about what makes for a good friend. Or it could be not about the question of this organization’s hiring this employee but about what makes for a virtuous employee. If a person becomes ‘fixated’ on this, that, or–and this especially–on herself and hence cannot stand back from the particular, then he is not ready for inquiry.

Vice: Interestedness or ‘fixation’

c) Receptiveness: Is the person who has been put to the question receptive to different possibilities, or is he stubbornly saying that ‘This is the only way,’ ‘It must go like this,’ ‘Everyone is a fool,’ ‘I am right,’ ‘I am, and will always be, stuck,’ etc.? The stubborn person may have considered possibilities, but we are asking after his general disposition. Open to something new? Receptive to instruction? Curious about where her life may go if it doesn’t have to go like this? If she is not receptive, then she is not ready for inquiry.

Vice: Stubbornness