The Phenomenon of Questioning

I am obsessed with the phenomenology of questions. What is a question? What does it mean to have a question? The answers to these questions are intimately bound up with what it means to be human. Aristotle observes in the Metaphysics that all human beings by nature desire to know and this desire to know is manifested most obviously in questioning.  Questioning is properly an existential concern, a keystone to philosophical anthropology, and the source of vitality in a mind alive.

As a way at getting at the importance of questions, I want to begin with a couple of quotations from R. G. Collingwood’s Autobiography. They occur in a chapter called appropriately, “Question and Answer”:

I began by observing that you cannot find out what a man means by simply studying his spoken or written statements, even though he has spoken or written with perfect command of language and perfectly truthful intention. In order to find out his meaning you must also know what the question was (a question in his own mind, and presumed by him to be yours) to which the thing he has said or written was meant as the answer.”  — Autobiography (Oxford University Press, 1939), p. 31.

If you cannot tell what a proposition means unless you know what the question it is meant to answer, you will mistake its meaning if you make a mistake about that question.” — p. 33

The consequences of Collingwood’s observations are profound and leave me reeling with more questions than answers! They have an existential force that I hope I can communicate. To that end, let me lay out a list of (mostly phenomenological) observations about questions:

1. Knowledge is parasitic on understanding — we can’t really know what is not meaningful to us. Extending Collingwood’s discovery concerning the relationship between questions and meaning, we can assert that nothing is known unless a prior question makes it available to be known. (One may certainly have another type of relationship to someone/something that isn’t understood, but that relationship is not knower-to-known.)

2. Every question is interesting. If a question is not interesting to you, then it is not a question for you.

3. Every question is at least mildly irritating — it goads, prods and pressures the questioner to seek satisfaction in the form of an answer.

4. Every question anticipates an answer. This does not mean that the answer must be known in order to ask a question (that would be Meno’s paradox), but it does mean that the answer-not-yet-known is already shaping the direction of the search and providing criteria for success and rejection, proximity and distance. A questioner is, in a strange way, already in relationship to her answer.

5. You try to remember a name. The name escapes you. You know that you know it and yet you can’t make it conscious. You try out various possibilities: Jim…Tim…Tom...other names flood the mind, but none of them work. At times you feel so close, but increased effort only seems to increase to frustration of not yet having it. All the time you know that you know it, that the name will come to you. You keep circling around the same small set of possibilities that attract you due to some connotative kinship that you can’t quite place. This can’t go on forever, so you give up. As soon as you relax, the name comes to you. What accounts for the blockage?

6. There exist opinions that sedate questions but that don’t really answer the question. A word, a phrase, a definition, a dogma — any are often enough for us to abandon our question. They are empty substitutes, anesthetics to ease the irritation of questioning.

7. An answer without a question is merely an artifact, a “husk of meaning” (T.S. Eliot). Even in the original discoverer of an answer, if the question that made it possible is lost, the answer as artifact becomes inert and empty. Perversely, possession of these artifacts is sufficient to prevent the reanimation of the question that gave them rise.

8. Every question is a desire. What is true for desire generically is true for questions specifically.

9. Mimetic Theory makes the strong claim that all desire is mimetic; therefore, all questions are mimetically mediated just like any other desire. If certain answers are only available to certain questions as Collingwood argues, then certain answers are available only in the presence of those mediators who bear the correlative questions.

10. For Plato, philosophy is a form of questioning after a type of answer mediated by another questioner — it takes place in a community/koinonia of friends questioning after wisdom as such. The answer (wisdom/sophia) is correlative to the mimetic relationship (friendship/philia). Many typical student/teacher relationships fail because both teacher and student lack living interest in the questions that precede the answers. The “answers” arrive stillborn because the “questions” never were. Friendships based on shared vital interests create and sustain common inquiry and make certain kinds of answers possible.

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