Friday, January 26, 2007

On Questions, Part II

On Questions II
To Raphael :: As Before

This is the second part of the blog-block pertaining to questions. As such, the subject matter will be directly accessible to M. Raphael Joseph, who has experienced most of these problems himself and found some to be insurmountably sweet. As with all philosophical discussions, there is no learning curve; we launch directly into the battle, and the introduction of arguments may not always be gradual. Unlike the predecessor, the sections are not continuous, they deal with different aspects.

This second part deals with the marginality (replaceability) of questions. If something is substitutable, then it is inherently second-rate. The author makes no secret of his inherent distrust of questions as a device for philosophizing. This distrust has been present throughout his writing career. As someone who judges first before asking questions, it is trivial matter for him to refute the seemingly just claims of the questioning method. However, reasons run deeper than conviction; these are explored here.

It has been pointed out that the first block made for difficult reading (which for me means it was badly written). It was a bit rushed, like all fits of inspiration. It also attempted to cram in too much in too little time—as a result a lot many ideas hae not been given their due space and weight. The author hopes to make amends with this block, which, he hopes, is not all bollocks.

The conclusion is in freeform prose.

In at least one context, a question is just something else.

  • In at least one of these contexts, the question begs an answer in order to be acknowledged—for its existence to be ratified, for it not to be quashed underfoot like a bug. (When you hit me I don't mind, because when you hurt me I feel alive—Bono said something like this in Zooropa. Well said).
  • It is clear that when a question finds itself in such a situation, it loses its tall claims—because at all other times, a question symbolizes a challenge.
  • This situation is brought out with ease in domestic quarrels, which may or may not lead to marital disruption. I have noted this situation because questions—and challenges—abound in the domestic condition.
  • A question, here, symbolizes the parting shot. The question is here the cry of an anguished mind, the last-ditch for a dying cause.
  • It is clear, again, that this is not a normal question, but a rather desperate way to make ends meet. The question, as acknowledged in such poignant (and often sadly comic) scenes, is the accepted way to find common ground. The question is posed to raise sentiments and clear the dust.

A question is most effective when it has no answer.
  • This contrasts directly with the case of a problem: a problem unsolved is just a waste of time, in most of the cases—provided there aren't luxurious side-discoveries.This essentially brings out the logical nature of the two kinds of querying (challenging), and one which is fundamental to understanding the nature of questions and problems.
  • A question is a subjective utterance. Often, the very nature of the question depends on how, when, and where it is raised and by whom. A question is the child of subjectivity.
  • A problem has an objective formulation. There is something demonstrable beyond all the hoo-ha.
  • And this brings us to the logical explanation of our discussion: a question possesses incidental value, but no lasting value. It belongs to the moment, and even if it is not answered, it will have served its purpose. Answering a question, on the other hand, need not serve any purpose at all. Questions are conversational aids, much like interjection, assertion, and everything else.
  • A question, we may safely conclude, is like everything else: it is human, it is fallible, and is after all a human construct aimed to bring his feeble body and feebler mind into terms with the immense complexity of describing life. A problem, in contrast, is an abstract model of a physical or theoretical issue. It stands on firmer feet.
  • And, it should be comforting to realise that to live, one needs no questions. One doesn't need to ask questions in order to just get on with life. Questioning is not an authentic way of living: questioning... is in the provenance of philosophy.
  • To question, then, is to philosophize.

Questioning is the accepted mode of delivery when introducing a new philosophy.
  • We may accept this as given: all philosophers start by asking questions of the established order of things, and questioning the fondly held beliefs and customs.
  • The question serves to jolt the consciousness out of its slumber.
    (But whether anything positive is ever achieved by such a shock treatment is highly doubtful and open to a temporal evaluation system.)
  • Questioning, it is seen, becomes a way of life, it becomes like unto conversation, it has great communicative potential.
  • For those blessed with certitude, the question assumes a rather delightful role: that of expressing the mystical, or the mysteriously beautiful and unspeakable joys of life: the question expresses wonderment, elation, and a whole-hearted acceptance of the situation.
  • In all other cases, a question is meant to shatter the glass, ripple the still waters, cause anarchy, increase the disorder, force things to shift and realign among a possibly stable configuration. A question is traditionally meant to bolster the premise in philosophy. (And throw out the chaff).
  • The question is meant to be the primary assault rifle of the guerrilla philosopher.

On Questioning
  • The first thought that comes to mind is a child trying to make sense of the world. Or, a man trying to make sense on an alien world where even familiar forces such as gravity are absent.
  • Questioning is a means to make sense of the situation. It has no negative or aggressive quality here. The inquisitive question is not penetrating. It is harmless, and it may prove life-saving. In its different forms, it just a polite and accepted way of saying, "I do not know."

Getting to the Heart of the Matter

And this is the heart of the matter, as this is how Mr Raphael situates his questions. It is in this childlike region of inquisitiveness he wishes to reside in. His questions are meant as a means to get to the heart of the matter through the act of questioning, through removing the obstacles that remain between him and the path to a clear understanding. He wants to reach the final state of the interlocutor—a supposedly all-knowing state—which it isn't—by removing the obstacles one by one, by reducing the disparity and removing all differences and thus finally arrive at enlightenment.

Sad to say, it is a simplistic approach based on a childlike assumption. Children are encouraged to ask questions—the reality being, children will ask questions out of necessity—and they are not often given a clue as to when or how to draw the line. Some never grow up. (Have you ever wondered why some children act like grown ups? They simply have drawn the line, and decided to answer questions, rather than pose questions indefinitely). As we shall see, this approach has several immediately visible flaws.

The main difficulty is that the interlocutor is not a Know-All—he is probably not, and often is the case that he is the only one who formulated the idea—maybe for want of clarification himself.

The other main difficulty is that the main substance of opinion - everything is an opinion in the final analysis—is what other people make of it straightaway. I listen to a man speaking, or I read a book, I form a judgement (not a question—that would be too easy—and a question is not the right response to input, as we shall demonstrate). This is a consequence of my level of understanding and it is a natural process. Asking a question is a visible sign of a comparison process - a comparison with what we know, and what we are prepared to allow for a new idea. A judgement indicates the logical outcome of the stimulus, the input. It is a decision of right or wrong, or desirable or undesirable—necessarily a choice, not a "how is that" or a "why is that"—which are spurious reactions. I immediately make up my mind whether I'm for it or against it. This is not as easy as it sounds, though—because to immediately launch into judgement one should really be able to step over the spurious reactions we have noted above. It comes only with experience and an active exercise of intelligence. The judging stage, as you might have noted, is above the questioning stage.

I really doubt if the point is to simultaneously raise our level to that of the conversation or idea or book and then appreciate it (will be a chore, rather). No, I don't think that's the idea, because all of these said agencies are meant to communicate. Communication is something fundamental, something primal and untainted—not something you glean from annotations or questions or clarification—which are all second-degree and indirect—gloss, in fact—to the main thing, which retains its monumental primacy. Conversational sweetness can never be substituted by a forced coming-around, even if that about-face is logically inevitable. If we "get it" right when we hear it, then that agreement is sweet, complete, and involuntary. When we need to ask questions, then, no matter how bulletproof the argument, there is an element of intellectual dishonesty—which maybe as trivial as a distancing from the truth or a masking of the truth—is there nevertheless. You immediately feel in your guts that there is something artificial when you don't get it the first time. The lacking can be in your own person or in the other, it hardly matters.

[1700 words]

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