The Art of Enquiry

05 Jul 2010, Posted by Alexandros in Writings

“I already know how to ask questions, what more is there to learn?”

Under normal circumstances, nobody receives extensive lessons in the use of one’s hands and fingers for everyday tasks like grasping, carrying, moving etc. In the same way, when it comes to ordinary enquiries we become naturally proficient in the use of questions. But if one wants to learn the piano then he must receive lessons if he ever wants to learn how to co-ordinate his fingers properly to create music. Having used your hands and fingers is not enough to make you a good pianist. To become one you have to use your potential. Otherwise capabilities will never become abilities. It is the same with questions. Just because you are capable of asking questions that doesn’t make you an artist of enquiry.

What you may not know and ought to learn.

Sometimes we unwittingly transfer a set of tacit presuppositions from one domain to another. These tacit presuppositions determine the way you will try to answer the question, sometimes leading you to dead ends. These presuppositions might be very entrenched in our way of thinking because they happen to pervade most aspects of our reality. For example, most objects of our perception have shapes, but if I were to ask “What is the shape of fear?” I would be committing what’s called a category mistake.  The interesting thing is that sometimes language itself has its own “metaphysics” so to speak, suggesting to us an entity, process, an action or an instance of causation when there is none.

To navigate through the pitfalls of language on your way to truth, it is not enough to be a user of language, you must also become its engineer. Take the example of a car and its driver. You may have excellent driving skills but if the engine is busted the car won’t move an inch, and it won’t be going anywhere unless you know what is wrong and how to fix it. In the same way, you may know how to ask questions, but if you do not know the tacit presuppositions of your enquiries and how enquiry works, you won’t be getting any answers, let alone good ones. The art of enquiry consists in knowing how the car works as well as knowing how to drive it. Only if you know both can you get to truth.

Wisdom has to do more with judgment than it has to do with thinking. The difference being that judgment implies decision making and practice whereas thinking does not. Thus, given that wisdom is not just thinking good thoughts but also acting on them, an analysis of judgment is more appropriate than an analysis of thought.

Thinking, of course, is an instrument of judgment but not its only one. Intuition, otherwise called “gut feeling”, is routinely used in making judgments and even though it is not a very defensible form of argument the truth of the matter is that it is as good as the person who has it. I offer some hypotheses as to what is gut feeling elsewhere. Any cognitive scientist out there willing to enlighten us further is more than welcome too.

Here are some ways to single out processes in judgment and thinking. If we were to look at it in terms of dimensions, I’d say we have the following:

The horizontal dimension has to do with how fast you progress in getting to the  logical conclusion of a question within a fixed framework of presuppositions.

The vertical dimension has to do with how aware you are of the factors that determine the way you think.

To give a more concrete example think of a car. The more you step on the gas the faster it goes. That’s horizontal progression. The vertical dimension would be being aware of how the engine makes such a motion possible.

Then you have the inner dimension which deals with the psychological and physiological aspects of ourselves and how they affect our judgment. For example, the psychological defenses (an everyday example of which is captured by sayings like: “People see what they want to see”) or a poor nutrition and how it affects cognitive functions.

Then you have the outer dimension which deals with the external situations and how they affect your thinking. A person thinks differently when he’s part of a group and differently when he’s on his own. Differently in a prison cell and differently in front of a beautiful landscape.

If we were to continue the car example, we would say that the inner dimension has to do with the psychological and physiological state of the driver. A person who is angry drives differently than one who is calm. A person with an increased level of alcohol in his body drives differently from the one with lower levels. The outer dimension would be the weather. It is different to drive in fog and different to drive with clear skies.

The aesthetic dimension has to do with the form and the ways you express your thinking which in turn affect the quality of what is being thought or the impression it makes. It is the same with cars. An aerodynamic design might look better and help the car have better performance and a driver smelling bad and dressed in rags would hardly attract co-passengers irrespective of the car’s beauty or the coolness of its destination. It’s important to dress good thought with the words it deserves. A truth attractively clothed makes people want to undress it. That’s what great philosophers do: they seduce people to the truth.

Finally there is the evaluative dimension. This deals with what’s worth thinking about, or the direction, goals and ethics of enquiry, which would correspond to the destination the driver sets and any ethical decisions pertaining to his driving.

All of these factors affect not only the quality of driving but who the driver becomes and whether one reaches one’s destination – not to mention which destination is worth choosing and how you treat the people you meet along the way.

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