Monday, February 16, 2009

The Question is Essentially Co-Operative

Mike Johnduff posts on a co-operative technique of enquiry, raising a question or two in my mind. First though, if we use the word enquiry as roughly synonymous with investigation, it is frequently the case that while conducting an inquiry our questions are not literally posed directly to other people. The question then appears to be metaphorical, a way of understanding how we learn. However, one may speak intelligibly of an ethos of enquiry and even a spirit of the question, a characteristic speech intention of the genre of utterance known as the question. The question is a crucial element of our intellectual culture. The habitus of the intellectual inclines him to approach phenomena that appear before the intellect as if they were questions. He knows what a question is in a practical sense. He knows how to formulate a question, to work with it, pose it, answer it or re-open it. Working with questions is second nature to him, essential to the life of the mind, the life he lives and breathes. Yet it is after all second nature. In the domain of this second nature, where we can speak intelligibly of the ethos of the question, it appears that the question is essentially co-operative. Not every imaginable variation of inquiry is obviously co-operative, but the knowledge of how to work with questions is, and that's what makes the question essentially co-operative. What is the nature of this co-operation?

The question, then, is essentially a co-operative undertaking. On the other hand, the question disrupts co-operation. It interrupts the flow of conversation. It arrests ideas that would easily pass for being understood–in order to better understand them? Well, that is a question. Does the question emerge to further a better understanding of prior thoughts, of shared understandings, or does it reject prior understandings. Does it reject understandings so forcefully as to put in doubt whether understanding can be achieved at all? Does the question risk aporia? In its essence, if it is to be a question at all, must it risk an inability of arriving at an understanding, a negative capability, as the poet says, one with only the slimmest hope at resolving its doubts. Questioning may be the apotheosis of negative capability, which is one reason why it itself should be interrogated. There is a danger of glorifying the question, perhaps even of doing permanent damage to the way we ask questions. Yet, to keep the questioning here open, aren't these dangers, which are cut from the same cloth, attendant upon–no, essential to asking questions?

So, in asking a question, how do we negotiate between enduring aporia and shared understandings that aren't really shared–phony understandings, shambolic understandings? In questioning do I call upon your working knowledge of the question (a prior understanding, though one that is not closed, it's worth noting)? Does any question place a demand on our practical knowledge? Does one simply request, opening the door for politeness, that a given understanding be negotiated rather than allowing a verbal transaction to go through as originally intended by one conversation partner? If we weren't able to offer a commitment to a possibility of future understanding, would anybody bother with answering our questions at all? Is the hopeless question still a question in a practical or any other sense? If an inquiry which questions no other people expresses the ethos of the question, or calls upon the ethos of the question, the practical knowledge of the question, and it is still essentially of the question, worthy of the name inquiry, then on what grounds would we exclude the hopeless question from the territory of the question? Is escape from the territory of the question what the aporetic aspect of the question promises, or might it be quite the opposite: the aporetic dimension of the question gives entrance to the beating heart of the question?

The question is without a doubt essentially a co-operative undertaking, but the meaning of co-operation will have yet to be determined. It is in question.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 8:46 AM.


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