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On the Question of Questions

by Stephen Lewis

Russell's dictum that "in philosophy, what is important is not so much the answers that are given, but rather the questions that are asked" is often cited but less often explored. As usually given (and as reproduced here), the final clause is, in fact, ambiguous. Questions are not important in and of themselves, as might be uncritically assumed, but because of the way they can be constructed: either well or poorly. Questions have the ability both to reveal and to conceal. Their importance does not lie in the mere fact that they can be asked but that those asked should be asked appropriately. Thus, from this dictum, we have an indirect description of a key role played by philosophers: posing questions and posing them properly.

As human beings, our fundamental relationship with the world is one of wonder and puzzlement. Questions about what surrounds us seem to come freely and naturally. As a result, it appears that because everybody is able to ask them, questions become under-valued. Questions are merely the means to an end, to be discarded and thrown away when displaced by something called an 'answer'; it is the answer that seems all-important to most people. This may explain, in part, why the subject of questions seems to be given such scant attention. We rarely ask questions of our questions or of our questioning processes. It is important to do so. One use of questions is to interrogate statements to the exhaustion of error. Thus, as statements themselves, questions also need to be exhausted of their error. But first they need to be understood better. (But not, that is, with a view to finding out how they might be used to get the right answers.) To that end, these brief comments hopefully offer some pointers.

Many introductory philosophy texts take pains to demonstrate what constitutes a rational argument and how to move from a sound set of premises to logical conclusions. But on the matter of what constitutes a question, little, if anything, is ever said. Yet, as logical entities, questions have received serious attention from the time of Aristotle. However, most work in that direction dates only from the second half of the twentieth century. Indeed, questions have their own branch of logic called erotetic logic: the logic of utterance and reply — strictly speaking the logic of question and answer. In this area, Rudolf Carnap, for example, considered 'W-questions', that is, questions introduced by "who", "what", "why", "where", "which" and "how" ("wie" in German). However, there remains much disagreement even about the basic concepts underlying questions, with at least three possible positions available. One view holds that the essence of a question resides in its answers; all questions have direct answers, and knowing what counts as such is to understand the question. A second holds that the essence lies in the questioner's intentions; to know these is to understand the question. A third holds that the essence is an objective intensional (sic) entity, the question's connotations; thus questions are not necessarily relative to the language in which they are framed.

However, it is not as logical entities that questions usually command our attention but rather as devices. That Socrates and those who still follow his method have been able to use questions successfully in a variety of ways suggests that distinct from the logical problems about questions, there exists a more practical enterprise. Thus, there are at least two sides to questions. One, concerning their nature as statements, has received attention, but no agreement; the other, relating to their function, deserves more consideration.

Following the Humean division of knowledge into 'Matters of Fact' and 'Relations of Ideas', questions might be divided along the same lines into two broad areas: those concerning external objects and those that can be addressed solely by the use of intellectual faculties. Although Quine has sought (perhaps with justification) to merge the two prongs of Hume's fork with regard to questions, the original dichotomy has practical value. Questions that relate to the external world may be answerable only by experiencing it and collecting objective data or else the answers obtained would be merely metaphysical. Alternatively, there are questions that can only be addressed by processes of imagination, argument or assembling extant knowledge. Questions about history, for example, cannot be answered by returning to a bygone age.

It is unclear whether producing a question ought to be considered a 'science' or an 'art'. Can questions be generated via some regulated process or is an overriding element of creativity necessary? As with inspiration, there is the matter of where they come from. Inspiration seems to come 'out of the blue'. So too, it seems, do questions. Codified into some form of expression, it is possible to analyse a question's form but not its origin. But, at the same time, questions cannot be generated without some prior knowledge of the object of query. Requiring prior knowledge, questions, therefore, occur within a context. Although it may be impossible to determine the source of a question, they are, nonetheless, dependent upon, and consequently shaped by, that context.

Furthermore, although one may analyse the way in which questions are expressed, frequently they are not expressed in a single, definitive form but reside more fluidly in the mind of the questioner. Indeed, questions do not have to be formulated in words for the appropriate intellectual activity to take place. But although this seems reasonable, when a question remains un-worded, how can one be confident of its validity?

The basis for deciding any question's validity appears to have nothing to do with its fallibility in producing wrong answers. A question may be couched in such a way that it may be logically correct but biased towards a certain outcome. Rather a question's validity depends upon the available freedom it allows one in reaching an answer objectively. A question cannot be valid if there are limitations imposed upon it, importantly in having some aspect of the potential answer predetermined. 'Leading questions' that seek to illicit a specific response and 'loaded questions' where the attitudes of the questioner appear in the question are both types of invalid question. But invalid, that is, only if one is using the question to find out something previously unknown and for which an unsullied answer is required. (A leading question used as a teaching aid is a valid and often useful tool.) But there is an assumption here that all questions can be divided into two simple categories — 'valid' and 'invalid'. Excluding the rhetorical question as a literary device, it is by no means certain that such a dichotomy really exists — it is merely an assumption. It needs to be asked whether something resembling 'fuzzy' or multi-valued logic might not also apply to the questioning process. That questions exist within a context further suggests that their validity may be relative to that context.

Alternatively, a question may be considered 'reasonable' if it makes sense and is about something that can be realistically addressed — even if the question ultimately proves to be un-answerable. However, reasonable questions should not be expected to yield only reasonable answers — or at least those that make intuitive sense. This is certainly the case in quantum physics. Thus, the formulation of the question and the process by which it is addressed may seem reasonable but the answers may be found to be quite extraordinary. However, we are loath to accept the reverse: that reasonable answers can arise out of seemingly unreasonable questions. Yet there are some mental conditions where a question such as 'What does yellow taste like?' can be comprehended and elicit a reasoned response from the affected individual.

An important assumption often made is that all questions have single, unique answers. One is often asked what is 'the' answer to a certain question. Indeed, it is hard to find a form of words, outside certain areas of mathematics, which leaves the number of answers to a given question open. For many, to talk of finding more than one answer to a specific question seems inconceivable. Whether this is a product of our psychology or intellectual conditioning is unclear but it is reinforced by education systems where a significant proportion of examined work is based upon eliciting specific, predetermined answers to what are essentially leading questions. Accordingly, we are not attuned to the possibility of a plurality of answers. Similarly, in order to obtain a satisfactory outcome to a problem, it may be necessary to ask more than one question. This suggests that in order to get to some conclusive position, one single question may not be sufficient to elicit the necessary result. It may be that, as expressions, questions are sometimes only fragmentary codifications of a much larger mental perplexity. The nature of our questions (and the type of answer envisaged) may unwittingly be a way of imposing our psychology onto the object of enquiry.

Questions are not only the starting points for enquiry but also points to which one returns in order to gauge one's progress. A statement can only qualify as an answer by being weighed against the original question or set of questions. As a result, there is a strong element of the questioner deciding what qualifies as an answer. As Protagoras stated, '[the individual] is the measure of all things; of what is, that it is; of what is not, that it is not'. By 'the measure of all things', he refers to a 'standard of truth'. It is the individual that sets this standard and, likewise, it is the same individual who decides when a question is answered to his or her satisfaction — as determined by that individual's 'personal standard of truth'. Thus, answers do not follow automatically from, and are not simply a function of, logic but of their acceptability to different minds with different standards, varying culturally and historically. What is overlooked in Protagoras' remark is the relationship between the individual and the group. Experiments in social psychology have shown that individuals and groups of individuals behave very differently. What an individual is willing to accept on their own can be very different to what they might accept when they are part of a group. Thus, there are situations when there are external pressures to produce answers, which are duly but inappropriately delivered.

Questions are easily come by but their importance is not so readily appreciated. Wanting to understand the nature of questions better does not lead to a prescription for how to produce them nor how they should be used. The more one interrogates the notion of the question the more one finds that they are not as simple, or perhaps even as benign, as one might have assumed. For his claim of ignorance, the Delphic Oracle proclaimed Socrates to be the wisest man in Greece. One thing about questions is certain. As a statement, a question is an acknowledgement of the limited state of one's current knowledge and an expression of something specific about one's ignorance. One may do well to remember, every time one poses a question, that the extent of one's knowledge is vastly exceeded by one's ignorance and that answering any question does little to redress the imbalance.

© Stephen Lewis 2004

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