Questions – an underrated genre

Looking at introductions to philosophy, I realise that we devote much attention to the reconstruction of arguments and critical analysis of positions. Nothing wrong with that. Yet, where are the questions? Arguably, we spend much of our time raising questions, but apart from very few exceptions questions are rarely treated as a genre of philosophy. (However, here is an earlier post, prompted by Sara Uckelman’s approach, on which she elaborates here. And Lani Watson currently runs a project on philosophical questions.) Everyone who has tried to articulate a question in public will have experienced that it is not all that simple, at least not if you want to go beyond “What do you mean?” or “What time is it?” In what follows, I’d hope to get a tentative grip on it by looking back at my recent attempt to teach students asking questions.

This year, I gave an intense first-year course on medieval philosophy.* I say “intense” because it comprises eight hours per week: two hours lecture and two hours reading seminar on Thursday and Friday morning. It’s an ideal setting to do both, introduce material and techniques of approaching it as well as applying the techniques by doing close reading in the seminars. Often students are asked to write a small essay as a midterm exam. Given the dearth of introductions to asking questions, I set a “structured question” instead. The exercise looks like this:

The question will have to be about Anselm’s Proslogion, chapters 2-4. Ideally, the question focuses on a brief passage from that text. It must be no longer than 500 words and contain the following elements:

– Topic: say what the question is about;
– Question: state the actual question (you can also state the presupposition before stating the question);
– Motivation: give a brief explanation why the question arises;
– Answer: provide a brief anticipation of at least one possible answer.

What did I want to teach them? My declared goal was to offer a way of engaging with all kinds of texts. When doing so I assumed that understanding (a text) can be a general aim of asking questions. I often think of questions as a means of making contact with the text or interlocutor. For a genuine question brings two aspects together: on the one hand, there is your question, on the other, there is that particular bit of the text that you don’t understand or would like to hear more about. But … that’s more easily said than done. During the lectures and seminars we would use some questions from students to go through the motions. What I noticed almost immediately is that this was obviously really hard. One day, a student came up and said:

“Look, this focus on questions strikes me as a bit much. I’m used to answer questions, not raising them. It seems to require knowledge that I don’t have. As it is, it is rather confusing and I feel like drowning out at sea.”

I’m quoting from memory, but the gist should be clear. And while I now think of a smallish group of students as particularly brave and open, this comment probably represents the attitude of the majority. The students wanted guidance, and what I wanted to offer them instead was tools to guide themselves. I had and have a number of different reactions to the student’s confession. My first thought was that this is a really brave stance to take: Being so open about one’s own limits and confusion is rarely to be found even among established people. At the same time, I began to worry about my approach. To be sure, the confusion was caused intentionally to some degree, and I said so. But for this apporach to work one has to ensure that asking questions eventually provides tools to orient oneself and to recognise the reasons for the confusion. Students need to learn to consider questions such as: Why am I confused? Could it be that my own expectations send me astray? What am I expecting? What is it that the text doesn’t give me? Arguably, they need to understand their confusion to make contact to the text.  In other words, questions need to be understood. But this takes time and, above all, trust that the confusion lands us somewhere in the end.

When I taught this kind of course in the past, I did what the student seemed to miss now: I gave them not only guiding questions to provide a general storyline through the material, but also detailed advice on what to look for in the texts. While that strikes me as a fine way of introducing material, it doesn’t help them develop questions autonomously. In any case, we had to figure out the details of this exercise. So what is behind the four elements in the task above?

Since questions are often used for other purposes, such as masking objections or convey irritation, it is vital to be explicit about the aim of understanding. Thus, finding the topic had to be guided by a passage or concept that left the questioner genuinely confused. Admitting to such confusion is trickier than meets the eye, because it requires you to zoom in on your lack of understanding or knowledge. You might think that the topic just is the passage. But it’s important to attempt a separate formulation for two reasons: firstly, it tells the listener or reader what matters to you; secondly, it should provide coherence in that the question, motivation and answer should all be on the same topic.

In the beginning, I spent most of the time with analysing two items: the motivation and the formulation of the actual question. After setting out an initial formulation of the question, students had to spell out why the question arises. But why do questions arise? In a nutshell, most questions arise because we make a presupposition or have an expectation that the text does not meet. (Here is a recent post with more on such expectations.) A simple example is that you expect evidence or an argument for a claim p, while the author might simply say that p is self-evident. You can thus begin by jotting down something like “Why would p be self-evident, according to the author?” This means that now, at last, you can talk about something that you do know: your expectations. Ideally, this provides a way of spelling out what you expect and thus what the text lacks (from that perspective). Going from there, the tentative answer will have to provide a reason that shows why p is self-evident for the author. Put differently, while the motivation brings out your presuppositions, the answer is an attempt at spelling out the presuppositions guiding the text (or author). With hindsight, you can now also fix the topic, e.g. self-evidence.

But things are never that straightforward. What I noticed after a while was that many students went off in a quite different direction when it came to answering the question. Rather than addressing the possible reasons of the author, the students began to spell out why the author was wrong. At least during the first letures, they would sometimes not try to see what reasons the author could invoke. Instead, they would begin by stating why their own presupposition was right and the author wrong, whatever the author’s reasons.

This is not surprising. Most discussions inside and outside of philosophy have exactly this structure. Arguably, most philsophy is driven by an adversarial culture rather than by the attempt to understand others. A question is asked, not to target a difficulty in understanding, but to justify the refutation of the interlocutor’s position. While this approach can be one legitimate way of interacting, it appears particularly forced in engaging with historical texts. Trying to say why Anselm or any other historical author was wrong, by contemporary standards, just is a form of avoiding historical analysis. You might as well begin by explaining your ideas and leave Anselm out of the equation altogether.

But how can an approach to understanding the text (rather than refuting it) be encouraged? If you start out from the presupposition that Anselm is wrong, an obvious way would be to ask for the reasons that make his position seem right. It strikes me as obvious that this requires answering the question on Anselm’s behalf. It is at this point that we need to move from training skills (of asking questions) to imparting (historical) knowledge. Once the question arises why an author claims that p, and p does not match our expectations, we need to teach students to recognise certain moves as belonging to different traditions and ways of doing philosophy, ways that do not square with our current culture. My hope is that, if we begin with teaching to raise questions, it will become more desirable to acquire the knowledge relevant to providing answers and to understanding our own questions.

_____

* I’ve really enjoyed teaching this course and think I’ve learned a lot from it. Special thanks to my patient students, particularly to my great TAs, Elise van de Kamp and Mark Rensema, whose ideas helped me enormously in shaping the course. – Now, if you’ve read this far, I’d like to thank you, too, for bearing with me. Not only for the length of this post. Today is a special occasion: this is post number 101.

2 thoughts on “Questions – an underrated genre

  1. Thank you for this post! I’ve been trying something similar this year with my students: a journaling assignment where they have to identify a problem they have in trying to understand the reading. Often, particularly at the beginning, their problems are very straightforward (vocabulary or whatever) but get more complex as the semester goes on. I do find that they have the same “here’s why this person is wrong” default approach that you discuss, and I appreciate your thoughts on that. I think they will help me clarify what I’m trying to get them to do. I may try the structured question approach, too.

    I’ve found a number of your posts very helpful in thinking through pedagogy. Thank you again.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s