The Dartmouth Observer
Friday, May 12, 2006
What Makes A Question Interesting?
As an aspiring academic, it is good to think about: "What makes a question worthy of pursuit" to fetter my scholastic endevours to questions that serve humanity in some way largely defined.
The motivating questions are those questions that drive us to abstract thinking and argumentation in the first place. These questions--let's call them first order--are questions with which every person in their lives has paused at least once to think about. As a political scientist, then, I need to think about those questions which drive people to study politics in the first place: questions of war, peace, democracy, and participation. My overarching question for my research is "Why do civilians die as result of international political behavior?" Nevertheless, I must continue my analysis of what makes all questions, not just political ones, interesting. It must now be said that not every first-order question remains an interesting question.
This first order approach, however, allows for motivating questions that have become masturbatory in their pondering. For instance, "how do I know I exist" is a first-order question which has led to self-indulgence on the part of philosophers due to strange and quirky specifications on what kinds of arguments are allowed and respect by their standard. In my analysis, first-order questions are naturally interesting questions, worthy of pursuit unless some discipline or profession places limitations on the questions through obtuse specifications.
Absent those interdictions, first-order questions are interesting because they are the questions that both fester in the back of our minds in the quiet dark of the night and drive us to the public sphere seeking an audience. The push and pull of the private and public nature of questioning constitutes the Kantian tension of "antisocial sociability" that he outlines in his writings on political philosophy. On the one hand, these questions nag us as we walk, occur at unpleasant moments of self-doubt, and in those moments of terror when "the fear of the nothing" might overtake us. On the other hand, these questions drive us to tell others about them because we are as Aristotle suggested "zoon politikon", or, political animals. Interesting questions are those question that we not only hope for disagreement, but would be devastated to find consensus; the performance of agnostic difference and the expectation of radical disagreement provokes us to ponder the importance of the question without trying to reduce its complexity and interest through a forced answer.
Interesting questions not only beg for unreconciled and unmitigated difference, they also are complex because they unsettle the "horizon of the taken for granted" in new and disturbing ways. Questioning God, existence, life, or pondering the abyss of war are questions that we would all see as interesting not only because we wouldn't expect to agree, but because those questions get us very close to thinking about our contingent mode of being-in-the-world. In a way, being seems as natural as waking up, and indeed, it is, for to be is to live; however, living itself is such a complex and variegated phenomena that it begs to be questioned in a radical and unsettling way. These questions are the interesting first-order questions.
Lastly, and this should be clear at this point, interesting question aren't interesting simply because they are complex, provoke disagreement, or drive us to abstract thinking. These questions are interesting because they created the need for an audience of an indeterminate character; the performance of the questioning thereby creates the questioner, the audience, and the response. In this performance of provocation lies a space where we find what is unique to this mode of being: humanity.
Questions are interesting because they force us into a paradoxically private yet interpersonal ( universal democratic) space which is one of the few spaces where truly human, free, and equal persons can be said to exist. We all long for this space because only there are we in an almost Levinasian "face-to-face" moment of being relating to itself. This is why doubting is the first step to meeting God.