The Art of Questioning

The Art of Questioning


  1. The role of the master


If we were to summarize the role of the professor of philosophy by a single function, we would say that it is to introduce the student to the art of questioning, the founding act and the historical genesis of philosophizing. Philosophy is a process of reflection, a treatment of thought, before being a culture, which is only its product, its matter or means. (Although we can just as blithely assert the opposite, reversing the end and the means). As with all art, this process results from an attitude, it is based on it. However, in the absolute, as Plato suspects, an attitude cannot be taught, which should lead us to affirm that we cannot teach philosophy. At the same time, this attitude can be discovered, one can become aware of it, one can feed it; so, it will be stated in the same way that the philosophical approach can be taught. The term ‘attitude’ derives from the same Latin origin as ‘aptitude’, of agere, which means ‘to act’: disposition and capacity are intimately connected with one another, as well as with action, of which both are conditions. The philosophical fiber must therefore be supposed to be present in the pupil, to pretend to teach philosophy, as well as the aesthetic feeling, to teach painting or music. Here, the Aristotelian tabula rasa is reductive, presupposing to fill a void with knowledge, which advocates the conception of philosophy as transmission, a conception widely spread in the institution. The presuppositions of Socratic maieutic are different: only the divine spark which nests in the heart of every human being, whether it is to enliven or to revive, is the only one that operates.

But it can also be assumed that philosophy is above all a sum of knowledge, if one assumes this encyclopaedic vision and its consequences. Similarly, let us ask whether philosophy is a codified practice, dated historically, geographically connoted, or whether it belongs by nature to the human mind, in all its generality. The problem rests in the same way as to its origin. At the same time, can we honestly, without blinking, claim to be without a father or mother, believe to proceed from spontaneous generation? Little naive beings who would only know the song of the birds and the strawberries of the woods, but would be creative and conceptual. Why deny what our ancestors bequeathed or imposed on us? Did they not try to teach us to question? Unless for this precise reason they deserve to be relegated to the dungeons.


  1. Nature and culture

We are therefore obliged to confess the presuppositions from which we operate, when we summarize philosophy as an art of questioning. Philosophy is for us inherent in man, but the one or the other, according to circumstances, have more or less developed this natural faculty. Tools have been produced in the course of history, which we have inherited, but no more than technical progress makes man an artist, established philosophical concepts do not make man a philosopher. Thus, the art of questioning, which embodies the legacies of history, an art which would have no reason to ignore the works of the predecessors, favors the emergence of philosophy. For, if we have denounced the encyclopaedic and bookish temptation of philosophy, we must also warn against the other form of tabula rasa: that which purports to make the economy of history to favor, it says, the emergence of an authentic and personal thought. Between these two pitfalls, it seems to us necessary to draw a path, in order to guide our own steps, in order to encourage each teacher not to neglect either the pupil’s abilities or the inheritance of the elders. For, if it has seemed necessary to condemn philosophical cramming and the great abstract and pontifical discourses, it seems equally urgent to condemn the discourse of philosophizing without philosophy, which tends to glorify singular or collective thought under the pretext that it is made of flesh and bone, real and alive, and that it owes nothing to anyone.

Let us propose the following paradox: philosophical art, or the art of questioning, is the art of knowing nothing, or the art of wanting to know. A question that states a discourse is not a question. The more the discourse states, the less it questions. How many teachers pretend to ask a question of their pupils, by questions so laborious, so charged, so heavy, that they stun the student, who can only answer yes, by lip service, by politeness, or because he is impressed by the erudition so deployed, or because he has understood nothing of the so-called question. The first criterion of a good question is that it does not want to demonstrate or teach directly: it must be conscious of its own ignorance, believe it, display it, seek by all means to escape the knowledge from which it emanates. Like an arrow that has to prune its empennage to really strike. The more refined it is, the greater its range. The more it penetrates its target.

To practice this art, every interlocutor is good: the mind blows where it wants, whenever it wants, as it wants, the whole idea is to listen and to know how to hear. It is for this latter reason that our artist cannot be an ignorant, but can only practice the art of ignorance, in order to refine his hearing skills. He knows how to split himself, to cast himself in the abyss, to abstain from himself, what his pupil does not know, and who, moreover, believes he knows even if he knows nothing, even when he does not know. He believes he knows what he knows, whereas the philosopher educator knows that he himself does not know what he knows. Already, because he never sufficiently knows what he knows, the implications and consequences of which he still does not know, because he does not perceive all the contradictions. On the other hand, because he knows that what he knows is false, because it is partial, it is partial and vague. This opacity does not worry him much, for he knows that absolute speech, totally transparent to itself, does not exist, or cannot be articulated. But, at the same time, it obliges him to listen, to grant a true status to this indefinite multiplicity that constitutes humanity, always to expect everything from everyone.

Yet, if our philosopher knows nothing, he must know how to recognize, and in this redoubling of knowledge about itself all the difference is nested. One cannot question if one recognizes nothing, if one does not know how to seek and recognize. The questions will be awkward, odd, devoid of vigor, decentered, general, even out of place, and they will not really hear what is being answered. To be able to recognize, you must be armed, your eyes and your ears must be seasoned. He who has never opened his eyes, he who has not learned, is not on the watch. He cannot be on the lookout. For, it is by learning that one learns to learn. To be alert in the woods, one must appreciate the various rustling in the foliage, the various songs of birds, the varieties of mushrooms edible or not. Otherwise, we will not see anything, we will hear nothing, nothing but noises, colors, shapes, indistinctly. We will not seek to know if we do not recognize forms.


  1. Typical questions


Thus, our teacher of philosophy has a dual function: to simultaneously teach knowledge and ignorance, or knowledge and non-knowledge, for those whom this term of ignorance worries. But, if some teachers focus on knowledge, others specialize in non-knowledge. Both think they teach, and both teach, but do they teach philosophy? And do they philosophize? Absolutely, it does not matter, and we continue our journey. Let us see what questioning consists in, and see in what consists the role of the teacher of philosophy. Let us therefore take a few typical, recurring questions throughout the history of philosophy. Recurring, no doubt because they are of the utmost urgency, of the greatest banality and of the greatest efficiency. But we must still be sensitive to it.


What is it all about?

As we have already stated, the first condition of action is attitude, the cousin of aptitude. So, as with a sport, as with a song, it is a question of putting oneself in a good position, in a good disposition, both to allow philosophy and also to work on what is the foundation of it. In this first stage, which is indispensable, some pupils will exhibit severe handicaps, which cannot be ignored or disregarded as if nothing had happened. To philosophize, it is necessary to pose the thought. If this attitude must be provoked by the teacher, it is because it is not natural. Indeed, in general, there reigns in the mind of man, child or adult, a certain hubbub, whose outward and verbal manifestation is but a pale reflection. In order to pose the mind, it is first of all a question of asking for a silence, or of demanding it, according to the degree of ‘violence’ implied by the nature of the group. Then, the request is made to contemplate an idea, to reflect on a question, to meditate on a text, to reflect without expressing anything. “What is it all about?” He asks himself. Finally, in a third time, to express an idea to oneself, orally or in written format. Knowing that if it is orally, it is a matter of asking for the floor and waiting for his turn. And, as soon as someone speaks, there’s no reason anyone else should keep his arm up. A fourth step, which is a reversal, may be a request for verification by an author or by the auditors as to the relevance of the remarks made. Are they clear? Do they correspond to the instructions? Do they answer the question? It is not a question of entering into problems of agreement or disagreement, but merely of examining whether, on the formal plane, the remarks are adequate, in order to verify whether the thought is at the ‘rendez-vous’. The requirement is to precisely identify a content.

Examples of questions asked to clarify the situation: “Does the answer answers the question asked or another question?”; “In your opinion, is your answer clear to your listeners?”; “Does what has been expressed satisfy the instructions given?”; “Did you answer the question or give an example?”. The problems posed here are those of the relationship of meaning, coherence, nature and clarity of speech. They ask to identify what is happening, to verify its nature and content. This going back to one’s own thought, the analysis that one makes of it, constitutes the first entry into philosophizing.



The second question, the foundation of thought, is the ‘why?’ ‘. Asking ‘Why?’ is to pose the problem of the finality of an idea, its legitimacy, its origin, its proofs, its rationality, and so on. It can be used in all its forms, without any need for specification, and the pupils have understood this well, who use it as a system: “Why do you say that?” A very undifferentiated question, it asks everything and, as a result, it does not ask anything. But, it is useful because it introduces pupils, especially the younger ones, to this dimension of the hereafter or of the below of the discourse. Nothing comes from nothing. The why implies genesis, causality, motive, motivation, and to work this dimension we accustom ourselves to justify automatically our arguments, to argue them, in order to grasp their deeper content. It makes us aware of our thought and of our being, for which every particular idea is only the pale reflection or roughness from which we can practice the escalation of mind and being.


Example or idea?

The first tendency of the child, as often of the adult, is to express himself by an example, by a narration, by the concrete: “It is like when…” “For example…” “There are some who…” Plato describes this natural process of the mind, which tends to proceed from one case to several cases, then to finally access the general idea. To ask the child what is the idea underlying his example, to ask him whether the case is specific or not, is to ask him to articulate the process of generalization of his intuition, formalizing it; to ask him to move on to the stage of abstraction. An idea is not an example, although they contain and support each other. In the same way, certain ready-made generalities also represent a short-circuit of thought, a concept without intuition, Kant would say. No intuition without a concept, no concept without intuition, he enjoins us.


Even or other?

To think philosophically is to think about the link. Everything is bound up in human thought, everything is distinct. A dialectic of the same and of the other to which Plato invites us. All that is different is even, everything even is different: no relation is possible without community and distinction. But, then, everything rests in the articulation or in making this relation explicit, in the proportionality of community and difference, framed by a context. Nothing can avoid the judgment, always questionable and revisable. For, in order for a real reflection to take place, it is a question of not repeating oneself indefinitely, unless for consciously re-examining. Nor is there any question of repeating, without being conscious of repeating. What is the relation between an idea and that which precedes it? To build, to dialogue, ideas must be aware of each other, to take charge of each other. Is the content nearly the same? What is the nature of difference, that of contradiction? What does what I say or what I have just said say about what has already been said? On what concepts are the stakes or the similarities grounded? These are the questions that must accompany any new formulation of ideas. Questions that can only be dealt with in relation to a specific context. With two possible pitfalls. Either distinctions will always be possible, the trap of the nuance to infinity. Or, everything is connected, united, beginning with the opposite with its opposite, a sort of fusional drive.


Essential or accidental?

A powerful distinction proposed by Aristotle. To think is to sift through what comes to mind, preferably before we say it. Without that, we speak, we say what passes through our head, but we do not think, or then in a very vast and fuzzy sense. It is above all to discriminate what comes to mind, according to the degree of pre-eminence, importance, efficiency, beauty, truth, etc. To ask whether an idea is essential or accidental is to invite an axiology, or to explicate it, because every thought operates from a hierarchy and a classification of priorities, however unconscious or unspeakable. The essential is also the invariant, which means that an entity, a thing, an idea or being, holds a certain quality, not in an ancillary but in a fundamental way, which belongs to the essence. Does one thing remain what it is without this predicate, or does it become something else? The fruit grows in the trees, but can a fruit not grow in a tree? Is any quality or predicate granted to an entity really necessary? Is it also valid for a radically different entity? These are questions which reflect on the nature of things, ideas and beings, on their definitions, their differences and their respective values.


What is the problem?

Once we have an idea, we can wonder about its degree of universality. To do this, it is necessary to think of the exception, an exception which has the right to be because it can both disprove and confirm the rule. It invalidates it because it deprives it of its degree of absolute, it confirms it because it determines its limits. This treatment characterizes the scientific approach, according to Popper, according to which the fallibility of a proposition establishes scientificity and protects the religious schema, which is based on incontestable propositions. All that belongs to reason is debatable: the absolute word belongs to the act of faith. Knowing the limits of generality is tantamount to grasping the profound reality of it, and above all, not to fear the objection, but to desire it. So, for any proposed idea, let us ask from the outset where the fault is, positing as a starting postulate that it necessarily exists and must be identified. Moreover, the emergence of any singularity will allow us to reach another degree of universality, some new hypotheses.


  1. To give the example


In the beginning, the teacher somewhat monopolizes the questioning function, in order to set an example, in order to set the tone, to inspire rigor, but promptly, he invites the students to undertake this task. Little by little the pupils are initiated, some quickly, others slowly. The role of the teacher is to be a foreigner, like the one staged by Plato in his late dialogues, whose only patronym is the ‘Stranger’. The stranger is one who takes nothing for granted, one who does not accept any habit, one who does not know the pact and does not recognize it. The pupil becomes accustomed to becoming a stranger to himself, a stranger to the group, not to seek protective fusion, recognition, or agreement of any kind. He is not there to reassure, neither the others nor himself, he leaves it to the psychologist or the parents. He is there to disturb, to provoke that anxiety which is inherent in thought, the living substance of thought, as Leibniz says.

But to induce philosophy, one must philosophize. The teacher who wishes to make his pupils philosophize cannot claim in this respect any extra territoriality, exempt from requirements and reflection. He must therefore philosophize himself, and also become a stranger. If he does not get used to loving, desiring and producing what does not belong to him, how could he engender philosophy in his class? It would therefore hardly be understood that he would not seek a minimum of what our famous ancestors had been saying. Certainly, their speeches are not always easy to read or to understand, and they are not all exciting. Especially since we can all have subjects of predilection. But, if ignorance becomes a posture, in search of justification, which would claim to be a spontaneous philosopher, ready to marvel at infantile or adolescent speech as a substitute for thought, then imposture is not far off. Sapere aude! Called the teacher, as Kant to his pupils, without putting into practice this imperative. “Dare to know!” Said he, but his acts will betray him. What energy does he convey, if he pleases himself with letting erroneous words go unrecorded or being vaguely associative? From time to time, maybe, some stroke of genius occurs, by some mysterious chance, but no mastery emerges, as consciousness is hardly solicited. If there is no rigor in the treatment of thought, the teacher necessarily opposes the thought of the pupils to the knowledge inculcated in class, in mathematics for example, where it is a matter of reporting the result by a process. It will therefore have created a pleasant place of exchange, useful perhaps, but without allowing everyone to accede to the universality of his purpose. For, only the approach is validating, of what otherwise remains an opinion. But an approach cannot be accidental. The process demystifies, it releases, insofar as the mind deliberates in full knowledge of the cause. And, to deliberate, if the human mind will never be reducible to defined processes, just as in mathematics, there are processes that are better known. Why not take advantage of the past? If it is fun to try to recreate mathematics, it is at least as fun to do so by relying on what has already been done.

One can think indefinitely about the procedures to be set up, about their subtleties and complexities, about the multiple rules of discussion, about the psychological and affective dimensions of the case, even if philosophizing remains above all an art of questioning which, like all art, uses techniques and knowledge that condition the emergence of creativity and genius. Attitude and aptitudes are the conditions of action. But why disregard what is, what is given?

If we love problems, nothing else can alienate us. It is then that one becomes the stranger, because habit does not like problems, it appreciates above all the certainties and the evidences. To love problems, for their contribution to truth, for their beauty, for their ‘mise en abyme’ of the being, for their aporetic dimension, is to love difficulty, strangeness, and question. In this, it is an education of emotions: to go beyond the urgency of expression, the rigidity of opinion, the fear of the problem, in order to allow the mind to no longer revel in immediacy, to interrogate the subject on the basis of what emerges from the world, and not from nothing, from arbitrary and frozen rules or from some academic reading grid.

Who are you? Asks us Socrates. Do you exist? Nagarjuna asks us. Do you know what you say? Asks Pascal. Where do you get that evidence? Asks Descartes. How can you know? Kant asks us. Can you think otherwise? Hegel asks us. What material conditions make you speak thus? Marx asks us. Who speaks when you speak? Nietzsche asks us. What desire animates you? Freud tells us. Who do you want to be? Sartre asks us. Why not let yourself be questioned? And to whom do we pretend to speak when we do not want to hear these questions? Unless we prefer to discuss only between ourselves.



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