Welcome to ‘Representing…’ in which a philosopher from a traditionally underrepresented group explains her research for a non-expert audience. In this edition Lani Watson introduces us to the philosophy of questions via the epistemology of questioning.
Lani Watson recently defended her doctoral thesis, entitled ‘Why Ask: The Epistemology of Questioning’, at the University of Edinburgh. Her research concerns the nature and value of questions and questioning, examined from an epistemological perspective. She draws on applied virtue-epistemology and social epistemology, as well as the epistemology of education, and has also conducted experimental research within the Psychology Department at Edinburgh.
The Epistemology of Questioning
Questioning plays an indispensable role in our everyday lives. We use it to communicate with each other, to learn, and to gather information. It is familiar and ubiquitous, across languages, cultures and communities, providing the glue for our social interactions, on both an individual and global scale. Yet, it is a practice that often goes unnoticed, in our daily lives and our intellectual endeavours, as well as in the political and societal challenges that we face. Understanding the role that questioning plays in these contexts can provide us with a valuable insight into the interactions that take place within them, and may help us to negotiate these interactions better.
Stop, then, and recall the last question that you asked. How long has it been since you asked it, what made you ask it, who did you ask it of, and was it ever answered. If you can answer any of these questions then you are on your way to uncovering your own theory of questions. This is because part of identifying the last question that you asked involves identifying what you think a question actually is. You are on your way to answering the question, ‘what is a question’. Perhaps surprisingly, you are also further along this path than the majority of thinkers comprising the history of Western philosophy. Reflections on the nature of questions are sparse and fleeting in the philosophical canon, and yet, questioning undeniably plays a central role in our lives. My research aims to place questioning, understood as a ubiquitous and indispensable social practice, firmly back on the philosophical agenda.
What, then, is a question. The answer I offer is relatively simple; a question is an act performed in order to elicit information. It may be a speech act, as when you ask a passing stranger for directions, a physical act, as when you look both ways before crossing the road, or an act performed in your head, as when you ask yourself to recall the last question that you asked. The key is that you ask in order to find things out, either for yourself, or for someone else (as when the teacher questions the student). This is true even when the information itself is not an explicit goal. I may ask a friend how he is feeling after falling off his bike, not because I am explicitly seeking information regarding his emotional state, but because I want to express my concern for his wellbeing. Nevertheless, it is the fact that I am attempting to find out how he is that does the work of expressing this concern. I could have given him a hug and had the same effect, but instead I asked a question. The difference between the question and the hug is not explained in terms of my explicit desire to express concern for my friend’s wellbeing – they both do this. The question is different from the hug because it is an act performed in order to elicit information. That is what makes it a question.
Think again about the last question that you asked. Does it meet this simple requirement. Was it asked in order to elicit information, even if this wasn’t your explicit goal. Is that how you identified it as a question. Can you identify it as a question in any other way. If you can answer any of these questions then you are, once again, developing your theory of questions, and again, ahead of the philosophical curve. Where philosophy has turned its attention towards questions, they have typically been treated as a distinctive form of linguistic expression, and analysed in terms of logical, semantic and syntactic structure. My research emphasises the epistemological significance of the question as an act, and of questioning as a practice. Identifying a question as an act performed in order to elicit information, as opposed to an interrogative sentence say, does precisely this. It exposes the sense in which a question extends beyond any formal linguistic parameters, and is realised within the context of a social world.
Why is this important then. Why do we need a theory of questions, and how will having such a theory help us in our daily lives.
For me the answer is straightforward. If questioning is something that we regularly do, that we rely upon in order to learn, to communicate, and to express ourselves, then it should also be something that we want to be good at. Being a good questioner will allow us to gather the information that we are after efficiently, communicate with others effectively, and express ourselves and our desires clearly. Poor questioning will impede us in these, and many other, ways. A theory of questions is required in order to understand what it takes to be a good questioner.
What, then, is good questioning. Again, the answer I offer is relatively simple; a good questioner is one who competently elicits worthwhile information. In other words, a good questioner will employ a range of skills in order to elicit the information they are after. They will identify what it is they are trying to find out, how best to express this, who (or what) is most likely to provide the information, and when and where is most appropriate to ask. Moreover, the good questioner won’t seek out just any information. They will seek out information that is significant or relevant to their aims. If I am trying to get to the train station in an unfamiliar city, I may stop and ask a passing stranger for directions. If, however, I ask them how many pizzerias are within a five mile radius of my current location, I am doing a poor job of finding out the information that I’m after. A good questioner employs their question-asking skills in order to seek out information that is worth having. This is what it means to competently elicit worthwhile information, and so, to be a good questioner.
Return, once more, to the last question that you asked. Was it a good question. Did you clearly identify what it is that you wanted to find out. Did you express this in the most effective way. Did you direct your question at an appropriate source of information, and did you ask it in the right place at the right time. Could you have done any one of these things better or worse. What results, if any, might that have had.
In my research, I argue that we can indeed become better questioners. Understanding what a question is, and what it takes to be a good questioner, is a vital part of understanding how this is possible. As well as having implications for a wide range of contemporary epistemological debates, including those concerning the social role and value of information, knowledge, and understanding, the nature and norms of testimonial exchange, the nature of the intellectual virtues, and the problem of epistemic injustice, this conclusion has important applications for the role of questioning in education. Given the central role that questioning plays in our everyday lives, I argue that we should educate for good questioning and draw on the results of an experiment conducted with 7-9 year olds in school, to demonstrate the particular significance of questioning for learning. This reveals the vital role that questioning plays in cognitive development and the intellectual life broadly speaking, raising the pedagogical question of how we can and should educate for good questioning, as well as drawing attention to consideration of the wider, social and cross-cultural implications of doing so. I intend to develop and expand this aspect of my research in my post-doctoral work.
If you are interested in thinking more about questions, or continuing to develop your own theory of questions, why not complete the survey ‘What is a question’. You can also find out more about my research, and read some of my published work, at philosophyofquestions.com
Would you like to be featured on ‘Representing…’ ?If you are, or have been, a student or faculty member from Edinburgh, and consider yourself to be a member of an underrepresented group, then please get in touch!