Representing… Lani Watson


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 Philosophy of Questions EdinburghLani 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

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!


The Links We Like – April Edition

Want to know what the internet had to say about philosophy & underrepresentation during April? We’ve got you covered. To see the links we post one at a time throughout the month you can ‘like’ us on Facebook or ‘follow’ us on Twitter (@RepEdinburgh). Otherwise, read on…

1. This cool workshop happened in Stockholm, and featured a paper co-authored by recent Edinburgh alumnus Melanie Sarzano. The other co-author is Marie Van Loon, who took part in last year’s Spring Workshop.

2. Eric Schwitzgebel crunched some numbers regarding the gender representation at the Pacific APA.

3. Registration opened for this interdisciplinary event on ‘Gender and Equality in the Academy’ in Dublin. It’s at the end of May, so still time to register if you’re interested in going!

4. This accessibility guide should be of use to anyone who wants all of their students and colleagues to be able to access their presentation materials – which is all of us, presumably?

5. This campaign aims to ‘fill the web with images of women doing what is usually considered men’s work’. It was started by a philosopher and an anaesthesiologist, and there are a bunch of philosophers (as well as other professionals!) up already. They are also on FacebookInstagramTwitter, and Pinterest which means you can be drip-fed counter-stereotypes regardless of which bits of the web you frequent, and you can even join in by buying your own t-shirt.

6. Here’s a flashy new website which hopes to be ‘a resource for philosophers who are looking to create a more inclusive classroom and profession’, with specific reference to stereotype threat.

7. Groningen have released the programme for their workshop on feminist philosophy.

8. A former English Literature PhD student recounted her experience of being a researcher and a mother in this Guardian article.

9. A depressing study found that less than half a percent of professors in the UK (in all disciplines) are black. This Independent article picks out a few key stats.

10. The Pluralist’s Guide to Philosophy aims ‘to provide students and their mentors with some informed, crowd-sourced ideas about two things: 1) where any student might productively cultivate an interest in American Philosophy, Continental Philosophy, Critical Philosophy of Race and Ethnicity, Feminist Philosophy, and GLBT Studies; and 2) where students from traditionally under-represented populations might reasonably expect to find a welcoming environment (as much as philosophers, or graduate programs, are ever welcoming). It seems to be limited to just US programmes at the moment, but could be of use to Masters students and Undergraduates who are thinking about further study.

11. Guy Longworth considered the question of how to deal with philosophers who have racist, and otherwise morally repugnant, views.

12. This fellowship is (put crudely) for women who want to write about women at Oxford. Is that you? Then apply here.

13. The Leeds MAP chapter announced the CFA for their conference on ‘implicit and explicit bias, broadly construed’. The deadline is July 25th. If you have written, or are planning to write, something on bias, then you should apply!

Got any suggestions for next month? If so, then get in touch!

Funds for Distinguished Visitor to Edinburgh. (Members of under-represented groups especially encouraged!)

The philosophy department at the University of Edinburgh has some money to support
expenses associated with the visit of distinguished philosopher to participate in the
research culture of the department including the possibility of talks, workshops, informal
meetings with faculty and graduate students, and visiting other Scottish universities. (No
salary costs but costs associated with accommodation, travel, and events). The visit
should be for at least 3 weeks and ideally longer, during 2016.  We would be especially
interested in inquires from members of under-represented groups. If you might be
interested please contact Matthew Chrisman ( for more
information by May 1, 2015.

The Links We Like – March Edition

Here are the philosophy & underrepresentation links that we’ve come across throughout March. To see the links we post one at a time throughout the month you can ‘like’ us on Facebook or ‘follow’ us on Twitter (@RepEdinburgh). Otherwise, in no particular order…

1. Project Vox “seeks to recover the lost voices of women who have been ignored in standard narratives of the history of modern philosophy. [They] aim to change those narratives, thereby changing what students around the world learn about philosophy’s history.” – mega cool stuff!

2. This piece dealing with straw man arguments about trigger warnings should be useful to bear in mind when planning courses and setting reading. Does the reading contain something which might trigger PTSD in one of your students? Warn them. Easy peasy.

3. Edinburgh’s philosophy department have now officially subscribed to the BPA/SWIP Best Practice scheme. This is very exciting news, and we hope to soon have more information on what the department’s plans for ensuring an inclusive environment entail.

4. MAP UK have published their first report on what chapters around the UK are getting up to. The Edinburgh chapter gets a mention, and so does recent Edinburgh graduate Nicole Hall!

5. An anonymous academic discusses the prevalence of mental health issues in academia (and specifically amongst PhD students) in this Guardian article.

6. Myisha Cherry (who was featured in the first TLWL for her awesome Unmute Podcast) offers up 10 Tips For Presenting In Front Of People You Think Are Smarter Than You. Brilliant advice.

As always, if you happen across anything related to under-representation in philosophy that you think we might like, then let us know!

Happy International Women’s Day!

Today is International Women’s Day – an opportunity to “celebrate the achievements of women while calling for greater equality“. One of the most fundamental barriers to equality in philosophy is the collection of implicit stereotypes that many of us have about what philosophers look like – rich, white, able-bodied, cis, male (usually with beards)… so what can we do to overcome this barriercelebrate the achievements of women in philosophy, and call for greater equality for all people in philosophy? One thing we can do is expose ourselves (and others!) to images which counter those stereotypes. So, in celebration of International Women’s Day, and of diversity in philosophy, here are some places to find counter-stereotypical images of philosophers to look at, and share.

The MAP (Minorities and Philosophy) Faces of Philosophy poster:

MAP Faces of Philosophy

The APA’s Philosophy: Got Women? poster (buy it here):

APA CSW Poster

The looksphilosphical tumblr (see it here):


The philosophywomen tumblr (see it here):


This gallery created by Karla Tonella (click here):

Tonella gallerySo take a look, share them with other people (including non-philosophers!) and while you’re at it, why not learn about a female philosopher? Go here, type in “women philosophers” and hit ‘submit’.

We need to talk about race. (And sex, and ability, and class and gender, and …)

This post has been corrected. It initially (and mistakenly) stated that there are only 2 (racialised-as-) black philosophers employed in philosophy departments in the UK. It turns out that there are at least 4 who are employed as lecturers or research associates (Dr Mahlet Zimeta, Dr Patrice HaynesDr James Wilson, and Dr Nathaniel Coleman). Of course this doesn’t undermine the point that philosophy has far to go before it can really be considered an inclusive discipline – more stats to support this point here. Thanks to Jules Holroyd for pointing out this mistake, and my apologies to anyone who I inadvertently overlooked.

How many black philosophers were you taught by? How many have you read? Chances are, the answer to both of these questions is ‘none’. Clearly our profession has problems with the underrepresentation of groups other than women. The good news is that the issue of underrepresentation of all minorities – both in philosophy, and in academia more widely – is starting to gain traction in the UK.

Complete equality in philosophy won’t happen overnight, but the efforts of groups like SWIP UK and Feminist Philosophers have shown that a large impact can be made in just a few years. (Take the Gendered Conference Campaign, which has pushed the issue of gender representation to the top of the list of priorities of most conference organisers). Now is the time for all of us to to think about all minorities in philosophy. Think of any undergraduates you know who aren’t white, male, able-bodied, middle-class native speakers… If we start to make changes to redress the balance in our profession now, then by the time they are ready to go on the job market they could be assessed completely fairly, on the basis of their philosophical ability, rather than partially (and implicity, but unfairly) on whether they fit an outdated stereotype of what a philosopher looks like. That would make philosophy better for everyone.

With this in mind, we have two exciting pieces of news for you – one is about the EWPG, and one is about PPLS and the University more widely.

First up, we are very pleased to announce that the EWPG has had our application to become a MAP Chapter accepted. If you haven’t heard of MAP then check out – in short, they (we?!) are a group of students who aim to “examine and address issues of minority participation in academic philosophy”. The EWPG are now one of the very first MAP chapters in the UK (scroll down to the bottom of this page to see us alongside Glasgow and KCL). I have no doubt that there will be plenty more joining us, and the dozens of US Chapters, soon.

Historically (and for good reasons) the EWPG has focused mainly on women in philosophy, but as we’ve recently been making an effort to expand our focus to include all underrepresented groups, this partnership with MAP is a great thing.

The second piece of news is that the University of Edinburgh is one of the first universities to apply for the Equality Challenge Unit’s new Race Equality Charter Mark. To earn this award the University will need to identify the barriers to equality that it contains, and to create an action plan to address them. If, or when, an award is made, the University will be required to regularly review and update this action plan. This, too, is a great thing, and should eventually mean greater inclusivity and diversity throughout the University. But it can only make a difference if the University is properly informed about what barriers to equality exist. In order to understand this they need your help, so please do the following three things:

  • Fill out the Race Equality Survey. There are only a few days left to do this, and it just takes ten minutes. Do it now!
  • Keep an eye out for emails inviting you to the PPLS lunchtime workshops on Equality and Diversity. This series is open to all staff and students in PPLS (including faculty, support staff, UGs and PGs), and will address each of the nine Protected Characteristics identified by the Equality Act 2010. The first workshop addressed the characteristic Race, and participants had the opportunity to discuss different “Race Labels”. You can contact Billy Lee for further information.
  • Share this post with your colleagues and (fellow) students, and encourage as many people as possible to fill out the survey and attend the lunchtime workshops.

The EWPG still has a lot to learn, and we hope that by being involved with MAP, and with initiatives that the University run for the Race Equality Charter Mark, we can get better at representing all different groups within philosophy. We need your help to do this as well though. Please talk about what we’re doing with other students and staff, and, as always, if you would like to get involved with the EWPG or the blog in any way, or if you have any suggestions for us, then please feel free to get in touch. We would love to hear from you.

5 Ways to Ask Clear, Confident Questions.

When you first start attending philosophy presentations you are often faced with new and complex ideas. It can be difficult even to maintain your concentration, and so there’s no wonder that many people feel nervous asking questions during the Q&A sessions at the end of talks.

Members of under-represented groups can face additional problems, too. We can suffer from stereotype threat, which can result in physical stress and underachievement in situations where our membership of that group is made salient (eg. being the only woman in a room full of men), and if others in the audience have implicit biases then we risk our contributions being taken less charitably than if they came from someone who isn’t a member of an underrepresented group. If the presentation language is different to your first language too, then this can add another source of stress.*

Generally asking questions gets easier with time, but there are things you can do to help speed up the process. One big thing is to get to know people in the department – you’ll feel more comfortable if you’re not sat in a room full of strangers, and you’ll also be able to share experiences and tips with each other. In the spirit of sharing experiences and advice, here are five things that I have found helpful for asking clear and confident questions:

1. Start with clarificatory questions

Clarificatory questions ask the speaker to explain some argument or concept in more detail. They don’t make a point about the talk, or raise a problem (although sometimes they will lead into one), and so when I first started asking questions I found them a less intimidating option. Then, once I’d got into the habit of speaking during Q&As, some of my nervousness subsided. Just exposing yourself to the experience of asking questions is really important, and asking clarificatory questions allows you to do that without putting yourself under too much pressure. (I also found attending and asking questions at the PG WiP seminar very useful for this, as the audience tends to be mostly postgrads.)

You might feel embarrassed about asking for clarification because you see it as revealing a gap in your understanding, but there are ways to de-emphasise this. By being specific you can demonstrate the understanding you do have, and make it easier for the speaker to answer you. For example, rather than asking “Can you explain the problem with X’s view again?”, aim for something more like: “When criticising X’s view you made a distinction between [concept a] and [concept b], but I’m struggling to see the difference between them – could you go over that again?”.

If you need ideas, then…

2. Listen to other people (and think about phrasing).

This might sound obvious, but I’ve found it really useful to listen to how other, more experienced philosophers ask questions. There are lots of phrases, and ways of structuring questions, that (rightly or wrongly) seem to mark out some questions as ‘good’ and others as less so. Once I made a point of noticing these I didn’t just find that my questions improved, but I started to believe that more of the thoughts I had were question-worthy in the first place.

Here’s an example: A little while ago I attended a talk (outside of Edinburgh) which was on the finer points of a topic, X, that I knew nothing about. The speaker didn’t explain what X was, or why it was important, and so I wasn’t able to get much from the talk. What I really wanted to ask was “Why should I care about X?”, but this didn’t seem like a very ‘good’ question – I thought I’d just demonstrate my own ignorance (not to mention sound rude), and bore everyone else by forcing the speaker to explain the basics to me. In the end, after reflecting on how people who ask ‘good’ questions structure things, I ended up saying something like “I’m interested in the consequences of your conclusion; what other things do we have to believe, or stop believing, if we accept it?”. Not only did this result in an enlightening answer from the speaker, but afterwards several people told me that they had found it useful.

3. Note down potential questions – even if you don’t intend to ask them.

This is a brilliant idea which was passed around the philosophy department at Birmingham when I was studying there (I’m not sure who initially came up with it). The idea is this: imagine you’ve thought of a question, but you’re reluctant to ask it in case it’s not ‘good’ enough (or maybe it’s still only half-formed in your mind). Make a point of writing it down anyway. Then if someone else asks (roughly) the question, you know that at least one other person would have thought your question was a good one if you had asked it. By keeping a record of how often this happens you boost your confidence and increase the likelihood that you’ll raise your hand next time.

I definitely found this strategy useful, even when no-one had asked my question. Once I’d made a point of writing it down, I’d discuss it with another audience member (or sometimes even the speaker) after the talk had finished. I found that this gave me a chance to practice articulating my thoughts, and as long as the other person didn’t have an obvious answer I’d decide that it was a ‘good’ question after all, and push myself to ask something next time.

Sometimes I’d find that someone else asked a question similar to mine, but that there was still something I could add. When that happened I’d try making a follow up (a ‘finger’ rather than a ‘hand’). Again, this means that you get a chance to practice speaking, but there’s less pressure on you (not least because you haven’t had the build-up of nerves waiting in the queue).

Speaking of nerves…

4. Do what you can to reduce physical stress

The physical effects of anxiety or stereotype threat on your body can be a big barrier to speaking up during a Q&A. Luckily there are things you can do to counteract this. This video explains how altering your posture can lower stress hormones and increase confidence. My natural tendency is to avoid taking up space, but I’ve found that making a point of opening up my posture makes a huge difference to how relaxed and confident I am. (Just don’t overdo it and end up invading other people’s personal space…)

You can also take notice of how your location in the room affects you. I find that sitting near the back of the audience makes me feel less involved in the talk, and so less likely to contribute. Sitting closer to the front, especially if I’m amongst friends, makes me more likely to speak, and means that I don’t have to raise my voice as much when I do.

Noting down roughly what I want to say before I speak seems to reduce my stress levels a lot too, as I don’t spend the time leading up to my question desperately memorising what I want to say, and in in what order. This year at the Visiting Speaker Seminar there is a five minute break between the speaker’s presentation and the beginning of the Q&A session, and this is a great opportunity to make those notes.

5. Remember the follow-up

Once you’ve asked your question it can sometimes be such a relief that you end up saying “okay, thank you” to whatever the speaker says. Sometimes this is the most appropriate response and, especially if you’re feeling uncertain, you might prefer to do this anyway. But bear in mind that if your question hasn’t been fully answered and the chair is okay with follow-ups, then you can take the opportunity to ask for further clarification, or to reply to what the speaker has said.

– – –

These five strategies have gradually helped me to feel more confident and ask better questions (although it’s certainly still a work in progress). I hope that others find them helpful too. Do you have other strategies for improving the questions you ask? Please share them in the comments below!

*I study in my first (and only) language so this isn’t something I’ve had to overcome. Speaking to some non-native speakers, one thing that some find useful is thinking about this: although people may make judgements about your philosophical ability on the basis of your questions, very few (if any) will make judgements about the language you use.

Remember that as well as increasing your own confidence, you should consider how your behaviour might affect the speaker, and other audience members. David Chalmers has put together some handy Guidelines for Respectful, Constructive and Inclusive Philosophical Discussion, for exactly this purpose.