What is the Question

As Gertrude Stein was on her deathbed, Alice B. Toklas asked her “What is the answer.” Stein is said to have replied: “In that case, what is the question.” Is not the question more important than the answer? Are not the answers for the most part embedded in the way the questions are formulated? I have always believed the best kind of reasoning, the best analysis or research starts with a good question. Knowing what question to ask is the critical antecedent to obtaining a good answer.

In a recent essay, Pressing Questions for Our Century, A. C. Grayling writes about some of the questions that loom largest in his thinking now and why they cause him the greatest worries. Grayling is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of London who has recently written Ideas that Matter: Key Concepts for the 21st Century. His central concern is how are we to make individuals more aware and better informed about the discoveries of modern science, discoveries that he believes are the greatest achievements to date in human history.

I admire Grayling’s essay for the way he gives serious thought to the questions that really matter to him now or as he puts it what are the most pressing questions of our times. How often do we ask ourselves what are the questions that matter most to us? Here are the five that he regards as most critical.

1 How are we going to involve more people “in the conversation about what’s happening in science—trying to understand it, be informed about it and to be a participant in deciding how we go forward with these developments?”

2. How are we going to preserve, defend and expand civil liberties and human rights throughout the world and avoid their erosion in so many countries, including those where we believe they are widely practiced?

3. How can we best understand the nature of consciousness, perception, thought and memory? How can be best further our understanding of these cognitive process and what is going to “come out of it?”

4. What determines the practice of reading and how will we be reading and reflecting in the future. “What underlies our ability to be good conversationalists with one another, to be reflective…and have a good knowledge of the classics but also be open to new ideas across all the disciplines—history, the sciences, philosophy, and the literary arts?”

5. “How do we keep the best of the past while remaining flexible and receptive to this new world that our technologies are opening to us? Keeping alive the questioning, skeptical, fact-hungry, curious attitude towards the world that the best people in the past have exemplified?”

Grayling begins his essay by saying “I am asking myself a lot of questions at the moment…” I attach considerable importance to that statement and the process it entails. I would hope that we would all begin to identify our own most pressing questions and then proceed, insofar as we are able, to answer them.

I suspect if you take this enterprise seriously what you will end up with more questions that will be just as pressing. This will give a momentum and a direction to your thinking that may be languishing in their absence. Here I speak from personal experience, one that I am presently encountering as I seek to identify the next big project and try to recharge my muse.