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  • What is a Question?
  • Terry Smith (bio)

Is there a non-trivial way of answering the question, “What is a question?” As tempting, and as natural, as it is to seek some time and space by dallying with the trivial, accepting the adventitious, and deferring to the instinct to defer the real challenges of this question, I shall try to avoid each of these delays for as long [End Page 36] as I can. I want to avoid the anything-goes ambiguity in the “a” in this question, to turn it into something somewhat more demanding, to ask “What is it to question?” I am after the difference between the response, “That’s a good question” and the response, “That’s a really good question”—the difference, that is, between asking for a moment to select the appropriate answer from those that are ready to go and signaling that I don’t know the answer, and acknowledging that you have asked me actually to think.

In his most direct response to this challenge, no less a figure than Martin Heidegger unfolded a sequence of delays and deferrals before getting down to the essentials. He did so in his 1951-1952 lectures “Was Heisst Denken?”—which may be plainly translated as “What is Thinking?” but is more accurately rendered, in the author’s own words, as “What is Called Thinking?” After a long but intriguing rumination on the master/slave relations inherent to teaching, and on why teaching is more difficult than learning, he charts four ways in which the question about thinking might be posed, all of them relevant to our challenge. First, he asks what is immediately conjured, in ordinary language use, by the word “thinking.” Second, he asks how traditional doctrine conceives and defines what we have named “thinking.” By “traditional doctrine” he means European thought since the Greeks, to the definition and refutation of which he devoted most of this own thinking. Third, he asks what we need to do in order to be able to think well. Finally, and most importantly, he asks, “What is it that calls us, as it were, commands us to think,” that “calls us into thinking?”1

It will have escaped no one that these answers are themselves questions, that they aim towards arriving at one, universal, essential answer, but also that they do so by pointing out a pathway from ordinary language use and commonsense through a series of steps. Everyday, implicitly unreflective thought is matched against “two and a half thousand years” of thought about thought, the great traditions of philosophical, scientific, and even religious traditions of the West and (less so, but quite strongly in other late essays) of the East. Both are subject to intense interrogation in order to seek fresh understandings of what it is to be in the world. Doing so might enable the questioner to arrive at the fourth and final state, one in which interrogative thinking about what it is to be in the world becomes the true response to the call of the world, the call of Being itself.

How is this relevant to thinking within and about the arts? Take this for testimony: after the first of three pilgrimages to Cézanne’s painting sites at Aix, undertaken toward the end of his life, Heidegger commented, “Cézanne was not a philosopher, but he understood all of philosophy. In a few words, he summed up everything I have tried to express. He said: ‘Life is terrifying.’ I have been saying just that for forty years.”2 After the third visit, on which the philosopher retraced the painter’s footsteps to the [End Page 37] spot overlooking the Bibémus quarry where Mont Sainte-Victoire comes into view, he announced that he had just walked “the path to which, from beginning to end, my own path as a thinker corresponds in its way.”3

I take these to be non-trivial answers to my reformulation of the editors’ question. Having also walked on those tracks on those same hills and spent some years looking closely at the paintings made there, I see something in Cézanne’s answer that orients it differently...


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pp. 36-39
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