What is a Question?
Those of us for whom teaching is part of intellectual life study the art of questioning, all the better to insure open-minded responses from our students or colleagues, as a complement to what we assume is our own open-mindedness. But is that assumption self-deceiving? It might be so, inasmuch as the framework of our questioning—questions must start somewhere—is identical with foregone conclusions. On their basis we can ask away, picking and choosing among the freely given answers we receive, in order to conform them—not so freely—to our predetermined convictions. I am reminded of a brilliant critical study of Joseph Conrad’s portrayals of scenes of interrogation: Coercion to Speak by Aaron Fogel. Inspired by Conrad, Fogel argues that all our discussions and dialogues, our searches and researches, are not as spontaneously open as we think. He knows at first hand what he talks about because he is a professor. In university practice, the very frameworks of our questions can make them synonymous with demands for answers.
Perhaps there is no escaping the demanding nature of questions. I find escape difficult. I struggle to escape, nevertheless, by reading widely and promiscuously, trying to let my coercive frameworks go. Questions that [End Page 47] seem most worthy of the name are an unsecured adventure, beyond the limits of one’s research agenda. It is exciting to be captivated by questions that one comes upon by chance, propounded by sources not one’s own. To be sure, academic scholarship can scarcely afford such questing questioning. The demand for research productivity is interwoven with the demand for answers. Nevertheless, the arts of the present and even university life afford us examples of non-coercive questioning. In the domain of fiction one example is William T. Vollmann’s The Rifles (1994), one in his series of historical novels, Seven Dreams. “Answers are commonly considered wholesome,” Vollmann says, especially for the questions we bring to bear on history.1 In The Rifles Vollmann demands a wholesome answer to who or what is responsible for sufferings entailed by the search for a Northwest Passage. But his framework, a desire to bring the villains of history to justice, is shaken. His questions can’t be resolved in the direction he desires. “How inconvenient that there are no villains in this tragedy!” he concedes.2 He concedes as well the shakiness of all attempts to distinguish what is knowable from what is not. A truly open question is not insured against an unwanted outcome.
But the outcome of shaken frameworks and unanswered questions need not be tragic. It need only be thoughtful, as Vollmann’s quest is thoughtful, in the best sense of thinking. An academic complement to Vollmann’s all-risking inquiry is to be found in Grant Farred’s meditation on racism and thought, Martin Heidegger Saved My Life (2015). Questioning how it is that his anti-racist discourse has Heidegger as its unlikely source, Farred, a Cornell professor, reminds us intellectual workers, “Every question is in itself an epistemological problem, because no one knows where the question, any question, might lead.”3
ROBERT L. CASERIO is Professor of English, Comparative Literature, and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at The Pennsylvania State University, University Park. He is the co-editor, with Clement Hawes, of The Cambridge History of the English Novel (2012); editor of The Cambridge Companion to the Twentieth-Century English Novel (2009); and the author of two books and numerous articles.
1. William Vollman, The Rifles (New York: Penguin, 1994), 339.
2. Ibid., 383.
3. Grant Farred, Martin Heidegger Save My Life (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015), 69. [End Page 48]