Why ask?

Cambridge University has launched a campaign to celebrate the physicist Stephen Hawking’s 70th birthday in January 2012. You can Tweet (or email) questions to #AskHawking. The questions appearing so far are a mix of the extremely clever, sensible, predictable, witty, sarcastic and vulgar.

Hawking is here serving as an oracle, a role often expected of the Internet itself. A correspondent (ddmyun) to last week’s blog on infinity astutely remarked,

Even though there are thousands of millions of web sites on the Internet, I still fail to find answers at times when I have questions.

Were it not for his finitude, perhaps Stephen Hawking can deliver those answers. In any case, ask any sage, there’s skill in asking the right questions. There are questions that are cleverer than their answers could ever be. Often, the framing of a question presupposes a certain kind of answer. Questions can be traps; they are not there to be answered but evaded, or reframed. In fact it’s often safer, less direct, and more polite, to require the person to whom we direct the question to address it, rather than answer it.

Smart questioning is a well-known path to teaching and learning. Socrates asks his interlocutor Euthyphro, “What’s the difference between the pious and the impious?” Sometimes the answer is in the question. Saint Paul laced his letter to the Romans with a series of such questions: “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?”

Sometimes a question doesn’t make sense unless you are already in a frame of mind receptive to the question, let alone the answer. You have to be in the mood. Here’s a picture to help.

View of an island with a ruined monastery

Martin Heidegger barraged his readers with difficult questions. Here are some “interrogative tweets” from Heidegger’s collection of lyrical essays Poetry, Language, Thought, stripped from their contexts.

  • What and whence is the artist what he is? (17)
  • Can art be an origin at all? (17)
  • What is at work in the work? (36)
  • What is truth itself, that it sometimes comes to pass as art? (39)
  • What are poets for? (91)
  • What is it to dwell? (145)
  • How does building belong to dwelling? (145)
  • What in the thing is thingly? (167)
  • In what way does language occur as language? (190)

Here the challenge is to enter into a Heideggerian, or phenomenological, frame of mind. How do I do this? By reading the texts of course; but then adjusting my frame of mind, even if momentarily, suspending scepticism, meditating on the texts, returning after a break, and not just to comprehend the answers, but to understand the questions. Perhaps the job is done when the committed reader reaches a moment of understanding: when they feel that the artfully formed question is understood.

Perhaps then it’s Stephen Hawking who should be asking the questions. Correction: Should Stephen Hawking be the one asking the questions?


  • Hawking, Stephen. 1988. A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes. New York: Bantam.
  • Heidegger, Martin. 1977. The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. Trans. W. Lovitt. New York: Harper and Row.
  • Heidegger, Martin. 1981. Poetry, Language, Thought. Trans. A. Hofstadter. New York: Harper and Row.


If you ask Google “How do you bake a pie?” you get recipes. If you present Google with Heidegger’s questions you get: something about graffiti art and vandalism; Wikipedia on martial arts; health and safety in the workplace; someone quoting Martin Heidegger; the Free Online Dictionary definition of “dwell”; a suggestion to correct “thingly” to “tingly,” and Wikipedia on language acquisition. I don’t think that these answers are too oblique to be relevant. Understanding is after all a matter of practical application.


  1. As a follow on … jandrewhickey (http://fasterthanlight.me/2011/12/03/the-information-generation/) notes that the “older generation” leave questions to linger, whereas digital natives want instant answers. The non-natives “tend to get stuck on bits of information that, for the life of them, they cannot remember.”

  2. Xinxin Yuan says:

    The chicken or the egg causality dilemma also could be kind of the same story here doing “why ask before ask why”. Is this really necessary to think about such a question? An interesting view of this dilemma using game theory to build a dynamic game mode, which states the cooperation will generate a double-win (Nash Equilibrium) and if not, then just a Zero-sum Game. So here is also the same dilemma, why ask and ask why in the same time will give a better solution to the way if you take only one of them. It’s a balance, but not the thing we should only do with part of it.

  3. Sometimes we formulate questions to justify “answers” already available, define problems that fit our ready made “solutions,” or do we?

  4. I just remembered, Gadamer wrote:

    “It is obvious that in all experience the structure of questioning is presupposed. Experience is not to be had without questioning. The realization that some matter is other than one had first thought presupposes the process of passing through questioning. The openness which lies in the nature of experience is, logically seen, as openness to thus or thus. It has the structure of a question.” Gadamer, Hans-Georg. 1975. Truth and Method. Trans. J. Weinsheimer. New York: Seabury Press. Originally published in German in 1960. p.344.

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