Monday, February 20, 2023

Evening Note for Monday, February 20

 Thought for the Evening: Phenomenology of Inquiry

Phenomenology is fundamentally based on the recognition that things are experienced and known through structures and processes of consciousness; that, in scholastic terms, the res or thing itself is adequated to the mind qua object of mind. Methodologically, phenomenology prescinds from the status of the res or thing in itself and assesses the nature and character of the objects, i.e., the structures and processes, as they are in consciousness. In short, rather than consider what something is in itself, in phenomenology one considers how it appears and can appear in conscious mental life. So if we are talking about the phenomenology of inquiry, we prescind from any questions of effectiveness or status of result (realism, anti-realism, ficitonalism, skepticism, etc.) and look only at the phenomenon of inquiry as a phenomenon of our mental life.

If we set aside for the moment very complicated inquiries and try to consider the simplest possible inquiries, we might characterize these very simple inquiries in terms of questions. Is there a clean pair of socks in the drawer? Do I have milk in the refrigerator? Is the dial on the measurement device registering a number? This might be called the erotetic aspect of inquiry, it's susceptibility to be captured or described or depicted in questions. However, inquiries and questions are distinct things. We can idly pose a question, or treat it as rhetorical, or what have you. An inquiry might be characterized by a question, but much in the way an act of question can be so characterized -- the act of questioning, in which one seeks something, is different from the question that describes what the act of questioning seeks. The original name for this 'seeking' aspect of inquiry is erotic, indicating that it is an expression of motivating love or desire for something one does not have, but as the name is obviously liable to misunderstanding, we can instead call it the zetetic aspect. With the erotetic aspect of inquiry, we are looking at inquiry in light of a verbal expression of its structure; with the zetetic aspect of inquiry, we are looking at it in light of something cognitive that is desired or valued, for which we are performing the inquiry. An inquiry is a structure for a value, and neither the structure nor the value can be reduced to the other. These are distinct aspects of inquiry, although they aren't divisible from each other in the inquiry itself.

Inquiries also do not exist in a void. We inquire on the basis of what we know, in a very broad sense of 'know'.  This background serves as a framework that allows both the construction of the verbal expressions of the inquiry (the erotetic) and the specification of the values at which it aims (the zetetic); in a sense, it serves as the space for the inquiry, so we could perhaps call it the choratic framework. However, the space is able to change in the course of the inquiry -- in inquiring we acquire knowledge, so by inquiring we acquire new elements for the framework. 

Thus basic inquiry, as it is experience involved a choratic framework of prior knowledge, an erotetic structure within that framework that can be formulated in verbal expressions as a system of questions, and a zetetic tendency aimed at something cognitive that is not had but valued under some values. This does not fundamentally change when we move to more complicated inquiries, but as we become more complicated, the variety of expressions we need in order to characterize the structure expands, including more than just questions. For instance, we can get branching hypothetical structures in which the system of questions used depends on which conditions are fulfilled. Likewise, we can get imperatives, as when in a mathematical proof one says, "Let X be Y". It's even possible that the expressions don't even have to be strictly verbal, as long as they are informative.

In more complicated inquiries, we also get complications of the zetetic aspect, although they are harder to characterized. An example is that we can sometimes have branching values corresponding to branches in the erotetic aspect; it's also the case that as our choratic framework and erotetic aspect change, the zetetic aspect can shift in ways that blur or obfuscate what values characterize our aims.

Besides the choratic framework, the erotetic aspect, and the zetetic aspect, we also have means of inquiry, a motley crew of things that are linked to but distinct from the choratic framework, and that can include things like skills (pure means), tools (extended means), resources (things to exercise our tools upon), responses from the environment, and so forth. These are organized erotetically and zetetically within the inquiry as we move from our initial state to our cognitive goal.

All of these are navigated in a non-methodical way. We have no method for all inquiry. Rather, we 'feel' our way through inquiries by a combination of things. First, we seem to have certain 'senses' for how the inquiry goes. We have a sense of feasibility arising from our comparison of the choratic framework and the means to to erotetic and zetetic aspects. We are not concerned here with how accurate it is. We also have a sense of novelty, distinguishing between things we recognize and things we (at least apparently) have not previously encountered. We have a sense of progress, which tracks the apparently achieved movement associated with the zetetic aspect. We have what might be called a sense of puzzlement, which tracks the complexity of the erotetic aspect. And we have a sense of illumination where things seem in particular to be cognitively valuable. These senses are organized by a kind of taste, whether good or bad, by which we critically assess at each point what the implications of our various senses are.

So far, so good. However, there is another aspect of inquiry that is often forgotten, but is an indelible part of our experience: all inquiry is at least partly social. Even Descartes meditating in the Bavarian stove is not operating in a void. He still has the ideas he has received by his education; that, due to the method of doubt, he is not taking these ideas to tell him anything true does not erase them. (This is made clear in the Seventh Objections and Replies to the Meditations.) Even the method of doubt cannot erase the choratic framework, and no human being can possibly bootstrap inquiry into existence by inventing their own choratic framework entirely by themselves. Further, both the erotetic and epistemic aspects of the inquiry are often inherited from the inquiries of other inquirers, and we may be dependent on others for some of our means of inquiry.

Because inquiries have this social aspect, there are social 'senses' that are relevant to feeling our way through an inquiry. For instance, there is a sense of possible perspectives, of how things might look to other people. Again, we are not concerned here with the accuracy of such a sense. Rather, the point is that in inquiry, people regularly have an experience of the inquiry as involving a plurality of possible perspectives that different inquirers could take.

More than this, though, not only are all inquiries at least partly social, some inquiries are actually communal. In this kind of inquiry, it's as if the different inquirers are participating in one inquiry, but with a division of labor. In such cases, the full choratic framework may not be available to any given inquirer, but only to all of them cooperating. The means of inquiries, systems of questions, and zetetic values may also be divided up. However, there must also be some sharing of all these aspects of inquiring. This sharing occurs in multiple ways:

(1) overlap, as when inquirers each have the same piece of information or equal access to a tool;

(2) simulation, associated with our sense of possible perspectives, by which inquirers in the same inquiry try to imagine how the others would see things;

(3) communication, by which inquirers testify to what is going on with any of the aspects of the inquiry, as far as they can.

These can be found in various combinations, but (3) is the linchpin; without it, it does not seem that the inquiry could be truly communal (as opposed to two separate inquiries running parallel but in such a way as occasionally to share framework, means, or aspects). Since all of our most important inquiries are communal, communication plays a major role in the experience of inquiry. It also, however, adds a new layer of complication to inquiry; instead of merely asking questions and using means to answer them, we need to negotiate ways to cooperate, ways to stay in cooperation, ways to handle various problems that arise in the inquiry or the communication, ways to use means or divide labor effectively, and the like. Communication creates problems of communication that are solved by communication, thus greatly complicating the inquiry, but also, at times, massively increasing what it can do and what it can cover. Thus our experience of inquiry, always social, at its fullness is sociopolitical, and is structured by all the ways we experience and organize social interaction and cooperation.

Related Evening Notes posts

The Structure of Wondering
Beattie on Good Taste
Imitating Genius

Various Links of Interest

* Christoph Kelp & Mona Simon, What Is Trustworthiness?

* The Rio Negro Stream Frog has received its official scientific name: Hyloscirtus tolkieni.

* Michael S. Green, Jurisdiction and the Moral Impact Theory of Law (PDF)

* Michael Pelczar, Modal arguments against materialism (PDF)

* Matthew Cavedon, Early Stirrings of Modern Liberty in the Thought of St. Thomas Aquinas (PDF)

* William Morgan, Biological Individuality and the Foetus Problem

* Philipp Kremers, Maitzen's Objection from God's Goodness (PDF)

Currently Reading

Robert E. Howard, Conan the Barbarian
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III.1: The Doctrine of Creation
Douglas McDermid, The Rise and Fall of Scottish Common Sense Realism
Edmund Gardner, The Arthurian Legend in Italian Literature

In Audiobook:

Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave
G. K. Chesterton, The Napoleon of Notting Hill

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