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Monday, September 29, 2003

Meta-questioning

It's been a while since I let loose some good old fashined excessive introspection/explanation. So here I go with, as promised, why I respond to questions with questions.

I don't percieve questions as simple questions. Every question has a context, and every question supposes an answer. By context, I mean that you cannot separate the situation a question is asked from the question itself. Take something simple, like "How old are you?" The context is very different if it's some teenagers trying to get beer, or one's parents admonishing behavior, or a marketing survey looking at your buying preferences. Simple enough.

Every question having an answer is only slightly more complicated. Most kids learn about this one with "So, do your parents know you jerk off in the closet yet?" or some variation thereof. For big kids, it's "Have you stopped beating your wife yet?" I first started thinking about this, though, when I started learning about Zen Buddhism and Zen koans. The archetypal Zen koan goes like this: The student asked the master "Can a dog have buddha-mind?" and the master replied "Mu! Mu!" which translates as "nothing, nothing." By replying with nonsense, the Zen master demonstrated to his student the stupidity of the question. Now, these are both fairly extreme examples, one a childish linguistic trick, one a strange philosophical argument. But try this: let's say I'm introduced to someone who discovers that I'm a student, and asks me for my GPA. This is a factual question that can simply and easily be answered, right?

I cannot answer it.

There's an assumption behind the question that I go to a school that assigns letter grades. I don't. Antioch gives written evaluations. You can apply this sort of criteria to pretty much any question, if you can apply it to my simple factual example.

I recognize the interplay between context and assumption when being asked questions, and therefore, in order to best answer them, or avoid answering the equivalent of "Have you stopped beating your wife yet?" I often ask questions in response. I do this naturally, because I like to make certain that what I say is what I mean.
- Rowan Kaiser, 8:00 PM
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