What is a question

Lani Watson on a project that’s revealed some unexpected answers

What was the last question that you asked. Take a moment to recall. Perhaps it was in conversation with a friend or colleague. Perhaps to a stranger in a café or a shop. Maybe you conducted a search in Google or wondered to yourself which article in The Philosophers’ Magazine to read next. Can you recall precisely what you asked, who you asked, or how you asked it. Remembering the last question that you asked may be harder than it sounds. Everybody asks questions but we don’t always pay attention to when, where, who, or what we ask. That’s no surprise. Questions are a ubiquitous part of everyday life. We start asking them long before we can remember doing so and continue throughout our lives, often without consciously reflecting on the practice.

The understated ubiquity of questions, however, is not the only reason it may be hard to recall the last question that you asked. Doing so also depends on determining what a question actually is. Does typing something into Google really constitute a question. How about wondering to yourself which article in The Philosophers’ Magazine to read next. Is the first sentence of this article a question. If your response to any of these questions is a clear yes or no, what criteria are you using to decide. What exactly is a question.

Perhaps surprisingly philosophers throughout history have not spent a lot of time trying to answer this question. In fact, few have explicitly asked it. Take Socrates. According to the account that we are afforded in Plato’s dialogues, Socrates was a man dedicated to a life of questioning. Perhaps one of the best known and oft-quoted sentiments in Western philosophy is Socrates’ eloquent assertion, during the trial in which he was condemned to death by the Athenian court, that “the unexamined life is not worth living”. It seems Socrates was willing to make the ultimate sacrifice in order to defend a life of philosophical inquiry, conducted through a method of questioning (often referred to as the Socratic Method). Yet nowhere in the dialogues does Socrates examine or seek to uncover the nature of questions themselves. And he is not alone. Scant attention has been paid to the nature, role, or value of questions throughout much of philosophical history.

It is only in recent decades that some philosophers have explicitly asked and tried to answer the question, “what is a question”. These philosophers have been concerned with looking at questions as parts of logic and language. A selective representation includes works such as Nuel Belnap and Thomas Steel’s The Logic of Questions and Answers, Lauri Karttunen’s The Syntax and Semantics of Questions, Jonathan Ginzburg’s The Semantics of Interrogatives, and Jaakko Hintikka’s Interrogative Model of Inquiry. The titles themselves reveal an unambiguous emphasis on the logical and linguistic analysis of questions. And, as Ginzburg remarks, they all more or less agree on one thing, “that a question is a property of propositions, that property which specifies what it is to be an exhaustive answer”. In other words, questions have been predominantly studied as linguistic expressions, much like propositions, and are largely defined in terms of their answers. Is that all there is to questions.

I think there is more to be said. Consider again the last question that you asked. How is it different from other things that you said, or thought, or did. Did you pick it out because of some logical or linguistic property that it has. The value of linguistic analyses notwithstanding, at the very least, the study of questions exclusively from this perspective cannot be expected to tell us the whole story. With this in mind, I have been running a survey for the past few years in an attempt to capture a more intuitive understanding of questions. The survey, which has received over 5,500 responses so far, asks participants to read ten scenarios based on a day in the life of a teacher called Sarah. Participants are asked to decide whether or not there is a question in each scenario. The results of the survey reveal something interesting about our everyday understanding of questions, especially when compared with the philosophical analysis offered by philosophers of logic and language. (You may want to have a go at the survey yourself before you continue reading. If so, it takes around 5-10 minutes and you can access it here).

What does the survey tell us about questions. Consider the following scenario:

One of Sarah’s colleagues is discussing with fellow teachers a lesson he has just given on countries of the world. During the discussion Sarah realises that she doesn't know how many countries there are. Interested to know, she interjects saying ‘how many countries are there’. Her colleagues respond with several different figures.

In this scenario, was there a question. 95% of survey participants so far have said yes there was a question, just 3% have said no, and the remaining 2% are unsure. The intuitions are about as clear as they can be – the scenario contains a question. I think that’s the result we would expect, it seems like a clear-cut case (indeed, I find it intriguing that 3% of respondents (133 in total) have said that there was no question in this case).

Notice, though, that we’re already learning something interesting from this result. Despite her efforts Sarah doesn’t get a determinate answer, she gets several different answers. Nonetheless, most of us judge her to have asked a question. Intuitively then, a question doesn’t have to result in a determinate answer in order for it to be identified as a question. On this basis, one might wonder if a question has to have any one right answer (after all, there are several possible ways to determine how many countries there are) or, more contentiously, if a question has to have any answer at all. At the very least, this result suggests that the relationship between questions and answers is not air-tight and puts some pressure on the move, taken by philosophers of logic and language, to define questions in terms of their answers. Rather, it seems, questions are identified as questions independently of their answers.

Consider a second scenario:

Sarah returns to her classroom and remembers that she has promised a friend who will be visiting that she will find out where the nearest butchers to her house is. Being a vegetarian she has no interest in this herself but nevertheless she types “local Edinburgh butchers” into Google and notes down the information.

In this scenario, was there a question. 72% of survey participants so far have said yes, 21% have said no, and the remaining 7% are unsure. Again, this tells us something interesting. Sarah does not use the standard interrogative form in her search, “local Edinburgh butchers”. Despite this, most of us still judge her to have asked a question. Intuitively then a question, even when it is written down, doesn’t need to be in the interrogative in order for it to be identified as a question. This observation puts further pressure on the analysis of questions exclusively in terms of their formal features, again indicating that there is more to our everyday understanding of questions than has so far been recognised by formal philosophical treatments.

Incidentally, as well as a lack of formal structure Sarah’s Google search contains no question mark. This is perfectly commonplace. When was the last time you used a question mark in a search engine. Indeed, reflecting on this might make one wonder how important this seemingly definitive grammatical symbol really is. Many of you will no doubt have noticed that there are no question marks in this article either. But there are plenty of questions. So, questions don’t need to be in the interrogative, and they don’t require question marks in order to be identified as questions.

Finally, consider a third scenario:

Sarah is trying a new route home from work. Along the route she comes to the side of a busy, unfamiliar road with no pedestrian crossing. She looks both up and down the road before crossing to check if there are any vehicles coming and then proceeds to cross safely.

In this scenario, was there a question. 66% of survey participants so far have said yes, 28% have said no, and the remaining 6% are unsure. The intuitions are somewhat less clear in this case. Nonetheless, a two-thirds majority think that there is a question and that is significant. This reveals a third interesting thing: a question does not have to be expressed in words in order to be identified as a question. Sarah employs no spoken or written expression. Rather, she is performing a familiar, non-linguistic act – looking up and down the road. According to the survey results, the majority of us consider this to be a question. This makes the study of questions exclusively as linguistic expressions appear even more dubious. Instead, the survey results suggest that a question does not need to have a determinate answer, does not need to be in the interrogative, does not need to have a question mark, and does not need to be expressed in words. When considered together this reveals something quite intriguing – that our everyday understanding of questions is highly permissive. We identify many more things as questions than we might have at first imagined and certainly more than the formal philosophical treatment of questions given above would allow.

I think we have good reason to take this conclusion seriously. Not least of all because we are analysing a concept that is both familiar and universal. Having an analysis that makes sense of how we actually use the concept in our daily lives is not only appropriate, I would argue, but central to understanding what a question is. Beyond the formal sense in which any interrogative sentence or utterance can be identified as a question there is a clear sense in which a question is more than a formal linguistic expression. This is reflected in the survey, and I think it is also highly intuitive. If we want to understand what questions are we need to look beyond their role as a part of language and see them as a part of the way that we think and act. This is an illuminating insight. A question is an act.

I asked one hundred people to write down the first ten questions that came into their head. With the exception of “how are you”, none of the resulting one thousand questions were the same (“how are you” was repeated 4 times). The questions range from “do you love me” to “do you want cashback” and include gems such as “am I getting uglier”, “is a giraffe bigger than an elephant”, and “how long does a pack of cheese last”. Add to this all the questions that you have asked today and all the questions in this article. What, if anything, unifies this diverse group. This is in essence the question we have been asking.

In order to answer it, I suggest that we look to a functional explanation. That is, rather than focusing on the form of a question as a linguistic expression, and so arriving at a formal explanation, we should focus on the function of a question. What does a question do. What do we do with questions. Of course, there are many ways to answer these questions. We use questions for many different reasons: to find things out, to communicate, to show that we care, to express ourselves, to expose others, to debate, to inspire, to engage in small talk, sometimes just to be heard. Questions help us to achieve all these ends, and many others besides. In this sense, a question is like a tool that can be used for multiple purposes. And like a tool, it has a defining function.

Defining a thing in terms of its function is an approach familiar across philosophical and scientific disciplines. Biologists, for example, typically identify the heart in terms of its function of pumping blood around the body. Functionalists, within the philosophy of mind, argue for the same approach to the study of the mind. This approach is similarly advanced by the epistemologist Edward Craig in his influential book Knowledge and the State of Nature. Craig begins his analysis of knowledge by imagining a society in which the concept of knowledge does not yet exist and then asks why such a society would develop the concept and what function it would have. Craig argues that a key concern for members of any society is the possession of accurate information allowing them to make informed decisions about what to do in a given situation. As he puts it, if I think I am being chased by a tiger, identifying someone with accurate information about where the tiger is will be a huge advantage to me. Craig argues that the function of the concept of knowledge is therefore to identify good informants – people who possess and will reliably share accurate information.

In order to determine the function of questions, a similar hypothetical question can be asked; why would questions emerge in a society in which they did not yet exist, and what function would they have. If a key concern for members of any society is the possession of accurate information, then we should expect the members of that society to develop effective ways of seeking it out. Information seeking would be essential to that society’s success. It is no good, for example, realising that Fred has information about where the tiger is if I’ve got no way of accessing that information. The ability to access accurate and relevant information is essential to making the right decisions about how to act. And information seeking requires a mechanism. It is here that questioning enters the spotlight by performing precisely this function. Questioning is an important means of seeking out the information that we need in order to decide how to act. How do I find out where the tiger that is chasing me is. I ask Fred if he can see the tiger. My ability to ask for the precise information that I need, at the precise moment that I need it, significantly improves my chances of making the right decision about how to act. Indeed, any society that did not ask questions would most likely be at a significant disadvantage. This provides an answer to the Craigian-style question of why questions would emerge in a society in which they did not yet exist. Simply put, the function of a question is to seek out information.

Take this conclusion and combine it with the conclusion that was drawn from the results of the survey and we arrive at an answer to the title question, “what is a question”: a question is an information seeking act. This is, at least, my answer to the question. It is quite different from the one arrived at through studies in the philosophy of logic and language and may be different from your own answer. In any case, as we have seen, the question itself has attracted limited attention in philosophical history and yet questions are an important part of our everyday lives. They are a subtle but indispensable tool, seamlessly weaving together our conversations, advancing our inquiries, and directing our attention to this or that. If we want to understand and enhance the valuable role that questions play in our lives, asking what a question is seems like a good place to start.

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Lani Watson is a Leverhulme early career fellow at the University of Edinburgh and curator of philosophyofquestions.com.