Straight from childhood, we’re taught a lot of things, and not all of them are good. Questions are seen as a sign of weakness. No matter how encouraging a teacher is, they can’t trick us into believing anything else, because at the end of our time together will be a test bank. The Test at least will punish us with a failing grade if its questions are not eliminated by answers.
Later on, we try to ennoble questions, by “speaking truth to power”, or by “questioning everything.” But the same fear of weakness and vulnerability lurks in the shadows of these questions.
Raising a genuine question requires a certain vulnerability. And it may be a vulnerability we need in order to seek the truth and grow in understanding and wisdom.
So let’s talk about questions. In particular, questions we call fundamental. And why our upbringing is wrong, at least in this respect. That is to say, let’s talk about why questioning is good.
At the end of this piece, I am going to ask you what your fundamental questions are – what questions have you been pursuing, perhaps even without quite realizing it. And then I will invite you to share them with me. If you do, I’ll send you what could be a ‘reading remedy’ to help you raise and explore those questions for yourself.
If you haven’t heard of fundamental questions before, that’s okay. It’s not a failure on your part.
Think of a radar scope in an air traffic controller station. All of the airplanes are little blips of light on the screen, moving across and in different directions. This scope is our awareness, as it has been trained by our years of schooling, informed by a certain way of understanding. (One of these ways, incidentally, is still powerfully informed by Benjamin Bloom’s 1956 classic “Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: The Classification of Educational Goals”)
Now imagine these blips of light are questions of different kinds – questions for description, questions of analysis, of synthesis, critical questions, etc.
Nowhere in our scope does the concept fundamental questions appear. Fundamental questions must have some radar-deflecting material on them – like a stealth bomber or a UFO. Because it’s as if they do not even exist to the modern educated mind. As far as we can tell, there’s just wide open blue sky there.
Everything about our life, no matter who we are, and what way of life we choose to live, answers to these fundamental questions. As Texans will say of Bluebonnets in the Spring, they’re everwhar. All points of our lives touch upon them.
Archimedes said give me a point, and I will move the world. This point is what we call the Archimedean Point. Fundamental questions are the Archimedean Points of the human understanding, of human cognitive life. Discover them for yourself, and the whole vast world of human thought and wisdom down the ages will begin to open up for you.
Therefore, if you are a seeker, it would be wise to get to know these questions.
How do we do that?
To start with, we don’t have to go very far. Not far at all.
In fact, you have it in you already. That is, your very life answers to fundamental questions, and you may not even realize it.
What do you think is most important in life? It would be wonderful to travel around the country and interview people, asking them this simple question. What would people say? A way to discover the answer is by reflecting on what you’ve spent a fair amount of time and effort doing in your life. These ‘doings’ are your answers – some measure of action and conviction – to fundamental questions.
Let me use myself as an example, to help illustrate what I mean.
I have dedicated a fair amount of my adult life supporting communities of readers and lovers of learning like Symposium Great Books Institute, and other communities of learning as well. I’ve taught in formal educational environments, but the post-school, post-graduate pursuit of learning is the world I am most captivated by, and most interested in serving. I’m certainly not in it for the riches, but because I have spent so much time and effort, it must be that I have a conviction that such communities are good, and are worth the painstaking effort and sacrifices. But why? What do I take such communities of learning to be? What do I take the good of such a community to be?
The questions I’ve just asked are starting to touch on fundamental questions. I got there by reflecting on my life, upon the things I’ve thought are important. The important things are really questions if you turn them over.
Fundamental questions are inherent in the affairs of human life, inherent in human existence itself. This means we have a genuine, living interest in them that we don’t have to make up. We really are interested in happiness, even if we’re not sure about it. We really do want a good life, even if we don’t know what the good life is yet.
Our lives are a response to one or more of these questions. Ordinarily we don’t think much about them, we don’t convert the energy of our life back into these questions, because it typically doesn’t appear necessary.
But there always comes a time when life throws us curveballs, and our batting average drops to all time lows, and we’re benched. These are times when the fundamental questions intrude upon us, often unwanted.
But we don’t have to wait for unpleasant times. The more we can become aware of just how our life is a response to which questions, and to awaken ourselves to these questions, the better our lives can become. For the simple reason, that human consciousness is that good a thing, that much of a force for good. Our lives really will improve, even if incrementally, by awakening to these fundamental questions. Why? Because in the activation of our deepest questioning, of our powers of reflection, we just can’t help but become more responsive and more responsible, more imaginative, and thus more sharply aware of alternatives and possibilities that might otherwise never appear to us.
Here is a list of some fundamental questions.
- What is human happiness?
- What is the best way of life?
- What is good?
- What is true health and sickness?
- What is good in this particular situation, or for this particular person?
- What is justice?
- What is law?
- What is love? What is desire?
- What is duty? Or what do we owe each other?
- What is truly ones own?
- What is the tension between love and duty?
- What is the relationship between law and justice?
- What is intelligence?
- What is wisdom?
- Who – or what – is human?
- Who – or what – is a citizen?
- What is relationship between the human being and the citizen?
- What is the best form of government?
- What is the best leader, or good leadership?
- What is the body?
- What is the soul?
- What is the relationship between body and soul?
- What is nature?
- What is nourishing for body?
- What can educate?
- What is rest and what is change?
- Who – or what – is God or the gods?
- What is fate?
- What is the relationship between nature, man and God or the gods?
- What is number? What is figure?
- What is an image?
- What can I know?
- What is it to know something?
- What is truth?
- What is the world?
- What is our situation?
- Where did we come from?
- What is it to seek?
- What is freedom?
- What is beautiful?
- What is the source of beauty?
- Who am I in relation to my family?
- What are the relationships between friendship, family and community? Is one better or more important than the other?
- What can I hope for?
- What do I have to fear most? Or is there anything to fear?
- What is the relationship between pain and pleasure?
- What is the most pleasurable?
- What is the most painful?
- What is the same?
- What is different?
- Why am here?
- Who am I?
The tricky thing about lists such as this one is they could give you the wrong idea about the nature of these questions. These questions seem to pop up out of nowhere. They are rootless, toothless. Where does each one of these arise, what is at stake in asking them? Who is asking them? What is the context of each question?
Why do good questions make sense? And what make them good? Questions always come from something. That is, from the “things inherent in the affair (pragmata)” that we’re asking about, from our attempt to understand the underlying subject matter. A certain amount of knowledge, or awareness, of the underlying subject matter is presupposed in any question.
This is why questions make sense. Questions don’t make sense if they are not rooted in the matter – no one else can look to those things to see how the question arises. A good question is one that arises from the subject matter itself, and could arise, for anyone willing to look. A good question is there – is not made up. It’s a question for us all, in common.
Now we’ve reached the point, at the end of our little excursion, as I promised in the beginning: Look over the list (which is far from exhaustive), reflect on your life. Which questions do you see most operative in your life? What are your vital, fundamental questions?
If you let me know what your question or questions are, I will suggest a ‘reading remedy’ for you – a book or essay that can help you awaken and pursue those questions. For good reading, as you might suspect, has the power to nourish and sustain our deepest questioning.