Lani Watson

From The Philosopher, vol. 107, no. 1 ('Doing Philosophy'). 

Read more articles from The Philosopher, purchase this issue or become a subscriber.

Recently I was handed a small black card by a stranger in the street. It read:

‘SIMPLE QUESTION! Where will YOU spend eternity?’

The card also displayed a website and a QR code, presumably for those wishing to seek out an answer. I haven’t visited the website yet but the card did get me thinking.

I am fascinated by questions and questioning - this is my primary area of research as a philosopher - and especially by the questions that we ask and encounter in our everyday lives. Out of philosophical habit I pondered over the question on the small black card as I tucked it into my wallet. Several things struck me as noteworthy. Perhaps first of all the contention that the question is a simple one. A claim that would surely have some philosophers and theologians throughout history more than a little disgruntled. It is, I suppose, relatively short. Apart from this I find it difficult to interpret the question as a simple one.

This leads to the second thing that struck me about it, namely, its breadth; the many different ways in which the question can be interpreted. In one sense it is wholly metaphysical, a question about being and time. In another sense it is a question about personal identity, highlighted by the asker’s emphasis on ‘YOU’. It is also, at some level, an epistemological question, a question about what we can know or understand. And then again, the question can be interpreted as deeply religious, bringing with it a distinctively ethical dimension. Far from being simple, this question is a rich and complex one. Furthermore, under each of these interpretations the question can be regarded as philosophical. But what exactly makes it philosophical, as opposed to, for example, a question concerning religious or scientific doctrine? What does ‘doing philosophy’ in response to a question such as this really amount to?

from 'Color 1998-present' - Silvia de Swaan

I think one way to answer this question is to look at a broadly philosophical approach to questions in general. How does this approach differ from others, if it does at all? Often when we ask questions throughout the day we are using them as tools to get at the information that we need or want: What is the time? Where are my keys? When is the next bus due? Alternatively, we use questions to draw the attention of others to something that we are interested in or concerned about: Where shall we go on holiday? What do you think the President will do next? Why did you use that tone? In much the same way, from a religious or scientific perspective questions are regularly used as a means of advancing a line of inquiry towards an answer or drawing the attention of the relevant community towards a particular issue: Can anything go faster than the speed of light? Is there a god? Where will you spend eternity? In the latter case, the path towards an answer was laid out by the website link and the QR code on the small black card. By contrast, a philosophical approach to a question such as this, and questions in general, involves spending some time with the question itself.

What exactly do I mean by that? One way to think about questions is on the model of a jigsaw puzzle. Each of the individual pieces of the puzzle forms part of the whole. In much the same way, one can think of a question as being constituted by individual pieces of information. When we ask a question, some of the pieces are already in place and some of the pieces are missing. One good strategy – the one we often employ in daily life - is to seek out the missing pieces: the information that we don’t yet have. But there is another strategy – one that I think of as broadly philosophical. This involves examining the pieces of the puzzle that are already in place: the information that is presupposed by the asker of the question. On this model, being asked a question is like being handed a puzzle with half of the pieces already in place (and many of the questions that we ask of ourselves are like this too). Rather than focusing on the gaps and seeking out the missing pieces, a philosophical approach involves focusing on the pieces that are already in place to check that they are the right ones.


That is, I think, what doing philosophy often amounts to. At least part of the task of philosophy is to uncover the presuppositions in our thinking. Many of these presuppositions float idly just below the surface of our everyday lives. One of the simplest ways to access these presuppositions is to look at the questions that we ask and encounter on a daily basis and interrogate them. Take the following example. Ten minutes ago I was asked a seemingly innocuous question: ‘what time is the meeting?’ How does one engage philosophically with a question such as​ this? One way is to adopt the strategy I have been describing and examine the presuppositions. What is presupposed by the question, ‘what time is the meeting’? At the very least, it is presupposed that there is a meeting, that there is a time at which the meeting has been scheduled, that there exists at least one other person with whom to meet, that an agreement has been reached with that person about the time of the meeting, and that time is sufficiently stable so as to be able to coordinate meetings on the basis of it. In this short and incomplete list of presuppositions we have already encountered some central philosophical debates: the problem of other minds, the existence of social contracts, and the nature of time.

The question in this example is especially bland. And yet by spending time on the question, instead of reaching immediately for the answer, it is relatively easy to uncover some interesting philosophy to be done. Adopting the same approach with the richer and more complex questions in one’s life promises to yield a wide range of interesting philosophical results: Who should I vote for? Who can I trust? How can I be a richer/happier/wiser/better person? The questions open up like Russian dolls, presuppositions concealed within presuppositions, each revealing itself with a little further investigation. And the presuppositions lead to further questions. Why exactly do I endorse this political position? What are my reasons for trusting one person over another? What does it mean to be rich/happy/wise/good? Why should I care about any of these things? Doing philosophy certainly involves searching for answers to these kinds of questions. But uncovering the presuppositions contained within them is, I think, one of the more distinctively philosophical ways of going about it.

None of this is to say that a strict demarcation can be drawn between different domains of inquiry, whether they be religious, scientific, political, philosophical, or the inquiries of everyday life. These vast domains combine and converge in countless ways. But at least arguably when they do the philosophical dimension reveals itself most vividly when we spend time examining the questions that are driving the inquiry, instead of reaching immediately for the answers. At least for me, part of the craft and the fun of doing philosophy comes from turning the questions in on themselves. I think this is why philosophical inquiry can start and end with questions and still make progress. Perhaps with that in mind we can return to the question on the little black card - ‘Where will YOU spend eternity?’ - and examine the presuppositions that lie within.

Lani Watson is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the University of Edinburgh. Her research lies at the intersection of epistemology and the philosophy of education, with a special emphasis on the nature and value of questions and questioning:

From The Philosopher, vol. 107, no. 1 ('Doing Philosophy'). 

Read more articles from The Philosopher, purchase this issue or become a subscriber.