What is the essence of a question?

Greg asked:

What is the purpose or otherwise underlying ‘essence’ of a question?

This may seem obvious, ‘to know’, but why do I want to know? I’d really appreciate an honest and well meditated upon answer. I may not respond at all but the best of the mind answering this will be appreciated.

Answer by Helier Robinson

There are three kinds of question involved here. All three occur in everyday living, but more specifically a ‘what?’ question occurs in empirical science, a ‘how?’ question in technology and engineering, and a ‘why?’ question occurs in myth, theology, metaphysics, and theoretical science. We ask all three because their correct answers have survival value, and so evolution disposes of the incurious.

Answer by Shaun Williamson

There is no underlying essence or purpose of a question. Every question has its own individual purpose. It is a superstition about language to imagine that all questions must have a common essence just because they are all called questions.

Wittgenstein wrote, ‘Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of our own language.’

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

I suspect that your question isn’t about questions as such, but rather about (what you take to be) ‘interesting’ questions, e.g. philosophical questions.

A logician can give a formal definition of a question, sufficient to distinguish the syntax and semantics of a question from those of a sentence. The key here is to distinguish questions requiring a yes/no answer, from questions for which the appropriate answer is a term designating an individual (who…? where…? when…? etc.), and also questions for which a piece of discourse (say, an explanation) is the appropriate response (why…? how…? etc.).

Syntactically, a question (in English) is identified by the use of a question mark, as well as by terms such as the ones mentioned above (who, where, why, how… etc.).

This would have to be tightened up to cover various hybrid or non-standard cases. It is actually quite difficult to give a watertight definition, which covers all possible cases.

— But I guess at this point you are getting pretty bored.

I would venture the theory that before we even consider the conventional form of a question, there is a sense in which all thinking, all perception, is a process of framing questions, more or less implicit or explicit, and seeking answers to those questions.

The British philosopher R.G. Collingwood, put forward the radical view that truth is always an ‘answer to a question’ (see Autobiography and Essay on Metaphysics). Every question has relative and absolute presuppositions. It follows that there is no such thing as truth ‘as such’, or for all time.

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