On Failed Inquiry

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A reflection on Plato’s Laches

The path to intellectual growth is rocky, filled with false peaks and dead ends. My experience so far has been that every step only gives you a better vantage point by which to realise how high the impossible mountain stretches into the firmament, and how utterly insufficient my own faculties are in approaching even a fraction of understanding. In fact, I often find myself lapsing into the sceptical viewpoint that knowledge is unattainable in any meaningful sense, and that all we can strive for is some sort of informed opinion, an outline of truth that I can observe from my own unique worldview, but unable to capture the concept in its complete grandeur. Regardless of our eventual destination, right opinion or actual truth, the vehicle remains the same – inquiry.  But as flawed beings who are working with incomplete data, imperfect theories and ingrained biases, more often than not we will come to the point where our inquiry into a matter fails. Faced with this seemingly impassable obstacle, we must ask ourselves: what now?

To begin with, we should look at how inquiry fails, as by identifying the causes of our difficulty we can start to circumvent or overcome them. I posit that there is two instances in which a query fails. The most readily understood reason for an investigations failure is when we set aside a problem as intractable. When we decide that all sides of a debate seem to have just cause, then we have come to an insoluble quandary. The second point of failure is more of an internal matter, when we take an answer to a problem and render it sacrosanct, immune from criticism, a question which is now ‘closed’ to discussion (see on Debate). When this occurs, we blind ourselves, confined to our personal experience and forever banishing the prospect of genuine intellectual growth and understanding.

However, although we can identify roadblocks to inquiry, it does little to answer the question of how we deal with them. In the first place, I would submit that we should always be open to debate, even of our most dearly held values and beliefs. If you find that your interlocutor, whether a text or a person, fails to engage in the rules of debate but rather argument, recognise this fact. However, if possible attempt to extract some understanding of the propositions which lead them to occupy their standpoint, and then – even at a later date – attempt to self-critique using any insights gleaned. On the other hand, if we encounter a problem which seems intractable at this stage of our intellectual journey, do not be afraid to set it aside and continue down another path, always with the intent to return and review once you have a deeper understanding of other perspectives. This solution presents us with yet another problem: what to do with a world of infinite issues when possessing but a meagre lifespan.

The problem of the shortness of life is not a new one, and the Sword of Damocles dangles over us all, our mortality something that should rightfully cause us to question if the path we are taking is the most productive. I would posit that the rule we should follow is to invest our effort into those problems that provide the highest reward. Once again though, I have lead us down the garden path, for I present us with the equally puzzling proposition, how do we know that a question is worthwhile?

There are two ways in which we can evaluate a question as having worth, the first is in that the query is contradictory to our own beliefs. These are the issues from which we will receive the most intellectual growth, as we are challenged and forced not only to understand a position which we find either abhorrent or wrong, but also to more effectively structure and round our own opinions. The second method is to consider questions that have been asked by those who differ from our personal viewpoint radically, and by seeking questions posed by those of heterodox positions we are more likely to encounter perspectives and voices that we otherwise would never have come across. This method of inquiry selection, however, presents its own difficulties, the human tendency to retreat into oneself when opposed by the foreign, and the difficulty in finding opposing ideas that are not offered as a polemic argument.

In this case, I offer a piece of advice: commence reading divergent opinions which are closer to your own cultural and personal point of view, expanding your intellectual horizons, and then slowly branch to more heterodox methods of thinking. This is an option I am pursuing myself, hence I am reading through the works of the progenitor of western philosophy before branching to schools of thought outside my own socio-cultural point of view. In particular, I would warn you that if you read a text or encounter an individual who enrages rather than engages you, it might be in your best interest to distance yourself from the offending rhetoric for a time. This will allow you to better engage with an opinion with introspection, rather than participating in a mud-slinging match which will only serve to solidify both parties opinions – in its own way the most insidious form of intellectual death.

Original text

Plato’s Laches


Sir Joshua Reynolds, Samuel Johnson, 1772


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