Big Questions: By Way of Acknowledgments - January 26, 2015

In a life of publishing, I have had more than my share of opportunities to read acknowledgments, but, except for those books I edited, I rarely took advantage of those opportunities. It always seemed to me strangely backward to put acknowledgments in the front of books, when the books themselves should have been the acknowledgments. In other words, the front matter of the book should be devoted to what the author has decided or where he’s arrived at, and the meat of the book should deal with how he got there. Acknowledgments, in short, should state conclusions, and the book should give the reasons, which is exactly opposite from the way almost all books are laid out. But, in most cases, how he got there is more interesting and more important than where he is. I am sure that is the case with me. The question is more important than the answer.

Most scholarly books have acknowledgments, and most of these have a wizened feel to them. Like commencement addresses, acknowledgments, one suspects, are not meant to be remembered. As timely as the front page, they forfeit their right to timelessness. The only one I can remember was one I read several decades ago in a work, now long out of print, entitled Method and Meaning in Jonson’s Masques by John C. Meagher. The author rather overdid it in his acknowledgments, even by scholarly standards, for it seemed that he was expressing his thanks to everyone he had consulted on the topic, everyone who had deigned to say something back to him, everyone who had aided him in his scholarship. It went on for pages and pages. Finally came the last line, which went something like this: And lastly to my wife, whose total indifference to this project was a constant source of perspective.

That line will be all I will take to my grave of acknowledgments.[1]

So in the spirit that acknowledgments should say something about where the author stands, and the book itself should address the more significant question of how he got there, allow me to thank some of the many people (and a few dogs) who have helped me along the way in life in the body of this book, not here, allow me to use it as a sort of confession, and allow it to be my penance, dear reader, not yours.

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This is a book about questions. I do not have many answers, and as I get older, it is not so much that I have fewer convictions or solutions; it is just that I have fewer recollections of what those convictions and solutions are. I remember what I think and thought and what I believe and believed, all right; it is just that I may not remember the route I traveled to get to those thoughts and beliefs. But you never outgrow your need for questions, for the questions are the only possible way to retrace your steps to the route (or root) of those thoughts and beliefs.

Questions change as we age, I think. In the beginning, we question why the world is what it is (“why is the sky blue?” “how can flies walk upside down?” “what causes thunder?”), succeeded by questioning why we and, by extension, our parents, friends, and others, are what we are (“why do I have a curfew if none of my friends do?” “why do I have to learn algebra?” “what’s wrong with me?”). To employ a quasi-Hegelian formulation, the first group of questions is asking as such questions and the second is asking for me ones. Later, we begin the long slide toward narrowing our questions to problem solving, assured, I am sure, that this narrowing is a manifestation of our growing maturity (“what do I have to do to get into that school?” “how can we afford that?”). Eventually, some of us come back to the initial questions, and one is reminded that Plato, in his Republic, said that the education of the city’s guardians should culminate in an initiation to the study of philosophy, at age 50.

But there is something about the first group, the as such questions, that has the ability to intrude on our calm throughout our lives, and I think that that is because there is something universal about these questions, questions that are not burdened by the for me in them, questions we know apply to all people and all times. It is true that these questions themselves change as we grow older, especially, I suppose, if we actually mature as we grow older. But there are similarities to these Big Questions whether the question is “what causes wind?” or “is life a battle or a journey?”

Big Questions appear to be open-ended and without final resolution (face it, they are not as readily answerable as “what causes inflation?” or other easy stuff like that). So, many people take them to be childish foolishness or simply matters of opinion, rather than learning. Everyone has or can have an opinion, of course (to say otherwise would be not only rude, but un-American), but as soon as the most rudimentary explanation is insisted upon, many will say that these Big Questions are child’s play and not worthy of attention.

Few of these questions lend themselves to final proofs in the sense of our being assured that we can convince all others to accept our answers, because all of these questions are in the form in which the answers will have some of the Hegelian “questioning for me” in them. As our teachers said was true, it appears that it is how we come to conclusions or answers that is more important than what those conclusions or answers are, that in some ineffable way the very asking of the questions not only resulted in and exhibits some knowledge but leads to it too, even without answers or even with unsure or unsatisfactory answers. These questions are universals, to employ the philosophical term for them, whereas the answers are undoubtedly particulars.

So perhaps it is best to say that what makes a Big Question big is not the answer, not even the question itself, but the intention of the questioner, for the mere wording of a question is not enough to know whether it is a Big Question. When a child asks why the winter is so long, it affords a different answer and even a different consideration than when an adult asks that same question. For the child, “why is winter so long?” is always a Big Question; for the adult, that question depends upon whether he is complaining about the snow and the gray of the sky on the one hand or, on the other, commenting on the state of life. The bigger it is, the more difficult will be the answer and the more unlikely it is that any one answer will satisfy everyone who asks it. Many adults, after all, have arrived at a conclusion exactly the opposite of this: that it is the answer that is the universal element and the question that differs from one person to another. No wonder so much in life for them has a dreadful dragging grayness about it and everything from products to political candidates end up with a seeming sameness no matter what the question we ask . . . because products and candidates are seeking the supposed same universal answer rather than the actual universal question.

Possibly that is the reason that we tend toward Big Questions in childhood and in the autumn of our lives . . . because, in childhood, we can be satisfied with answers from authority and as we age we know that the most important questions may not have completely satisfactory answers at all but that there may be some benefit derived merely from the asking. And, besides, youth and old age are the main periods when we have the time to question the world we find ourselves in, question our place in it, question our way of finding satisfactory answers, question why there is something rather than nothing.

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The great ancient Greek philosophers laid the groundwork for philosophy to deal with Big Questions. It is true that browsing through the course of study of a modern-day philosophy student might lead one to believe that there are no Big Questions, only big answers to small questions. But the nature of philosophy began otherwise, and it is still in some way what attracts intelligent students to philosophy to this day . . . until they go home for Christmas break and the old man asks what use all this has (which is the archetypal question looking for an archetypal answer), or they take a course with an analytic philosopher who insists that all that stuff in Platonic dialogues or Aristotelian reflection is, gasp, unimportant (or, worse, superseded), and that philosophy involves taking the world apart and examining all the entrails that spill out, and the student is led inexorably toward the conclusion that the gutsy Big Question has to be replaced by the guts in the little answers.

But eventually we all graduate, eventually we all slough off the title “wise idiot” (sophomore), eventually we learn the use of “use.” Then Plato and Aristotle become less fuddy-duddy to us, and we appreciate the wonder that philosophy began with men who sought universals rather than particulars,[2] who stated, as Aristotle said in the Metaphysics, that philosophy (and, by extension, our very nature as thinking beings confronting the world we live in) begins in wonder.

For me, almost all Big Questions are tied in some way to time because, though I cannot explain it well, it is time, even more than space, that ties us to the earth. We are Westerners, and we tend to look out upon the world, rather than inwardly upon ourselves, as the source of learning (more about this in Chapter 1, “Why Is There Something Rather than Nothing?”). If we flounder, if we grasp at Big Questions, it may be just that we have only so much time to reach them. When we are adults, looking back, we know that, with time, our questioning will change, our intentions will change, our acceptance of answers will change. Yet now, while there is time, there is opportunity to ask Big Questions. For some, this will hearken back to a period in their lives of innocence and hunger for answers; for others, it may open up new vistas for the future; but for all who pursue Big Questions, it will not be that most evil of all modern failures, time wasted.

When I say that Big Questions are tied in some way to time, I mean not only that sense of time in “to every thing there is a season,” but also because, for me, Big Questions are tied to what I discovered I was given as a child and what I want to pass on after my death, for we pass on more than our names or our treasure, more even than memories. We pass on our habits (our second nature, as Thomas Aquinas put it), our particularity. So Big Questions for me tend to come down to questions about the world and my place in it on the one hand, and, on the other, thoughts about those I love and their place in that world. As I write these words, my father’s death occurred more than fifty years old. As time advances, my memory of his face, his voice, his words all fade, but there is something inexpressible about him that never fades, and I call this his habit. It is something I inherited from him as much as the shape of his nose. And though we never discussed Big Questions, because he did not have the time and I did not have the knowledge, it seems clearer and clearer to me that it is the consideration of Big Questions that ties me to him with ever-stronger cords as the years proceed, because these Big Questions, unspoken and unanswered, are as much a part of my inheritance, as much a part of his legacy, as anything finally left on earth of value.

 

[1] That is, until I told my wife of my theory of acknowledgments being about where the writer has arrived, and she replied, “Oh, so even the acknowledgments is about you.”

[2] One might well say that traditional philosophy is the practice of addressing universal questions with particular answers; modern philosophy, on the other hand, seems, to me at least, to apply universal answers to particular questions.