Thursday, March 16, 2006

The Grammar of Repeated Why Questions, or "why is the moon pretty?"

Caroline, like all three year olds, is always asking why. Often her why questions don't even make much sense, such as the "why is that a leaf" question I blogged last summer.(*) Other questions are simply hard to answer in three year old terms, like "Why does ice melt?"

Often figuring out how to answer why questions is a matter of getting the category of why question right. MT suggested that "why is that a leaf" was asking about the reason for the name, rather than for some essential characteristic of leaves, so that "convention" would be a perfectly proper answer to her question. The other day Caroline asked me "Why is the moon pretty?" We were getting out of the car at night, and she had just noticed the moon overhead. I paused. I didn't think she was asking a causal question, the way she was when she asked "why does ice melt?" It seemed more like a call for justification than explanation, so I said "because it is so big, so far away, and so very white." Rather than explaining how, over the course of evolution, humans came to believe that the moon was pretty, I tried to prove to her that the moon did indeed merit being called pretty.

Now, I don't believe for a second that Caroline is mentally distinguishing between causal and justificatory why questions. I stand by my judgment last June that she simply views "why" as a generic request for more information, or perhaps even as a general way to keep any conversation going. Nevertheless, I believe I am right to try to interpret each why question as charitably as I can and give it an honest answer. Dismissing or mocking why questions might stifle her curiosity, and decent answers to her questions might actually give her sense of how inquiry should take place.

Caroline has begun to notice, though, that repeated why questions make adults irritated, which makes her gleefully ask “why” even more. This has lead me to think about the meaningfulness of repeated why questions. Peirce, in “The Fixation of Belief” famously mocks those who think for an inquiry to begin “it was only necessary to utter a question”. Instead, he thought, "There must be a real and living doubt, and without this all discussion is idle.". Wittgenstein also questioned whether questioning is always meaningful. He imagines a conversation with someone who, when asked to extend the series 2, 4, 6, 8... does so normally up until 1000, when he starts counting by fours. Eventually, he reaches a point where he can no longer explain why what we all believe is the correct way to continue the series 2, 4, 6, 8... really is the correct way. "If I have exhausted the justifications" he writes in remark 217 of the Philosophical Investigations, "I have reached bedrock, and my spade is turned. Then I am inclined to say, "This is simply what I do."

In answering questions from Caroline, I have run into both of these limits, the Peirce limit, after which inquiry seems pointless, and the Wittgenstein limit, after which inquiry seems completely impossible. I actually enjoy pushing these sequences of questions as far as possible. The trend in philosophy over the last hundred and fifty years has been to announce limits to rational questioning, not in the way that the religious do, by declaring topics to be taboo, but by pointing out areas in which rational methods cease to make sense. This has actually been productive for science, because it lets scientists focus on the answerable questions, and dismiss the unanswerable ones as senseless. A creature of my times, I must acknowledge that such limits exist. There are badly formed, unanswerable, why questions. But I have never been really comfortable with this. For starters, explaining this sort of positivist, Wittgensteinian attitude to undergraduates has often made me seem the enemy of curiosity, which is exactly the opposite of what a teacher should be.

More deeply I find such joy in pushing the questioning farther than I thought it could go. I think Wittgenstein, in his discussion of the extension of the series 2, 4, 6…, actually managed to push repeated why-questions farther than any other human being in recorded history. Farther even than any three year old. Something remarkable happened there. He marched out farther in reason than anyone thought reason could go—and all in the name of showing that you could go too far!

My response to Caroline’s why questions may seem to you evidence that philosophers should not raise children. I think the reverse.

(*)Reading that old post, I discover that it was only six months ago that Caroline couldn't say her L's. Now she says her L's just fine, but has overgeneralized, so that the color yellow is "lellow." Also, she is filling in her sentences much more than she did last summer. In the old post she asked "Why yeaf?" Now she would say "why is that a leaf?" Already blogging is paying off: look at this lovely record of my child's linguistic development!

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