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Respect for the Question

On a podcast that is now forgotten, one speaker forwarded the notion of the importance of “respect for the question.”

He was a fiction writer, as I recall, but viewed his creations as ways for him to work through an issue or uncertainty that was a puzzle at inception of the project. Some of the questions involved hypotheticals — “What could be the effects of some not yet observed future event?” Further, he noted that much of his work ended not with “the answer” to the question, but more often with a deeper elaboration of the question. Indeed, as his career evolved, he found himself returning to such questions repeatedly, inventing different stories that took divergent perspectives.

My reflection was that centrality of his “respect for the question” resembled the scholarly life of many academics. Research careers are often a series of linked projects exploring different features of the same phenomenon. One idea, once pursued, generates another idea, linked to the first. “Respect” is paid by the consistent attention to linked ideas.

The podcaster used the term “question.” But answering questions is not the direct goal of all disciplines within the academy. For some, the goal might be to produce written work that reinterprets the past, uses literary forms that are unprecedented, creates visual forms that combine disparate approaches, or builds physical objects previously not built. But the notion of respect for the goal as a continuous guide for the scholarly effort still feels sound.

The notion of “respect for the question” is, however, related to the humbling nature of most advanced scholarship. The “hit rate” of intellectual thrusts is low. Scholarship is future-oriented – an attempt to produce something that has not yet been produced. Big advances are rare. Small advances, while potentially important, often end with an admission that much more needs to be done. Indeed, “respect for the question” seems quite strongly related for the humility one builds about the massiveness of their favorite question. Scholars often find that their naïve observations about a question at the inception of their work belie the complexity of the question as they learn more. Such complexity breeds respect.

The gradual revelation of the complexity of a research question becomes obvious often only in retrospect. The revelation requires imposing on separate pieces of work a lineage of work, thematically linked by “the question.” Looking at the past, one can perceive the linkage. But, the connection of individual pieces of work may not be perceived during the “doing.”

“Respect for the question” also is a warning against distractions. As the work proceeds, the scholar identifies potential side issues, whose connection to the original question is initially unknown. Hence, “respect for the question” requires avoidance of the distraction of answering simpler, but different questions. In the thick of the work, it is easy to get distracted by a side issue – in an act of not respecting the question.

But some newly observed issues are key to progress on the original question. Such exploration might require new approaches. Sometimes, the scholar realizes that they have no ability to pursue the new issue. One’s skill set, of course, helps define the set of ideas that can be pursued. But, collaborating with another scholar having complementary skills can address such limitations. This collaboration is a show of deep respect for the question.

Bertrand Russell opined that when the scholar knows something with great depth and sophistication, they often talk most about those features that they don’t understand. Indeed, one wonders whether the growth of human knowledge may merely mean more and more sophisticated versions of questions. Respect for the question may indeed be the route to enduring insight.

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