Words You Need to Know, Part II: Inquiry

When I wasn’t watching this on Saturday afternoon. my mind fell to some inquiring.

Inquiry has been waiting a long time for a little pub.

A few weeks ago, I wrote how Dialogue had edged Inquiry for the title of Most Important Word for our class. Well, Inquiry has nothing to be ashamed of. So let’s get at what inquiry is and what it means for our class.

As you already know, to inquire is to ask. But if it didn’t have a slightly different meaning than “ask,” then the word likely wouldn’t exist. For our purposes, we’ll consider Inquiry to be a line of questioning, not simply a question.

Our future pal Aristotle, for example, conducted an inquiry into the nature and forms of what was then called poetry. In his inquiry, he defined necessary terms, categorized types of content relevant to his inquiry, and then examined the details in order to draw conclusions about those aspects of his subject which were most valuable.

And so it will be for you. You’ll be faced with a set of texts which fit into a certain category of literature. While you have through our Dialogue process prioritized those themes of greatest interest to you, you will also identify and categorize the different kinds of content within the body of literature that you read, and you will use what you already know to make judgments about the parts that are of the most value to you.

The difference (though possibly not the only one) between Aristotle and you is that he strove to present an objective examination of literature, and while you will certainly be asked to think objectively, you will have a lot more subjective latitude to choose the aspect of the inquiry that will serve as your primary focus.

Now, a little bit about why Dialogue finished first.

Some of this has to do with Dialogue’s starting point. Imagine a 400-meter race on the track: the runners start at the same time, but the start is staggered. Dialogue earns an advantageous starting position because it can both reveal your inquiry or advance your inquiry. Thus, in more than one way, dialogue is by its nature inquiring.

Inquiry, on the other hand, left to its own devices, can lead too easily to a facile answer, can result in the desire to find an answer, which, having been found, causes the inquirer to stop inquiring.

So how should we be thinking about the relationship between these two virtues? A dialogue without a sense of inquiry is a pointless exercise in mental ping-pong, and inquiry without dialogue is the kind of closed-ended proposition that leads to closed-mindedness. As we move forward in our own study, keep both of these qualities in mind in every aspect of your reading, writing and class discussion.



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