Philosophy, Questioning, and the World We are Part Of
Updated: Jun 26, 2019
Content warning: Death, suicide & mental illness
To think philosophically, we begin by engaging with questions. One that generally gets most groups going in the discussions I facilitate is, “Are we the same person through time”? If so, “What makes us the same person”?
Philosophical questions prompt us to engage with what is deeply puzzling about the world, where there are no answers that are obviously true to everyone.
Arguably, to do philosophy well, we learn to articulate our own questions. When we can do this, philosophy does not just begin with engaging with other’s questions, but questions and questioning become integral to the entire process of doing philosophy.
We might think of asking and answering philosophical questions as a very abstract, intellectual task. Perhaps it is, but I think learning to ask questions is important for our emotional and everyday ways of making sense of the world. If that’s the case, then doing philosophy with children is about developing their ability to engage emotionally with the world, as much as it is about developing reasoning skills (and my PhD thesis argues that these capacities are interdependent).
As a facilitator, question-asking is pivotal to how I engage participants. With The Philosophy Foundation I have learned how to ask participants questions that help them to explain what they believe, and to think carefully about their suggestions and the consequences of their suggestions.
My training with Sapere, on the other hand, has helped me to recognise the importance of getting participants to ask their own questions. I think this training of getting children to ask their own questions is crucial because we ask questions when we recognise our lack of understanding, when it is not clear to us how to deal with an issue. Questions allow us to articulate a point of confusion or ambiguity, or a lack of sense. A lot of life doesn’t make sense, and confronting senselessness seems to me a way to acknowledge an experience of the world. For me, asking philosophical questions does not belong just in the realm of academic inquiry, but at the centre of all our lives.
I’ve been thinking about question-asking for a while, as it is so important to philosophy facilitation, and I know someone who focuses on the philosophy of questions and questioning. The importance of asking questions struck me more recently, when trying to process a friend’s suicide.
Seven months previously my ex had died, under different but similar circumstances – it wasn't suicide but it was a result of self-destructive behaviours. Then, as now, I recognised that coping with death is not philosophical. There is no sense that can be made of someone you love going out of existence, the enormity of a whole way of being and understanding the world vanishing, the brute insurmountability of death, the tragedy of someone dying young, or the tragedy of mental illness and its destructiveness of what is beautiful, creative, loving, full of potential and worthy of endless love. Philosophy seems irrelevant here.
But what strikes me about my friend who killed themself on purpose, is how they seemed relatively well until last autumn, when they experience a painful life event (‘they’: one non-binary person, not multiple people). How they struggled with mental health issues before this event, but these struggles became far more acute after. How I think their suicide was a mistake, because I had recently known them as engaged is various meaningful projects and relationships and I believed they could have a similar life in the future. At the same time, I do not know the depth of their depression or how it would feel to experience, as they did, repeated periods of severe suffering throughout life.
What I know is that I want them to be alive, that I think their life was worth living, that pain passes and I hoped that they could feel better again. And what I also know is that they wanted to die, they believed it was what was best for them, that they had tried to find ways of dealing with depression. I believe also that you should not force people to live, that people deserve autonomy over their life and death, and that people should have the freedom to make mistakes.
These different views do not seem to sit that comfortably side to side – I feel them pulling in different directions. From that feeling, I have formed questions. I have questions about whether, if it were possible, it would be right to intervene in cases where there is reason to believe someone might not want to kill themselves at a later date, and whether that intervention could look like something other than coercion.
Do we accept someone’s decision to kill themselves or do we try to change it? If some suicides are a mistake, should it be treated like another mistake that people have the right to make? Unlike other mistakes it cannot be learned from by the person making it. Should we ask people to suffer in the present for a possible but far from guaranteed future? Are periods of wellbeing worth repeated stretches of intense suffering?
Does accepting suicide contravene the sanctity of life? If life’s meaning comes, in part, from our agency, is the right to die included in the sanctity of life? Is the idea of the sanctity of life even useful?
These are ethical, philosophical questions. But they are also emotional questions about my world right now. They are formed through life experiences, and are questions about how I should feel and how we should act. I ask them not to find answers – for now I just want to sit with not understanding – but because it seems important and helpful to name what it is that I am finding senseless.
I also think that I can ask questions like this partly because I have done philosophy. Doing philosophy with others, I believe, is a way to help people find ways of naming their confusions, in a way they might find useful, whether or not they can find an answer.