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Friday, December 05, 2003

I Think Gertrude Stein Was Onto Something

What, exactly, is a question? Seriously. Forget about Raymond Smullyan for a sec. (Raymond, some may remember, is a reoccurring character in Mikarrhea; for instance here, here, and here.) What is a question? Here's what the American Heritage entry at Dictionary.com says:

1. An expression of inquiry that invites or calls for a reply.
2. An interrogative sentence, phrase, or gesture.

An expression of inquiry? An interrogative . . . ? Those words simply beg the, uh, question, depending as they do on a prior understanding of what a question is. (Webster falls into this hole too, really flailing his arms exuberantly: "That which is asked; inquiry; interrogatory; query.") "An expression . . . that invites or calls for a reply" is a much smarter attempt. Except by that definition hello would be a question, which seems weird to me. I mean, what exactly is hello asking? (Yes, I know many writers do customarily put a question mark after hello, but that still doesn't explain what "Hello" is asking.) Is Gesundheit! then a question and Danke schön it's reply? Hmmmm.

Anyway, what the hell is a reply? American Heritage again:
# To give an answer in speech or writing.
# To respond by an action or gesture.

Ha. Ha.
What do answer and respond mean? Hmmm. Not by any chance "engage in an act of communication elicited by a question"? Aren't they embarrassed to be caught in this circle?
You would think that in a book he called Critique of Pure Reason, Kant might have addressed this "question." He takes as the most fundamental a priori intuitions those of space and time. Fine. We can't know a world except in space and time. We can't even think what it would be like to know a world except in space and time. But what about pure reason? Isn't it possible to conceive of purely reasoning without apprehending space and time? If we could, could we reason without knowing what a question and an answer are? Aren't they a priori intuitions even more fundamental than space and time?

Um, what's the question, again?
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