The Question as Symptom
Investigation on what it is that we call a problem
“On ne parle et ne pense que si l’on a une question en tête.”
-Michel Meyer, De la Problématologie
If you have been following my writings, you should know I am interested in problems. “What is it that we call a problem?” This question seems to me to be crucial and as pertaining to the essence of what we call philosophy, and to the essence of thought itself. If we look at how thoughts are generated in reality, in the lived experiences of human beings, this is almost always by beginning with problems. We conceive of problems, which then incentivize us to seek for solutions. Thought is thus roughly conceived of as consisting of three temporal dimensions: the problem, the seeking, and the answer. The beginning is in the problem, and the end is in the answer.
There is always a question that incentivizes us to think, that is the driving force of thinking. As Michel Meyer says: “le questionnement est bien le principe de la pensée même, le principe philosophique par excellence.” It is in questioning that thought begins, and through questioning that it explicates itself. The answer is the result of this process, an end to thinking in which the process of question-questioning becomes imperceptible yet is implicated. The answer is thus only the result, the outer appearance, of the deeper essence of thought which resides in the unfolding of the question. The question is the proper object of thought, and thus the proper object of philosophy, the practice of thought. But of what nature is this object? The fact that the thinker seeks for answers signifies that it is something he wants to get away from. It is something he hates, what he wants is an answer. Yet the object of his hatred, the problem, is the driving force behind the activity which he as philosopher loves.
“Der Philosoph behandelt eine Frage; wie eine Krankheit” says Wittgenstein. Like the doctor who seeks to bring about health is driven by the experience of illness, so the philosopher who loves wisdom is driven by the anguish of its absence which resides in the question. But there are many ways to treat an illness. One can try to exterminate it, or one can listen to it so as to learn where it comes from, of what way of life it is a symptom. As Nietzsche taught. We can solve the problem by giving an answer, or we can solve the problem by treating the way of life from which it sprang in the first place. Both ways intend to dissolve the question into nothingness. But which one does so better? The first only suppresses the question, the latter solves the root cause. For all questions spring forth from life. Life submits the living subject with problematic states of affair to which the subject devises answers.
There are, phenomenologically speaking, at least two aspects to what we call a problem. Firstly it is a thing that is given to us, we encounter problems like we do all phenomena. But secondly, we also have to "pose problems." They are not given, but have to be thought. The Greek root of our word ‘problem’: probállō (προβᾰ́λλω) contains both of these meanings. It signifies pro-bállō, what is thrown-before. What is thrown before the subject, what appears before the subject as problematic. But secondly it also signifies an act of the subject, in response to a problematic appearance, we have to consequently pose the problem. The problem is thrown before us, but in response we have to throw up a problem too. This is the origin of questioning. The world appearance questions us by throwing something in front of us, and forces us to question this appearance. The questions we ask, phenomenologically speaking, have a cause in life, and are nothing but the spiritual reflections of these appearances in life. The quality of a question we pose is measured by the degree to which the question is an adequate expression of this real appearance that is thrown before us and appears as problematic, that is, that questions us.
The philosopher treats a question like an illness, that is, as something to be solved with an answer: the cure in this metaphor. But not only the answer is a response to the question posed by the philosopher. The question of the philosopher itself is a response to a problem put forward by and in life. It is a question of how one conceives of the question put forward by the philosopher. Is this an original hypostasis in the development of thought, or is it only the symptom of something else, a symptom that itself needs to be created. Is it like Russell says, that thought is a process which responds to universal a-historical and self-same problems that are the same through all ages (albeit that the way in which they are phrased differs historically). Or is it that problems have to be created by the thinker? In Plato’s Sophist, we read:
“κομιδῇ δέ γε, ὦ ξένε, ἔοικεν ἀληθὲς εἶναι τὸ περὶ τὸν σοφιστὴν κατ᾽ ἀρχὰς λεχθέν, ὅτι δυσθήρευτον εἴη τὸ γένος. φαίνεται γὰρ οὖν προβλημάτων γέμειν, ὧν ἐπειδάν τι προβάλῃ, τοῦτο πρότερον ἀναγκαῖον διαμάχεσθαι πρὶν ἐπ᾽ αὐτὸν ἐκεῖνον ἀφικέσθαι. νῦν γὰρ μόγις μὲν τὸ μὴ ὂν ὡς οὐκ ἔστι προβληθὲν διεπεράσαμεν, ἕτερον δὲ. “
” It certainly seems, Stranger, that what you said at first about the sophist—that he was a hard kind of creature to catch—is true; for he seems to have no end of defences (πρόβλημα , próballō), and when he throws one of them up, his opponent has first to fight through it before he can reach the man himself; for now, you see, we have barely passed through.” (Plato, Sophist, 261A)
In this fragment, próballō is used for something that has to be created by the sophist himself. Problems are not found in reality, but have to created as a response to reality. The problems the sophist throws up serve as a defence, an appearance hiding an underlying reality. The problems are already answers, symptoms of a deeper state of affairs. And in this sense all thought is sophistry, for it hides the real problematic events that life throws at us, under a supposedly original problem created by the thinker. The problem thrown up by the philosopher, what we call a question, is only a symptom thrown up by life.
Michel Meyer, De la Problématologie. Paris: PUF, 2008.
Wittgenstein, Philosophische Untersuchungen. Blackwell Publishers, 1997.
Plato. Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 12 translated by Harold N. Fowler. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1921.