Questioning is sharing attention

The philosophy of questions is an on-going interest of mine. After having co-authored a book on questions – in Swedish, here – I have continued to keep notes and think about questions and how they relate to other subjects I am interested in. One of the things that recently struck me was that questions are a form of attention management, a way to share attention. When we ask a question, we direct the attention of others towards what we are attending to as well. This means that questions are never just acquisition of information, but rather consist in sharing attention. The information produced or acquired is secondary to that shared attention.

This, in turn, also suggests that the way we think about questions and answers is wrong. We tend to think that an answer is directly related to a question, but it is produced as an effect of the sharing of attention that the question demands. This is why answers are a sort of shared seeing – when I give you an answer, I share what I see, or know, and you then can calibrate from that answer to a new question if you want to. Or something like that.

The issue of power emerges quickly when we think about questions this way. Asking a question is to demand not just your attention, but also that you direct it in a certain way and spend time on what I am asking about. Questions consume attention in order to produce answers, and the right to question implies a kind of power.

There are many different forms of questioning power, it seems. The child that asks is not wielding the same power as the interrogation officer – but both are exercising some kind of power. In the first case, it is attention willingly given and in the second attention coerced. When we ask ourselves questions we force our attention in ways that help us shape, rather than find, questions. Maybe this is why it is so hard to genuinely ask ourselves questions – it is like when you use a coin to make a decision: if you have decided to do X if the coin comes up tails, and it comes up heads and you immediately feel resistance, well, then you know your question was not open, but connected to a deeper answer already felt.

The practice of writing dialogues – then – is a way to uncover the answers already present in ourselves, though the conscious excavation of them by attending to ourselves.

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