In the Way of Inquiry • Objections to Reflexive Inquiry

Inquiry begins when an automatic routine or normal course of activity is interrupted and agents are thrown into doubt concerning what is best to do next and what is really true of their situation.  If this interruptive aspect of inquiry applies at the level of self-application then occasions for inquiry into inquiry arise when an ongoing inquiry into any subject becomes obstructed and agents are obliged to initiate a new order of inquiry in order to overcome the obstacle.

At such moments agents need the ability to pause and reflect — to accept the interruption of the inquiry in progress, to acknowledge the higher order of uncertainty obstructing the current investigation, and finally to examine accepted conventions and prior convictions regarding the conduct of inquiry in general.  The next order of inquiry requires agents to articulate the assumptions embodied in previous inquiries, to consider their practical effects in light of their objective intents, and to reconstruct forms of conduct which formerly proceeded through their paces untroubled by any articulate concern.

Our agent of inquiry is brought to the threshold of two questions:

  • What actions are available to achieve the aims of the present activity?
  • What assumptions already accepted are advisable to amend or abandon?

The inquirer is faced in the object of inquiry with an obstinately oppositional state of affairs, a character marked by the Greek word pragma for object, whose manifold of senses and derivatives includes among its connotations the ideas of purposeful objectives and problematic objections, and not too incidentally both inquiries and expositions.

An episode of inquiry bears the stamp of an interlude — it begins and ends in medias res with respect to actions and circumstances neither fixed nor fully known.  As easy as it may be to overlook the contingent character of the inquiry process it’s just as essential to observe a couple of its consequences:

First, it means genuine inquiry does not touch on the inciting action at points of total doubt or absolute certainty.  An incident of inquiry does not begin or end in absolute totalities but only in the differential and relative measures which actually occasion its departures and resolutions.

Inquiry as a process does not demand absolutely secure foundations from which to set out or any “place to stand” from which to examine the balance of onrushing events.  It needs no more than it does in fact have at the outset — assumptions not in practice doubted just a moment before and a circumstance of conflict that will force the whole situation to be reviewed before returning to the normal course of affairs.

Second, the interruptive character or escapist interpretation of inquiry is especially significant when contemplating programs of inquiry with recursive definitions, as the motivating case of inquiry into inquiry.  It means the termination criterion for an inquiry subprocess is whatever allows continuation of the calling process.

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5 Responses to In the Way of Inquiry • Objections to Reflexive Inquiry

  1. landzek says:

    I like it.  (For some reason no ‘reblog’ option comes up on my reader).  I am unclear, though if and or where you might suggest the end of this route.  For I follow and agree up until you say that this path does not lead or reveal unto an absolute.  I would say that such a route eventually comes unto itself an “a doubt of doubt” so to speak, where to continue in this vein would amount to an inevitable suspension that is at this point consciously known to be a false instatement of results.

    The route would seem to leads to an absolute situation that diverges from the route through which the relative impasse was gained.

    • Jon Awbrey says:


      Inquiry into X ends in a state of belief about X, which disposes one to act in specific ways with regard to X.  So inquiry into inquiry ends in a state of belief about inquiry, which disposes one to act in specific ways with regard to inquiry.

      That is how the matter looks if we take Alexander Bain’s definition of belief as “that upon which a person is prepared to act” and add the pragmatic insight that thresholds of action do not require absolute certainty.

      • landzek says:

        Can u give me an example of an obstacle that then requires an acknowledgment of a higher order of inquiry?  It seems vague, and could be taken in a number of ways.  Can u give an example?

  2. abbeboulah says:

    This seems entirely plausible if the concept of distinct levels of inquiry is taken for granted — where are the objections?  Aren’t the objections we face aimed at the primacy of inquiry itself — or better:  the ‘rational’ form of inquiry.  And the arguments or excuses for such stances are both fundamental — e.g. a belief in intuitive apprehension of the action needed to deal with an interruption of the normal activity, and pragmatic: — e.g.:  ‘there’s no time, immediate action is necessary!’  And even the argument that it is that immediate urgent action itself that will provide the information and answers to the ‘next higher level’ of inquiry the interruption was calling for?

    It may also be useful to distinguish between the different kinds of premises of the usual arguments supporting ‘normal activity’:  Is the nature of the ‘interruption’ based on sudden doubts about the rules or laws that guarantee the expected result from the activity (e.g. causal laws), or changes in the appreciation or preference about the expected result (goal), or changes in the assessment under which the ‘laws’ or rules of the first premise will hold — context conditions — or even sudden new information about other, possibly better means of achieving the purpose of the activity?

  3. Jon Awbrey says:

    Just to fill in some background, the posts in this series are taken from my ongoing work on “Inquiry Driven Systems” or “Inquiry Into Inquiry”.  I posted them here last year because I thought they could use a fresh look and no doubt a good measure of rewriting.

    The larger question at hand has to do with the putative capacity for reflexive inquiry (“inquiry into inquiry”), what some folks might call second order inquiry (though I tend to avoid that usage).  And this chapter addresses various obstacles to any project of reflexive inquiry.  But many of those obstacles are very similar to the blocks that bedevil any inquiry, reflexive or not, so they can be discussed more directly.

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