A lot of questions we ask have the form: "What is ..." Some examples would be :

What is love?
What is the square root of 34?
What is this object?

But what is the answer to the question "What is "what is"?" ? in other words, when we ask a "what is question" what are we expecting?

  • 2
    We are expecting a definition that capture teh "essence" of the concept. Jan 4, 2018 at 12:31
  • 2
    See Aristotle and essence: "The concept originates with Aristotle, who used the Greek expression to ti ên einai (τὸ τί ἦν εἶναι, literally meaning "the what it was to be" ) or sometimes the shorter phrase to ti esti (τὸ τί ἐστι, literally meaning "the what it is") for the same idea. " Jan 4, 2018 at 12:33
  • I am also partial to "essence", but you may find this book interesting too: Title: The alienation of reason; a history of positivist thought, Author: Kołakowski, Leszek. Publisher:Doubleday,Pub date:1968. Kolakowski is well known so you find this book translated into many languages, it may have been originally in Polish.
    – Gordon
    Jan 4, 2018 at 16:14
  • You are asking about Ontology, the central question for which is 'What is?'.
    – user20253
    Jan 4, 2018 at 19:34
  • 1
    Might be useful en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paradox_of_analysis Jan 6, 2018 at 13:11

7 Answers 7


Deleuze is very interesting on this point; one of the only (“continental”) thinkers I can suggest who is — at least in certain works, Difference and Repetition in particular — concerned explicitly with the philosophical implications of question-forms. A rough gist might be that what-prefixed question statements are less interesting or important for thinking (and so for philosophy) than question-forms like where?, when?, how many?, which one?

There is a specificity to these latter, non-what? questions; they correspond to what Deleuze calls “spatiotemporal dynamisms” which dramatize a concept — and so express ideas more effectively than what is...? problem-forms, which seem to call for a transcendent essence.

(This seems like a theme Derrida might have considered, perhaps at length, but I’m not sure in what works this might appear.)

As suggested above there is definitely a long history of analytic thinkers doing philosophy of language and wondering/working on the problem of question forms, but I’m not really very familiar with it; SEP as usual has a good review.


''Is'' is used in place of a more specific implied meaning such as ''is the essence of'', ''is the definition of'', ''physically constitutes''.


Derrida spends some time on the general structure of a question in Heidegger: The Question of Being and History, page 28:

One must know what a question in general is to determine what the question of being must be. This structure cannot be drawn without the three poles of the Gefragtes, the Befragtes and the Erfragtes. What does this mean?

Every question is a seeking and as such it has an object (Gesuchten) about which it is concerned. Every question has an object asked about ... “Das Fragen hat als Fragen nach sein Gefragtes [ . . . ]” (Sein und Zeit, 4). But every question also inquires of something ... — Heidegger does not say “address a question to” but “inquire of something” (Anfragen bei). “Zum Fragen gehört ausser dem Gefragten ein Befragtes” (Sein und Zeit, 5). “Besides what is asked about, what is interrogated also belongs to questioning” (here the asked about, Gefragten, is being, the interrogated (Befragtes) is beings) (Being and Time, 4). And then the intention that guides the question, what makes one pass from the Befragtes to the Gefragtes, from what is interrogated to what is asked about, if you like, is the Erfragtes, translated [by Stambaugh] as “what is to be ascertained.” This fundamental and formal structure which is that of any question is further determined if one thinks that it can be a question posed just like that ...


This term is often used for getting the MINIMUM requirements for creating a mental picture of something.

We can use "What is" for the minimum information (as a word) and also for a very extensive explanation that contains different types of information.

Let's check whether the usage 'MINIMUM' is correct or not.

A person (especially, if he doesn't know English well) often uses/can use "What?" to mean "What is?" if he can't hear or understand the question he was asked; no matter whether it is a wh-question or a yes-or-no question. The shortest response will be "What?" to mean "What is?". Here "What?" is used just for repeating, sometimes for an explanation. So we can confirm that the usage 'MINIMUM' is correct.

Other wh-question words can be reworded using "what", I think.


When --- at what time

Where --- at what place

Who --- what person

Which --- what one or ones

Why --- for what reason

How --- in what way or manner; by what means.

(You will have to add "is" to each word given above.)

I think this is possible with other wh-question-words also.

If all these question-words (given above) can be compared to tools, "What is" acts as our hand for holding those tools. I mean, other wh-question-words would be useless without the help of "what is" (as its base).

E.g.: The question, "Who is that person?" won't be meaningful if it doesn't mean "What is the name of that person?", "What is his relationship with this area/the other person?" etc.


To summarize:

"What is" is an alternative term that can be used to indicate any wh-question-words. So it can mean all the meanings that wh-question-words imply.

In short, it is a Panacea.


What is defined as something. So for example the question, What is love? may be rephrased as a statement: "Something is love" or "Love is something".

Therefore "what is" may be restated as, "something is".

what is = something is = is something

All three of the above statements may also be posed as questions.

Something / (some thing) is defined as, "a thing not definitely known, understood, or identified; a thing undetermined; a thing unspecified".

Therefore, "What is X?" means: "An unknown thing is X." or X = X

[Webster's New 20th Century Dictionary, unabridged, c1959]


The phonemes in ‘what is’ have meaning themselves.

The word ‘what’ and Old English hwæt are cognate with Arabic هذا هو؟ (hadha hw?) meaning ‘this is?’. ’What’ has been compounded in English to mean ‘what’ from ‘this is’ and because it is compounded the verb ‘to be’ can be added to ‘what’ to equate with it.

Example: What is a man? Phonemic: Is this, is man?

The word ‘is’ shows a relation to support (as the letter Samek is too. What is therefore finds its origin in the description: ‘this is’ and ‘support’. What is a man or Does this support being a man? Quod/Quoi finds a cognate in ‘equate’. The use of support/equate is metaphoric in information context.

Question क्या वस्तु है यहाँ kya vastu hai yahaan What is the object here

As you can see, the word ‘question’ originates in a more concrete context. This is common in abstract terms.

  • From the opening of Beowulf, with translation: Hƿæt ƿē Gārde/na ingēar dagum þēod cyninga / þrym ge frunon... "Listen! We of the Spear-Danes from days of yore have heard of the glory of the folk-kings..." 'Hwaet' is also sometimes translated 'behold'. Another interpretation is as declaratory 'How -' independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/news/… The Viking word 'thing' that might be used as answer, also has had interesting shifts in meaning.
    – CriglCragl
    Jan 9, 2022 at 13:43

What is "X", is a convenient form/method, for the person making the inquiry, to obtain the listener's understanding/definition/knowledge of "X".

You must log in to answer this question.