I have heard the importance of "The order of questions" mentioned a few times by for example Bernard Stiegler in one of his seminars. I am working on a Phd, and it is being drummed into me framing the question is important, and so of course it follows that one has not just one, but many, and that they would then need to be ordered. Indeed I have noticed that many texts in academia - even in Mathematics - seem to be ordered by questions, one question leading to the next.

Is there a text that covers this? I ask on the philosophy group as it is known that at least one way of thinking of philosophy is as the art of asking the important questions.

  • any other tags that would be relevant? – Henry Story Dec 11 '18 at 11:58
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    'The Art of Asking Important Questions' is a nice phrase. I'd agree that this is one half of a description of philosophy. – PeterJ Dec 12 '18 at 11:11

See B.Stiegler, The Neganthropocene (2018), page 260 :

"The question of the order of questions, which forms the foundation of the method that emerges from Discourse on Method [...]".

Asking questions is at the origins of philosophy itself; see Socratic method : "The Socratic method, also known as maieutics, is a form of cooperative argumentative dialogue between individuals, based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to draw out ideas and underlying presuppositions. It is a dialectical method, involving a discussion in which the defense of one point of view is questioned; one participant may lead another to contradict themselves in some way, thus weakening the defender's point."

And see Descartes' Discours de la méthode (1637) : order is central in the third "precept" of the 2nd part :

"Le troisième, de conduire par ordre mes pensées, en commençant par les objets les plus simples et les plus aisés à connoître, pour monter peu à peu comme par degrés jusques à la connoissance des plus composés, et supposant même de l’ordre entre ceux qui ne se précèdent point naturellement les uns les autres." [The third, to conduct my thoughts in such order that, by commencing with objects the simplest and easiest to know, I might ascend by little and little, and, as it were, step by step, to the knowledge of the more complex; assigning in thought a certain order even to those objects which in their own nature do not stand in a relation of antecedence and sequence.]


I was pointed to Luciano Floridi's 2013 paper "What is a Philosophical Question" which I just read with great interest. He proposes

a definition of philosophical questions as questions whose answers are in principle open to informed, rational, and honest disagreement, ultimate but not absolute, closed under further questioning, possibly constrained by empirical and logico‐mathematical resources, but requiring noetic resources to be answered.

He starts by looking at questions in general, pointing out en passant, that

there is a significant difference between heuristics, understood as the method of problem solving (Pearl 1984), and erotetics, that is, the logic of questions and answers (Belnap and Steel 1976).

This is already an invaluable pointer, as I did not know of the field of erotetics, and will look there to see if it provides insights into writing a thesis. A very good recent overview of the field is (Wisniewski 2015).

Some interesting highlights:

  • Floridi distinguishes open and closed questions. Closed questions are those where it does not make sense to repeat the question when answered, because you have all the information you needed to answer the question. "To use Wittgenstein’s analogy, she would be buying another issue of the same newspaper to double-check the news." Open Questions are those where it makes sense to have divergent answers, and can be mundane such as "Where should we go on Holidays?" I think one could add engineering questions to those: such as how would you build a bridge from England to Ireland? There are many ways one could do it, and each would have advantages and disadvantages. Mathematical proofs once shown have the status of being closed, though at the best mathematics is also conceptual innovation, and mathematicians have to choose between different possible definitions that can help unify different spaces. Stack Exchange it seems is prone to preferring closed questions (perhaps not this Philosophy community? According to Floridi, you would need to be biased towards open questions to be philosophical!)
  • Inspired by Turing's analysis of the resources it would take to solve a problem - it's complexity - Floridi argues that Philosophical problems require noetic resources to be answered. "Critics fail to grasp that philosophy is not in the business of discovering solutions but in that of designing them."
  • Not all open questions are good questions. Open Questions can be posed at the wrong level of absraction, but for example being too general, and thus lead to pseudo philosophical puzzles. This is similar to a badly designed protocol that would fail to give the unit in which an answer was couched, eg sending out the time at which a blog post was written but failing to give the time zone, as was done by the Metaweblog API. He points to Kant's antinomies of pure reason as one example and to Turing's redefinition of the question of what it is for a machine to think in terms of the imitation game, as an example of how one can improve a question:

[Turing] made clear, for the first time, how philosophical questions could be answered only by fixing the Level of Abstraction at which it would then make sense to receive an answer. This is one of the greatest and lasting contributions of his famous test (Turing 1950), far more important than the incorrect predictions about when machines would pass it, or what consequences one should draw if they did pass it (Floridi, Taddeo, and Turilli 2009). It is sometimes forgotten that Turing refused even to try to provide an answer to the question “Can a machine think?” because he considered it a problem “too meaningless to deserve discussion”

  • Questions appear in webs of questions (to put it in Quinean terms). One question leads to the next. But not all open questions are philosophical. The open philosophical questions are the ultimate ones:

    ultimate questions are those questions whose answers are most influential in terms of a cascade of further questions and answers to other related questions within that network.

Furthermore philosophical questions even though open are closed under further questioning: ie. further questioning keep leading to further philosophical questions. But they are not located in a void, they are connected to the web of questions, including mundane ones, which constrains the possible answers to philosophical questions, meaning that philosophy is not atemporal but instead embedded in the culture in which they are asked.

That last point does explain how there can be an order of questions from mundane to ultimate ones. One can remark that one does not start from the ultimate ones, but progresses there. In Descartes' meditation he inititally asks only mundane questions, such as how does he know the way things are since the wax can transform from solid to soft. He only slowly progresses to the ultimate question of knowledge "Is there anything that one can be certain of at all?".


  • Pearl, J. 1984. Heuristics: Intelligent Search Strategies for Computer Problem Solving. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley.
  • Belnap, N. D., and T. B. Steel. 1976. The Logic of Questions and Answers. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Floridi, L. 2011. The Philosophy of Information. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Turing, A. M. 1950. “Computing Machinery and Intelligence.” Mind 59, no. 236: 433–60.
  • Floridi, L., M. Taddeo, and M. Turilli. 2009. “Turing’s Imitation Game: Still a Challenge for Any Machine and Some Judges.” Minds and Machines 19, no. 1: 145–50.
  • Wisniewski, Andrzej. "Semantics of questions." The handbook of contemporary semantic theory 3 (2015): 273. (pdf)

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