Big Questions

Every area of human knowledge starts from questions. But what most people don't realize is that the questions exist in a "dialectical" relationship with the methods used to answer them. That means that the questions affect the methods, but the methods also affect the questions. As has already been noted, what seems like the very same question can in fact mean many different things, depending on the disciplinary assumptions being made.

 

In other words, it is important to be very clear on the assumptions behind questions. That includes disciplinary assumptions, the definitions of words, the nature of the audience, and the reason for asking the question in the first place. The more you know about the question being asked, the easier it will be to answer it, and the easier it will be to know what kind of evidence or support is needed.

 

In the humanities, though, we have a challenge. We work with "big questions". That means that we work with questions which do not easily fit into a single disciplinary context. Take, for example, the city. As it stands "the city" is a topic, an area in which we could ask questions from different angles. And many disciplines have had an interest in the city - architecture, planning, history, sociology, anthropology, literature, art, psychology, even philosophy. We are dealing with a big topic. And, even though we could ask small (that is, discipline specific) questions about this big topic, we could also ask big (interdisciplinary) questions about it. This does not mean asking vague questions, but rather it means recognizing that some things we care about cannot be reduced to the methods of a single way of understanding the world.

 

More "big questions":