AS ANYONE WHO HAS SPENT TIME AROUND YOUNG CHILDREN knows, “why?” is a question that gets posed with dogged persistence. In this doggedness, says Philippe Huneman, children “learn [a] kind of grammar for why.”
By grammar, Huneman does not just mean what those children will eventually learn to call “grammar” as they make their way through school. Huneman also means “a necessity . . . between logical necessity . . . and pure linguistic convention.” In other words, when children formulate why? questions, the formulation of the sentence itself exposes and teaches a logical requirement, one that tells us something important about what we are doing when we ask why? Huneman puts the point this way: “Before even asking what the legitimate form of response to ‘why?’ could be, we presuppose that there is a response; and thus, that it is possible to ask why.”
For instance, in learning how to ask why? questions, we simultaneously learn about different kinds of objects, different kinds of response possibilities, and various presuppositions that govern possible answers as well as possible misunderstandings. After all, a well-known issue for philosophers and children alike is how to make sense of what people do, and whether or how this might be distinct from explaining things that happen to us or that happen in our world. As Huneman sees it, following Kant, such different kinds of questions require distinct kinds of explanation. Huneman focuses in this book on three different kinds of why? questions. “When asking ‘why?’,” he says, “we can expect in response a cause, or a reason for believing something, or a motive and thus a reason for acting (a goal, in particular). These three types of ‘because’ are perhaps not independent but they are distinct.”
By underlining this distinctness without independence, Huneman wants to note that events like a fire breaking out, on the one hand, and actions like remodeling a kitchen, on the other, can be said to have different logical forms. In the case of a fire, we might look for both a cause and a reason—not independently, but distinctly. Someone may have started the fire purposely such that they can give a reason for having done so, or the fire may have been caused accidentally by a faulty wire. In the case of the remodeled kitchen, we feel ourselves entitled to ask the renovator why a specific color scheme was chosen, and we can expect at least a minimally rational answer in return. The answer you get to why? questions can be a reason of some kind, or it might be a cause.
Of course, put like this, all sorts of complications are elided. “The deeper we delve in search of causes the more of them we find,” wrote Leo Tolstoy in War and Peace (1812), “and each separate cause or whole series of causes appears to us equally valid and equally false by its insignificance compared to the magnitude of the events, and by its impotence—apart from the cooperation of all the other coincident causes—to occasion the event” (book 9, chapter 1).
How, then, to treat different questions, like “Why did Napoleon lose at Waterloo?” Huneman’s book elegantly teases out the implications and stakes of these complications, through a series of examples like these, and through engagements with philosophical treatments of these issues.
In reading Why? I was struck by something about the grammar of why? questions as Huneman treats them.
As young children make vivid, we not only “presuppose that there is a response” when we ask “why?” We also presuppose that someone, or some others, can or will give this response. That is, we presuppose not only that an answer exists, or that an answer belongs to the realm of the known, or to an impersonal space of reasons—we also make a vocative appeal for an answer from someone who we expect to be somehow responsible for what they are saying. We make an appeal to others who, we suppose, are somehow accountable for what they claim, or know, or believe, or are motivated by. Why? questions not only presuppose a grammatical connection between the question and an answer; such questions and answers also evoke the presupposition of a dialogue between participants who uphold a space of reasons, and who can somehow be held to account for whatever answers they give.
In an age when young children can be witnessed addressing certain why? questions to the “artificial intelligence” at work in their devices, this presupposition might be hard to detect, and might invite all kinds of skepticism. Is there truly this kind of responsibility-taking dialogue that, I was just suggesting, we presuppose or evoke when we ask why?
To get the stakes of this question into view, one might ask further: Can we address, or even imagine addressing, all our why? questions to the collected wisdom of the archives, to the sedimented knowledge of the libraries, or to the artificial intelligence said to be at work on the internet—that is, to no one in particular? Can we collectively sustain the social practice of seeking answers for why? questions without supposing and expecting that others will comport themselves responsibly in light of whatever answers we might receive?