I got to thinking after a conversation with a friend of mine and realized that we have very distinct and different approaches to the way we think when we don't know something. For those familiar with Objectivist terminology: we have different psycho-epistemologies. After some more thinking, I realized that this distinction is actually pretty common, so I decided to write about it.
I realized that when people don't know something, most fall into one of two approaches to dealing with it. Some immediately start asking questions of whoever or whatever is available, while some sit down, summon up all of their relevant knowledge, and try to think through it themselves. I call these two types (obviously enough) the Questioner and the Answerer.
My friend is very definitely a Questioner, and he is pushy about it. Not in a bad way, he just wants you to explain and explain and explain and explain until you have to leave--conversations with him are never "finished", they just get interrupted by outside considerations. I'm very definitely an Answerer, which is why I wind up doing most of the explaining. Now, while I like being an Answerer (to the point where I can find persistent Questioners annoying after a while), I don't think that there's any moral significance to either approach. Neither type is more or less likely to be intellectually passive. The two just have *different* benefits and pitfalls.
Questioners have to understand that questions are not an end in themselves and to restrain their tendency to niggle at unimportant details, which means that they have to learn to distinguish what is important and what isn't. Questioners always have to be aware of and pay attention to fundamentals, which is often difficult for them to do. If they don't do this, many wind up as purposeless skeptics who refuse to accept any idea because they can still think of a few questions to ask--regardless of whether those questions make any sense or not. Questioners also have to spend some time learning how to answer their own questions instead of immediately turning to other people for the answers, a practice that has many pitfalls of its own as "other people" are not necessarily any more knowledgeable than you are. Conversations between two Questioners often launch into realms of increasingly bizarre arcana until the participants get bored or are forcibly separated. I think that this mental habit comes about as a result of enjoying picking apart statements. A questioner feels confident about his or her mental abilities when he or she spots and illuminates flaws.
Answerers, like me, have to first learn that "I don't know" is a perfectly acceptable answer. This is VERY hard for some to learn because an Answerer's general trait is that we enjoy knowing what we are talking about. The urge to have the answer can overcome logic and common sense, causing the Answerer to spout all kinds of nonsense very authoritatively. My housemate does this--he's another Answerer and sometimes we drive each other insane. Conversations between two Answerers are either a dance of careful ettiquette or they degenerate into shouting and epithets. You can always spot intellectually passive Answerers because they deliver pat answers to arcane questions in fields they know nothing about. Answerers with good memories (me) also sometimes have problems because they tend to rely on occasionally faulty memory rather than going and looking things up again. While this saves time, this can also run you intellectually into the weeds. With Questioners around, this can be really humiliating. Intellectually active Answerers learn from their humiliating mistakes and become increasingly careful about their utterances. Passive ones seek to surround themselves with people who never ask questions--they are EXTREMELY touchy about being contradicted and view this as tantamount to an assault.
People don't always fall entirely into one camp or the other, and some switch camps depending on the circumstances. Answerers, from what I've seen, tend to be older people with more life experience to draw on, although this is not always the case. I've ALWAYS been an answerer as far as I can remember, I'm sure my parents will back me up on this. My most common epithet as a child was "know-it-all" and my third-grade teacher found it a little alarming to be corrected in her pronounciation of "pterodactyl" by a seven-year-old.
Answerers also gain a lot of traction on the Internet (particularly in forums), where they can speak and be heard without being interrupted, whereas in real-time communications Questioners tend to hog most of the air time. (This is based on my personal experience, anyway. Your Mileage May Vary.) Intellectually passive Answerers in positions of authority make life miserable for everyone, but the intellectually active ones make reasonably good leaders--but so do intellectually active Questioners. They just differ in approach--the Answerer is decisive and definite, while the Questioner gets ALL the data before making a decision. Thus Answerers are somewhat better leaders in emergencies while Questioners are often better in more static situations.
The only area where I've seen a significant difference is in training--Questioners are godawful at training. Not teaching. Many Questioners are excellent teachers of the Socratic type because the ultimate purpose of teaching isn't to learn specific information but to learn how to approach a given class of problems or problems in general. When they are trying to train you on a specific task, however, they fail miserably, derailing themselves almost instantly into minutae instead of conveying any kind of global or methodical approach to the task. This may just be a result of the fact that I'm not good at memorizing a billion dissociated steps unless I know why I'm doing any given thing, but for training give me an Answerer every time. It works out, though, because Answerers tend to enjoy training. It allows us to show off our vast amounts of Knowledge.
If you're ever in any doubt about whether someone is a Questioner or an Answerer, a single question will set you straight: "Do you have any questions?" The Questioner mentality will probably have a round dozen. An Answerer will most likely stare at you blankly for several seconds and then either say "no, not really" or, at best, offer up some really easy and obvious question to show willing. They expect to figure things out as they go along, which is their usual method anyway.
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