Famous One Questions in history

Apr 15th, 2019

“Did you threaten to overrule him, Mr Howard?”

This question was repeated 12 times by Jeremy Paxman during his interview of former Home Secretary Michael Howard in 1997. Discussing a matter where Howard had fired the former head of the Prison Service, Derek Lewis, Paxman asked a typically direct question. Howard gave many answers around the question but not, even after the twelfth time, directly answering the question at hand.

Single questions have power. Whether they are as direct as those asked by Paxman or as rhetorical as Voltaire’s “If this is the best of possible worlds, what then are the others?”, they do something special: they give space. The phrasing of Paxman’s question gave Howard no room to move – by trying to escape, he simply ended up looking foolish. The phrasing of Voltaire’s question, however, gives us unlimited scope to think; an unlimited scope to be free. Voltaire not only wants us to think about this current, possible world, he invites us to explore the alternatives. It is an incredible question: inviting unlimited space while also being full of tremendous energy. There are so many layers in just 13 simple words.

Conversely, the despair thrown up in response to our contemporary age is startlingly apparent in the question: “…woran liegt es, daß wir noch immer Barbaren find?” German philosopher Friedrich Schiller asks that if we are so enlightened, then how is it that we remain Barbarians? One might look at contemporary geopolitics, or the dystopian effects of social media, or the rampant inequality of our world. These are all legitimate lenses by which to view the question, but in fact Schiller asked it in around 1800 as part of his writings, On the aesthetic education of man. Perhaps, in fact, the clauses of the question have become more detached in 200 years; we now consider ourselves to be more “enlightened” than ever, playing on a global stage where the everpresent backdrop is catastrophic climate change.

Schiller is a rich source of One Questions. A polymath – poet, philosopher, composer – his thinking and writings had a powerful effect on philosophers in the late 20th century such as Michel Foucault. “… but how is the artist to protect himself against the corruption of the age which besets him on all sides?” is a question which, again, invites tension between contemporary hedonism and a more globalised sense of pressure, of self-destruction; it is also somewhat self-referential. If contemporary art – of any age – reflects society, then is it not the job of artists to embed, surround, envelope themselves within the “corruption of the age”? From the Renaissance reflecting the god-fearing masses of the time up to, perhaps, the Naked Shit pictures of Gilbert and George, art has always reflected every corner of society – whether, decadent, corrupt, moralistic or purely hedonistic.

Perhaps a more optimistic question is that set by Swiss philosopher of the 18th century, Jean-Jacque Rousseau – a pioneer of the Enlightenment spreading through Europe. Rousseau’s question, “What good would it be to possess the whole universe if one were its only survivor?” might invite one to play God at first glance, but there are many interpretations beyond that. How would the human race survive? What would happen to one’s sense of memory – and, indeed, one’s sense of the future? An even more contemporary setting could be the web. We possess the whole (digital) universe in our pocket, and often act as if we are its only user – a one-to-one relationship with a virtual world of which we are interacting with just one atom. Maybe if we extended our humanity, our compassion, further across both the physical and digital worlds, we may feel less like scarred survivors and more like eager explorers.

It was Galileo who asked and both the intent and context of this question still resonates today. Human ingenuity is indeed boundless – and perhaps no better demonstrated than by Katie Bouman, the developer of the algorithm that enabled the first ever visualisation of a black hole with the Event Horizon Telescope – funded by a truly global consortium of research institutions. The parameters of what is possible shift back all the time – whether we are consciously aware of their moving or not. And, as a final thought, let’s go all the way back to the beginning and remind ourselves of how ingenuity starts – by enquiry – and how enquiry starts…

By one question.