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How to Ask Questions and Alienate People: Is Playing Devil’s Advocate Morally Defensible?

This is a guest post by Avril Tynan, a postdoctoral researcher at the Turku Institute for Advanced Studies in Finland.

It often seems that asking questions is an infallible activity. When we ask questions we demonstrate curiosity; it’s how we learn and understand; in universities we encourage students to ask questions, to interrogate data and theories and to challenge conventional approaches. When we ask how, why, when, where and who, we illuminate the grey areas of our knowledge and understanding, and we may even stumble upon new information and fresh perspectives. But asking questions can be damaging, disrespectful and even dangerous, particularly when the objective is not to understand, but rather to undermine.

At a recent online symposium in which I discussed philosophical and literary perspectives on interpretation, I was countered with the claim that, “asking questions is always a good thing.” But personally, I’m not so sure. Asking questions is essentially an art of interpretation: like a text with innumerable interpretative possibilities, it is of course possible to interrogate every facet of the world and to ask questions endlessly. But is it always morally responsible to do so? Does asking questions always contribute to debate, or can it be a way of subverting and rerouting discussion away from certain issues and (back) towards others? For those of us living in democratic countries, and where freedom of speech is an assumed and somewhat inconspicuous value, the legal right to ask questions often overshadows the moral responsibilities of those who ask them.

The long history of hermeneutic philosophy encourages a debate with just such a prickly subject because it engages with the slipperiness of interpretation itself as a dialectic between asking questions, drawing answers, and then asking more questions. It is also a field of research that has long been involved in discussions of the moral and epistemological values of over- and under-interpretation. In Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, the founding father of psychoanalysis argues that dreams elude a definitive reading and are always “open to more than a single interpretation”. Any one interpretation – albeit it complete and plausible – is just that, one interpretation which may be challenged, complemented, or continued by any other. He argues that it is crucial to provoke any interpretation that appears finite and final as only one possible outcome of dream analysis. For Freud, the more questions the interpreter asks of the dream, the greater the understanding.

For other philosophers, however, Freud’s insistence that the dream be subjected to such interrogation invariably leads to inaccuracies and even oversights when the original dream is distorted under the weight of endless interpretation. One such criticism is levelled by Paul Ricoeur in terms of what he calls a hermeneutics of suspicion. This is when the reader’s “willingness to listen” is overshadowed by a “willingness to suspect” that accuses the text of deceit and discrepancy (see also Susan Sontag’s “Against Interpretation”).

Such criticisms of over-interpretation challenge the value of asking questions – of dreams or of texts and artworks – when the act itself ultimately detracts from the original source. These philosophers agree – however obliquely – that never-ending interpretation may result in the chance illumination of as-yet-unresolved mystery; but it is ultimately more likely that endless interpretation leads to distrust, distraction and deformation of the source. In Critical Excess, Colin Davis recognizes the prolific risks that we “read in” to the text only what one expects or wants to find, but he distinguishes over-interpretation from a hermeneutics of suspicion as a “hermeneutics of conviction”: “an unshakeable faith that the text knows something that it will reveal to us if only we ask it in the right way” (emphasis mine). The ability to ask “in the right way” is precisely what concerns me here and what should be scrutinized more openly in everyday spaces, including in social media and the presses. Interpretation may ultimately “run rampant,” Davis cautions, so that “what is said covers over what is not said”. Eventually, interpretation may not illuminate a dream or a text but further obscure it.

This is a concern that I believe is commonly raised when topics such as womxn’s rights and racism are brought to the table. “Just for argument’s sake…” or “Just to play Devil’s advocate for a minute…” often introduce privileged voices who pose questions that do not advance discussion but hope to censor it. As Gabrielle Kassel has written: “The problem is that people aren’t typically using the devil’s advocate strategy to further the conversation. Instead, it’s often used as a method to silence those whose opinions, beliefs, or experiences don’t align with their own”. When people play devil’s advocate, their aims are typically not to illuminate a topic, a perspective, or an issue, but rather to obscure it, to redirect attention away from the subject at hand and silence subaltern voices by asking questions:

You ask those of us who are knowledgeable on the subject to explain it to you again and again because in this world it is harder for you to believe that maybe the deck is stacked in your favor than to think of us as lazy, whining, or liars. (Britto Schwartz)

The devil’s advocate asks questions – often a lot of questions – but not because they are interested in the answers. Questions are a form of noise that silence discourse, and those who play devil’s advocate are often doing little more than providing a platform for their own voices rather than entering into meaningful dialogue: their questions aim to slow the debate, to redirect it, to conceal it.

My argument here is not, of course, to arbitrarily dismiss or condemn all practices of asking questions. Like over-interpretation, the endless possibilities of questioning open up new spaces for understanding, knowledge and creativity. Asking questions disrupts the status quo and may shine light on previously unknown and undiscovered avenues for thought and discussion. But asking questions is tied up with a moral responsibility to engage in dialogue rather than to disrupt it.

So ask away, but exercise caution, because the devil himself is very fond of questions.



Avril Tynan is a postdoctoral researcher in comparative literature and critical medical humanities at the Turku Institute for Advanced Studies in Finland. She has published widely on the roles of narrative and ethics in the representation of ageing, illness and death in French and Anglophone literature. Her current research examines experiences of diagnosis and recovery from narrative, phenomenological and aesthetic perspectives. She is co-editor of Storyworlds: A Journal of Narrative Studies and co-organizer of the SELMA Medical Humanities Seminar Series. (Twitter @avitynan)


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1 Comment

  1. louis larue

    Thanks for this interesting post! I’d like to share another post with you (if I may) with practical suggestions on how to ask questions at a seminar:
    These suggestions were useful to me, at least!

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