Lani Watson is a philosopher at the University of Oxford, working in applied epistemology with a focus on the philosophy of questions. She is also co-founder of The QSM, a professional consultancy delivering training and development for better questioning.
I spoke to Lani to learn about her research, her experience of running the OPEN Scotland public philosophy network, and her recent work with The QSM.
Lani Watson. Image by Lani Watson.
Ciaran: Hi Lani, good to meet you! So to start, could you tell me about your personal and philosophical background?
Lani: Sure, so I am an epistemologist and my area is the study of questions and questioning. I explore how questions and questioning relate to epistemic goods like knowledge, understanding, information and truth. I am interested in the specific act of asking a question, the practice of questioning, and how questions help us to come to know things as well as how they determine the things that we end up knowing. I'm trained in epistemology - virtue, social and political epistemology - but it's all about how to best get at this basic act that I'm interested in, which is in essence a sort of reaching out into the universe to try and find things out.
I previously ran a public philosophy network called OPEN Scotland, which stood for ‘Online Philosophy and Education Network’. It was a project aimed at improving the quality and quantity of philosophy in Scottish schools and communities. That ran from 2015 to 2020 when I moved down to Oxford. I'm not actively running the network at this point and so far nobody has offered to take the reins but I do hope to go back to Edinburgh, ultimately, and pick it up again. The website is still up and I'm hoping it will regain momentum at some point in the future, but it is on the back burner at the moment.
The work I'm doing now down in Oxford is directed towards business and industry. My research is still around the topic of questions and questioning within the context of epistemology so I’m still very much interested in how we ask questions, why we ask questions, why it's valuable and useful to be good at asking questions, and how we can get better at asking questions in different situations. Classrooms were the starting point for much of this research but over the past few years I’ve become interested in workplaces more generally.
Ciaran: People's philosophical backgrounds will often play a role in their public philosophical work and yours seems so pertinent. Did that research focus play a role in how you came to be interested in doing public philosophy?
Lani: Yeah, I think I actually don't particularly separate them in my mind. I think the reason that I'm interested in questions and questioning has a lot to do with the way that I conceive of philosophy as an activity that goes on at some point or other in our daily lives. A lot of the time that really is about people asking and re-asking questions. So in many ways, I guess when I started researching questions and questioning, it became very clear to me very quickly that I wasn't going to be able to do that research in a way that felt authentic if... I felt like I couldn't do it with any real integrity without actually just going out into the world, as it were, and trying to see how people are using the tool of questioning in their daily lives and in their intellectual pursuits and in learning and in classrooms. How are we using this tool? And it seems like the two crossover: it would be hard to have that research focus on questions and questioning without also engaging with the way that people - me included - actually ask and answer questions.
Ciaran: Indeed! It sounds like your work really brings out how asking philosophical questions is a very everyday activity; it's a very human thing to do. You're cutting to the core of the activity of philosophy itself.
Lani: Right, and I think the weird thing about studying questions is that the topic has attracted so little attention in the history of philosophy as an explicit subject. That genuinely shocked me when I was first looking into this. I was expecting to find tonnes of research and thinking about questions and questioning, but what I actually found is, much more recently over the last 100 years or so, that there's an area of it in the philosophy of language and logic and a little bit in the philosophy of science and then creeping around a little bit into epistemology. Until very, very recently, this has all been focused on formal analysis of questions and questioning; the semantics, the pragmatics, the syntax, and the logical form. So, there is a way of studying questions that detaches it completely from its practice, and that's just not at all what I'm interested in. It has informed me but it's not what I'm interested in at core.
Ciaran: So before we move on to your current focus, could you explain a little more about OPEN Scotland?
Lani: So, it got set up as a result of noticing that there's so much exciting public philosophy going on in Scotland. There's all these pockets of really exciting activity of doing philosophy in schools and communities. There are all sorts of initiatives and philosophers going into schools, or education specialists going into schools and training teachers to do philosophy in schools, teachers and headteachers and whole schools that are taking up philosophical methods as part of their teaching. There's also pockets of public philosophy in the form of philosophy talks with the public, but also philosophy discussion groups in cafes, or philosophy stand-up at the Edinburgh Fringe. There are also a couple of different philosophy in prison initiatives in Scotland too.
It just seemed to me like there's a lot of this really exciting stuff going on but it didn’t have a unified representation with a view to making the case for improving the quality and quantity of philosophy, particularly in Scottish schools and in the curriculum. It seemed like it'd be great to be able to give a unified front to all of these activities, bring people together, and then under one kind of network, go forward and represent the case for doing philosophy in schools and in communities and in public spaces.
Ciaran: That emphasis on networking is so important. Some of the most established public philosophy work, in the US, seems to have thrived because of that attention to networking, with people like the Society of Philosophers in America and the Public Philosophy Network. When I speak to people in the UK about their public philosophical work they are sometimes less aware of what others are doing here. Speaking to people in the US it seems like that awareness and subsequent sharing of experience across forms of public philosophy has been really beneficial.
You've mentioned that there were already lots of public philosophy activities in place prior to setting up. What do you think it is about life in Scotland at the moment, or Scottish society, which means that the conditions were good for getting OPEN Scotland and this wider work off the ground?
Lani: I think that people who are spending their lives doing philosophy, professionally or otherwise, are changed by it in an often positive way. It gives you a whole bunch of tools for thinking about and approaching the world, and approaching your own life and reflecting on your own life, that are incredibly valuable for you and for other people. Certainly, in my experience, if you are spending a lot of time and seeing a huge amount of value from doing philosophy yourself, it's kind of natural to want to send it out into the world and in particular in an educational enterprise, whether that's formally in classrooms or less formally in public discourse and in public spaces. There's maybe a motivation, an intrinsic drive to want to share those tools and those resources that are valuable for you with other people, because they can benefit from those resources as well.
I think there might be a certain urgency or a feeling right now about doing that, that perhaps wasn't around 10 years ago, but 10 years ago there were quite a lot of these philosophy initiatives in place, and the reason for that isn't just directly tied to the kind of political climate right now. I think it's got something more to do with how valuable these kinds of skills actually are when you understand how you can use them for your own self-worth.
Image by Lani Watson.
Ciaran: I'd not thought about that before, where people who've experienced the value of doing philosophy might then have a desire to share that with other people.
Lani: For me, personally, I'm incredibly frustrated by the kind of identity crisis that we're in with respect to philosophy, such that these skills in thinking and reflective practices that I find incredibly valuable are completely hidden under two and a half thousand years of old white guys with beards trying to make things seem as complicated and esoteric and difficult and abstract as possible. I feel a really strong urge to try to undermine this idea of philosophy as a kind of esoteric activity that you can only engage in once you're sitting in an ivory tower. Of course, public philosophy's a lot about that. But I think it's that combination that is particularly frustrating: dedicating your life to something which you genuinely feel to be of value to you, let alone anyone else, and then being faced with this problem of identity, where philosophy has done such a bad job of representing itself as useful to anyone outside of the academy. The result then is that those people just don't engage, but then why would they? Why would they engage with something that looked and seemed like that? I guess there's a kind of tension there that might actually result in a flurry of activity!
Ciaran: Did running OPEN Scotland change the way you thought about doing philosophy?
Lani: I think I probably wasn’t of a mind to think of it as separate from my research at the time anyway. So, for example, when I first started researching questions, I very quickly set up a survey online on my personal professional website that people could take, which is really just about finding out what people think a question is. I did that because it just seemed to me completely impossible to come up with anything really valuable to say about what a question is without consulting people that are actually asking questions to tell me what they think. Fortunately, it had over 6,000 responses! I don't know if that is public philosophy but it's engaging the public in the philosophy that I am doing. It was also absolutely integral to what I was actually saying. So, it's a kind of mix of the two.
In terms of the public activities that I've been involved with since I've been doing philosophy as an academic, it's been writing public philosophy, presenting in public forums, coordinating the network, doing philosophy myself in schools, and more recently doing philosophical consultancy with businesses and organisations. All of those activities are driven by the fact that I feel passionate about trying to send philosophy out into the world where it actually is, instead of keeping it inside the academies where it's been locked up. So, I think doing public philosophy in these different forms, it just consistently shows me how passionately and strongly I genuinely believe that it can actually be a good thing in the world and make improvements and changes that we should all be taking advantage of and could if it had the kind of representation that it requires.
Ciaran: Was there a project that really stuck out for you from running OPEN Scotland? Perhaps any that changed the way you thought about what it means to do philosophy?
Lani: Yeah, I can think of the perfect example. There's an initiative that was originally called the John Stuart Mill Cup - it’s now called the Ethics Cup and it's based at St. Andrews University, run by a guy called Ben Sachs in the faculty there. It's essentially a high school debating competition, with high schools from across the UK taking part. They get sent out a bunch of prompts and questions to prepare in teams, with the help of a teacher, and then the teams come up to St. Andrews to visit the university in June and engage in a whole day of philosophical debate. It builds up to the final round and then there's a champion at the end. I have been a judge at the competition and the thing that really struck me about it, which ties into my own research but also work on philosophy in schools and in general with the public, was that the assessment criteria for the competition are very much about promoting civil dialogue, open-minded exchange and respectful discussion. So, from the judges’ point of view, it’s very difficult given the assessment criteria to do anything but reward those kinds of civil exchanges, rather than rewarding completely honed logical inferences or, you know, strict, brilliant argumentation, or even very confident rhetoric.
It was just done in such a way that it made it very difficult to do anything but actually assess for and reward places where the students were being genuinely open-minded to the other team's position. They had to actually take on board what other teams had to say and respond to it, trying to improve each other's positions, so that they ended up both coming out with a more defensible position than the one they went into with. It's just really well done. I think that absolutely captures the type of thing that I think is valuable about doing philosophy outside of the academy because these kids have had to prepare for this meaning that they were literally sitting in their classroom, back in their schools, trying to work out how to best engage in respectful dialogue with someone they are meant to be disagreeing with. I mean, what a brilliant thing to be doing!
Ciaran: That's fantastic and chimes with what you were saying earlier. Quite understandably, there is for many a stock image of philosophy as having a very combative approach and it's not that there's anything wrong with being very logically rigorous and all the rest, and good philosophy should try to do that, but as you say it's also balancing that with encouraging these other virtues of good discussion.
Lani: You know, these kids discuss really complex moral, social, political issues about which people genuinely do disagree, and tight logic is only going to get you so far when you're actually having a genuine moral debate with someone who disagrees with you.
Ciaran: Definitely. Whether it's in academia or outside of it, I think people's experiences of philosophy are impoverished when those other sides as represented in the Cup aren't present. So could you tell me more about the work you are currently doing in workplaces?
Lani: So the work now, with my colleague Ian Robson, is based around going into workplaces and helping people to make the most out of good questioning in various ways. We divide it up in terms of structured questioning and unstructured questioning. So structured questioning is things like surveys or interview questions, or a set of coaching questions, or a set of questions for an internal HR process, like a progress review. Anywhere where questions are getting written down, which you can't change, where you're trying to get information out of an individual or, more often, a group. Whether that’s your employees, your team, your customers, your clients and so on. So focus groups, market research, anything like that where you're writing the questions down, that's what we call structured questioning. Unstructured questioning is everything else: anytime you're asking a question, or about to go into a context where you're going to be asking questions. It might be a marketing meeting, or it might be in a sales pitch, or it might be in a conversation with your boss, or a conversation with your line manager and so on. Anytime that you're in a situation where you might be asking questions in an unstructured way, that's a different set of scenarios in which we use questions.
In both of these contexts, we're interested in helping people to get the most out of the questions. So that either you get the information you need to make good decisions and action changes, or so that you build relationships, increase collaboration among team members, or give others more power and representation. A lot of the stuff I'm thinking about at the moment is around the relationship between questions and power. How the person asking the questions in an interaction usually has the power in that interaction and how we can use that to empower other people by giving them opportunities to ask questions and the tools to ask questions.
All this is centred on an assessment tool, which is called the Questioning Strengths Assessment. That's what we developed during the pandemic. Through a bunch of pilots we've got a measure - a psychometric tool, a self assessment tool like Myers Briggs. We ultimately got it up to a point where it was validated by empirical methods, and so now we are using that to identify what we call 'questioning strengths'. There's nine of these. So when you take the assessment, you get a profile of your questioning strengths as individuals. It might say, for example, that you score 5.5 as an 'Interrogator', 8 as an 'Engager' and 2 as an 'Inquirer'. Each of these is a score out of 10. When these are all combined in the report, you get an insight into your own unique approach to questioning. Then the idea is that we're working with people, typically in workplace settings, to help them use and adapt their approach to questioning to get the most out of all the questions they are asking in different contexts, and using in surveys and interviews and so on.
Some of the strengths are particularly good for problem solving, for example. Others are particularly good for relationship building. It might be that you are inclined to ask really engaging, relationship building questions, when actually you need to ask really straightforward, simple inquiring questions. It's about learning about the different strengths and then working out how to move between them according to different contexts and different needs, in order to make the most out of questions. That's kind of the basis and then there's loads of resources that we're developing and courses and workshops and techniques and games. Everything basically to do with good questioning, all based on the last 10 years of my research and Ian’s 30 years of experience in business.
Image by Lani Watson.
Ciaran: It's a really interesting programme of work. I love that distinction between structured and unstructured questions. The written down, set questioning and the lived questioning of just talking to each other. How did you end up thinking about applying your research in this context specifically?
Lani: I think it's driven by an interest in the diversity within it. The workplace context is extremely diverse, lots and lots of different types of challenges. This is true within an education context, where I originally conducted a lot of my research; that's a very rich and challenging context. But they have different processes for questions. Parent-teacher evenings involve questions, and surveys get sent out to parents for what they want their kids to eat in the school canteen, all of these things. But the primary context is the classroom and in that context, that is quite a specific dynamic, between a student and teacher. Most of my work there has been around looking at the relationship between student questioning and teacher questioning, but it leads into this power question, right? Because one of the most consistent things I've observed, and that has been reported by teachers, is that they are trying actively to get students to ask questions in classrooms, such that the power dynamic in the classroom shifts towards the students in a helpful way. And not just towards the students and away from the teacher, but also among peer groups so that it's sort of a leveller. Everybody's just asking questions and there's no expectation that you must have all the answers. That's why the power dynamic is so deeply entwined with questions and answers.
There's this idea that if you're the one that has the answers, you're the one that's in the position of power. But actually, I think it's completely the other way round. Usually, if you're the one that is required to answer, you're the one that's not in the position of power. In an interview context, that's exactly the dynamic that you have. It's the people behind the panel, behind the desk, that are asking the questions, and it's the person being interviewed that's required to answer. In a classroom, if it's the teacher asking the questions, and the students are required to answer, it's the teacher that has the power in that dynamic, but you can give it to the students or you can give it to the person being interviewed. You can also give it to someone who you're managing. You can give them that opportunity, give them the expectation that they will ask questions, and provide them with the skills to ask questions.
The way that these questioning dynamics play out in classrooms, has led me to think about the way they operate in a million other contexts where we are asking questions out in the world, in our day-to-day lives, in work. Even think about customer satisfaction surveys, who's got the power there? How much more could a company learn about the customer experience if they got customers in any room to ask a bunch of questions, instead of customers being asked a bunch of questions by a company? It would completely change the kind of information that you would gather by flipping the interaction and the power in that context.
"The way that these questioning dynamics play out in classrooms, has led me to think about the way they operate in a million other contexts where we are asking questions out in the world, in our day-to-day lives, in work.."
Ciaran: One of the big things that can comes up when thinking about philosophy in the workplace is the association that philosophy, and inquiry more generally, has of being 'nice' but detached from the concrete and the practical; the kind of the immediacy of workplace environments where there is no time for that kind of questioning, reflection and so on. The way you're talking about philosophy in the workplace is so granular, I would be astonished if anyone thought that was the case here. But I'd be interested to hear your thoughts there: have you thought about this traditional association of questioning or reflection being a 'head in the clouds' activity?
Lani: I made a conscious decision to foreground questioning and it is authentic to my work, because that is what I research and think about and talk about and publish on. But it's very much a way of getting philosophy in through the back door at companies and in organisations, I think. One of the most interesting techniques that I've developed is called 'assumption mining'. It's about looking at a question and then unpicking the assumption. So a really simple way to do that is, you take a question like 'how can we roll out the strategy in the fastest possible way?' or something like that. Then you take off the first word and you end up with a new question: 'can we roll out the strategy in the fastest possible way?' Then you can start going, 'should we...?' So you're starting to mine the assumptions, or presuppositions, that are in your question.
I bring this up because I think it's a really good case in point. It's so clear that you're doing philosophy at that point - you're getting someone to really look critically and analytically at the presuppositions and the assumptions in their thinking, and interrogate those, instead of going straight towards an answer. If nothing else, philosophers are happy sitting with questions and trying out answers but then returning to questions. That's why we haven't exactly ‘answered’ the fundamental questions, because we're interested in working with the questions and seeing value in that process of working only with the question. There is so much in the world in general, and in workplaces it's perhaps particularly true, there's this absolute urgency to move straight towards answers, or straight towards solving problems, and then failing to spend time to consider, are we actually asking the right question? Is this a problem? Do we even really understand the problem we're trying to solve?
That is going to be a really familiar experience to anyone who's sat in a boardroom, or a team meeting, trying to solve a problem. You so often get to a point where someone goes, "Oh, actually, I'm not sure that's really the nub of the problem. It's actually here." If you spend time mining the assumptions you're fixing the problem before it really gets off the ground. And that is doing philosophy. But through the back door, yeah! Hopefully, when you frame it in that way, it just doesn't raise the issue of whether this is connected to everyday life. In my view, philosophy is only applied in this way. It is just a way of thinking, right? How can you not be applying that all the time. But obviously, it's got this incredible identity crisis as I said, where for the last two and a half thousand years people have been trying to make it really difficult to get hold of philosophy. So we have to try to overturn that. Sneaking it in through the backdoor by talking about questions is my way of doing that.
Ciaran: I think that example really illustrates the value, as you say. Everyone recognises those situations. And it's not a case of having to apply something insomuch as the philosophy it's already there. A driving question for me at the moment is what public philosophy says about the space for reflection in our lives today. What do you feel your work in workplaces is telling you on that front?
Lani: I think that's a really interesting thing to be focusing on and drawing out of this. Philosophy is an amazing tool for reflection. I think when you are doing philosophy on a daily basis, or being a philosopher in some sense - your identity, your profession or whatever - it's impossible not to take for granted the amount of opportunity for reflection that you therefore have in your day to day life. Even in the pandemic (perhaps particularly over the pandemic) when we've been running workshops and sessions online, which could be 90 minutes or longer with a team, the comments at the end are so much about the novelty of doing something like this. That and the space it provides for people, partly because it's a novel thing to be doing, to take a step back.
I really want to embed that more deeply into an organisation or a workplace for people; much more deeply than just coming and doing a 90-minute workshop or doing a half day course. The idea is that you can then take those tools away and just keep practising, because that's what you need to do to get good at anything, any thinking habit. Take the tools away and use them. Then you get all these little micro moments of reflection in your day, simply by taking a moment and thinking, hang on, I need to find something out here, let me just think for five minutes or three minutes about what I really am trying to find out when I go into this meeting with my boss, or when I go into this client call or whatever it is. Hopefully, again slightly through the back door, you're dropping this little opportunity that can happen at any point throughout the day for people to take a moment to do a bit of metacognition, a bit of reflexivity. But with a simple tool, which is focused on questioning.
Image by Lani Watson.
Ciaran: I can see from the examples you described just how naturally it would fit in. It needs practice but it's not requiring too much from people. With the assumption mining I can really see that; it's so visceral, how that could fit into real conversation.
Lani: Right? And that gets super deep, man. Like, you start off just taking off a word, but then you're right down into... Sometimes we talk about it like those Matryoshka dolls that are all contained within each other. The tiny little one in the middle can be a really, really metaphysical, assumption. Ultimately, you're making all sorts of assumptions when you ask a question: you're assuming that there is an external reality that we can rely on, you're usually assuming there's temporal consciousness, and that there's space! You can get so deep into those assumptions. Usually, you don't need to mine that far in order to do a bit of reflection in your day, but it can be amazing where it ends up.
Ciaran: From all the public philosophy work you’ve been involved in, do you feel it has changed you at all?
Lani: It would be such a shame if someone engaged in this kind of thing and it didn't change them! Because I'm interested in intellectual character traits like open-mindedness, intellectual humility, curiosity and inquisitiveness, I hope that engaging in philosophy with different groups of people that aren't necessarily academic philosophers is improving my intellectual character. That can be just by virtue of what other people have to offer in terms of different perspectives and different ways of doing philosophy and different ways of thinking about the types of problems that come up when we're doing philosophy in an academic setting. It is absolutely having an effect on my ability to think things through in an intellectually virtuous way. I guess in particular, given that I'm constantly going on about questions and questioning, I feel a certain pressure to be relatively good at asking them! So maybe, as a result of chronically over observing my questioning and other people's questioning, I hope that my questioning has improved over time. There's a way to go, I'm sure, but I think having such a sort of clear focus on question-asking makes me much more aware of the types of questions I'm asking and as a result, hopefully makes me better at questioning.
Ciaran: Thanks Lani, it’s been brilliant to hear about your work.
Lani: No worries!