What Is What?

Eagam Khaling

Once, I had to return home from Kalimpong, and the day I was Tuesday. When I reached Kalimpong-Darjeeling Motors Syndicate, I checked time on my wristwatch. It was 9.5 a.m. I entered the counter of the syndicate to buy a fare ticket. After obtaining one, I sat on a seat in front of the counter, waiting for the vehicle. Some drivers sitting inside the counter were enjoying their type of conversation.

I do not know why at the same time, I suddenly gained some interest in their talk. One of them kiddingly asked the others, “What is what?” Then another one who was sitting beside him gave a quick reply, “The answer is what is what.” A gentleman answered from outside, “What is a question.” All laughed at the man, and I also laughed with them. But on the way, their question-answers continuously occupied my mind, and I started getting many thoughts on analysing their conversation. The sentences they generally spoke out, I thought, could be written in a particular way. I, however, have written their question and answers in the following three sentences:

  1. What is what?
  2. What is what.
  3. What is a question.

In the above, the first sentence is an interrogative sentence (questioning sentence), and the other two sentences are affirmative. In an ordinary view, these sentences might be for a talk or muse, but for philosophers, these types of sentences (statements, propositions, and judgments) have some importance. I was fortunate enough to get a chance to hear such kind of discussion during my traveling and living in various places. This type of talk that the common people do in their place sometimes might become enlightening and inspiring to a silent observer like me. If it is not that interesting, it becomes disturbing for a listener. However, there is no strict principle because we are not some things like bundles of theories. After all, we are social animals.

Now let me come to my objective of this article which is to solve the problem of the talk. I am convinced that this type of talk can take us to two levels. The first level is ‘the talk of common people,’ and the second level is ‘the talk of philosophers.’ There are many differences between the thoughts of common people and philosophers, but sometimes they take questions, problems, and discussions of similar nature. They have equal rights to judge the importance of their arguments for the significance of their talk, although one outside of them has to do it differently.

The talk of the common people (laypersons) might arise from ignorance of the subject matter and the validity of their discussion. But they cannot be blamed for this since the objective and utility of the talk or discussions are different. Here, the first sentence “What is what?” is an interrogative sentence, and the second sentence “What is what.” is an assertive sentence. These two kinds of sentences create some interest in them and take them to their discussion (debate) to find a solution, and they also find a type of amusement in such a kind of discussion. Yes, this can be what I am expressing as the reason behind their talk or might be other reasons too, but as far as I am concerned, this kind of talk is not highly intellectual. They answered the questions in their sentences without being clear about what kind of sentences they were dealing with. For me, they were dealing with interrogative and affirmative sentences and (identical sentences) analytic propositions. To draw a clear picture of their usage of the sentences and deal with the problem, I am trying to clarify it in the Kantian sense. First, I am taking the readers to the Kantian sense only because Immanuel Kant was the first philosopher to make distinctions between a synthetic and analytic proposition (judgments) and its use in his major philosophical programme.

Let us begin with Kant’s example of the analytic judgment—“All bodies are extensive.” In this judgment, we do not go beyond the concept connected with a body to find an extension (as bound up with it). In other words, we merely get the predicate of the judgment by analysing the concept of the subject as a manifold in that concept. But when we say that “all bodies are heavy,” the predicate is something quite different from anything that we think in the mere concept of body, in general. The addition of such a predicate, therefore, gives us a synthetic judgment: (a) In this judgment, the predicate is an addition to the concept of the subject which has not been in any way thought in it, and (b) which is analysis could (possibly) extract from it, and they may therefore entitle ‘implicate’. To add more, we do not include the concept of body in the general predicate ‘weight’. The concept of weight consists of an object of experience through one of its parts, and I can add to another part of the same experience in the way belonging together with the concept. We can analytically apprehend the concept of the body through the characters of extension, impenetrability, and figures (all thought in the concept). From the experience from which we have derived the concept of body is invariably connected with the above character, we add a predicate to the concept. This addition is synthetic and informative, which extends our knowledge (that is, weight). Therefore, the possibility of synthesis of the predicate ‘weight’ with the concept of the body rests upon experience.

Now come to the distinctions between a sentence, proposition, and judgment. According to English grammar, generally, there are five kinds of sentences: assertive sentences (affirmative and negative), interrogative sentences, imperative sentences, optative sentences, and exclamatory sentences. Among them, the only affirmative sentence (of assertive sentence) can transform into a proposition, and if such a proposition is valid of experience, then it becomes a judgment. On this basis, let us observe the above three sentences of our discussion: the first sentence “What is what?” is an interrogative sentence because it asks about the meaning of the word ‘what’, and its punctuation mark (?) is a question mark. We know that an interrogative sentence ends with a question mark and asks something about the predicate. A simple proposition has one subject and one predicate with a verb. The predicate of a simple proposition always says or states something about the subject, or in the Kantian sense, if it adds a piece of new information about the subject, then it is a synthetic proposition; otherwise, it is analytic. The second sentence “What is what.” is an affirmative sentence or analytical proposition because the predicate ‘what’ does not add anything to the meaning of the subject ‘what’ and if we substitute the word ‘what’ with ‘red’, then it becomes an identity sentence like “red is red.” The second sentence of the conversation is the affirmative sentence and analytic proposition. The third sentence of the conversation, “What is a question.” or “What is a questioning word.” is also an affirmative sentence and analytic proposition. Here, though, the predicate changed with a word like ‘question’ (or ‘questioning word’) does not add anything to the meaning of the subject and gives any new information to the subject. In these kinds of sentences, all the answers of the interrogative sentences end in affirmative sentences of identity and analytic propositions. The meaning of the predicate is already implied in the concept of the subject and included in it. The other examples similar to the sentence “What is what.” are “My father is a man.” and “All bodies are extended.” According to Kant, an analytic proposition is always governed by the Principle of Contradiction (A sentence, at the same time, cannot be both true and false). For example, “My father is not a man.” would be similar to “My mother is barren.” and self-contradictory. The sentences like “What is what.” and “A is equal to A.” are almost like tautological propositions because, beyond the meanings of predicates, they do not say much about the truth and falsity of the sentences.

We find other similar types of questions that equally pull the interests of common people and intellectuals bearing equal rights over the questions. The only difference is (a matter of) understanding the questions they practically do deal with. Thus, with the hope that I shall be able to write something more and bring them out to the readers very soon, I would like to conclude by saying that “What is what?” is an interrogative sentence, and the two answers to it—“What is what.” and “What is a question.” are identity and analytic sentences.

[Eagam Khaling hails from Darjeeling. He has published an anthology of poems in 2001. Since then he has been publishing his poems in local, national and international journals (and e-sites). He is a teacher and a research scholar at the Department of Philosophy of North Bengal University.]