When Is an Answer Good?


You have probably heard it said that there are no stupid questions only stupid answers. I do not agree—I think it is a bad truism. Answers come in all different sizes and shapes.† There are long answers and short answers and any length in between. Shapes could include simple, complex, technical, abstruse, whimsical, serious, straight forward, ironic, lame (like excuse), informative, question begging, evasive, or reflective (my favorite). [These terms are obviously not exclusive. Answers can come in multiple shapes.]

How would these shapes and sizes influence whether an answer is good or not, mostly the shape; although size is not negligible. My intention is to look at these types of answers and see how they stack up—are they good, bad, or in between answers. I will also look at how content might affect whether or not an answer is good. I shall wrap up with my own maxim about answers, and how much truth maybe in it.

I will get the size of an answer out of the way first because I find the shapes more interesting. The size of answers should be appropriate to the question. Some questions just require a simple yes or no. Others require a much longer answer, sometimes quite a long one. Some answers are verbose, which can detract from the the substance of an answer. I seem to have this problem on occasion. Optimally, size should be a perfect fit—no more, no less.

So, let us shape things up. First up is the simple answer. Most of these will be on the short side. They are also, or should be, easily understood with perhaps little background knowledge required. These types of answers lack “big” words. And then, there are simple answers, and then there are simple answers. There are simple answers of the adult form, and simple answers of the child form. If a simple answer is appropriate to the question then it would be a good answer. What would be an appropriate answer? The simple example would be something like “is it raining?” asked by me to Bette, who is looking out the window. A good answer would be “yes” and perhaps “yes, it’s pouring.” This complicates things a bit, but it does not make it a complicated one, but its does increase the complexity at the minimum (i.e. it has two components instead of one).

I introduced the complex answer in the previous paragraph, so let me expand on it. The simplest of complex answer takes the form of the above: “yes, . . .”, where the elispse stands for a short sentence. It can be quickly scaled up by adding sentences to sentences. Then there are answers that would be a whole paragraph in written form. And, moving it up considerably, my blog posts, which can contain close to four thousand words with only a few less than a thousand. Finally, there are whole books that try to answer a question—who killed J. F. K.? Whether or not any of these are good answers depends on if they meet the demands of the question asked.

Technical answers use mathematics, jargon, or other specialized forms of notation. They are mostly meant for other people in the same field as those that have asked the question. But, not all technical answers are equal. Some might throw in an equation or two, while others might be nothing but equations. And, where some jargon is explain within the answer, it becomes less technical. Obviously, a technical answer is good if it is correct, or explains what is being asked for. Of course, there maybe shades as when you get partial credit for an answer on a mathematics test.

Then, there are the abstruse answers. According to dictionary.com’s definition for abstruse it means “hard to understand; recondite; esoteric.” I categorize it as gobbledygook as in incomprehensible. Good examples are Martin Heidegger or Jacques Derrida. Or, I label it woo-woo-ness. This is a term used by Daniel Dennett, but to me it means both muddleness and spookiness (e.g. gods, angels, or whatever is supernatural). Examples here would be Deepak Chopra or Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Abstruse answers are bad answers—need I say anymore.

To move away from all these heavy-type answers let us look at the whimsical. Whimsical answers are often on the lighter side with shades of humor. Seriousness is put to bed, and the answer is intended to amuse. It is playful and fanciful. It is often odd. It is usually not mean spirited, but jovial. Whimsical answers are often off the mark, so that information-wise they are not good answers, but not necessarily so. They can also be inappropriate for a more staid mood.

Serious answers could be considered the opposite of whimsical ones. They are more appropriate for situations where humor of any kind is out of place. Serious answers are often straight to the point. You could also call them straight answers (see next), and they should not be evasive (see below). Serious answers are often good ones, providing the content is good, and the situation does not call for some levity.

The straight forward answer is usually short and to the point. No asides or ifs, ands, or buts about it. “Are you going to work today?” is answer straight forwardly “yes.” Or maybe with slight elaboration, “no, I am still feeling sick.” Most of all I would say that this type of answer gives the answer with no extra bells and whistles, unlike this sentence.

The irony of it all. An ironic answer is one which says the opposite of the actual words used. There is some sort of incongruity in what is said. An ironic answer is often said in a sarcastic manner. Consider the answer: “That’s just fantastic!” to the question “Do you mind if we have hot dogs for dinner?” In others words I rather eat mud. The ironic answer can be longer than this example and quite a lot more complex, but I hope you get the picture—out of focus of course. I would say that the ironic answer can be good depending on your purpose. It may serve a better purpose for the answerer rather than the questioner.

A lame answer just does not cut it. It does not do a good job of answering the question; its quality is poor. It may fail to answer the question, or it may be used as an excuse. I few of the excuse type answers are: “I tell you tomorrow.” Or, in the sarcastic mode: “What do you think, I’m a genius.”

Informative answers may be considered the best kind of answer of all—except. Informative answers maybe too technical or complex to do the job at hand. Anyway, when you here the answer you have learned something (maybe not for long), but it may not have been able to answer your question. So, once again content is the main determinator to whether or not an answer is good.

The question begging answer is a non sequitur (or a non-starter for the English equivalent). It is bad through and through—it does not answer the question. It is also evasive. With question begging you assume what you start from. For example, a perfect being exist, therefore god exist. Here a perfect being is already understood as god, so this would not be a valid inference from the premise. Excuse me if this is not the best example, but it is simple, and I think understandable providing that a perfect being is already equated with god, which it often is. It is also a non sequitur because all that is being done is to put another label on the original being. For there could be a perfect being and still not be a god. I mean what would this perfect being do if it is so perfect? Nothing. It needs to do nothing being perfect. And, any god worth the name would have to do something. And, if a perfect being did do something it would no longer be perfect, again it misses the common definition of god. Sorry for the aside, but I just had to stick it in.

A question begging answer is not the only evasive answer. They could be misleading answers. They could also be false promises. “I will clean the kitchen tomorrow” without the least intention to do so. Anyway, whatever else these answers maybe, they do not answer the question, and I call this bad.

My final answer that I mentioned in the first paragraph is the reflective one. However, it can get out of hand and turn into just a rambling answer, which usually does no good. But, good reflective answers are my favorite because they often consider the gray between the black and the white of the one way or another answer. As long as they do not turn into a rambling answer they can be quite useful in the analysis of ideas and concepts, the bread and butter of analytic philosophy.*

I have mentioned content throughout my discussion of the shapes that different answers take. Content is the most important of all qualities an answer takes. Ultimately, the content of answer needs to fit the question. It should not contain any extraneous material. But, I would point out that an answer may serve the answerer’s purpose and not the questioner’s as mentioned above when I talked about the ironic answer. And, I have left out the content of the question, as well as how it is asked; although, this can be important for what counts as a good answer.

Now, that I have talk about some of the types of answers that I think are applicable to what is or is not a good answer, I would like to give you my maxim, which is closest to my heart of all types of answers. However, this should not be taken as monolithic.

The only good answer is one that leads to another question.

The “only” part is admittedly overdone, but I think it sounds better. Maybe, I should say the best answer is one that leads to another question. But even here, this may not be strictly so. A short and succinct answer is sometimes best along with some of the types of answers I touched on above. Perhaps what I mean is a philosophical answer is only good when it leads to another question. After all, I do not believe that philosophy has or should have an end point (see my blog – What Is Philosophy?).

I have also heard from a scientist that a scientific answer (or experimental result) that leads to a new question (or experiment) are the best answers (or results) in science. They are fruitful. You could consider these answers to be the fertilizer and the question is the seed. I cannot remember the scientist who said this, but it was said in opposition to creationism, which does not lead to any fruitful exploration—it is just that god did it—end of the road.

So, where does this leave me? Hopefully with another question.

Baxter, where are you? Meow.

† Maybe on another blog post I will focus on what makes a question good.

*I am not primarily an analytic philosopher, but I do analyse ideas and concepts within what I explore. But, I am happier in the analytic camp. I do not care for the long complicated piece of work that makes it hard to know what it is that the person is actually saying or wanted to say.


5 thoughts on “When Is an Answer Good?

  1. I can’t go along with your maxim in a generalized context but agree wholeheartedly with your proposed alternative, “The only good PHILOSOPHICAL answer is one that leads to another question.” I would have to say that, in general, the best answer is one that doesn’t lead to more questions. But as your essay makes clear, there are plenty of topics that must remain open-ended and that must lead to more questions.



    1. I hope it was clear that I too do not consider the generalized maxim as true. However, I like the way it sounds. To qualify it with philosophy seems to detract from the point of the maxim. Or, maybe I just tend to question most answers. It seems that I often have “a yeah, but,” just not in the negative way I used to.

      Not only can there be stupid questions, there can be stupid answers. There are bad answers in the sense that the do not answer the question, but can still lead to another one.

      Questions are just in my nature (if I have one). I was recently given a tour of Comfort Cases operations. I was the only one out of about a dozen people that ask any questions. One of which is leading to a volunteer job there categorizing books into age groups. I should explain that this organization provides backpacks to foster children moving in with their foster family. Just something to call their own, that is not a bag of used clothes.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The young man who worked and did the tour goes to CBH Life Skills with me. He had told me previously that it the man (maybe, the minister) that started the operation went to his church. We went there as part of CBH’s holiday volunteering activity. Knowing that the man who started it was a Christian, I thought that it might conflict with my beliefs to volunteer if it was a Christian organization. I talk to the young man and he said there was no religious affiliation, and that they even exclude religious books from the backpacks. So, I went. I was willing to override my qualms and went with the group, seeing that it was such a good cause. After I talk to the operations manager about volunteering to sort the books, I went home and googled Comfort Cases and found no religious connections at all. Even if there were, I was willing to think long and hard to see if I could except working for a religious organization. As I said, it is such a good cause, and books are right up my alley.

        Liked by 1 person

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