Philosophical Understanding Comes As Much From The Questions As From The Answers

Excerpt: Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

(Introductory Note: Rainer Maria Rilke was a great poet who had a correspondence over the course of several years with Franz Xaver Kappus, the “young poet” to whom Rilke became a mentor.)

Worpswede, near Bremen, Germany
July 16th, 1903

. . . Very dear Mr. Kappus: I have left a letter from you long unanswered, not that I had forgotten it—on the contrary: . . . When I read it, as now, . . . I am touched by your beautiful concern about life, more even than I had felt it [when I first read your letter] in Paris . . . Here, where an immense country lies about me, over which the winds pass coming from the seas, here I feel that no human being anywhere can answer for you those questions and feelings that deep within them have a life of their own; for even the best err in words when they are meant to mean most delicate and almost inexpressible things . . . You are so young,1 so before all beginning, and I want to beg you, as much as I can, dear sir, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.


Trans. M.D. Herter Norton (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1993), Fourth Letter: 33-35.


The word “philosophy” comes from ancient Greek roots meaning the love (philo) of knowledge or wisdom (sophia). In this letter Rilke suggests that philosophy is also a love of the questions themselves.

Rilke was a great believer in patience, in not rushing natural processes, which can only bear their fruit in their own time. Here he sees spiritual searching as a kind of natural process, which begins with certain deeply felt questions that “have a life of their own” and must not be rushed to answers. If a question has come to us from an honest perplexity and desire to understand, then that question itself is already a great achievement, and Rilke suggests we cherish it. If we are “living” the question, not just as an intellectual problem or puzzle that we are curious to solve, but as something that truly matters to us, then we are already on the road to understanding.

Philosophy may seem to be an endless series of questions, with each suggested answer leading only to more questions. Rilke invites us to see this not as a problem, but as a deep necessity of life, since “no human being anywhere can answer for you” those ultimate questions of life. Even if you could be led right to an answer, still it would not do you any good, and it would not be your answer, unless you could see it with your own eyes--answers "cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them."2 So until the time when we are ready to find an answer ourselves, the best we can do is to contemplate the question.

One of the greatest philosophers of Western thought, Socrates himself, famously claimed to never have reached any answers at all. Perhaps all he ever had were the questions. But to ask the big questions of life, to truly grapple with them, this is already to be a philosopher and to have deepened one's experience of life.



1 Clearly much more is involved here than youth in terms of years, since although Mr. Kappus was indeed very young, at about 20 years of age, still Rilke was only about 8 years older!
2 Emphasis not in the original text.

© 2004 by The Daily Philosopher
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Posted: May 2004

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