I am looking for a word or phrase to describe the act of discovering truth by asking questions, in the sense that Einstein meant when he said:

If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask….

If possible, the phrase should further carry the connotation of implied danger, personal or professional, such as a scientist (or even, a child) asking what seems to be an radically unpopular question--like Galileo when he asked himself if the Sun actually did turn around the Earth; or an independent Russian journalist asking publically if the deaths of Putin´s top military commanders is evidence that the Kremlin leader is getting rid of witnesses to his crimes … a trial lawyer arguing a politically charged case and cross-examining a powerful figure, like Darrow and Bryan in the Scopes trial… an artist like Picasso wondering why a three dimensional figure could not be rendered one-dimensionally with single dimension media.

I am looking for a companion word for Parrhesia, in the Michel Foucalt definition:

…parrhesia is a verbal activity in which a speaker expresses his personal relationship to truth, and risks his life because he recognizes truth-telling as a duty to improve or help other people (as well as himself). In parrhesia, the speaker uses his freedom and chooses frankness instead of persuasion, truth instead of falsehood or silence, the risk of death instead of life and security, criticism instead of flattery, and moral duty instead of self-interest and moral apathy.

I am not looking for "rhetorical question", or "research", or "investigation", or "maieutics". Socratic method is not on the menu here. (After all, he denied questioning the gods.)

I am not even sure if this word exists, but I think it may become important in the near future, in this post-truth new reality, when merely declaring truth is no longer sufficient.

  • Related is the phrase "Speaking truth to power". Every source I've read on this indicates it's a fairly new phrase. You're looking for a mashup of this phrase and push-polling (attempt to influence your audience by asking a question) and/or rhetorical questions as you mention. As such, I really don't think there's going to be a single word to encompass even half of the nuance you've given. Feel free to coin your own word or phrase!
    – Patrick M
    Dec 12, 2016 at 23:05
  • @PatrickM Actually, I am not really looking for a " mashup of this phrase and push-polling (attempt to influence your audience by asking a question)"; I am seriously looking for a word to describe "the search for truth"--regardless of where it goes. Dec 12, 2016 at 23:17
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    @Cascabel, is there a reason why questioning doesn't work? It has connotations of challenging (authority, the status quo, received wisdom, what one has been told, etc.) which is inherently somewhat risky.
    – 1006a
    Dec 13, 2016 at 4:33
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    The elephant in the room.
    – Lawrence
    Dec 13, 2016 at 8:55
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    What you describe could be called, in verb form, paradigm-busting, or paradigm-challenging; in noun form, a paradigm buster, or a paradigm challenger. Challenging the status quo as, for example. Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis did in mid-19th century Hungary took chutzpah, to be sure. Read about it here: pbs.org/newshour/updates/…. It's well worth the read! Don Feb 26, 2017 at 1:48

2 Answers 2


I think we may need to repurpose an existing word. I've been searching for such a word with adequate connotations and historic usage to suggest what you describe.

I offer heresiarchy, or a similar form such as heresiarch, turning toward its etymology more than its primary usage:

he·re·si·arch (hə-rē'zē-ärk′, hĕr'ĭ-sē-) n. One who originates or is the chief proponent of a heresy or heretical movement.

Following to the 2nd sense of heresy: a) A controversial or unorthodox opinion or doctrine, as in politics, philosophy, or science. b) Adherence to such controversial or unorthodox opinion.

(American Heritage Dictionary)

Etymonline states "The Latin word is from Greek hairesis 'a taking or choosing for oneself, a choice, a means of taking; a deliberate plan, purpose; philosophical sect, school,' from haireisthai 'take, seize,' middle voice of hairein 'to choose'."

In my personal view, the questions we have the clarity and courage to formulate are often the first step toward a "choosing for oneself". This tightly links questioning with self-determination. Questions lead to assertions, then to challenges against an established social order (not just a religion). Those who take this path risk the label of a "heretic", though in modern usage "heretic" and "heresy" are more figurative and far less pejorative. (And the danger is usually to one's reputation, not to life or well-being.)

This usage of "heresiarchy" by Kim Stanley Robinson in Galileo's Dream (a 2009 sci-fi / historical fiction work) may be applicable, describing the "categories" of heresy in progressing severity:

from slight suspicion of heresy . . . to heresy . . . to heresiarchy, which meant not only being a heretic but inciting others to heresy as well.

I interpret "heresiarchy" as the most extreme form of heresy – that which risks danger, as stated in the OP's question. (See the Etymonline entries containing arkhos, which gave rise to arch/archi/archy as both a prefix and suffix.)

Below are a few historic contexts I found of "heresiarch", associated with people who are emblematic of revolutionary potential, or risking personal danger:

  1. ". . . implicitly labeled Galileo as the worst kind of heretic, a founder of a sect and therefore an inventor of heresies, a heresiarch."
    • The Roman Inquisition: Trying Galileo, Thomas F. Mayer, 2015, see Google Books.
  2. ". . . he thoroughly blackens the status of theologians and says that that heresiarch Luther is a holy man, and that it is not surprising if Luther errs in some matters, since saints such as Augustine, Jerome and others also erred."
    • Quoted in Clément Marot: a Renaissance Poet Discovers the Gospel, M.A. Screech, 1994, see Google Books.
  3. "Leaving the place he had considered the Mecca of physics was as much a confession of failure to him as it was the act of a heresiarch to the faithful at the Cavendish." [Meaning Cavendish Laboratory in the Department of Physics at Cambridge University.]
    • Love, Literature and the Quantum Atom: Niels Bohr's 1913 Trilogy Revisited, Aaserud and Heilbron, published 2013 – a figurative modern usage describing the 20th century physicist Niels Bohr. See Google Books; note that Einstein also appears in this context, and Einstein was quoted by the OP.
  4. "In order to achieve such an upset of power relations at the heart of the philosophical field, and give a form of respectability to stances that were heretical . . . Heidegger had to combine the 'revolutionary' dispositions of a rebel with the specific authority granted by the accumulation of a considerable capital within the field itself. . . prophets, as Weber observed in the case of ancient Judaism and of heresiarchs in general, are often defectors from the priestly caste. . ."
    • The Political Ontology of Martin Heidegger, Pierre Bourdieu, 1991, see Google Books.

The last is a wise observation; note that Martin Luther, Giordano Bruno, and Erasmus were all Catholic priests who challenged the Church's authority from within their "caste".

I recognize that the single word heresiarchy may be an imperfect answer, as it doesn't clearly and exclusively signify the act of questioning. Heresy often consists of strong, unyielding assertions – it is statement, not inquiry. However, the OP muses that in our current era, "merely declaring truth is no longer sufficient."

I'd like someone to discover a less obscure and academic name for “the act of asking a dangerous question”. I believe that heresiarchy could do in a philosophical work, but I doubt it would be readily adopted by others. I'm curious for feedback.


Nietzsche -- from whom Foucalt learned (or stole) a great deal -- describes the act of asking dangerous questions as hardness. Among other things, he thought that the greatness of a person was measured by how much truth they could stand. In The Antichrist, he said:

"Service of the truth is the hardest service." [A 50]

And in the Gay Science, he challenged others to "live dangerously" when it came to acquiring knowledge:

"For believe me, the secret for harvesting from existence the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment is to live dangerously! Build your cities on the slope of Vesuvius! Send your ships into unexplored seas! Live in war with your equals and with yourselves! Be robbers and spoilers, you knowing ones, as long as you cannot be rulers and possessors! The time will soon pass when you can be satisfied to live like timorous deer concealed in the forests. Knowledge will finally stretch out her hand for that which belongs to her: she means to rule and possess, and you with her!" [GS 283]

My suggested answer is hardness, which is inherently dangerous.

Addendum: In response to comment:

Some men are born posthumously. The conditions under which anyone understands me, and necessarily understands me I know them only too well. Even to endure my seriousness, my passion, he must carry intellectual integrity to the verge of hardness. He must be accustomed to living on mountain tops and to looking upon the wretched gabble of politics and nationalism as beneath him. He must have become indifferent; he must never ask of the truth whether it brings profit to him or a fatality to him. He must have an inclination, born of strength, for questions that no one has the courage for; the courage for the forbidden." [The Antichrist, Preface]

Every conquest, every step forward in knowledge is the outcome of courage, of hardness towards one’s self; of cleanliness towards one’s self. [Ecce Homo, Preface]

  • Did Nietzsche actually use the word "hardness" or was it as the quote goes, "the hardest service"? Feb 25, 2017 at 22:33
  • Thank you. I specifically need a a word to accompany parrhesia: asking and stating, so to speak. I am considering placing a bounty on this question. It is kinda important to me. Feb 26, 2017 at 0:46
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    @Cascabel He used the word hardness many times. I've added a few quotations to my answer. – Feb 26, 2017 at 0:49

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