Against Method

Nota Bene: The original was intended for an academic audience, and one professing a 75-year tradition of controversial inquiry into great books.
A Presentation:
The Great Conversation

Symposium on the Collegiate Seminar at Saint Mary’s College of California 
Originally delivered 23 September, 2017

I. Introduction

Julie Park’s kind (and welcome) invitation to participate in this symposium implied a summons to argue with dispatch; and in practice, to argue with dispatch is to rely on analogy, that is, to bridge (or abridge) the laying down of one’s middle terms.  In response, I proposed to speak against method in the conduct of conversational inquiry; by way of indicating my intention to argue with dispatch, I honored her following request for a synopsis by proposing the following tissue of analogies:

What art/τέχνη is to human use, method is to the uses of conversational inquiry.  And as there is no artful or technical judgment that answers to any question of (properly) human use, so there is no method that is convertible with—that can stand in for—any of the uses of conversational inquiry.   Just as, on practical questions of human use, art or τέχνη yields to an ethic, so, too, conversational inquiry responds to an ethic.  The notion “method of conversational inquiry”—“seminar method”—proves to be an instance of what William Barrett calls “the illusion of technique.”

Since its burden is a caution against over-privileging method, this synopsis relies—perhaps, over much—on terms of art.  By way of restatement: arts, techniques, skills, methods are, one and all, human possessions; inquiry expresses human being.  And conversational inquiry is, in this sense, a yet deeper expression of human being, since it involves the communion of human persons in knowing, which is, arguably, the definitive expression of human being.   Hence, to subject conversational inquiry to art, technique or method is to invert the order of being and having, to elevate means over end, to convert the pursuit of questions into training and performance, and so to render that pursuit illiberal.

In any case, the immediate task is to explicate, so far as some ten minutes allow.  Up first, then, must be the master or leading analogy.

II. Explication

1. What art/τέχνη is to human use, method is 

to the uses of conversational inquiry.

Supposing that “art” [τέχνη] and “conversational inquiry” are terms common to hand, “human use” and “method” will yet require explication.

Human use is the application of anything (including human powers) to the ends of human life, to being well and doing well in being well (Alasdair MacIntyre’s graceful rendering of ευ̉δαιμονία).  “He made good use of his talents” is a way of saying that he applied them to his fulfillment as a free and rational agent; he lent his talents to humanends as such.  As a contrary judgment concerning human use, “He squandered histalents”—he made bad human use of them; he did not make them redound to his personal or human fulfillment—may be the companion truth to “He wrote a string of best-sellers” or “he rose to CEO.”  If so, implied is that he deployed his talents so as to realize a particular end amply; judged in relation to that end, he made good use—good particular use—of them.  Use, then (to paraphrase Yves Simon), may be relative to the human agent taken in the agent’s integrity; that is, use may bear immediately upon who and what the agent is. Alternatively, use may be relative to the agent in part, i.e., it may be applicable to a power or expertise that a human agent has.  In the latter case, good or bad use may refer to the fulfillment or perfection, not of the agent, but of the power or expertise in question.  Art/τέχνη (in the broadest sense) pertains to particular uses.  Moral virtue alone mobilizes diverse capacities for right action, that is, determines them to good human use.

Similarly, what pertains to the uses of intellect divides into the particular and the human.  Human uses go to the intellectual act proper to human beings, such that any creature undertaking that act would, eo ipso, count for us as human, namely: to ask a genuine question; to formulate in language the unqualified desire to know; to respond to wonder through inquiry.  Particular uses go to arts, skills, methods, and the like, which can be, but need not be, directed to the pursuits of questioning.  Even the liberal arts can be pursued illiberally, that is, subordinated to particular uses (mathematics can be reduced to calculation; poetry can be subjected to propaganda, logic enlisted under logistic . . .). Thus, method—its ingenious application, its refinement, even its revolutionary revision (if anyone still credits Kuhn)—is said to advance the discipline, leaving—in a ringing silence—person unmentioned.    

Method—μέθοδος [μετ’ ὅδος]—signifies, in Plato, Aristotle, and in Attic Greek generally, rather differently than its English transliteration signifies in present-day argot, academic and otherwise.   In Attic generally, as in Plato and Aristotle, it is “a way followed,” “a pursuit.”  Thus, for example, by way of summing up the aim of the quadrivial studies proposed for the guardians in Republic VII, Plato’s Socrates avers, “the μέθοδος of all these matters we have gone through—if it brings out these things’ community and shared origin, so that we think through to the likeness among them—carries us toward what we have purposed . . .” [531d].  To read “the method of all these matters . . .” would be to misrepresent the text and to sabotage its sense.  For, the quadrivial arts may be grasped together as a coherent pursuit, but hardly as an artful shortcut to the resolution of a class or galaxy of problems—i.e., as Rules [binding precepts] for Rightly Conducting the Reason and Seeking for Truth in the Sciences.  “Method” in the mouth of Socrates’ Plato is not the “method” of Descartes’ Discourse, but the “method” of Descartes’ Discourse animates the presence answering to “method”in our present usage.

So, too, when Plato’s Socrates affirms that “the dialectical μέθοδος alone advances by way of abolishing hypotheses, up to the very starting point [ἐπ’ αὐτὴν τὴν ἀρχὴν”: 533c–d], to read “dialectical method” would be to supplant the Socratic sense of dialectic in point with a fictive “Socratic method” standing in something like diametrical opposition to the way described in Republic VII

The genealogy of our present-day notion of method, leads from the Latinized methodus, a treatment protocol communicable to an apprentice physician as a rationalized set of ordered imperatives, through Descartes’ Rules, to the ideal of compact, teachable “ways of knowing”—handy, rationalized compendia, conducting one with dispatch from elements through advanced applications.  Method, that is to say, proposes the ideal of the textbook; rather, method proposes the textbook and its exposition as the ideal of the school.  

Conversational inquiry—the seminar—is, then, most liberal because it is human intellect mobilized directly for human use, drawing the intellect’s possessions (skills, techniques, methods) and their particular uses in its train.

Next comes a direct analogical implicature.

2. And as there is no artful or technical judgment

that answers to any question of (properly) human use, 

so there is no method that is convertible with—that can stand in

forany of the uses of conversational inquiry.

As we argued summarily above, art, technique, technology—viz., excellence in making particular use of things (again, including properly human powers)—can decide no question of human use.  For, artistic or technical excellence is undetermined to the good in two-fold ways: (1) of any art, technique, or technology it is possible to make a humanly good use, a humanly bad use or no use at all; (2) of any art, technique, or technology it is possible to make a use that is good or bad from the artistic or technical point of view.  

As to (1), the same art—the same perfected capacity for right, directive judgment—that makes my physician just the person to heal me makes him just the one to do away with me quietly.  Again, my physician’s true, artful judgment that I can be healed by surgery does not, and cannot determine that surgery shall (or should) be performed.  Action on the matter can be forestalled by the physician’s injustice or by my cowardice; it can be forestalled by the vitiation of human use that is an effect of vice.  Action is secured by my courage and the physician’s due—that is to say, just—loyalty to his Hippocratic Oath.  As to (2), a physician may determine that a procedure which, technically, is of “no use” may, nevertheless, be demanded in a certain case, or that—again, for this particular case—standard treatment should be withheld.  

Hence, and unqualifiedly, moral virtue alone mobilizes diverse capacities for right action—including technically right action or particular use—inseparably from the inclinations to put those same capacities to good human use.  Art guarantees, and can guarantee, neither that its exercise will subserve doing well and being well in doing well, nor that its exercise will prove artful in its (the art’s) own terms.  Thus it is that sometimes the highest artistry consists in violating the ordinary standards of one’s art.

Similarly, there is and can be no “method” that might govern conversation.  Since conversation—interlocution—means (among other things) responsive listening, to anticipate (by rule or precept)—that is, to render “conversation” methodic—is to insure instanter that conversation cease to be conversation—cease to be the mutual (as we say, “interpersonal”) attainment of a common human good (and thus of a common human perfection)—and become instead a kind of performance, at most a solitary perfection, something born and ordained to particular use.

It remains to add a second, minor or subordinate analogy.

3. Just as, on practical questions of human use, 

art or τέχνη yields to an ethic, so, too, 

conversational inquiry responds to an ethic.

Conversational inquiry is a common good and common act (it terminates in itself, not in a product); it is attained, not made.  It responds to an ethic which, like any ethic, is formulated principally through proscriptions: the conversation must presuppose no thesis, privilege no antecedent opinion, proceed under the tutelage of no academic discipline (though it may invoke any); it must be responsible solely to the text, received as a common cosmion—a little world—of meaning, a universe of discourse.  Any world, even a little world, is not merely a whole subject to critical inquiry—that is, to inquiry aiming at judgment, κρίσις—but is active, capable of holding the questioner responsible to itself.  For, a world is not a collection of “issues” or a heap of topical “points,” but a whole of interrelated parts, each of which is also a qualified whole, finally intelligible only in light of the comprehensive relations that constitute the world to which, and in which, it belongs.  

The conversational ethic’s proscriptions free the seminar’s participants “to engage things not in this or that aspect . . . but in their roundness as against the all and nothing of human life and being”; hence, it comes to pass that the exchange should “implicate the persons of the participants in their moral and theological depths,” as agents of truth, rather than as apprentices to the liberal arts, as recruits to disciplinary methods, or as conscripts to worthy agenda—social, political, or otherwise.


III. Conclusion

The notion “method of conversational inquiry, or “seminar method,

is an instance of what William Barrett (rightly) calls “the illusion of technique.”

The illusion of technique is, in fine, this: that sufficiently sophisticated addends of particular uses may somehow fulfill—answer to, culminate in—properly human use, or equivalently, that good human use can be reduced to artful/methodic performance.  The very notion “method of conversational inquiry” or “seminar method”  indulges the illusion in a third—and again, equivalent—form: human beings may be raised to agents of truth by being subjected to formulas of correctness. To put the point as gently as the case demands: however prevalent it may be in the contemporary academy, yet in its every form this notion is sheer folly.    

Love our Articles? Spread the word!

newsletter sign-up

Magnus News

Stay up to date on free courses, webinars, podcasts, and more. 
Bonus! Sign up today and get a FREE At-A- Glance Guide to the Liberal Arts, complete with recommended reading, available for a limited time. 

Subscribe Now and receive a free Guide to the Liberal Arts