Practical philosophical reductionism

Less than a month ago I observed I’d collected three anti-method books in my library: After Method, Beyond Method, Against Method, and noted the absence of Before Method, Within Method, For Method.

I forgot that I also own For and Against Method, which is half argument for method, and Truth and Method, which argues against the existence of any universally valid hermeneutic technique.


I did not set out to collect books on method. I own these books because the concept of good method is one of the most effective (because it is the least questioned/questionable) vehicles for enforcing practical philosophical reductionism.

We fail to recognize how aggressive this is, partly because we tend to harbor a monistic orientation to “best”. We are seeking the best way, and if someone has already found it, we should set aside our own semi-articulate objections, preferences and intuitions and resist the temptation to “reinvent the wheel.”

This aligns with a general moral preference for self-effacement. We are eager to show that we can put our own preferences aside in the interest of a better outcome. This is admirable — if you’ve actually established the superiority of the less preferred method. But all too often we adopt a “pain, therefore gain” attitude that does nobody a bit of good.

Then, of course, many people don’t want to think philosophically. They just want to figure out what they’re doing, so they can get down to the doing. Thought is an unpleasant necessity that precedes making and executing plans. For such minds, method eliminates a lot of crap they didn’t want to do anyway. Re-considering method introduces unwelcome extra work of a kind they’d prefer not to deal with. It’s like making them slaughter the cow that will become their tasty cheeseburger. They’d rather just slap it on the grill, already.

Then finally there’s the “involvement anxiety” toward  participatory understanding that’s endemic to human sciences. We badly want to know without our own selves figuring into the equation. Even people who pride themselves on accounting for context when studying human subjectivity often want to subtract the themselves out of the context they do create — and must create — through their practice. A practitioner’s preference of method is taken to be a subjective impurity to be removed in the attempt to understand the others’ subjectivity more objectively.

It reminds me of a passage from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities:

After a seven days’ march through woodland, the traveler directed toward Baucis cannot see the city and yet he has arrived. The slender stilts that rise from the ground at a great distance from one another and are lost above the clouds support the city. You climb them with ladders. On the ground, the inhabitants rarely show themselves: having already everything they need up there, they prefer not to come down. Nothing of the city touches the earth except those long flamingo legs on which it rests and, when the days are sunny, a pierced, angular shadow that falls on the foliage.

There are three hypotheses about the inhabitants of Baucis: that they hate the earth; that they respect it so much they avoid all contact; that they love it as it was before they existed and with spyglasses and telescopes aimed downward they never tire of examining it, leaf by leaf, stone by stone, ant by ant, contemplating with fascination their own absence.


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