A Non-methodological Space

by Mark Wallace

Now method is all very well, but if one can’t life one’s life entirely by method, one may posit that within academia there should also be a non-methodological space. In the methodological space of most of academia one can only write in response to a previous authority, whether to agree with or dissent from, but, I repeat, one doesn’t arrange one’s thoughts as a response to a previous authority, so the need to keep an open mind with regard to methods of intellectual discovery needs to be acknowledged. What, first of all, is the point of intellectual discovery? In Against Method, Paul Feyerabend writes:

The attempt to increase liberty, to lead a full and rewarding life, and the corresponding attempt to discover the secrets of nature and of man entails therefore, the rejection of all universal standards and of all rigid traditions.

Feyerabend calls for an anarchistic approach to scientific investigation. And he’s talking about the hard sciences. Against Method is a very bracing, well-written and engaging account of how scientific progress is made. It’s an entirely unpredictable and patternless progression, in which the material effect of an argument often has little to do with its logical force (25). Therefore, to make real progress, it may well be necessary to ignore those theories which have “material effect”, which are the reigning theories in the field. Ignore them! That sounds wonderful. Similarly, it may be necessary to renew old, discredited theories for the purpose of stimulating new thought.

In the context of a literature PhD such as though undertaken by the present author, it’s an interesting thought experiment to imagine what could be ignored under a Feyerabendian approach. Most of the suppositions of postmodern/ poststructuralist thought would be at the top of the list. These provide the bedrock assumptions of modern academia in the humanities and social sciences. I am increasingly unable to accept “the posts”‘ position on the individual, and most of the other main positions fall with that. The posts don’t talk about individuals. but subjects. The individual is so 19th century. I question to what degree my own personal intellectual history comes into play here. Is it the (il)logicality of the position I object to, or is it down to the fact that before I became a postgrad I knew little to nothing of post thought, and my intellectual formation was a product of the assumptions of liberal humanism? It’s also down to personal experience. My experience has never been adequately reflected in any systematic theory of personhood I have ever encountered, ergo I must be an individual. I don’t fully (or hardly at all) relate to the theories or the assumptions of those around me, so I’m loath to accept that I am a product of them.

If there are, in fact, individuals, then the methodological project cannot survive in anything approaching a pure form with regard to human beings. An individual, by definition, cannot be accounted for by a general methodology. And a methodology, by definition, must have general applicability. So my aversion to method is inextricable from my sense of self as an individual. To apply method in a manner satisfactory to myself, I would have to experience myself as a generic construct. Which I don’t.

But I don’t mean individual in a pure sense. Of course, we are conditioned by our environment, family, ideological state apparatusses etc. Duh. but there’s no way yet to account for the entirety of an individual’s mental processes by adding up the sum of these conditioning elements – if there was, it would be like Minority Report, we’d be able to know people’s future actions, including criminal ones, by feeding the data into a computer. But in practical terms we cannot understand people in this way – people are not wholly theorized, wholly made subject to external things, and so until that is done, we are left with the individual as a hypothesis. If we really believe that will ever be done, we should orient all our action toward that end. If we are not so sure, we need a de-theorized space, a non-methodological space, a space for intellectual engagement with products of the human imagination on a singular basis. This space is the humanities, for if not they, then what and where?

If I may conclude by quoting Carlyle, an 1830s reflection on the times:

Fantastic tricks enough man has played, in his time; has fancied himself to be most things, down even to an animated heap of Glass: but to fancy himself a dead Iron-Balance for weighing Pains and Pleasures on, was reserved for this his latter era.

A Dead Iron-Balance for weighing Pains and Pleasures on: he’s getting at the Utilitarians, but one sees, I think, how the modern critical theorists are the successors to the utilitarians, oddly enough. Utilitarianism (though not without merit) failed: there was something else that didn’t fit onto the Iron-Balance. What? Freud, a utilitarian thinker in his “economic” model of the mind, came around to calling it the Death Drive, but that hypothesis pretty much failed to. To name it misses the point, and is the flaw of all those theorists of human consciousness. Analysis of that which escapes theorization cannot be done via one single concept which contains this something else, or even a confluence of concepts adding up to a single hole. That whole, I suggest, will never be found. One can only take instances: analyze at the level of the irreducible, unrepeatable instant, without any sort of guarantee that these instances will add up to anything more than the endlessly necessary practice of self-examination on a collective level.