Methods to the Theorist’s Madness

26 Jul

I have been doing some thinking lately about how problems get solved and how questions get answered. I’ve spent many lonely 2 am’s riding my bike around the soft silent and sequestered streets of my parents’ East Memphis gated community wondering what goes into the formulation of an answer to a question. Here is what my bipedal/semi-mechanical meditations have yielded thus far.

In the Philosophical realm there seem to be two distinct approaches to solving existential riddles posed by the proverbial troll that has kept humanity from crossing the proverbial bridge into the proverbial future since proverbs were being proverbially formulated––questions such as what is the best way to conduct a society, what is good and correct behavior, or what is the nature of a certain thing (painting, poetry, or prose, knowledge, maybe even the human being). These two modes are what have been called the HOLISTIC and the PROBLEMATIC methods by some theorists (I’m thinking most specifically of a man named Walter Davis, who penned “The Act of Interpretation”).

The holistic method is grounded in a belief that all of reality is bound by some common thread, some common truth. A subgroup of the holistic method is the dialectic method, made most famous by thinkers such as Plato and Hegel. The dialectic method adopts a holistic view and transmutes it into theorizing that reality (or everything, if you will) is made up of two different yarns woven together. Thus “everything” can be split into these two parts––these two distinct essences can be unwoven––and this pattern can be repeated until death do us part, and we figure out the answer to everything.

The problem with such a method, though, is mainly in its assumption that there is a one-size-fits-all pattern to reality. This, however, seems to not be the case. At least, that is, in some cases. Take for instance, Plato’s idea of the material and ideal worlds. It works beautifully in describing things that may not have an essentially material existence––phenomena like love or beauty––but how well does the theory really apply to the only slightly more material issue of poetics? It doesn’t really work to answer the problem of poetics at all (a problem which theorist Roman Jakobson states succinctly in the question “how is a verbal message artful?”). Instead Plato posits, in the Republic, that poetry is unworthy of occupation within the ideal state because it is an imitation of the material world. Instead of answering the question of how a message could be artful, Plato is led by his dialectic approach to claim that poetry is just a shitty imitation of what is essentially a shitty imitation of something really really awesome. That is like asking someone what flavor of ice cream they think is best and hearing in response that all ice cream is just frozen milk. It doesn’t answer the question.

Aristotle, a student of Plato who almost completely disagreed with everything his mentor thought about the world, is the father of the problematic method. This method is guided by the view that the world (that is, everything) is composed of separate, irreconcilable things (or phenomena). It is grounded in the assumption that there are no one-size-fits-all solutions to problems, and thus we shouldn’t be looking for answers on such a grand scale. Aristotle’s method is an ingenious one, starting most normally with a definition of the bounds of his inquiry and then an adaptation of his method to those boundaries. I guess the hope is to have a storehouse of knowledge on all the various issues and phenomena that plague humankind.

However, this method has its own problems. Besides being cumbersome (who would want to have to lug around all of that specialized information all the time?), the idea that only specialized knowledge can be a proper answer to human inquiries limits the scope of any knowledge. It kills interdisciplinarity through segregation. Also, such a method is always bound to a temporal and experiential limit, which once again keeps it from reaching beyond its very own small slice of knowledge, not to mention also resulting in the well-known problem of recognition gap.

So then if both of our methods for understanding human phenomena are so laden with problems, what are we as humans with problems to do? How are we to find better answers? This is a difficult question to answer. So difficult, in fact, I will answer around it. We could act out our fear of the pains of finding better answers by not asking anymore questions. Or maybe not. I think the best way to understand the nature of this problem is to understand the problems of the answer whenever inquiring. By this, I mean we can still proceed with our two-pronged approach, only keeping in mind the problems with each approach and prioritizing accordingly to find the best-suited answer to a given problem (not necessarily the best per se, but better than the rest). What we must decide when looking for answers is whether or not we want to know the nature of a supposed everything or the supposed nature of every something. Both have uses, and thus can be meaningful, despite their problems. And it is this usefulness that suggests the reason why philosophers seem so hell-bent on the veracity of their answers, no matter the problems.

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