Methods to knowledge

Method originally meant a shortcut or simplest path to knowing something. It was often a response to a long series approaches to the problem by trial and error, dialectical fighting, etc. STA describes the problem that method seeks to solve:

 I have considered that students in of theology have not seldom been hampered by what they have found written by other authors, partly on account of the multiplication of useless questions, articles, and arguments, partly also because those things that are needful for them to know are not taught according to the order of the subject matter, but according as the plan of the book might require, or the occasion of the argument offer, partly, too, because frequent repetition brought weariness and confusion to the minds of readers.

Method in this sense takes knowledge of something for granted, and seeks to set it in order.

Somewhere along the way, however, method shifted from the ordering of knowledge taken as a given to a condition of knowing the subject at all. The idea that scientific method is a condition of knowing nature is simply the latest input into the “method is a condition of knowing” function that was a central theme of philosophy from Descartes through Kant to Positivism. Briefly, method goes from ordering the already known to being a condition of knowing at all. 

The two meanings share significant overlap: before one puts a method on knowledge the knowledge might well be so diffuse, confused, and primitive that it isn’t much different from knowing nothing at all. Before one has a method it is difficult to tackle a scientific problem cooperatively and so more difficult for  science to be progressive. Aristotle gave method to problems in logic, natural philosophy metaphysics, etc. and there is no comparison between what was learned in these areas before him and after him; STA gave method to moral theology and there is likewise no comparison between the moral science before and after him; Newton did the same thing for mathematical physics. Euclid, Ptolemy, Einstein, etc all did similar things. Biographers never tire of pointing out that Euclid or Einstein “discovered very little” and that most of their insights were already found before they came along. True, but these insights would have all gone fallow without their synthesis. Lorentz and Poincare knew about length contraction without relativity, but without the theory it be an equation that engineers would learn when they had to correct for the speed of satellites, and not much more. The point of the synthesis is not what it discovered, but what it allows us to discover and how it illuminates what is scattered in the field before it.

But it is a step too far to take method as an absolute condition for knowledge, since to do so ends up destroying method altogether. Method unifies given knowledge in an ordered procedure, and so it presupposes pre-method work of people spitballing, fighting, tinkering with arguments, mulling over ideas, etc. Methods presuppose that many persons have already known X without the method – it’s not as if one can set up a procedure to know X and then proceed to know X for the first time.

What I here call method has significant overlap with theory, and this is how it should be. Both are organizations of things already known, though calling it theory  focuses on its content while calling it method focuses on its praxis.

%d bloggers like this: