[Humanist] 30.169 method and claustrophobia

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Thu Jul 14 11:03:31 CEST 2016

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 30, No. 169.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Wed, 13 Jul 2016 07:40:48 +0100
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: a claustrophobic sense

Please forgive the following attempt to stir the pot. No offence intended,
but I do think we need to mull over not only the variable meanings of
'theory' but also the implications of identifying ourselves closely with

I am hoping that there is such a thing as 'emotional intelligence' as well
as 'intuition', however difficult it may be to nail either one of them down.
As someone who spends a fair bit of time trying to figure things out I've
always depended on a sense of intellectual claustrophobia to tell me that
the horse I've been riding has turned into a hobby-horse going nowhere. I
like to think of this sense as a form of emotional intelligence because it
is both an emotional and an intellectual experience to find one's mind in a
space too small for it, struggle in somewhat of a panic and then to bust out
of confinement into a disorientating but open space with opportunities to
think anew.

Paul Feyerabend (a powerful lecturer and a frighteningly intense fellow) had
one such reaction, which he expressed in his mid-70s book Against Method. It
was aimed specifically at the popular notion of "The Scientific Method". He
helped greatly to redirect attention away from abstract method in the
sciences toward the historical practices of actual scientists. His wasn't an
attack on being methodical but, along with Kuhn, on reducing research to
canned procedures.  

Geoffrey Rockwell and I once conducted a small study of what researchers in
various disciplines at Toronto actually did when taking notes. We
interviewed a number of people and then attempted to collate the results.
What I learned from this attempt to get at that aspect of method was that no
two people in the group I interviewed shared the same way of taking notes.
No method or even spectrum of methods. Every one of those academics had very
different ways of being methodical. The variations were not simply among
individuals but for some of them from one research project to the next, even
from one moment to the next.

In my own work I use note-cards, made with the wonderfully simple QwikCards,
printed out and then shuffled just as Sir James Murray did. But in using
them I get the strong sense that this *method* is almost beside the point.
It is a prop for meditation that in itself is rather unimportant. It could
easily be replaced by some other way of acting under other circumstances.
So, I'd say, to fixate on it would be a mistake, though I stick to it. It's
works, it's what I know.

Another way of saying this, I suppose, is that John Unsworth was wiser than
I (when both of us were addressing the question) to keep his discussion of
it very broad. Perhaps one could say that precise methods are best
considered throwaways, invented on the spot for specific purposes, perhaps
turning into habits but not writ on stone tablets.


Willard McCarty (www.mccarty.org.uk/), Professor, Department of Digital
Humanities, King's College London; Adjunct Professor, Western Sydney

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