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"Method": An essay by Dan Taylor (Keywords: History of philosophy; Authority; struggle; Metaphor; Causality; Kant; Foucault; Spinoza)

From The Philosopher, vol. 110, no. 4 ("The New Basics: Philosophy").

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By recitation and rote, students at the earliest known centres of education in Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, China, Greece and western Africa laboured to learn a series of techniques for studying worlds that no longer exist. From medicine, astronomy, geography to the information management of cuneiform, methods and purposes of understanding have transformed in unimaginable ways. Hierarchical, fixed, and parochial cosmologies of gods, prophets, men, and beasts have been replaced, to some extent, with complexity and critique. And yet some still sit together, read together, argue together, debating the right interpretation of words, as they had done thousands of years earlier.

In one sense, philosophy begins through its struggle with authority. It is found among the earliest efforts to articulate and teach an understanding of the natural world or the mind’s inner life without deference to deities or tradition, or acquiescence to superstition. Such efforts have frequently put philosophers in conflict with authority, with many earlier philosophers imprisoned, persecuted, enslaved or executed. And yet philosophy as a discipline has developed through some thinkers becoming authorities themselves, producing bodies of thought or organised schools with disciples in which the effort to understand becomes mediated through the prism of one man’s concepts and books. Today, as for so long before, our efforts to understand or gain an apprenticeship in the field are orientated with reference to a canon of concepts and thinkers that function like countries and seas on a map of the world. Even those who question the basic validity or power relations that have given rise to such a map become, themselves, new destinations in its distant archipelagos.  

Underlying the struggle with authority is the fashioning and refashioning of an orientation to the world. I want to explore that method of orientation through three aspects: causality, metaphor and struggle.


As has long been observed, human beings from early childhood strive to understand their needs, encounters, and the actions of others in terms of causality. Why. (“Why do I have to eat porridge?”, my 4-year-old asks me; but also, recently, “Why did your Grandpa die?”). Why implies How (more on this shortly). Yet our processes of ascertaining causality are neither reliable nor transparent. They involve what David Hume called “principles of association”, a natural and universal lurch to discern relations between things, be it through resemblance, contiguity, or causality – each impression habitually aligned with the last we recall. They also rely on the mind’s perceptions of events to be transparent and disinterested. But there are good reasons for suspicion. As the discovery of the unconscious, desire, ideology, and the power of instincts and the emotions over free will shows, the disinterested gaze can become distorted by self-serving prejudice.

Benedict Spinoza asked the question why so many religious systems begin with the view that the Earth was made by a human-like God for the purpose of serving human advantage and need (or sometimes merely the advantage of God’s particular “chosen” people). He argued that we are universally disposed to understanding things in terms of their final causes, recognising and defining them by their end or the purpose they apparently serve. This is a universal weak spot in our reasoning, wherein we tend to view the satisfaction of our needs within a drama of divine favour and retribution: “eyes for seeing, teeth for chewing, plants and animals for food, the sun for light”, and so on, until ultimately “they consider all natural things as means to their own advantage”. But this introduces a mindset that all Nature exists for human advantage and expropriation, a mindset of the Anthropocene era. And in viewing the gods as capricious, jealous, demanding fidelity and gratitude from their children like wretched King Lear, it serves to make them “as mad as men”.

An untutored effort to decipher the world through chains of causality can easily fall into the perpetuation of unknowing

In other words, an untutored effort to decipher the world through chains of causality can easily fall into the perpetuation of unknowing. The capacity to reason through cause and effect relies on an underlying knowledge of how things work. And given philosophy’s difficult relationship with authority, these ways of knowing have been traditionally captured by religious dogmatists. And between that, our animal instincts for pleasure and distraction. My four-year-old insists that chocolate cake will be more suitable for breakfast.


But this isn’t a cry of despair. Spinoza glimpsed that within that faulty first effort to orientate through causality was an important process of narrating and framing one’s own life within a world of others and events. Anthropologists and historians observe common features in early polytheism, with their deification of animals and conflictual dramas between personified nature-gods. Consider the treatment of animals. The earliest existing human art – found in caves in Sulawesi, Kadadu, Karas, and Lascaux – are drawings of animals. In a sense, the discovery of human identity lies in this separation from animal nature. “If the first metaphor was animal”, writes John Berger, “it was because the essential relation between man and animal was metaphoric”. Imaginative projections and visions brought into being a distinction (arbitrary, perhaps) between the human and the animal.

Animals have been an enduring guide in asking questions about who we are. For instance, in Aesop’s fables, the basis of much moral education in European history, or in satire and political analysis, like Machiavelli’s account of the lion and the fox, Bernard Mandeville’s account of the drudgerous bee, and George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Metaphorical animals have helped people make claims about human nature, whether in its virtuous aspects (“Go to the ant, thou sluggard, consider her ways and be wise”, says Proverbs), or in its dehumanising aspects, like historical European patriarchy’s othering of women or colonial subjects as beast-like, unhuman or less human – the “Beast Within”, as Mary Midgley put it.

The bigger point here is the effort towards other ways of seeing, knowing and relating. Metaphors are just one method among many in struggling to find meaning in an inherently uncertain, exciting, dangerous, and disappointing world. The struggle is unending, its epiphanic moments less summits on a mountain path and more plateaus between valleys and hostile rock. But it is necessary, in whatever form, to overcome the mental paralysis and sleep of falling back on superstition, prejudice, and deference to rituals of authority.

Metaphors are just one method among many in struggling to find meaning in an inherently uncertain, exciting, dangerous, and disappointing world


This search for meaning is most often narrated in its external, world-facing aspects. Each begins in causality – why this, why now, on what grounds – from which unfolds a repertoire of techniques for formulating knowledge from questions: induction, i.e., proceeding from observation of particulars to the demonstration of a general rule; and deduction, i.e., proceeding from the demonstration of a general rule to its application to particulars. If we had time, we could play a game of which Great Philosopher employs which technique. But underlying the techniques is a more general effort to orientate oneself in thinking, which itself often relies on spatial metaphors – moving from the “dark” to the “light” or reaching a place of safety amid the “storm” of the passions.

Immanuel Kant was interested in orientation. For Kant, to “orient oneself in thinking” is the great demand placed on us by philosophy. In general terms, orientation describes “when objective principles of reason are insufficient for holding something true, to determine the matter according to a subjective principle”, thus reflecting the contingency, openness, and uncertainty of this method. Kant is alarmed at mental freedom without boundaries. What if we lack the “compass” of a “pure rational faith” (for him, a conventional Christian one)? We might be led to a thinking that’s too free, too radical, too sceptical – thereby inviting the wrath of the authorities upon other philosophers. But while well-meaning, Kant’s efforts box many others in; philosophy at the service of the authority’s demands for deference and submission might not really be philosophy at all.

Philosophy at the service of the authority’s demands for deference and submission might not really be philosophy at all

It also offers only a partial recognition to the where that one orientates oneself. For there’s another gravitational pull to the inside, to the inner life. This is what does it mean … for me. The earliest philosophy (or at least that which survives as text or as a continuous tradition) is concerned with questions like why should I live, in what way should I live, and what is life worth living for? Each of these questions necessitates different answers according to societal conditions – the Buddha seeks an exit from suffering; Confucius a restoration of tradition and virtue (De, 德) in a time of cynicism and war; Laozi a restraint of the will and self-liquefaction into non-action, wu wei (無為).

Socrates understood the method of philosophy to involve an unceasing examination for the purpose of discovering inconsistencies in thinking, and, through that, of uncovering a basis for true living (truth being understood here as what is worthy to be loved). This is philosophy understood as a way of life, whose value is in its service to human flourishing and freedom, against the mental servitude of prejudice, ignorance and fear.


But it is also a struggle. This view of living philosophy motivated the Stoics, whose enduring appeal is in their affirmation of a philosophical life lived according to nature yet necessitating the mastery of one’s own nature. In Zeno or Epictetus, there is nothing easy about being a Stoic. It involves daily exercise: meditation, self-interrogation, correspondence with friends, candid and frank; the study of nature, the study of logic and syllogisms; and silence, the memorisation and recitation of rules, and then their reformulation. They called this “askesis”.

In his final years, Michel Foucault became very interested in the Stoics in terms of care and techniques of the self. For him,

[A]skesis means not renunciation but the progressive consideration of self, or mastery over oneself, obtained not through the renunciation of reality but through the acquisition and assimilation of truth. It has as its final aim not preparation for another reality but access to the reality of this world.

In the process, there’s a shift from logos to ethos, from philosophy as the effort to understand “the word” (logos) to an effort to live well, with others; to live well, amid the transience of death and uncertainty; and maybe even to transform, utterly, the worldly conditions in which some live well, and all one day might.

This touches on a broader peculiarity of method in philosophy. Whereas other disciplines like sociology, psychology or the life sciences use methods as a means to an end – e.g. a semi-structured interview, a biopsy, an ethnography – in philosophy method is often indistinct from the end it apparently serves. Spinoza’s Ethics demonstrated in geometrical order presents an entirely new understanding of metaphysics and epistemology in the service of ethical flourishing and self-contentment – a philosophy realised through its methods of inquiry, experimentation, discussion, reflection and friendship.

But still I’m appealing to authority and tradition here. Had all evidence of Spinoza, the Buddha, and Socrates been wiped from the face of the Earth, philosophising would still occur with colour and vigour. For it begins when one asks why of life, death, knowledge, and love, when one asks about their causality and nature, when one can no longer easily stomach the prejudices and platitudes of the community’s prevailing fairy-tales.

In that sense, one of the most powerful images of the urgency of philosophy, of the impossibility of not thinking critically or speculatively – in those moments between living and living-no-more – is the prison cell. This is where the journey often begins (and ends). A man or woman shackled to the floor in a darkened room, chained beside others, blinks for a moment at familiar TV-like images all watch in silence from the other end of the room. But where did they come from and why? Plato’s Allegory of the Cave is a tragic tale. In medieval Europe, Boethius summoned up Lady Philosophy in his prison cell, who taught a kind of reconciliation with the vicissitudes of the Wheel of Fortune. “If you desire to look on truth and follow the path”, she says, “rid yourself of joy and fear, put hope to flight and banish grief”.

One of the most powerful images of the urgency of philosophy, of the impossibility of not thinking critically or speculatively is the prison cell.

Malcolm X vividly describes how he found his freedom in prison when he turned to books, particularly philosophy. “I knew right there in prison that reading had changed forever the course of my life”, he recalled. “As I see it today, the ability to read awoke inside me some long dormant craving to be mentally alive.” He read Kant, Gandhi, W.E.B. DuBois, Spinoza. Philosophy became a conversion experience. Its method was its own end – the cultivation of critical skills of reasoning and evaluation, the acquisition of understanding about politics, cultures and language (Malcolm painstakingly studied the entire dictionary). But in those dark nights of the soul, it also involves a stumbling, a breakdown, and a re-assembly of oneself capable of walking without falling. For Spinoza, the path of blessedness leads to nowhere – the way one walks it is its own reward.

For Spinoza, the path of blessedness leads to nowhere – the way one walks it is its own reward

Picasso’s image of the dove escaping the bars of a prison cell captures some of this. Sometimes we find ourselves in prisons or fetters of our own making – unexamined habits, negative patterns of thinking, doing and not-doing (“mind forg’d manacles”, as the poet William Blake put it). A comforting and homely living room beside the fire (if you can afford the bills these days), like that of Descartes, can become a stifling and alienating place. That in a sense explains the enduring popularity among the public for the kind of philosophy done by the Stoics, by Socrates and the Buddha, even by Malcolm X, through which we read others orientating themselves in thinking, asking questions, proposing techniques, through which ways of seeing becomes ways of life


How might people do philosophy in the 2120s? Perhaps as they have for hundreds of thousands of years. Some techniques may change – previous thinkers drew on religious experience, politics, drugs, lashings of coffee (Voltaire drank 40-50 cups a day), metaphor, and art. But if anything can be learnt from previous attempts – acknowledging too the all-important value to rip it up and start again – it is in those exercises of (self-)examination, (self-)criticism, (self-)doubt and (self-)experimentation. Towards an art of formulating new questions and new arguments, capable not only of narrating or explaining but orientating oneself among what Virginia Woolf called “new forms for our new sensations”. Being little better than our ancestors at formulating questions that take us on journeys that end in the grave and live on, sometimes, in other’s ideas, it probably also requires some modesty, humour, and capacity to respectfully disagree.

“Nullius in verba” – take no-one’s word for it.


Dan Taylor is a Lecturer in Social and Political Thought at the Open University. His third book, Spinoza and the Politics of Freedom, has just come out in paperback. The four-year-old did not get the chocolate cake in the end. Whether it appreciated the breakfast symposium on philosophy is another matter.

Twitter: @dantaylor42


From The Philosopher, vol. 110, no. 4 ("The New Basics: Philosophy").

If you enjoyed reading this, please consider becoming a patron or making a small donation.

We are unfunded and your support is greatly appreciated.


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