Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Methodological manifesto

Why do I like or not like other people's work? I try to avoid disliking papers just because they do not fulfill my expectations (for instance, because they do not analyse original sources), but in order to do that, I have to be aware of what my expectations are. Hence, I wrote a draft of what I identify as important methodological points.

  1. 1. Consider the history of an idea. When one does not consider its historical context, one runs the risk to misunderstand the real meaning of a point. A controversial (yet interesting) example: Jesus' rejection of divorce is to be found only as opposed to Moses' acceptance of repudial. So, can't it be the case that Jesus' concern was the fate of repudiated women, rather the social persistence of marriages?
  2. 2. Ask meaningful questions. Questions are not in themselves a value, they might also be just needless provocations (I include here questions irrespective of the context). In order to engage in a dialogue with a philosophical text, one has to ask it meaningful (i.e., philosophical) questions.
  3. 3. Be aware of how much of yourself you are projecting in your research. Unless you include your own presuppositions in your research, you will be unconsciously conditioned by them.
  4. 4. Spell out the broader meaning. Why should I be interested in Syrian cereals in the Vth millennium? Perhaps because this tells me how significant a sacrifice of barley was, for a Syrian community? If there is no broader meaning (is it at all possible?), give up the research.
  5. 5. Read more. Read more sources. Read more secondary literature. Everything we say has surely been said or hinted at already. We should avoid writing unnecessary books or articles just because we did not care to check older ones.
All these points are, I guess, non-controversial (hence, I would be so glad to read opinions opposing them). On the contrary, the following one might be questioned:

  1. 6. Principle of charity. Interpret the text in a way the author does not seem to be upholding a non-sense even from his point of view (of course, she might uphold a view that is non-sensical to us, such as that the earth is flat, if the historical context upheld it, too).
I consistently apply No. 6 because it helps me in better understanding texts. I know, many texts are the result of multiple strata and super-imposing a sense on them may lead one to oversee the existing contradictions inherent in their multiple strata. Yet, as for me, in case I am struggling with a point, I assume I am the dull one, and not the author. In this way, I am more likely to try harder, check other works of the same author or school, compare opponents' works, read Western philosophy on the same topic, etc., unless I find a plausible solution.

"Read more" is my favourite one. I have discussed it here.

What would readers suggest instead or in addition to the above points?


Jayarava said...

I forget who said it now but I recall someone saying that "it is better to write about a problem, than to write about a subject".

I've always thought this was sound advice for academics.

elisa freschi said...

I agree. This was the advice I gave to speakers in the only conference I personally organized:

1. What is the fundamental question I am addressing with the present study?
2. Which methodology am I implementing?
3. Which problems are still unsolved?

(see: http://asiatica.wikispaces.com/--%C2%BB+English+Version)

Anonymous said...

bravo Elisa, I like very much you manifesto, and deeply, deeply agree with read more, best, Olivia

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