Philosophical Methods
for Organizing a Text or System of Texts

Contact: Dr. Jan Garrett

Last modified March 19, 2004

This page is a rough draft: not for direct quotation in scholarly work.

These points primarily derive from chapter IV of Walter Watson, Architectonics of Meaning (State University of New York, 1985; I believe it is reprinted in a newer edition by University of Chicago Press.)

Method is "the order or structure or form or connectedness" (p. 71) of a text, specifically the method that "governs the whole range of methods" a text may use, "a method of methods" (p. 72)

There are four basic methods, according to Walter Watson.

Agonistic Method

The agonistic method is also called operational, rhetorical, eristic, and paradoxical. The validity of an agonistic method is established by "success in winning against the competition." (p. 73)

When it is called operational or rhetorical, the emphasis is on validation by success. When it is called eristic or paradoxical, the stress is on the contest in which success is sought.

Examples of agonistic thinkers include Greek Sophists, Skeptics like Sextus Empiricus, natural philosophers like Heraclitus, psychologists like Freud, and Nietzsche.

Logistic Method

Logistic method is familiar to us from thinkers who organize their works deductively. For a logical method, what comes first is supposed to determine what comes later. In theoretical works premises determine conclusions. In practical reasoning, those who use logistic methods start from goals and from them determine technical means adopted to reach them.

In logical method, parts determine wholes. Explanation is one way, bottom up.

Examples of logistic thinkers: Democritus, Descartes, Spinoza, Newton, Leibniz, Locke, Hume, neo-classical economic theorists.

Dialectical Method

With dialectical method, a thinker will use what comes later to validate what was laid down in the beginning. (What is laid down in the beginning is tentative and subject to revision as one "ascends" to greater truth.) One succeeds not by maintaining one's original position but by transcending it. (84-85)

For dialectical method, parts are determined by wholes.

Examples of dialectical thinkers include Plato, Augustine, Hegel, Marx, and A. N. Whitehead.

Problematic Method

Problematic method is characterized by reciprocal determination of parts by whole and whole by parts.

Problematic biology, which has strong support in contemporary theory, argues that the process of embryonic development is a function of the interaction of the parts and their arrangement into wholes at every stage of the process.

For problematic method, the most important thing is resolution of problems most of them posed by other inquirers or directions of thought in the culture. In philosophy, the sources may be from prior generations going way back, for example, all the way back to Plato (as in Dewey).

Examples of thinkers whose primary method is problematic include Aristotle, Kant, and Dewey.

Kant announces the problematic method in his Preface to the Critique of Pure Reason: we must

grasp correctly the idea of the whole, and from thence to get a view of all those parts as mutually related by the aid of pure reason and by means of their derivation from the concept of the whole. (cited by Watson, pp. 94-95)

Problematic method is also present in Kant's assertion that neither concept nor percept by itself provides knowledge but rather it comes from both together.

Use of Multiple Methods by a Single Philosopher

A thinker whose main method is one of these four will often use other methods in a subordinate way. Thus Descartes uses agonistic or skeptical method but subordinates it to the construction of a logistic system based on a foundation. Plato, whose primary method is dialectic, uses agonistic methods to refute inadequate theories and to show the inadequacies of pairs of popular but opposite opinions. He uses logistic (in the form of deductive reasoning) in particular passages to derive conclusions from proposed definitions in order to prepare the way to refute those proposed definitions.