Monthly Archives: November 2018

What is inframethodology?

We all know what meta-theory is, right? Although the Greek word “meta” actually just means “after” (“metaphysics” is just the book that Aristotle dictated after his Physics) we generally think of “going meta” as taking things “up a level”, going “above” or “beyond” whatever we were currently talking about. Meta-theory is the theory of theory, a metatheory is the theory of a theory, i.e., it is a conceptual framework for describing another conceptual framework, like a meta-language is a language for talking about another language (the “object-language”). Meta-theory, we might say, is the application of the philosophy of science to a particular scientific theory,  asking, “How is this a theory?” although sometimes it’s also simply a branch of the philosophy of science, one that answers the question, “What is a theory?”

In order to understand what “inframethodology” is we have to first notice that there’s a difference between method and methodology. Scientists have theories and methods, and they use method-ology to reflect on their methods just as they use metatheory to reflect on their theories. Inframethodology is an account (“logos”), not of our methods, but of that which lies “beneath method”, it investigates the subtle joints of the craft we call research. One way to illustrate it is by noting the difference between the methods astronomers use to analyse images they have collected from telescopes and the skills with which they operate those telescopes. “Method” guides the decisions they make; “inframethodology” is about how they execute those decisions. Inframethodology also includes the art of keeping records of data and taking notes from reading, as well as library and presentation skills. Not least, it includes the craft of writing, i.e., of communicating your results to your peers. An inframethodologist is interested in the rich array of informal practices that support our formalized methods.

In an important sense, inframethodology is the study of the care the we take in doing our research. High-quality research depends not just on sophisticated theories and methods, or expensive equipment or many hours in the field; it depends on how we make use of those resources. It involves the careful reading of other people’s work and its accurate representation (and citation) in our own; it involves the careful observation of empirical facts and their accurate representation in our prose. Inframethodology is the study of how that care is taken and how we learn to be good at practicing it.

If Heidegger is to be believed, this makes inframethodology an “existential” matter. Indeed, I would argue that it is part of what he called “the existential conception of science”; science becomes a “mode of care”, a way of being-in-the-world. But, while I do like to think of myself as a philosopher, at least on some days, I think I should admit that inframethodology is perhaps more closely related to the rhetoric of science than its philosophy proper. It is very much about how discourse of science is maintained and transformed. But the stakes are grave enough, profound enough (i.e., deep enough, i.e., “below”) to justify an occasional philosophical excursion. At the end of the day, however, we are truly thrown into it. It’s a very practical problem.

Good Taste in Knowledge*

“The aim of education or culture is merely the development of good taste in knowledge and good form in conduct.” (Lin Yutang, The Importance of Living, p. 393)

What’s so good about knowledge? Why is it better to know than not to know? Indeed, is knowledge always a good thing? Is it sometimes better not to know? Certainly, we cannot realistically pursue a goal of knowing everything there is to know, even about a specific subject. And whatever we do know derives its value, its virtue if you will, from its contribution to the important business of living. Life, we might say, has an “epistemic” component, which suggests an epistemological issue.**

I worry about the epistemic component of the problem of living. That makes me an epistemologist, just as an ethnographer is interested in the “ethnic side” of life, if you will.** The ethnographer is not interested in becoming a better native, a more upstanding member of the community; the ethnographer wants to understand what it means to be native to a particular land. Likewise, I’m less interested (or at least I sometimes tell myself I’m less interested) in actually knowing something, than in understanding the difference that knowing it will make to our lives.

I’m not really very curious person, perhaps. But I am obsessed with what happens when we satisfy, or fail to satisfy, our curiosity. When I consider carefully how our research and teaching environments are organised (my experience is mostly with universities) I sometimes worry that we let real curiosity go unsatisfied, and glut ourselves with trivia instead. Sometimes, I think I’m against curiosity altogether. I suppose that’s a bit like an ethnographer who has a low of opinion of nationalism. You can understand something well enough to be afraid of it.

It seems life would be easier if we were less naturally curious. Or perhaps the problem lies with how easily we let ourselves be satisfied. Maybe I just think we have poor taste in knowledge.

I’d like to try to affect our taste in knowledge. In particular, I think we need to have a much more refined taste for social science. We’re much too eager to learn how society works, how people live together. We’re much too ready to believe what social scientists tell us, what some recent “study” has “shown”. We need to hold claims about the society in which we live to a much higher standard. After all, what we think is true of our society is very much a part of how that society works. If you think you live in a democracy your political activities look very different from how they’d look if you thought you were living in an oligarchy. If you think people’s decisions (including your own) can be manipulated by “priming”, your negotiating tactics will probably show it.

I’m interested not just in how we practice what we know, but in how we go about our knowing. What sorts of practices lead to better kinds of knowledge. Our knowledge will never be perfect, but there must be a sense that we’re striving to improve. What criteria, then, can we come up with for “good” epistemic practices? This is a somewhat different question than the one philosophers classically raise: what are the criteria for knowledge? Instead of asking how we can know that we know one thing or another, I want to describe a set of practices such that, if we practice them, what is likely to result is “good” knowledge. I think it’s much less important to believe the right things than to cultivate the right attitude about our beliefs. I think epistemology should be about that attitude, not about the beliefs that emerge at the end of it.

More later.


*This post was originally published as part of a series on my old blog.

**It should be possible to distinguish between “epistemic” and “epistemological” as easily as we distinguish between “ethnic” and “ethnographic”. Knowers have have epistemic traits just as people have ethnic ones; our interest in these traits is epistemological and ethnographic respectively. When they produce “an ethnography” of a group of people (sometimes called “natives”) ethnographers delineate their “ethnicity”—the nature of their particular humanity, or what we call culture. When epistemologists produce “an epistemology” of a group of knowers (sometimes called “scientists”) they delineate their “epistemicity”—okay, that’s not a word, but epistemologists do delineate the nature of the knowledge, sometimes the nature of the knowledge that belongs to a particular group of knowers. Ethnos just means “people” in Greek. Episteme means knowledge. Foucault talked about epistemes in part to avoid talking about “sciences”. He preferred to talk about “field[s] of scientificity” over talking of “scientific theories”.


Inspired by Bill Evans, I recently came up with a pretty good metaphor for receiving feedback. Imagine that you are a piano student and your teacher asks you to “play something” for her. You play and afterwards she tells you that she likes the melancholy way you played “How About You?” (“I like New York in June…”)

Now, imagine that you weren’t trying to play “How About You?” but were just improvising whatever came to mind, and you didn’t have any particular mood in mind. Your teacher’s feedback wouldn’t mean very much. But suppose, instead, that you were trying to play “How About You?” in a lighthearted way. Now you’re getting some real information from your teacher. She’s telling you that you have something to work on. You are not getting your musical idea across in your playing.

The same goes for getting feedback on a paragraph you’ve written. If your only goal was to fill half a page with words then you’re not going to learn very much about how well you write from your reader’s interpretation. But if you decided on a simple, declarative key sentence the day before, and you spent exactly 27 minutes supporting, elaborating or defending it, then you can ask your reader to identify the key sentence and the rhetorical posture. If they get it right, you’re doing something right. If they get it wrong you can try to figure out what went wrong. The key sentence here is a bit like the melody — what are you trying to say? The rhetorical posture (support, elaborate or defend) is a bit like the mood — how are you trying to say it? They specify your intentions.

That’s the important thing. If you want to learn something from the feedback you are getting, you have to be doing something specific. You have to have an intention. When your reader tells you how they interpret your words, there has to be a “right answer” to compare that interpretation to.