#15 Conflict between observers that use and participants that examine tradition

Against Method by Paul Feyerabend, pages 209-272

I want to write about the scientist’s attitude that Feyerabend calls “pragmatic philosophy” (p. 217); that is to say, the idea that a researcher does not study something because it’s perfect, but because it is imperfect and s/he wants to see where such research would lead. He says the pragmatist must be both observer and participant. The observer is someone from the outside looking in, sticks to rigid rules determined by their so-thought fixed paradigm. “Observers want to know what is going on, participants what to do” (p. 217). The participant knows what the observer knows but is willing to poke and prod the issue at hand with the theoretical and conceptual tools at his/her disposal. For example, we might think of two people at the beach: the participant sees the waves, jumps into the water, splashes around; the observer stands on the sand, maybe dips a toe into the water, but all the while watches from afar. The observer is arguably in a safer position, that is, stable land, while the participant could get swept away by the undercurrent. 

Observers ask different questions than participants, according to Feyerabend, likely because observers can only judge objectively the experiences of others, that is, what they perceive as the result of such profound (e.g. psychedelic) experiences, whereas the participant has more perspective, and can judge their own subjective experiences with an observer’s eye in addition to studying the observer’s responses of him or her. The participant, armed with the observer’s theoretical and conceptual toolbox, will still know more at the end of the day since s/he can pile on personal experiential data in the cumulative analysis, experience that observers cannot access albeit partially from participants’ accounts. 

In his analysis of the interaction between demands and practices of researchers, Feyerabend (p. 222) says: 

“[T]he difference is due, first, to a difference between observer-attitude and participant-attitude: one side, the side defending the ‘objectivity’ of its values, uses its tradition instead of examining it – which does not turn the tradition into an objective measure of validity. And secondly, the difference is due to concepts that have been adapted to such onesidedness. The colonial official who proclaims new laws and a new order in the name of the king has a much better grasp of the situation than the rationalist who recites the mere letter of the law without any reference to the circumstances of its application and who regards this fatal incompleteness as proof of the ‘objectivity’ of the laws recited.”

Later on, Feyerabend speaks of maps and their users. I imagine people using the limited (by our present standard) maps of the day during the Age of Discovery hundreds of years ago. They had no choice; there wasn’t anything better. Maps, however, are not fixed, they are not absolute. The observer would follow the map unquestioningly, or perhaps not: the observer might question whether the coordinates and landmarks are correct but wouldn’t do what the participant would do. The participant would use the maps, question them at most turns, and modify them accordingly in real-time. What is the point of using a map, a set of recommendations, any methodology, if it cannot or should not be modified to the specific user or to contemporary, more updated times? The map then loses its value; might as well start from scratch each time one goes on a journey. Of course, people do not this, so we ask: What is it that prompts participant-attitude-minded people to take action, to examine their tradition instead of simply using their tradition? What is the balance between the two? 

Since I just finished Feyerabend’s book, I’m already planning out my next six weeks of research texts for an upcoming iboga experiment. I need to brush up on neuro-phenomenology, its methods, its practitioners, its history, everything. In a nutshell, neuro-phenomenology combines neuroscientific methods with participants’ subjective reports. This method has already been done in psychedelic research, and, seemingly with some success. Christopher Timmerman, a PhD candidate at the Centre for Psychedelic Research at Imperial College London, gave a very interesting lecture on the neurophenomenology of the DMT state. In it, he and his colleagues used a variety of approaches (e.g. including the microphenomenology second-person interview method) to correlate brain activity with very specific subjective experiences. 

Although I find the above research and methods to be wonderful, I don’t see the researchers acting as participants in the study. Many scholars have told me this is a big no-no in academia, that the academics themselves cannot take psychedelics and report about them. Well, not yet anyway, and some academics have done just this, but after they retire, which is a shame. A researcher with the participant-attitude mindset would, in my opinion and in accordance with Feyerabend’s views, be better able to examine their tradition rather than just using it. There’s nothing grossly wrong with just using a tradition, staying within the bounds of traditional knowns, most researchers do, however, examining a tradition and “going native,” so to speak, is the best way to make discoveries and further the progression of the tradition. And if going native does occur at some level, which I assure you it does (e.g. see: Langlitz, 2010), it happens out of the spotlight, in academics’ closets. 

Neuro-phenomenology is a step closer to bridging the gap between objective and subjective experiences, but it could fuse even more by researchers taking the substances themselves, for professional scholars take these substances, thereby using their adept knowledge to make sense of these experiences, thus giving some context for the rest of us to make sense of our experiences. 

Feyerabend, P. (1993/1975). Against Method (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Verso. 

Langlitz, N. (2010). The persistence of the subjective in neuropsychopharmacology: observations of contemporary hallucinogen researchHistory of the Human Sciences, 23(1), 37-57. 

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