Contents come and go: methods remain

Contents come and go: methods remain

The functioning of our mind knows roughly two facets: content and method. Matters of content have to be filled with images: pictures, colours, smells and events. The so-called creative mind lines them up, scrambles them and re-orders them again. If he likes the new image, he keeps it for a while in his memory, until it pales and loses its attractiveness. Then it is time for a new angle or horizon and the juggling and ordering of bits of content can start anew. This happens continually, often without awareness, in fashion, industry, science and of course art. Much evaporates even if it is genius.

The point is: how to provide an enduring form for all these fleeting contents? That is the method, the way of operating by means of ordering principles, that provide the flow of images an ordered place or a lining-up. Without method everything spreads to all sides or evaporates. Method creates discipline, order and simplicity by deleting what is redundant: matters must be transparent, clear and distinct. One can find this in the 17th work of the French philosopher René Descartes who wrote on the method of thinking in his  Discours de la méthode. Concepts must be “clair et distinct” and the method must through casting doubt on all proposition lead to the simplest axiom with an undebatable certainty. That is that “I know that I think”: “cogito ergo sum”. From that simplest axiom Descartes strived to build a new philosophy.

Though this kind of rationalism has been debated, it is still relevant. Bits of content, colours, smells, words and mental pictures should in a creative way tumble around. But at a certain moment that tumbling should be restrained by a method. But methods have a risk of fossilizing, That has to be broken as soon as a kind of mainstream develops. Then we have to return to the fleeting ideas and tumbling images.

Since I became a scholar I have more or less applied this approach, also on matters as dry as dust such as legal and criminal subjects. How does that work “in my head”? Do I start with a lot of reading? No, that smothers my thinking. I start with a mental picture, something literally like Obelix or Donald Duck without much discipline, but capable of coming into buds in the form of a narrative. The beginning shoots are allowed to grow, as long as they remain within the boundaries of the narrative: lively but disciplined and no overgrowing of subthemes. Then comes the difficult end which must return to the beginning picture to create unity. For that there is no recipe except that of another metaphor: writing a piece is like writing music: the prelude must return in the last pieces. That must resound, because that is the part which is best remembered.

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