Descartes (1637) claimed that each problem he solved became a rule which served afterwards to solve other problems. But there is an easy slide from a method used again insightfully to a method used mechanically. This very brief chapter treads a line between mechanicality and systematic, disciplined behaviour. Being methodical is often associated with being routine and detailed, with acting almost mechanically or clerically rather than creatively. At one extreme, I can rely on spontaneity and serendipity for stimuli in order to respond differently in new situations. At the other extreme I can develop a rigidly methodical pattern of activity which leaves little room for creativity and spontaneity. Somewhere between these extremes, or rather, moving around in the space between these extremes, it is possible to act, to reflect upon, and to sharpen those acts and the way I work on them. I can for example, carry out a sequence of activities of:
posing a problem; seeking data or evidence; proposing some action; carrying out the action; evaluating that action re-posing the problem (perhaps making modifications); seeking new data; modifying the proposed action; carrying out that new action;
and so on in an endless cycle. I can follow this cycle step by step, without really thinking or participating deeply, just working through the steps one by one. I can also do these sorts of thing with intensity but not necessarily in strict order, referring to the outer scheme or cycle only when I feel I am losing my way or am in need of re-direction. In a similar way, students can work through a sequence of exercises or tasks without attending to what is the same and different about them. They can work through the process of writing an essay, doing a project or developing a case study concerned with fundamentally endemic tensions and contradictions, but without actually being touched by those contradictions and tensions. Alternatively, they can work on the collection of tasks, looking for what is common, trying to generalise a technique and getting a sense of what
constitutes a problem or task ‘of this type’ as reported by Descartes. They can use an essay, project, or case study to confront tensions and to become more aware of the possibilities they afford and the constraints they impose. The distinction being made between working through and working on is between ‘suffering’ (in the original sense) a sequence of experiences, and making sense of an experience of succession; between being formatted and being informed; between reacting and taking initiative; between assenting and asserting.