What is Theory?

You know the ritual; you’ve been repeating it since middle school. Someone asks you what “theory” is, and you say, “a way to make sense of (the) data.” They smile, you smile. Beautiful day.

The next time you’re most likely to hear about theory is in an introductory science class in college. There you’ll learn that theory is the primary intellectual instrument of the dispassionate researcher. Beset by an array of data points or “facts,” she chooses among the best available cognitive scaffolds (or fashions one of her own) to organize and present them in their best and most meaningful form.

What’s “best?” You remember. Good theories are clear, parsimonious, empirically valid (i.e., are supported by the data), and above all, useful.

What’s useful? Predicting, controlling, and influencing nature, namely the earth, oceans, sky, stars, and each other.

Now this would be all well and good if the world were a laboratory and we were all researchers. Unfortunately, life sometimes divides by zero. People die, come into our lives, or otherwise just plain old surprise us. Nature too. Things happen all the time that seem to resist our ability to make sense of them.

Of course you could apply the scientific method to your troubles. Many people do.

Some stubborn folks throughout history, however, have insisted on engaging in things like philosophy, literature, the arts, and even (gasp!) religion when nature throws them a curveball.

Let’s get down and dirty with some of these folks right now. It’s time to get etymological (a fancy term for “intellectual perversion of those schooled in the humanities”).

Most of us know most of where the word theory comes from. Its main roots are in the Ancient Greek theorēn (θεωρέω), which means to look at, view, or behold, and theoria (θεωρία), which means a beholding or contemplation. In addition, theorēma (θεώρημα), which gives us theorem, is the Ancient Greek for sight or a spectacle.

You probably knew or could have guessed this already. But that’s not all. I’ll need you to hold on to your socks as you read this next bit.

Ever heard of Theors? If not, I’ll wager it’s because it flies in the face of what our culture needs us to think about theory.

They were sacred envoys sent from one Ancient Greek city-state to another. Their job was to bear sacred witness to the religious festivals of the host city (think the Olympics or festivals in honor of Dionysius). They were much like the dignitaries governments now send to the funerals of foreign leaders or to watch important international sporting events.

Sacred witness? Come on, we know theory has nothing to do with awe, reverence, or mystery – heck, theories are designed to banish mystery!

Aren’t they?

On this view, when we do theory we’re engaging in an act of contemplative worship of the highest order. We’re sending our thoughts, impressions, and passions (yes, our passions) out to meet, greet, and honor something interesting, and waiting for a response.

You’ll love this: know what “interesting” means? It comes from the Latin inter and esse, and means “to be among.”

You heard me: among. Caught in the game, in medias res, knee-deep in the hoopla, up to our ears in the data, up to our necks, rather than viewing them dispassionately from on high.

Based on the etymology, interesting things, people, and events draw us closer to them, compelling the kind of sacred witnessing a former age knew as theory, which our scientistic age has desiccated into a denominator-rationalizing, paradise-paving powerhouse.

This view of theory is as fully rigorous (don’t let scientism tell you otherwise) an intellectual approach as the laboratory model. It just doesn’t play Cartesian favorites and split the mental from the physical, observer from observed, dancer from the dance.

I know what you’re saying. “Rascal, can we please have some examples of what you mean?” Sure. Here are just a few for you.

If you insist on being pragmatic, you could just say “right tool for the right job.”

Of course we need science; when we need our distance, or just enough intellectual leverage to move nature. But it’s foolish to model our entire existence on the scientist’s activity. When we want to cultivate, honor, or just stand in the presence of mystery (or its reciprocal, the absurd) we simply need a better view of what it means to make sense of the data.

But then again, this is all just a theory. 🙂

What “Socially Constructed” Really Means

We’ve all heard the term “socially constructed.” It usually comes up like this: “well you know [so-and-so] is just a social construct anyway.”

The giveaway, of course, is the word “just.” Folks who use the term this way are trying to tell you, in a fancy way, that they regard the category under discussion as some combination of arbitrary, artificially (which is to say, inappropriately) imposed, invented, hypothetical, fictitious (which tells you how little they think of literature) or just outrightly false.

Race, gender, sexuality, all get tossed into the intellectual meat grinder (instead of salad spinner) this way. Of course, nobody really howls until science gets tossed in there.

What, science? Holy Science?

A Rascally Aside
Folks who know me know I’m no Luddite. I rely on science every day, and frankly wish I knew a lot more about it. What I’m against is scientism, the unquestioned belief in the superiority of natural scientific claims to truth over all others, such as those that come from the humanities.

In a scientistic culture, we do an awful lot of pretending there’s only one form of truth. What’s funny is we do so understanding perfectly well that truth works differently (or means qualitatively different things) in different fields such as math, the natural sciences, literature, history, and the arts.

We know, for example, the difference between telling the truth, being true to oneself (or another) and a true work of art. We know intuitively there’s a difference between factual, literary, mythological, psychological, existential, and spiritual truth.

If you’re of the opinion that the arts and humanities provide a perfectly legitimate form of truth, just not the same one you find on the chalkboard or in the laboratory, then you’re with me. If so, you may also think it’s a cheap way for disciplines (or people) to puff themselves up by bringing others down. In this way I think saying things like “we scientists have access to the truth, unlike those Chaucer scholars,” or “when has the study of philosophy ever cured anyone of malaria?” are just silly examples of scientism.

In short, I think we can be scientists as well as scholars. It follows that I don’t think being a scientist is any more incompatible with being a lover of God than it is with being a lover of the arts or literature.

Yes, science. Here’s how the cocktail party discussion typically goes down. Again, I wish people got this upset when other things get pureed, but anyway:

“So you think science is a social construct.”

“Yes, I do.”

“What about the theory of gravity? That’s part of science, isn’t it?”

“Well, yes.”

“All right, if gravity is socially constructed, I dare you to walk out this window right now.”

The howls of derisive laughter are not obligatory. The smug look, however, is.

Of course no one thinks gravity — or science — is fake. But to those poor souls infected with scientism, that’s exactly how the non-science world (e.g., of religion and the humanities) looks: vacuous, deliberately obscurantist, and just plain silly, what with all these “perspectives” on Shakespeare.

So what’s going on here? My take is this: I don’t think the term “socially constructed” is trying to say anything about a concept’s reality. It’s aiming instead at its objectivity. Here’s what I mean.

In school, one of the first things we’re taught is that 2 + 2 = 4. All well and good. But then they throw you a curveball, followed by a fastball and slider.

The curveball goes like this: since mathematical objects such as 2 + 2 = 4 are universal (true on Earth as well as Mars), they are independent of perspective. And since perspectives are held by people (OK, sentient beings), they must also be independent of human needs, concerns, and agendae.

The word we use for this most felicitous condition is “objective.” On the other side of the railroad tracks, of course, are “subjective” notions, such as opinions, which are entirely dependent on perspective.

Then comes a fastball: scientific laws, dates, particular interpretations (of history, religion, the body politic) are also packaged as “facts” and sold as enjoying the same status as mathematical objects.

Finally, the slider: these “objective facts” are then presented as the gold standard of truth. You are now invited to worship these “objective” truths the way a previous age (which we look down our historical nose at) worshipped God.

Why? Well, because only heathens, you see, coerce one another with deities, threats, and rifles. We civilized folks coerce one another with the force of logic, the “better argument,” rational assent, and this thing called the consent of the governed (which curiously seems to depend on your being Mr. Spock rather than Dr. McCoy).

Now when we say something is socially constructed we’re not questioning 2 + 2 = 4, we’re questioning the curveball. Sure the law of gravity applies to everyone, but does that mean it exists independent of human concerns? Does it stand outside the flow of culture and human history? Not at all – the law is meaningless absent the human (all right, all right, sentient) effort to predict, control, and influence nature.

For further giggles, take away measurement altogether from the human experience (I know it’s tough, but work with me here). Guess what else disappears now? That’s right: mathematical objects.

By my reckoning, the only people ever to claim something was fully independent of anything human referred to that property as transcendence and attributed it to the Divine. Now that’s fine if that’s where you think science wants to go, but my sense is that a lot of scientists might disagree.

Look, I don’t think there’s any question that things like race, gender, sexuality, and ethnicity exist. The intellectually interesting question is: in what way? The same way as gravity?

We can be more specific. What is the nature of such concepts? What is their philosophical status? And what is their relationship to human living? Those are the questions opened up by social constructionism; at least, as I understand it.

I don’t think it takes away from the reality of scientific laws to say they arise from human efforts to predict, control, or influence. I happen to think that’s a very important part of who we are as a species.

Let’s just not pretend that such laws exist in a universe separate from our own, that we need a special kind of passport to cross from the universal to the particular. We don’t.

Worst of all, let’s not pretend that if a truth isn’t mathematical and/or immediately clear it isn’t a real truth. Life, literature, and love are chock full of vital lessons for us, very few of which make it to our ears the first time around.

This next part is for my more religiously inclined readers, particularly those with some exposure to Christianity. Saying something is “socially constructed” is arguing that its universality comes by way of immanence rather than transcendence. That is to say, 2 + 2 = 4 becomes universal by being of this earth, not fleeing from it.

Sound like anybody you know?

Ok, back to earth. For me the most important thing is that social constructionism isn’t a finger in the eye of the sciences. It is, instead, a call to look at the ways in which we create theoretical objects, particularly our most useful and cherished ones, and for what reasons.

That’s all. 🙂

Coming soon: What is Theory?

On Bias

This is admittedly a big topic to take on in a blog post, but hey, you’ve got to start somewhere.

I was originally going to call this “On Prejudice,” but decided against it as I didn’t want people thinking of racial bias or bigotry, at least not right away. Then I thought, “why not use the language of the philosopher whose ideas you’re trying to present (Hans-Georg Gadamer), and say ‘On Pre-Judgment?'” That wasn’t catchy enough, so I went back to this one.

This link will take you to the article that got me thinking this morning about bias. It came to me by way of the excellent Twitter stream of Jay Rosen, which I can’t recommend highly enough for those of you interested in cutting-edge thinking about what it means to be a journalist these days.

As I read the Times piece, I was most struck by the distinction the author is trying to sell between “interpretive” and “objective” journalism. Now I was raised in such a way (you were too, probably), that such a thing isn’t such a hard sell. First I was taught to divide the world of intellectual objects into “facts” and “opinions,” with a wink and a nod that the former were good and to be sought, while the latter were bad but unavoidable. Facts represented the world “as it really is,” while opinions represented someone’s “perspective.”

Later I learned facts were good precisely because they were independent of individual perspectives. That is to say, facts are Democratic – anyone can have access to them, so long as they are presented the “right” way. And the “right” way is, of course, to preserve their perspectiveless quality.

Why? Well, because if a perspective sneaks in there, you might, without knowing it, get hoodwinked into, oh, I don’t know, communism, fascism, totalitarianism, speaking Russian (when I was a kid), or reading Heidegger (when I was in college).

So you have to be on your guard, I was taught, about those evil perspectives, and cling to your facts like a Rosary. If you’re still asking why, there’s another reason. For those who didn’t get the memo, perspectives are like fingerprints on the clear glass of reason. Perspectives come from the passions, you see, which everyone knows are the mortal enemy of reason (not its spouse).

Come on, don’t you want dispassionate measurements, attorneys, and legal judgments? Of course. Now just make that principle normative for all reason, and you’re set! (I especially dare you to try that kind of thinking in romantic relationships. Go ahead, I’ll be sitting here munching some popcorn.)

Now if you’re not sufficiently yucked out by passions or perspectives already, remember that it’s people who have these filthy things, and people have agendae, which are even tinier little germs that infect and destroy clear thinking.

I think we can all thank Descartes for our obsession with clear and distinct ideas, and Plato for getting us to gaze at poetry and rhetoric with squinted eyes and clenched fists.

Thus I was taught that our best ideas, facts, are free of perspective – just like our best legal judgments and scientific measurements.

Now if such an antiseptic view of reason strikes you as a little funny, try thinking about thoughts that have no thinker (and no cheating). Facts are headless, you see, which I suppose might also make them mindless. 😉

Once I learned about facts and values, I was off to the races. I learned there was reporting and then there was editorializing. Reporting presents the facts in a dispassionate (ie headless) way, which is what good and respectable people consume; the intellectual equivalent of whole & organic foods.

Editorializing – what they do on those yucky cable channels, presumably – is what the rascally rabble feed on: processed and fast food. Yuck.

The picture I’ve been trying to draw is what allows people like the author of the Times article (reporting? or editorializing?) to say there’s a distinction between interpretive and objective journalism with a straight face.

Best part of the trick? Getting you to think, then believe, that there’s no interpretation involved in “objective” anything. None. Why? Well, because the “facts speak for themselves,” don’t they?

Or is it because someone has already done the interpreting for you, and is now trying to get you to stop doing it for yourself?

Now bias. What is it? Biases, according to Gadamer, can impede clear thinking, but this is a brute view of bias. Looking more carefully, and philosophically, we see that no understanding is possible without a starting point. That is to say, before you can speak, you have to choose your words, and before that, choose your language (or one will be provided for you, wink wink, argument for learning another language, wink).

Why say this thing and not something else? Ready for the answer? Bias. Without bias, without investment, without passion, we’d never open our mouths to speak or open our minds to think. We just wouldn’t know where to start.

All thought starts somewhere, and every somewhere is a choice between a here and a “not there,” whether we’re aware of it or not, whether the language, history, and culture has narrowed the choices for us (it has, don’t worry), or whether we say “I choose to see this as a Democrat or as a Republican.”

We’re biased against bias honestly, I think, given the history of this past century. But I read the Shoah, the appalling history of race relations in the US, and the rise of Fox news somewhat differently than the way my teachers taught me. I see them as calls not to take on an even more sanitized, antiseptic approach to reason, but as a call to be more thoughtful about bias.

You see, Gadamer makes me think it’s our hostility to passion, rhetoric, and poetry, not those things in themselves, that gets us into trouble. If Gadamer is right in distinguishing pre-judgment from prejudice, then we only make the passions (especially evil ones) worse, and enslave ourselves to them more, by pretending we can escape them and that only (evil, dirty) others have them.

Look, if you don’t believe me, ask the scientists; they’ll tell you how messy measurement can be. No room for an antiseptic view here, at least not among those who’ve read anything of the last 100 years in the philosophy of science (hint: start here).

Or you could ask the therapists; at least the ones who still know what countertransference analysis is. They’ll tell you that bias is our gateway into the Other, not a roadblock (unless we choose to make it one). If you want to get really fancy in this regard, try reading Heinrich Racker, Darlene Ehrenberg, or Karen Maroda on the matter.

Moral of the story: if you want to master bias (and who doesn’t), find out what yours are, and be prepared to find there might not be much separating you from those you dislike or even despise. You might even find they have something to teach you (and not, it’s not “go march on Washington with firearms demanding a white President”).

And whether you’re a journalist, scientist, jurist, or lover, don’t try to sell your narratives as headless “facts” written by no one. Don’t pretend, in other words, that your finger doesn’t get caught in the camera lens every time you try to take a picture. Don’t pretend the stories you tell, no matter how much you try to sanitize them, aren’t already interpretations or “spins” of some sort.

Most of all, don’t pretend that such spins aren’t subject to the forces of history, culture, and language, don’t have a lot to tell about who you are as a person, or could very well be otherwise.

Biggest (and for me, most delicious) irony? Gadamer got his ideas on bias from Heidegger. History is kind of nice that way, don’t you think?