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. 🙂