Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 17, No. 184.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
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Date: Fri, 08 Aug 2003 06:47:36 +0100
From: Willard McCarty <email@example.com>
Subject: meaning of "theory"
In Humanist 17.163 I quoted Thomas K. Burch's caution, in "Computer
modelling of theory: Explanation for the 21st Century", that the word
"theory" varies significantly in meaning across the disciplines. A great
deal of the literature with which I am currently involved, from the
philosophy of science, uses this word in senses ranging from something like
the epistemological rock on which science is founded to a formally
expressed synonym for "idea". In attempting to make sense of this
literature for what we do with computers, I have come to wonder if the word
has any productive use whatever in the humanities. (Burch's caution perhaps
cautions us not to expect a single answer for all the humanities, so
perhaps I should be asking with respect to a single field, such as literary
studies. But since the audience here is such an multidisciplinary one, I
will leave the field unspecified.)
What, then, do we gain (apart from honourific baggage) when we say that X
is a *theory* of something, rather than, say, an idea of it, way of talking
about it, scheme for it?
For the sake of argument, let's assume I am a rather ordinary literary
critic, with the usual sort of competent familiarity with and loose
attachment to current ideas, whose interest is in a particular work of
literature rather than in "theory" per se (whatever that means). When I
begin a literary-critical study, can I be said to have or to be working
under the influence of a "theory", and if so, what does that mean? If the
answer is no, then am I proceeding incompetently? If I were to become
explicitly aware of all the current ideas that I may have picked up along
the way, in what sense would I be theoretically aware? If I subscribed to
what might be called a "theory" and proceeded to do my study, how
constrained would I be, and what effect on the theory or its status among
current adherents would my work possibly have?
If there are better questions to be asking, please ask them instead.
Dr Willard McCarty | Senior Lecturer | Centre for Computing in the
Humanities | King's College London | Strand | London WC2R 2LS || +44 (0)20
7848-2784 fax: -2980 || firstname.lastname@example.org
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