Humanist Discussion Group

Humanist Archives: March 21, 2021, 12:58 p.m. Humanist 34.291 - 'theory'?

              Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 34, No. 291.
        Department of Digital Humanities, University of Cologne
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        Date: 2021-03-20 12:10:15+00:00
        From: Willard McCarty <>
        Subject: 'theory'?

One of the most treacherous intellectual tar-pits for the unwary must 
be 'theory'. By this I don't mean what Jonathan Culler, in Literary 
Theory: A Very Short Introduction (1997), called "just plain ‘theory’" 
(p. 1), or what Terry Eagleton, in After Theory (2003), meant either. 

I mean 'theory' as a promissory note, used as if it the word simply 
denoted a universal constant, invariant across disciplines, most 
likely carrying baggage filled with unexamined debts to the 
physical sciences or to someone in the Nomenklatura, suffused with 
the longing to be like them, accepted, authoritative. 
Gadamer, in "Praise of Theory" ("Lob der Theorie", 1980), starts 
at the beginning (ours, that is), with the origins of the word in 
Ancient Greek, often translated 'contemplation'. Between then 
and now 'theory' has accumulated so many uses (as the OED 
entry shows) as to bewilder attempts to define it. Not that I 
think any single definition would help. 

What I do think would be truly helpful would be a study of uses 
discipline by discipline. Stephan Trüby's "Tausendundeine 
Theorie" (2015), trans. Natasha Fewtrell (2017), helps but isn't 
quite what I am looking for, as it does not relate common 
usage in each discipline to the agenda of that discipline.

Any suggestions?


Willard McCarty,
Professor emeritus, King's College London;
Editor, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews;  Humanist

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