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