Just-so stories: theory

by CarlD

Digging back through some old listserv stuff to see if there’s anything useful, I came upon this answer I wrote to a guy named Mike who wanted to know how theories happen. The context was a discussion about whether historians can go gather facts without having a theory first. (Others said one must, one must, and I said one can’t, one can’t.)

Teaching theories to people who doubt the value of theory in the first place is sweaty and hard. In this post my approach, as it often is, was to tell a fairytale:

Theories develop from the interaction of experience and cognitive processing. This interaction begins at, or even before, birth. You plop out and all this stuff starts happening to you. You have no idea how to make sense of it, of course. Gradually, things happen more than once and you can start to box them up (you develop theories).

Your original boxes are really silly. They’re works-in-progress. Lots of stuff keeps happening, and you’re making more and more sense of it. Because the original boxes were silly (hey, you were a newborn) they end up exploding. You have any number of these cognitive ruptures, when stuff just doesn’t fit into one of the boxes (or fits into several). Eventually, sooner for some, never for others, you get sick of having your world turned upside down all the time and you lock in your theoretical structure where it happens to be at the time. Cats don’t fly. Apples don’t fall upwards. Women don’t make good prime ministers. That sort of thing.

Experiences that aren’t repeated or that just don’t fit anywhere are left lying about (your psychoanalyst may call this “denial”).

Obviously, at some primordial point in the process there was an experience that didn’t have a theory there already trying to make sense of it. But by the time we get old enough to talk, our experiences (and the facts we deduce from them) are thoroughly arranged in meaningful order by the theories developed out of the accidents of our previous experience. Language seals the deal, by offering vocabularies only for those experiences that have been pre-approved by the community that developed and uses the language. We keep learning, but each new bit of experience has to plug itself into the ever more elaborate structure of our (theoretical) sense-making apparatus. There’s still an interaction between the experience and the theory, but the theory’s got a lot of experiential weight behind it by now, including the experience of an entire culture picked up through language.

This is all pragmatic. None of it is philosophically warranted as “True.” As old Hume pointed out, just because the sun rises a bunch of mornings in a row is no good warrant to assert that it will again. But it’s a good bet, and in ordinary life we take those kinds of bets all the time. You could call those bets theories, too.

Now — imagine living life WITHOUT those bets. Anxiety starts over whether the sun will come up, and spreads from there. You don’t even know what a historian is, let alone what you’re doing standing over this dusty box of old papers. That’s what living, or working, without a theory would be like.

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