More on teaching (social) theory

by CarlD

Dad happened to catch the recent theory post and sent me some quick thoughts to fill in my own, and the larger, historical context; sketch an account of enabling and disabling dynamics for big critical theory; and incidentally supply more of the granularity missing from the 25 writers meme:

“Your own early trip through theory was guided by, among others, [Peter] Bachrach, [Kyriakos] Kontopoulos, and [Chuck] Dyke. That puts you two degrees of separation from, among others, Sorokin, Parsons, Marcuse, Coser, Kurt Wolfe, Hannah Arendt, and other assorted refugees from the Weimar Republic; three degrees of separation from Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Kautsky; four degrees of separation from Nikolai Ulyanov. And your graduate career was yet to come, adding to the pantheon of your close intellectual forebears….

Nowadays, if it ain’t routine changes rung on one of the two bells of liberalism, it ain’t theory. Occasionally, some fragment of Foucault gets a play. Are you surprised that Obama’s busily trying to recreate the welfare state fast enough so no one notices, or that we’re plopping down into what Marx would have identified as the worst of all possible systems?

Europe is a couple of generations closer than we are to a real left. The critical theorists are hopelessly wrapped around their own fannies confined to dealing with Habermas’ Kantianism, but they still occasionally remember what it’s all supposed to be about. The residual Marxists are wandering around forlornly trying to make sense of themselves in the world of Merkle, Sarcoszy, and Berlusconi, but they still retain a nostalgic sense of loss that some of them can still connect. Here in the US there are no such memories (oh, the odd blog) and no such nostalgia; and more important, not a clue about connection. Sociology was the most obvious academic victim of the cold war. At Brandeis (read “exile from New York”) I was the beneficiary of the death struggle – the end of ideology or the triumph of the will, depending who you talk to. As you said, theory decoupled from practice is meaningless, and by the end of the sixties the decoupling was essentially complete. In its place came the hodgepodge of single issue special interests you’ve talked about so many times.

Sociology, as a discipline, was enslaved to the entitlement system of welfare liberalism. There was no place for the theoretical traditions beyond the bounds of liberal orthodoxy. So the theorists died out, leaving a few semi-alienated misfits behind [including us]….”

Something for everyone here. For another current take on the fate of big critical theory, see Frames/Sing.

Meanwhile, I especially like the idea of a ‘degrees of separation’ analysis of our theoretical influences and trajectories. Anyone else want to join in with that?


32 Responses to “More on teaching (social) theory”

  1. I’d say the big problem with “degrees of separation” is Russia. (Although I would say that, wouldn’t I.) Probably the overwhelming majority of Russian theorists are one to zero degrees away from orthodox Marxism, and yet they as a rule far less enamored of Marx than their Western counterparts. There are obvious reasons why that might be the case, but it’s still a limitation of the analysis.

    (At the end of Susan Buck-Morss’s Dreamworld and Catastrophe, there’s a hilarious chapter wherein she nods understandingly while listening to her late-’80s Russian theorist friends, then unsuccessfully attempts to convince them that the Marxist worldview still has some juice left in it. Cringeworthy.)

    The bit about theory and practice leaves me skeptical. People who talk about theory and practice always make the same point, that theory and practice are inseparable/identical/one is meaningless if you don’t have the other/etc. etc. How can you possibly see claims like these as convincing? What the hell is “practice,” anyway, and what is its intended result? If it’s social revolution, then no one has done any practice (-xis) worthy of the mention in America since the Weather Underground. If “practice” can be expanded to include buying fair trade coffee and waving a sign at the campus antiwar rally, then it’s not clear why we need theory at all–I doubt Bono has cracked Negative Dialectics, or plans to. In any case, if we were to be scrupulous about theory’s real contribution to practice, we would be left with considerably less of that fun old Frankfurt School stuff than we care to admit.

    Bring back Aristotelian theoria, I say!

  2. Connections? Authors? Degrees of separation? Anybody here but me who has read/reads Zygmunt Baumann, e.g., Postmodernity and Its Discontents or Liquid Modernity? Consider, for example,

    Fluids travel easily. They ‘flow’, ‘spill’, ‘run out’, ‘splash’, ‘pour over’, ‘leak’, ‘flood’, ‘spray’, ‘drip’, ‘seep’, ‘ooze’; unlike solids, they are not easily stopped… These are reasons to consider ‘fluidity’ or ‘liquidity’ as fitting metaphors when we wish to grasp the nature of the present, in many ways novel, phase in the history of modernity…

    Baumann notes possible objections. Was not ‘melting the solids’, a phrase coined in The Communist Manifesto the very model for modernism, for dissolving the shackles of the past to pursue a liberated future? Then, however, he also notes,

    All this was to be done not in order to do away with the solids once and for all and make the brave new world free of them for ever, but to clear the site for new and improved solids; to replace the inherited set of deficient and defective solids with another set, which was much improved and preferably perfect.

    I know that a large part of why I find Baumann an attractive theorist is that I am a wordsmith by trade, and I like the way he dances with words, pursuing the implications of considering society as liquified. Could there be more to him than that?

  3. Greg, yes, or at least the Edict of Nantes.

    And I studied the Russians from the Decembrists on up through Narodnaya Volya, Tkachev and Chernyshevsky to the purges, not to mention Robespierre’s Terror, the Cultural Revolution, Pol Pot, etc., so I know what extremism and its consequences look like, which is why I slip links to the Black Book of Communism into so many of my posts.

    I like thinking better than not thinking, however, and I like acting thoughtfully rather than acting thoughtlessly. (But see Burke.) So my approach to the theory/practice nexus is pragmatic and ground-up, rather than platonic and top-down.

  4. (I wasn’t referring to revolutionary extremism–I was simply talking about the scholarly climate in contemporary, i.e. post-Soviet, Russia.)

    OK, you’re a pragmatist. I’m a pragmatist too, yay! But in order to be a pragmatist when it comes to theory, you would have to keep asking yourself “is this way of thinking useful in terms of achieving my end?”–or so I would think. What is that end?
    Somewhere else you spoke of paralysis vs. liberalism, which I think is an excellent way of putting it. Now, I’m a paralytic, so as far as I’m concerned theory doesn’t require any justification beyond its aesthetic or hedonistic or broadly ethical value. I’m not sure where you place yourself. But if your end is the continued onward-upward march of liberalism, what exactly is theory helping you achieve in a concrete sense? Does it help you find the lesser evil to vote for? Does it shape your identity as a consumer? I don’t mean for this to sound sacastic–I’m genuinely curious. What aspects of your practice are really informed or guided by theory?

  5. Sorry Greg, I misunderstood. When I think of disenchantment with marxism I go right to extremism. Otherwise we’re just talking about authoritarian state socialism, and it doesn’t take marxism to make that mistake. You know us westerners think y’all just want the tsar back anyway.

    I like this challenge on the use-value of theory. Mostly theory gives me a sense that I understand things, especially retrospectively. There’s a little feeling-smart-boost in that, no doubt. Theory also helps refine observation and recognition, although confirmation bias pops up immediately as a danger there. As for informing prospective action I quickly run into complexity problems. Theory helps me have a pretty good feel for what the range of possible developments is, but between lots of variables and turbulence among them I don’t get much specific predictive value or practical guidance out of it.

  6. Oh, and I think some of the world’s biggest assholes are people who are trying to live in rigid conformity to some theory or another.

  7. @Carl
    You seem to be in great form. Glad that WordPress sent me here.

    And, BTW, the “Chuck” mention made the onomastic connection salient, to me.

  8. Hi, BlogDaddy! Nice of you to check in. Hey, I’m almost a year old!

  9. But in order to be a pragmatist when it comes to theory, you would have to keep asking yourself “is this way of thinking useful in terms of achieving my end?”–or so I would think. What is that end?

    I’ve always liked Richard Rorty’s answer to this question, i.e., to minimize misery and provide equal opportunity for all our children. With those as overarching goals, all sorts of things fall into place.

    But what, then, of theory? Isn’t our problem that “theory” can be taken in many different senses? At one extreme, there are such cosmic notions as the Hegelian/Marxist view of history as driven by contradictions resolved through the dialectic of thesis-antithesis-synthesis or, alternatively, market fundamentalism. At the other are highly specific propositions; I think, for example, of the well-established theorems in social network analysis, e,g, that the likelihood of a giant component, all of whose vertices are connected, increases with network size. This turns out to be of considerable practical performance in, for example, judging whether a series of two or three links with a terrorist should count as an incriminating association. The answer is probably not because, if the network in question is sufficiently large, the likelihood that any particular link is an innocent one is also large.

  10. (Turned threaded comments off after a brief experiment. It was just confusing me by making a flow of conversation harder to follow.)

  11. I’ve always liked Richard Rorty’s answer to this question, i.e., to minimize misery and provide equal opportunity for all our children. With those as overarching goals, all sorts of things fall into place.

    I’d say that this is sidestepping the question, not answering it. Overarching goals are easy–I personally like “HAPPINESS FOR EVERYONE, FREE, AND MAY NO ONE WALK AWAY DISAPPOINTED!” What is really at stake are proximate goals–who do you vote for? Will you volunteer at the homeless shelter? Will you build a truck bomb? It’s unclear what pragmatic relationship theory bears to any of these ends.

    Carl, I think that’s all the use I get out of theory too. But that raises the question of whether the theory/practice problem is actually relevant for our lives at all, whether you choose to answer it like Marx or like Aristotle. It’s a theoretical problem, so to speak, not a practical one. (Personally I can’t see a good reason to keep the phantom of praxis alive at all, so I don’t devote much time to the distinction, but maybe there’s some pragmatic use for it that I haven’t yet seen.)

  12. I think for just living very little conscious theory is needed, and default theories will do the trick. Habits handle most of the load, as William James said. When our habits and defaults are well-adapted to our environments that’s a great way to live, and the real genius of conservatism.

    But conservative theory as such was born out of upheaval – Burke and the French Revolution, as the most famous example. It’s inherently nostalgic and cranky because its reason for being is a growing mismatch between habits, defaults and environments.

    So theory gets its life from change. When there’s change we may want to stop it, accelerate it, anticipate it, go with the flow of it, channel it, seize its opportunities, or just understand it. All of those are understandable goals, all but flow-going require effective human action, and all must be guided by theory, since the alternatives are doomed repetition of habits and defaults or random spasms (the latter was Gramsci’s critique of Sorel).

    As long as there’s change or desire for it I don’t think the praxis problem can be sidestepped. Whether theory can effectively inform practice is a different question, which we’ve already answered. In the big sense of mastering our destiny, not so far, at great cost, and maybe never. In the more limited and technical sense described by John in the network analysis example, definitely, all the time.

  13. On the questions of overarching goals and practice, we have, I submit, two excellent examples on the table. Rorty’s pragmatist has starting points for practical decisions: “Minimize misery” leads directly to “Who is hurt by this?” — which is always a good question and typically much easier to answer than “Who will be happy with this?” Why it is generally easier to identify those likely to be injured by an action than those likely to be happy about it is, in itself, a theoretical question with considerable practical import.

    “Provide equal opportunity” has even more direct implications, e.g., in the matter of taxes. Since we know that throughout human history, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer has been the usual trend, regardless of the official ideology promulgated by the rich who are getting richer (happens under Capitalism, Communism, Confucianism, the examples are fairly endless), progressive taxation and, especially, high estate taxes are necessary to reset the system in each generation to make even approximating equal opportunity more than a mask for greed. In contrast, “Happiness for everyone” fails William James’ test for pragmatic argumentation; it is read as ironical precisely because there is no way to know what that would entail or how we might get there.

    Then, turning to Carl’s points: We could, I imagine, do without the words “theory” and “praxis”; but, as every business person or practical politician knows there’s a world of difference between plan and implementation and, pragmatically speaking, getting from one to the other is always the difficult part of the problem.

  14. Serendipitously, my e-mail this morning includes a message from Edge with a link to

    It’s one of the most amazing things I have found on the Web and incredibly to the point of this discussion.

  15. John, I think you’re still dodging my question. What I’m asking about is not “us as a society.” I’m asking about your own personal practical commitments. I’m assuming they include voting for Obama, fair-trade coffee, independent bookstores and so on. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that there really is a clear and unambiguous path between these things and equal opportunity (e.g.). Why do you need theory for that? I know dozens of people who do the same exact things while giving them only the barest minimum of critical thought. What separates you from them?

    Incidentally, here’s some real propaganda of the deed for you:

  16. That came off as unnecessarily hostile, so I apologize. But I’m still unclear on what “being guided by theory” really means, in a concrete sense. In both this century and the last, it seems that theory has either led to extremism or to traditional liberalism, which makes little functional use of theory (for instance, because the policymakers who are really the ones making decisions under this model have very rarely been guided by it). Where is the line that separates the political process from a doomed habit or a random spasm?

  17. What separates you from them?

    Perhaps the thought I put into the decisions.

    Still, I don’t think that either Carl or I are suggesting that fully formed theories are necessary conditions for action; we, like other people, frequently act in ways that conform to what Bourdieu calls a “habitus.” You know, like the one that leads to your responding to serious proposals with pettifoggery.

    The question is, can theory lead to better-informed actions? Clearly not always; we are living now with the consequences of the too simplistic assumptions of market fundamentalism. Fortunately not so bad yet as those of, for example, the Maoist ideas that drove the Great Leap Forward or The Cultural Revolution. But, for that very reason, we ignore theory at our peril.

  18. I’m not nitpicking. The rhetoric of contemporary liberalism is shrouded in hifalutin phrases about theory and practice, and I think it’s only fair to ask that it substantiate its own claims in a non-question-begging manner.

    Consider these two scenarios:

    1. You sit and think and read some Frankfurt School. Then you vote Obama and buy fair-trade coffee.

    2. You vote Obama and buy fair-trade coffee.

    How has theory proven itself in this case to be a necessary or even helpful component of your praxis? I don’t need the theory to be “fully-formed.” I just think that action, especially on the level of large-scale political process, is shaped by decisions lacking any theoretical backing at all and then retroactively justified in theoretical terms. On the personal level, it makes absolutely no difference whether we read theory or not. Our contribution to the process is equally minimal either way.

  19. Consider, for example, the theories implicit in

    “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

    “We shall overcome.”

    Try reading The Federalist Papers and contemplating the Constitution.

    Consider, too, the logic of your argument applied to the law of gravity. How would you describe the difference between

    1. Newton formulates the theory of gravitation. An apple falls from a tree.
    2. An apple falls from a tree.

    If you consider this a sufficient case against theory, I can only extend my sympathies.

  20. There’s no need to condescend to me. I’ve read the Federalist Papers–I’ve even published on New York political culture in the period. You can’t just tell me to consider and contemplate things: you have to give some sort of argument for why they’re relevant.

    Your Newton example actually supports my point of view. When Newton formulates the theory of gravitation, he’s formulating a theory–in other words, practice is informing theory, not the other way around. But in any case, conflating scientific theories with “theory” in the Adorno sense only clouds the issue.

  21. I don’t want to get too far into a response here without reading the linked Edge piece, but just in passing it looks like we are all more or less agreeing that a lot of what counts for thinking is actually bourdieuian habitus. So then the question is what role if any in orienting us toward the practice that’s left over formal theory has.

    Greg, your everyday examples fit a habitus analysis really well. Voting and purchasing ‘decisions’ are pretty clearly foregone conclusions in most cases, within a narrow scope of variation that gives marketing folk their turf. John seems to be talking about theories at the macro level of ‘language games’, the general systems of rules and/or worldviews that frame and orient the production and reproduction of habitus. In short, I’m not sure you’re talking about the same thing yet?

  22. Carl, you’re right; what I’m saying is that as long as you’re talking in terms of bird’s eye view theory and bird’s eye view practice, you’re not talking about the theory/practice problem at all. (In some sense, bird’s eye views are always purely theoretical.) The only practice we have available to us is our individual embodied practice–certainly we can act as part of a collective, but until we evolve some kind of Borg-like collective intelligence, we’re still acting as individuals. And if our individual decisions, the explicitly political as well as the nominally apolitical ones, are driven by habitus, we really have no practical use for theory at all. That’s not to say that theory is worthless–just that it doesn’t contribute to what is meant by practice.

  23. I’ll tell you what, you don’t condescend to me and I won’t condescend to you. Why don’t you back off and stop to think that I am the guy who said, several messages back, that we need to consider what we mean by theory. Then, we could look at arguments to which the term “theory” has been applied. Some will fail to satisfy the canons of scientific experimentation but may, nonetheless, be worth examination because, in their time, they were taken seriously and may even continue to have their adherents today. They might, on the other hand, have become of what Joseph Levenson (the author of Confucian China and Its Modern Fate labels “of merely historical interest.” We would, in effect, be deciding whether they are, in William James’ terms, still alive or now dead for people in this historical moment.

    The Frankfort School is, I propose, an interesting case in point. Would I use its pronouncements as guides to action? No. There are large grains of truth to be gleaned about the culture industries (I work in advertising and can speak as a witness); but the notion of a world becoming increasingly homogenized to fit the needs of industrial capital? No. That completely misses the dynamic that drives literally thousands of marketers and advertising people in their endless, chaotic search for something new.

    If, on the other hand, I was interested in early-and-mid 20th century intellectual history and was aiming to follow Zygmunt Baumann’s advice that to understand thinkers it is good to examine their nightmares… Yes, I might find it worthwhile to learn more about what Adorno and his Frankfort School colleagues have written.

  24. If I was being condescending, I apologize, although I honestly can’t see where I was. I certainly agree that we need to figure out what we mean by theory (and also practice)–these kinds of conversations have a way of uncovering crucial definitional differences, as we’ve seen. Part of the reason for my original attack on the theory/practice problem was the maddening lack of specificity about where precisely this marriage is supposed to take place and what level it’s supposed to operate on.

  25. And if our individual decisions, the explicitly political as well as the nominally apolitical ones, are driven by habitus, we really have no practical use for theory at all.

    Mightn’t it be fairer to say that we use theory to interrupt habitus and suggest alternative courses of action, only some fraction of which will turn out to be improvements?

  26. JM: “Mightn’t it be fairer to say that we use theory to interrupt habitus and suggest alternative courses of action, only some fraction of which will turn out to be improvements?”

    Kvond: We also, and often blindly, use theory to create and support habitus, the habitus of theorizing.

  27. We also, and often blindly, use theory to create and support habitus, the habitus of theorizing.

    So, a two-year-old finds a hammer and smashes the family china. Do we then conclude that hammers are useless?

    Let me say unequivocally that much of what is labeled “theory” in the social sciences and humanities is useless crap, at best a kind of ponderous logic-chopping navel gazing. That said, I am reminded of a remark made by David McCulloch, the father of automata theory, in the introduction to Embodiments of Mind. The following is a paraphrase:

    I build machines that simulate what human beings do, he said. So far they have always fallen short of doing everything that a human being can do. Whenever that happens, there are always those who say, “See, machines will never do what human beings can do.” Then there are folks like me, I build a better machine.

    Or, one of my favorite bits from Nietzche, from The Birth of the Drama and the Genealogy of Morals. The philosopher compares the scientist and the metaphysician to two men watching Salome perform the dance of the seven veils. The scientist is content to be tantalized as one veil after another is lifted. The metaphysician is the boor shouting, “Take it all off! Now!”

    This suggests two views of theory, one as a modest effort to formulate new ideas about what is going on or what ought to be done, the other, as a self-righteous roar that “This is the way things must be!”

    Here we seem to be talking past each other because, when I say “theory” I am thinking about the modest effort to formulate new ideas. Others here seem to have such a powerful animus against the other kind of “theory” that, espousing a similar theory themselves, they are blind to the existence of the modest variety.

    One thing I like about this distinction between modest and immodest theorizing is that it requires no assumption that the modest variety has to be the experimentally grounded assertion of nomothetic laws that we associate with the hard sciences. It allows us to take the hard science model and relax its conditions systematically to see what other kinds of modest theory are possible given certain practical constraints. Thus, next door to the experimenter, we find the social scientist who has hypotheses to test and substitutes statistics for experimentation. At the other extreme we find the detective or archeologist piecing together fragments of evidence to reconstruct a particular event, still bound, however, by the need to systematically search for and discredit possible alternatives before making the case for his or her conclusions. All this can be cleanly separated from the sort of theory developed by the economist in the famous joke, the one who, confronted with a can of beans, says, “Assume a can opener.”

  28. “Here we seem to be talking past each other because, when I say ‘theory’ I am thinking about the modest effort to formulate new ideas. Others here seem to have such a powerful animus against the other kind of ‘theory’ that, espousing a similar theory themselves, they are blind to the existence of the modest variety.”

    Bingo. I’ll just note the obvious, that everyone here likes ’em some theory otherwise my blog would have little allure. And everyone’s criticizing big, totalizing theories that either fail to connect in any way with practice or demand perverse practice of the Holocaust/gulag variety. Incidentally for context, John, this part is a spillover from ongoing conversations at other blogs out in the philosophy slums of my blogroll, in which figure people much more like stalinists than anyone here.

    So I see pretty comprehensive agreement, the difference being that one side of the conversation is lingering on the critique of big theory, which is more present to them, and the other has moved along to consideration of more modest proposals.

  29. Bingo.

    Aw, shucks…. (the academic modesty meme).

    Serendipitously, I was trying out the Stanza ebook app for my iPhone and found myself able to download for free Lectures on Pragmatism by William James. James’ take on the various forms of idealist philosophy current when he was speaking are very much to the point here.

    I am still curious to know people’s reactions to Yochai Benkler’s Edge talk, for which I provided the URL. To me it seems that a more lucid and compelling illustration of Keynes’ observation that hardheaded businessmen act in thrall to the ideas of dead* economists is hard to find.

    *Freedman is actually dead, his disciples only intellectually dead.

  30. the other has moved along to consideration of more modest proposals.

    Again serendipitously, I was asked to speak last night to a friend’s class on the influence of America on Japanese advertising. My talk began by contrasting the big-picture ideas in which academics talk about cultural influence (as mechanical or selective replacement or domestication) with the ad man’s creative brief, whose core elements consist of

    1. the target (who are we talking to?)
    2. the objective (what do we want them to do?)
    3. the proposition (what is our message?)
    4. the rationale (why do we believe that communicating this proposition to that target will have the desired effect?)

    Each and every rationale is a modest theory, sometimes grounded in research (not always, depends on the budget), with discernible effects on advertising practice. The creative brief is the starting point for the team that comes up with the creative used in the campaign. The result can be the expenditure of literally millions of dollars with measurable (not always positive) effects.

  31. Lest I come off as a contrarian caricature, I should say that I was talking about theory specifically in its relationship to political action. About other kinds of theory I am in complete agreement with everyone here.


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