THEORY VERSUS PRACTICE

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The distinction between theoretical and observational physics might confuse people as to the difference between theory and practice. At first, it might look like the empirical aspect of physics falls on the side of practice. Einstein was a theoretical physicist. His most famous conjecture is the theory of relativity, and we say that this theory has been validated by empirical observation. Similarly, we call Darwin’s celebrated discovery the theory of evolution. As a theory, it is falsifiable in the sense that observation can either prove or disprove it. Both Darwin and Einstein theorized that x is the case, but their constructions remained conjectures (however forceful or convincing) until they were either proven true or false by empirical evidence. Hence theory and observation seem to be opposed to one another. As we saw last time, however, both are theoretical kinds of behavior falling under a more encompassing sense of the word “theory” that includes both contemplation in the sense of speculation and contemplation in the sense of observation. Indeed, the word “speculation” already contains a reference to observation. The Latin speculari means to watch, examine, observe. On the other hand, even after it has been validated, we continue to refer to Einstein’s discovery as a theory and, as unlikely as it seems, Darwin’s theory of evolution might theoretically still prove false if new evidence arises invalidating it. The point is that the distinction between theory and empirical observation is one that falls within theoria itself, which can only then be meaningfully opposed to praxis.

What distinguishes theory from practice is not empirical evidence but the way the subject comports toward the object. In both theory and practice the subject is concerned about the object, but this concern manifests itself differently as either a practical or as a theoretical kind of concern. For instance, a farmer relates to a cow by feeding and milking it. When milking the cow, the farmer is not theorizing about or even thematically objectifying the animal. The farmer might not even be thinking about the cow at all but about a fence that needs mending. In contrast, the scientist qua researcher relates to the animal by observing it, by keeping it explicitly in his or her sights while also keeping a studied distance. While the farmer might learn a lot about the cow in the process of tending to it, the end the farmer has in mind is sustenance, an existential end. In contrast, the end the researcher has in mind is knowledge (ideally, knowledge for knowledge’s sake even if this knowledge can later be used for a practical purpose). I can relate to a tree by using it as a sort of tool, by taking shade under its branches, in which case my relation to it is not theoretical but practical. Or I can objectify the tree by approaching it as a botanist, that is, I can begin observing and speculating about it. Again I can use light to read a book, or I can turn the light itself into a thematic object. I can use an implement to drink out of, or I can examine it to see what it is made of.

While the line between theory and practice is not always clear, in general we may say that science takes a theoretical stance toward the world while our normal way of relating to it is practical. Theorizing entails a certain degree of abstention from praxis in relation to the thematic object. I emphasize “in relation to the object” because theoretical behavior often mixes with practical behavior, as when equipment is set up or used in a lab. Because the lab equipment is not the object being examined, the researcher’s comportment toward it is practical. However, the piece of equipment can still turn into an object of theoretical inquiry with a simple change in the way the researcher relates to it. This might happen if the piece of equipment breaks down and the researcher tries to determine what’s wrong. She then begins observing and speculating about it. If this tendency gets developed far enough, it becomes science.

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2 responses to “THEORY VERSUS PRACTICE

  1. When I drive a car, I have in mind a notion of a car, what it can do, and not do, and how to manipulate it. This is a kind of theory of a car, but it is embodied. The theory is inscribed in flesh. I don’t have to even be conscious of this theory to drive. Theorizing has not achieved this embodiment and union with the tangible. Nonetheless, theorizing does grow a familiarity. When first introduced to theories and systems of ideas, the road is rough, every step difficult and deliberate. Over time, however, aspects become familiar (dare we say “embodied”). They are no longer deliberate and conscious but have taken on the aspect of furniture, ready-to-hand. Is this any different from driving a car? As the car has weight and inertia, so too do these ideas. They put up resistance. Whereas, when we were first becoming familiar with this ideational world they seemed to fly about without any rhyme, now they stay put, putting up walls and foundation. Do we comport towards these two worlds differently, assuming they are really two worlds? Suppose we divide the two by tangibility, i.e., sensible or not. I can’t touch or smell ideas, even if metaphorically it can seem very near to it. We can get confused or make sense in both worlds. One transparently requires flesh, the other does not. I was going to say that the one is mind-centered, and the other is more distributed and body-centered. But that is not even clear to me. People think with their whole bodies. In a sense, they embody ideas to think about them, to see if they fit or what they do. Nevertheless, I think there is a difference between embodied and disembodied comportments. Ideas may have better manners, whereas the embodied resist an exhaustive understanding. We can’t see under the hood, and so can drive a car without knowing much of how it works. Ideas are more transparent, it seems (although I could be wrong about that). Well, I better stop before nonsense runs off the table and makes a mess.

  2. As it relates to the car, the question for me is whether my comportment toward it while driving is normally one of turning the car into an object of active investigation, one which I explicitly observe and/or speculate about, that is, which I contemplate thematically, or whether the way I relate to it is primarily practical such that the end I have in mind isn’t investigating and conjecturing about the physics of how a car works (knowledge about the car) but simply using it to get to a destination, just as I normally don’t turn the space I am crossing to get where I’m going into a thematic object. Of course I already possess knowledge about how the car works and how to drive it, and I’m implicitly informed and guided by that knowledge, but I don’t see that as necessarily changing my practical comportment toward the car into a theoretical one as I drive it. But I have to admit that I didn’t quite understand everything you stated.

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