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I would like to apologize in advance for this post. This lecture was originally delivered to the empty air at my workplace, early in the morning before we opened, as I worked at restocking the toy department. In its original form, the lecture was a masterpiece—a gem of rhetorical brilliance which I know I will not soon match. However, the workday that followed wiped out all but the roughest memory of my eloquence, and so what remains for you now is a pale imitation of the communiqué which should rightfully have been displayed here.

But disclaimers notwithstanding:

This rant was inspired by a throwaway line in James Cameron’s Avatar, a line which I may have remembered entirely incorrectly as being: “Good science is good observation.” Whether or not any character spoke these words, they became stuck in my head, and I couldn’t get it out without a ten-foot polemic.

It started me thinking (not surprisingly) about “theory” and observation.
“Theory” is a word I throw around a lot with some of my peers and mentors. We play fast and loose with it because we have a good sense of what “theory” is supposed to be. But when it comes time to explain “theory” for the very first time, to a wide-eyed audience (be they fifteen-year-old brothers or sleep-deprived undergraduates), the best metaphor I have so far found is the Theory as Lens.

Theory is like a pair of tinted glasses—or, more accurately, like the colored lenses in those glasses. It highlights certain shades of whatever it is you look at, and makes everything look somewhat alike. That lets us compare those things across something approaching the same dimension. For example, a theory of gravity lets us compare physical interactions across the same dimension—across a single, monochromatic dimension.

Now, there are issues with this metaphor—most prominently that this metaphor entails the idea that we are using theory to look at something. Really, a theory is an image of an object. The key points of the theory correspond to key points in the reality it represents—or, to put that another way; “That the elements of the picture are combined with one another in a definite way, represents that the things are so combined with one another.”  “Theory” is a representation of reality—so instead of glasses with colored lenses, briefly imagine a Polaroid with colored lenses. Isn’t that a weird image? This is why we went with the glasses thing.

But there are also real advantages to this theory, and one of my favorite points is this: If theory is like a lens, which highlights certain features of whatever we are looking at, then it becomes intuitive that looking at the same object with the same lens gives us no new information. To gain new information, we must make a change, either internally, in the way we approach the lens, or instrumentally, in the kind of lens we use. In other words, you can only learn so much by looking through one lens. Like looking at a multi-colored picture through a mono-color lens, the world has more information than can be parsed by a single theory. To put it in a punchy philosophical one-liner: Complex phenomena require a theoretical complex.

In the effort to investigate complicated situations, we have to use multiple theoretical perspectives. Jung employed “modern” psychology, Gnostic text, and echoes of the German Romantic tradition in pursuit of a theory of the soul. James Hillman, following him, employs Jung, comparative religion, and biographic methods while seeking the same goal. The classic French sociologists integrate philosophy, sociological theory, public statistics, and historical methods to investigate the patterns of organization and interaction between humans on the individual level and above.

So a theory is like a martial art—it’s good to master one, but you become Bruce Lee if you master all of them.

Okay, that was a weird way of putting it. More accurately:

Any one theory can be an extremely powerful way of representing events in the world. Theories can accentuate the shared factors in areas which might appear vastly different to “the naked eye,” letting us examine, for example, human silence and conspiracy on the level of friend groups and on the level of entire cultures.

But a single theory can only do so much work. And so the point becomes a little teleological—which theories you deploy (and how many) depends on what you want to do. For extremely basic physics calculations, Newton’s laws are good enough to get by. For higher-level work, you might want to also include theories on wind resistance, breaking points,  aerodynamics, and even particle interactions. No one theory is going to get a rocket to the moon, and no one theoretical perspective is going to create a discipline.  So for some tasks, a single theory will get you far. But for others…you need to get a little more creative.

This is just the beginning. More on theory and disciplinary boundaries will follow.

Stay tuned for more semi-weekly rants about theory, politics, and whatever action/sci-fi movie I was watching last night!



  1. Interesting post. Specially since right now I am fully immersed in Philosophy of Science. Yeah, “Good science = Good observation” is a naive way to think about science to say the least (at least contemporary science). Theory comes first and guides researchers on what kind of observations to make and how to interpret them. Not to say that theory somehow “blinds” research since observations can contradict the theory after all prompting a change in the theory (though that change, as Kuhn has shown us, can be less smooth than one might be inclined to think at first).

    • Right? I am actually kind of leaning toward continuing this post toward a Kuhn-based point about how disciplines evolve over time based on the diversification and rejection of theories. 😀 Metatheory is one of my favorite subjects to yell at the internet about.

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