17.184 meaning of "theory"?

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk)
Date: Fri Aug 08 2003 - 03:03:17 EDT

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                   Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 17, No. 184.
           Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                         Submit to: humanist@princeton.edu

             Date: Fri, 08 Aug 2003 06:47:36 +0100
             From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk>
             Subject: meaning of "theory"

    In Humanist 17.163 I quoted Thomas K. Burch's caution, in "Computer
    modelling of theory: Explanation for the 21st Century", that the word
    "theory" varies significantly in meaning across the disciplines. A great
    deal of the literature with which I am currently involved, from the
    philosophy of science, uses this word in senses ranging from something like
    the epistemological rock on which science is founded to a formally
    expressed synonym for "idea". In attempting to make sense of this
    literature for what we do with computers, I have come to wonder if the word
    has any productive use whatever in the humanities. (Burch's caution perhaps
    cautions us not to expect a single answer for all the humanities, so
    perhaps I should be asking with respect to a single field, such as literary
    studies. But since the audience here is such an multidisciplinary one, I
    will leave the field unspecified.)

    What, then, do we gain (apart from honourific baggage) when we say that X
    is a *theory* of something, rather than, say, an idea of it, way of talking
    about it, scheme for it?

    For the sake of argument, let's assume I am a rather ordinary literary
    critic, with the usual sort of competent familiarity with and loose
    attachment to current ideas, whose interest is in a particular work of
    literature rather than in "theory" per se (whatever that means). When I
    begin a literary-critical study, can I be said to have or to be working
    under the influence of a "theory", and if so, what does that mean? If the
    answer is no, then am I proceeding incompetently? If I were to become
    explicitly aware of all the current ideas that I may have picked up along
    the way, in what sense would I be theoretically aware? If I subscribed to
    what might be called a "theory" and proceeded to do my study, how
    constrained would I be, and what effect on the theory or its status among
    current adherents would my work possibly have?

    If there are better questions to be asking, please ask them instead.



    Dr Willard McCarty | Senior Lecturer | Centre for Computing in the
    Humanities | King's College London | Strand | London WC2R 2LS || +44 (0)20
    7848-2784 fax: -2980 || willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk

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