Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 17, No. 311.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
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Date: Sun, 19 Oct 2003 13:21:04 +0100
From: Willard McCarty <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: further on theory
In Humanist 17.184 I raised the question of what we mean by "theory" in the
humanities. Allow me here to summarize the quite helpful responses,
contribute words from a luminary (which in fact do not make that much of a
contribution), add a brief description of a recent conference paper (which
does) and ask the question again.
Mark Wolff in 17.186 replied by quoting Jonathan Culler's 4-point
*description* of from "Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction":
>1. Theory is interdisciplinary -- discourse with effects outside an
>2. Theory is analytical and speculative -- an attempt to work out what is
>involved in what we call sex or language or writing or meaning or the
>3. Theory is a critique of common sense, of concepts taken as natural.
>4. Theory is reflexive, thinking about thinking, enquiry into the
>categories we use in making sense of things, in literature and in other
In 17.187 Han Baaltussen suggested that "a 'theory' would include a
structure of rules and assumptions, whereas an idea, though flexible, could
just be that, i.e. a concept or representation in the mind. That means that
a 'theory' (as defined above) is more dynamic, implying certain relations
and actions (e.g. hypotheses, inferences, reasonings, application of these
to sets of 'facts'). Awareness of current ideas would, it seems to me, not
imply theory necessarily mean[s] proceeding more competently. So as to the
literary person, I would be willling to claim that not having a theory does
not make one incompetent--publishing one's ideas without a theory just
might be considered that in certain circles...."
In 17.193 Arianna Ciula also pushed matters along by positing that "theory"
in the humanities means a structured and historical abstraction: "a theory
is a more or less defined system built up by other critics and by their
works, a system with an external history (an authority in the extreme
sense)." For humanities computing she offered the notion that it is defined
in relation to a project: "In the process of a project the theory has its
own history of meanings, an internal history then."
In the TLS for 17 October, in his review of Terry Eagleton's After Theory
(Penguin), Eric Griffiths quotes Eagleton's succinct definition, "a
reasonably systematic reflection on our guiding assumptions". Although I
have not yet seen After Theory, I suspect I'll be no more enlightened on
the subject of what "theory" means in the humanities than Griffiths'
sharply critical review leads me to expect.
In his much talked about paper at ACH/ALLC 2003, "A Critique of 'Theory' in
Text Encoding", Paul Caton pointed to and usefully discussed the problem I
am hammering at: we use this problematic term, often implicitly if not
self-consciously borrowing its sense from the sciences, without any clear
or well informed idea of what we mean by it. So what do we mean by it?
I am quite prepared to be told authoritatively that it really doesn't get
much more precise than Culler or Eagleton makes it out to be. But I do
think we need to look out for the heavy cultural baggage that comes with
it. And I continue to look for good discussions of the problem.
Comments or suggestions?
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 || email@example.com
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