What is a theory, anyway?
Theorizing is a certain way of
making sense of things, explaining, getting at the how-come of things. A theory is a certain kind of because.
What differentiates theorizing from other sense-making?
- Philosophizing (and theorizing) are a kind of sense-making that allow forward movement. A theory gives one leverage.
- Kuhn  talks about the difference between the philosophy and the history of science, and more generally about the difference between the disciplines of history and philosophy. He says:
- history is the truth about what happened at a particular time and place--
- it is presented in a narrative form;
- philosophy is the truth at all times and places--
- it is presented in the form of arguments.
- Both history and philosophy have a relationship to the past:
- history strings together past events
- philosophy responds to and moves beyond past arguments
- Askham  says, "Storytelling has long been observed as a feature of ordinary conversation,
and linguistic analysis has shown that language is linear:
people tend to develop messages in a sequential way.
Narrative structures also provide an important means of recollection."
- History is to storytelling as philosophy is to ???.
- What do people naturally do that is like that?
- It is like problem-solving: 'if I do x then y will happen' but if I do a then maybe b will happen instead.
- And problem-solving is rooted in the noticing and articulation of patterns of events: 'when x then y', and 'when a then b'. "When Mommy's asleep and I don't tiptoe to go outside, Mommy wakes up and she's mad, and then I don't get to go outside. But when I tiptoe, Mommy doesn't wake up."
- "If I tiptoe, then I won't wake up Mommy and that way I will be able to go outside."
- It is a kind of learning in which an old way of doing things isn't working, and one is looking for a new way forward.
- But for it to work, it must begin with valid premises, with accurate observations.
- "As suggested by Gergen (1982) the generativeness of a particular theory or discourse can be assessed by the degree of controversy and further developments brought forth by that theory. A theory--at least a generative one--is not only a body of conceptual assumptions, but what a community of scientists do with these assumptions." (Botella )
- Arriving at a first definition of 'theory':
- Russell  says "[The word theory] was originally an Orphic word, which Cornford interprets as "passionate synthetic contemplation"."
- Webster's  says of theory: "a systematic statement of principles involved,...a formulation of apparent relationships or underlying principles of certain observed phenomena which has been verified to some degree"
- Of phenomenon, it says, "any event, circumstance, or experience that is apparent to the senses and that can be scientifically described or appraised"
- while of observe, it says "to notice or perceive (something)"
- Einstein said "Creating a new theory is not like destroying an old barn and erecting a skyscraper in its place. It is rather like climbing a mountain, gaining new and wider views, discovering unexpected connections between our starting point and its rich environment. But the point from which we started out still exists and can be seen, although it appears smaller and forms a tiny part of our broad view gained by the mastery of the obstacles on our adventurous way up." (in van Fraassen )
- Back to Websters: of formulate, it says, "to express in a systematic way".
- Henri Poincare observed: “A group of facts is no more a science than a pile of bricks is a building” (in Shermer ).
- While of principle, Webster's says "the ultimate source, origin, or cause of something"
- and, of verify, it says "to prove to be true by demonstration, evidence, or testimony; confirm or substantiate".
- But we mustn't drop out the de facto, operational part of the definition: that a theory is a generative thing.
- So, as a beginning point, let's say that a theory is a systematic expression of the relationships between, and ultimate causes of, that which we have experienced, noticed, and confirmed, which gives us the leverage to move beyond where we are now.
- What is the difference between a theory and a law of nature?
- Laws describe a direct relationship between two or more physical quantities,
but do not say why this should be so. 
- In addition to describing, science also explains (and often predicts).
- Theories answer 'how come?'; they are explanations of how things work, and to what purpose.
- They are an inquiry into causes, in the Aristotelian  sense of that word:
- material causes: what x is compounded of; that substance out of which x comes to be
- formal causes: what it is to be x and the kind to which x belongs; the form or essential properties of x
- efficient causes: the initiator of x; the primary source of x's changing (or staying the same)
- final causes: the reason, purpose, end; that for the sake of which x is
- Bacon  said, “The End of our Foundation is the knowledge of Causes and secret motions of things, and the enlarging of the bounds of Human Empire, to the effecting of all things possible”
- But not all theories are science: else why say 'a scientific theory'?
- So what other sorts of theories might there be?
- Bacon attacked explanations from final causes, and centered scientific theorizing instead on formal causes.
- Is there another sort of theory centered on final causes? Can we call a "how-come" centered on final causes a theory? or not?
- Porquoi stories (like Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories) inquire into causes.
- Are porquoi stories science? Are they theories?
- Porquoi stories do in a structured way account for observation or experience.
- Myths also answer the question 'how come'. They are highly structured porquoi stories.
- But we do not call myths theories. Why not?
- Distinctions between myth and theory
- "[Myths] do not have the goal or the mechanism to allow the accumulation of knowledge that builds on the past. Progress, in this cumulative sense, is not their purpose. This is an observation, not a criticism. Individuals in these paradigms do not stand on the shoulders of giants in the same manner as scientists. While there is change in myths, religions, and art styles, it is not progressive change." (Shermer)
- According to Kelley Ross , as opposed to myth, Greek philosophy from the outset is:
- impersonal, rather than being stories about people
- systematic and internally coherent, rather than being a multiplicity of not-logically-exclusive explanations
- innovative, open to changes in explanation, rather than being conservative
- offers substantive arguments, rather than being self-justifying
- Myths have a narrative structure. Theories do not.
- Theories have a different kind of structure, marked by:
- the importance of semantic precision
- the use of logic
- Dooyeweerd (in Verbrugge ) says, "Real things have an internal structural principle:
...a typical law of individuality which rules the structural coherence of the different functions within the individual totality.
Thus real things have a law-governed unity of order, a law-order for their functions." (Verbrugge)
- Theories are tested for their verifiability (or falsifiability: see Popper ), whereas myths are not.
- It is said by Popper that a theory that is not falsifiable is not a good theory.
- Theory influences observation. As Albert Einstein once said, "It is the theory which decides what can be observed."
- The point is that once we have a new theory, we see instances of it everywhere--but that this verifiability of it is not the same as proving it valid. At best, it is provisionally valid. The danger of focusing only on verifiability lies in the fact that a theory is a compelling interpretative lens and that many or most things can be fit to the theory's procrustean bed. Popper insists on the ultimate impossibility of ultimate validity, and in so doing he frees us from a kind of tyranny. He shows us that any theory is only provisionally true.
- But what is verifiablity or verifying, anyway? What is truth or validity? How can we know something is true or valid? Can we know that something is true? And what is falsifiability? How do we know that something can be falsified?
- Certainly if the theory makes a prediction, it is in some sense falsifiable; because if what it predicts does not happen, it can be seen as false.
- But this whole question of happening or not happening, of whether or not a theory has actually been falsified, is problematical.
- An instance of this is the familiar scenario of a lab test. You've got a health problem, and it could be x. So your doctor runs a few tests. One comes back positive (or alternatively, they all come back negative). Is anything proven?
- "Scientific progress is the cumulative growth of a system of knowledge over time, in which useful features are retained and non-useful features are abandoned, based on the rejection or confirmation of testable knowledge." (Shermer)
- As long as we acknowledge the tentative nature of confirmation or rejection, this statement can stand.
- Verbrugge quotes R.A. Clouser: "The very soul of a theory is....that it is proposed in order to explain something." then goes on himself to say:
"However, not all attempts at explaining something are scientific theories. For many people, Clouser says:
"...the term theory simply means any account, interpretation, or aid to understanding....This is confusing and unacceptable because....it leaves in the dark the difference between a theory and a myth.... Therefore I will use the term 'theory' to indicate only the explanations that do offer hypotheses and then try to justify those hypotheses with argument and evidence.
Another way of saying it is that all theories are guesses, but not all guesses are theories!"
But what of philosophical (or other) theories?
- Is there such a thing, apart from science? We still have not answered the question, are there other sorts of theories besides scientific ones?
- Certainly there are mathematical theories (also called theorems). There is a book on my shelf called "An Introduction to the Theory of Numbers" . In it are described "algebraic", "analytic", and "additive" theories of number.
- What sort of theories are these? When can one call something a theory in mathematics?
- Mathematical theories are mathematical statements that have been proved true by deductive reasoning. 
- How are mathematical theories different from scientific theories?
- They are not "how-come's" about something that has happened--they are not explanations of experience.
- And how are they similar: what can we infer about theories in general, from looking at scientific and mathematical theories?
- They are both "how-come's"; but where a scientific theory is a provisional answer to the question 'how come we can experience x?', a mathematical theory is a definitive answer to the question 'how come we can say that x?'
- They both use formal reasoning; they both depend on logic.
- And how might a philosophical theory differ from both of these?
- Is philosophizing theorizing? Is some philosophizing theorizing?
- Is a philosophical theory (if there is such a thing) a "how-come"? And if so, of what sort?
- De facto, there are philosophical theories.
- Referring again to my bookshelf, I find a book called Theories of Truth , whose task is to "survey all of the major philosophical theories of truth".
- There Kirkham begins by saying that "Ideally, one begins any philosophical book by posing the question the book is supposed to answer or by describing the philosophical problem the book is supposed to solve."
- So we are back where we began, with problem-solving.
- We can say that philosophical theories are possible solutions to philosophical problems.
- And further, we can say that the method used by philosophy to solve these problems is at least that of logic, of argumentation.
- What is the relationship between theories and arguments?
- What is an argument, anyway?
- Can it be said that a theory is a sort of argument?
- If so, what differentiates it from other sorts of arguments?
- Or are the two synonymous?--are all theories arguments, and all arguments theories?
- What, then, of Deleuze'  contention that philosophy is a certain kind of concept-formation?
- What is the relation between arguments and concepts?
- Can we say that arguments develop concepts? And that perhaps theories are a sort of concept which come into existence when one develops a certain kind of logical structure?
- And what are concepts? We started with Kuhn's contention that philosophy is the truth in all times and all places, developed by means of argument.
- Of course in one sense we know that this cannot be: there is no way that we can finally have the truth.
- But we can have it provisionally. And this is precisely what theory encapsulates: a tentative and always-open truth, which can refer back to experience and in so doing differentiate further.
- Gendlin  says: "the fact that the science of Galileo and Descartes went on developing unendingly and unstoppably, shows something about experiments: They give back more detail, more specifics, more intricacy than the hypothetical concepts with which we design them. The response of nature to experiments breaks up the concepts and theories with which we came, and forces the researcher onto the edge. Of course sometimes the data just says "yes" or "no," but much more often it results in a puzzling group of more specific results that lead to new concepts. Where there was one scientific concept ten years ago now there are 23 in two or three lines of development, and the concept of five years ago is no longer employed."
How, then, does one go about constructing theories?
- Wilfrid Sellars says "to construct a theory is, in its most developed or sophisticated form, to postulate a domain of entities which behave in certain ways set down by the fundamental principles of the theory, and to correlate -- perhaps, in a certain sense to identify -- complexes of these theoretical entities with certain non-theoretical objects or situations; that is to say, with objects or situations which are either matters of observable fact or, in principle at least, describable in observational terms." 
- So to begin with one needs to know the "fundamental principles set down by the theory". But how does one set them down? How does one know what they are?
- Sellars continues: "the fundamental assumptions of a theory are usually developed not by constructing uninterpreted calculi which might correlate in the desired manner with observational discourse, but rather by attempting to find a model, i.e. to describe a domain of familiar objects behaving in familiar ways such that we can see how the phenomena to be explained would arise if they consisted of this sort of thing. The essential thing about a model is that it is accompanied, so to speak, by a commentary which qualifies or limits -- but not precisely nor in all respects -- the analogy between the familiar objects and the entities which are being introduced by the theory. It is the descriptions of the fundamental ways in which the objects in the model domain, thus qualified, behave, which, transferred to the theoretical entities, correspond to the postulates of the logistical picture of theory construction."
- Niskanen  says "Definitions play an essential role in scientific concept formation...According to the traditional view on definition, which is based on Aristotle's considerations, the essence of a thing should be specified. The essence of a thing comprises a set of attributes which are necessary and sufficient conditions for any concrete thing to be a thing of a given type. The essence has two aspects: The genus is that which is predicable essentially from other types of things as well, and the differentia is that part of the essence which distinguishes the species, i.e., things of one type, from other species."
What differentiates Embodied Thinking and TAE theory-construction from other theory construction?
- Bacon says 'All perceptions both of the sense and of the mind are according to the measure of the individual, and not according to the measure of the universe. And the human understanding is like a false mirror, which, receiving rays irregularly, distorts and discolours the nature of things by mingling its own nature with it."
- But this is the beginning of a systematic dropping out of the nature of human beings as experienced by human beings, from the process of constructing theories.
- In Embodied Thinking, we begin by inhabiting this body, and then, from here, noticing what we know, what we don't know, what can be asked just here, and what comes of asking just that. It does not drop out our in-here, right-now noticing, and so makes it possible to construct theories which start from our body-knowing. It makes it possible to ask questions, and construct theories, that inherently arise from our experience of this foot that I am in (and also allows us, if we need, to refuse to speak of this separate thing, 'foot'.)
- And in TAE, we begin by noticing something which is missing from theory in our field of practice (see initial notes about the dictionary meaning of observation), but the noticing from which we begin the process is directed inward towards our bodily felt knowing of what is unsaid, rather than outward towards another step in a purely conceptual structure.
 Kuhn, The Essential Tension
 J. Askham, Telling stories. Soc Rev. 1982;30:555-573. cited in
Applying conversation analysis to foster accurate reporting in the diet history interview
by LINDA CLARE TAPSELL, PhD, MHPEd, Dip Nutr Diet; VANESSA BRENNINGER, MSc; JANELLE BARNARD, MSc
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Structure: Its Shadow and Substance
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The Most Precious Thing We Have:
The Difference Between Science and Pseudoscience
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A New Look at Scientific Enquiry
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This material © 2000 by Kye Nelson. All rights reserved.