Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 17, No. 186.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
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Date: Sat, 09 Aug 2003 07:13:58 +0100
From: Mark Wolff <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Culler on theory
On Friday, August 8, 2003, at 03:03 AM, Humanist Discussion Group (by way
of Willard McCarty <email@example.com>) wrote:
>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?
In his recent book "Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction," Jonathan
Culler offers this succinct definition of the troublesome notion of "theory":
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 subject.
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
This definition refuses disciplinary constraints on what informs scholarly
inquiry. Theory is whatever helps you make sense of something in an
unconventional way. Theory questions disciplinary boundaries that are
taken for granted: it favors the "Why not?" instead of the "Why?" This
definition differs from that of a "scientific" theory which infers why
things are the way they are and then beckons researchers to try and
I think one of the difficulties here is that humanities computing brings
together folks who subscribe to different ideas of what research is
about. Some want to "tinker" with texts and measure what they are supposed
to do while others try to "hack" texts and make them do things they weren't
necessarily intended to do.
>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.
Culler sympathizes with the feeling that theory is an amorphous blob that
cannot be circumscribed. He observes that "the unmasterability of theory
is a major cause of resistance to it [...] to admit the importance of
theory is to make an open-ended commitment, to leave yourself in a position
where there are always important things you don't know." Theory provokes
both the desire of mastery and the recognition that mastery is impossible (16).
I suppose one could complain that theory as such undermines disciplined
research, in the sense of community standards and peer review. If anything
goes, what's worth thinking? That question has less to do with theory per
se and more to do with politics.
-- Mark B. Wolff Modern and Classical Languages Hartwick College Oneonta, NY 13820 (607) 431-4615
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