While it is tempting to quip that theory is the opiate of the intellectuals, the addiction extends well beyond that single class. Yes, intellectuals have a professional stake in formulating, challenging, and overthrowing theories. And, yes, ever since the comic playwright Aristophanes pilloried philosophers by placing them in the clouds, we tend to associate theorizing with that particular subset of humanity. But today so much of the general population is caught up in theory making and theory mongering that it is altogether justified to call ours a theory-besotted age.
We see this not only in the ongoing production and consumption of outlandish conspiracy theories but in the spread and popularization of ideological fashions emanating from the academy, including assorted nationalist and communitarian postliberalisms on the right and various expressions of progressive identitarianism on the left. If the theory-based ideologies that gave rise to the horrors of the last century have been either diluted or supplanted by new ones, we are possibly even more the creatures of theories that purport to provide the totalizing explanations and meanings that religions once did. (Indeed, it could be argued that religions themselves have been theoretically repurposed as ideologies.)
It was some time in coming, this possession by theory. In antiquity, it was almost exclusively the occupation of those cloud-dwelling lovers of wisdom, whose pursuits took them down increasingly diverging paths—one devoted to what might be called the passionate, visionary, and even borderline mystical contemplation of the world, and the other to a more objective, dispassionate depiction of the unchanging rational order of things. The latter aimed at mathematically precise description, the former more at normative prescription. Whether concerned primarily with is or ought, theory—derived from the Greek word theoria (viewing, beholding)—was understood to be the product of systematic and generally disinterested reflection, as opposed to thought devoted to practical ends (praxis).
Over the many centuries of late antiquity and the Middle Ages, the theoretical thrusts of the ancient world, at least in the West, were combined with, and largely contained within, various theological (Christian and Islamic) understandings of the True and the Good. But those comprehensive theocentric syntheses began to collapse under the pressure of scientific and intellectual revolutions for which the great scholastic thinkers had themselves laid the foundations. As the methods and metaphysical presuppositions of the New Sciences ramified throughout Western culture, new disciplines emerged on the backs of ambitious theoretical constructs proposing to explain not only the material world but also human beings and their cultural, social, and political orders. The great Baconian, Lockean, and Cartesian systems reoriented fundamental conceptions of how we know things, laying the epistemological foundations for what Immanuel Kant would label the Enlightenment, a vast intellectual project that began by relocating the autonomous human subject at the center of a rationally knowable order. While they did not discard religion as an important support to moral behavior, Kant and his many followers conceived of human beings as agents with the capacity to grasp and follow universal moral laws, including the injunction to treat fellow humans as ends and not means.
Even as the applied findings of the New Sciences spurred the technological transformations of early modernity, academics and intellectuals began to understand their task as not only to understand the world but to make it better. Influenced, like so many others in the nineteenth century, by G.W.F. Hegel’s idealistic conception of history, Karl Marx attempted to give the dialectic the force of material inevitably by grounding it in class struggles arising out of technologically driven economic change. “The philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways,” Marx wrote. “The point, however, is to change it.”
Theory, particularly critical social and political theory, had fully merged with praxis—or so many thinkers of the late modern world had come to believe. And wasn’t this precisely the danger of the theory-besotted minds: that of seeing their all-too-human constructs, their humanly fashioned ideologies, as uncontestable understandings of reality?
To be sure, not all reflective minds were so besotted. “If Hegel had written the whole of his logic and then said, in the preface, that it was merely an experiment in thought…then he would certainly have been the greatest thinker who had ever lived,” wrote Søren Kierkegaard in his journals. “As it is,” the Dane continued, “he is merely comic.” Deeply versed in Hegel’s thought, Kierkegaard knew that the besetting affliction of his generation was that it lived and died “under the impression that life is simply a matter of understanding more and more.”
But even the antitheorists have never shaken entirely free of theory’s grip, much less prevented others from absorbing their resistance into new theoretical systems. (Kierkegaard would, of course, come to be known as one of the fathers of existentialism.) If theorizing is seeing, in the original Greek sense of the word, then seeing beyond theory is difficult indeed. As the poet William Blake wrote even before the age of ideology, “I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man’s.”
The essayists contributing to the theme of our spring issue address some of the challenges of the modern world’s entanglement with theory. They do so by looking at how some of the great and not-so-great thinkers of the past century have attempted to grapple with systems that purport to make sense of the world, and even to change it. These critical takes on theorism range from very explicit critiques of its political and social dangers (see Michael Weinman’s acute discussion of a thinker who had intimate knowledge of the problem, “Hannah Arendt on the Loss of a Common World”) to more nuanced appraisals of theory’s grip even on thinkers who have resisted it—see Blake Smith’s sympathetic but unsparing reading of the French thinker Roland Barthes, “‘I Love You’ (in Theory).”
Critical theory, formulated by members of the postwar Frankfurt School as an antidote to the return of fascism, has had a wide and lasting influence in and beyond the modern academy—though, as Malloy Owen shows in “From Frankfurt to Fox: The Strange Career of Critical Theory,” that influence would have surprised and largely disappointed the founding theorists. An even more disturbing portrait of the dangers of theory emerges in Ohad Reiss-Sorokin’s “Jumping Over Fire,” an account of a charismatic Austrian academic who sought to convert his students to his romantic conception of Germanic culture and spirit in the years of Hitler’s ascendancy. Eros and thought are dangerous handmaidens, but as Mary Townsend argues in “Desire in the Cave,” thought that claims to rise above the passions can lead to ends as calamitous as those brought about by thoughtless passion.
And lest we think that conspiracy theories are the stuff of the merely credulous, Phil Christman, in “The Monster Discloses Himself,” points out only one of many ways in which farfetched fabulations about the secret workings of the world resemble and often intersect with supposedly scientific theories: “Marx gives us a theory of social structure, though Marxists, in practice, imitate conspiracy theorists (not to mention Baptists and health food nuts) in one way: their attachment to schism. The closer they get to fully possessing History with their models, the more they must mount grandiose defenses over every last detail, because there are no longer any minor ones.”
Will our own time meet the challenge of overcoming the bewitchments of theory? Perhaps the wisest first step is to ask what we theory-inclined people seek in producing or consuming theories. Might it not be, as Blake Smith wisely notes in his discussion of Barthes, a means of avoiding confrontation with our own unique, ungeneralizable personhood?: “Those who purport to know the essence of something—those who would even wish for such a knowledge—are ‘scientific’ and ‘unsubtle’ in that they cannot attend to ‘difference,’ all the innumerable variations that make each instance ‘of something’ an incomparably unique singularity. They lack, or rather are frightened of, such a sensitivity to difference because they do not want to have to understand themselves as personally, passionately involved in what they are trying to know…. To acquire the spirit of subtlety necessary to perceive ‘difference’ where the timid, supposedly objective seekers after knowledge see only sameness, one must risk becoming aware of one’s own investment, the ‘confusion, shaking, obsession’ that calls one’s search for knowledge onward.”