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November 2004 / Febrary 2007
doing theory & practice
a manifold of interfaces

gary e. davis

November. 2004

I want to begin by making a distinction which I’ll label theory vs. Theory (or “TheoryT”, if I use ‘Theory’ at the beginning of a sentence)

Professions (law, health, etc.) commonly have a sense of theory that’s very oriented by their domain of practicality, more ordinarily accessible than Theory within academics. For example, “theory” for social workers is very practice-oriented or a practical conceptualization of the knowledge base, compared to conceptual work in social philosophy (or academic social theory within sociology). The social worker gets a “theory” course or two during training, but even theory within that profession’s research domain (e.g., what backgrounds reports in professional journals) has a much more practical focus than what the academic Theorist may be typically involved with. Moreover, the philosophical Theorist (e.g., Habermas) may be doing something quite different from the typical social theorist.

So, there’s a continuum of abstractness for “theory” of the world across professional and academic domains: The practicality of doing academic Theory may be conceptually distant from the practicality of a “street” profession. Though doing Theory is a kind of practice for social theorists, it typically lacks a connection to professional practitioner practices that doing theory within professions typically has.

The professional practitioner easily faces the academic Theorist with an attitude like: What can Theory do for us? The academician should want to keep near to mind an attitude like: What can Theory do for “practice” in a professional sense of programmatic efficacy?

February, 2007

So, consider the notion of practice in the sense that a physician or attorney has a practice. That practice is constituted by its profession, which becomes highly individualized for the lifeworld of each practitioner. That lifeworld has all the modes that are normal to its profession: epistemic, ethical, technical, etc.

The epistemology of a profession is a derived mode of the elusive complex of epistemic domains and interdomainal research enterprises emblemized in the idea of the university. Epistemically-informed practice is an end point of processes involving research projects which are part of research enterprises that interface with elaborate translation processes between research, importation by policy enterprises, and exportation of policy designs to organizational leaderships which facilitate program designs whose evaluation, at best, filters back through this kind of chain to new research projects, which interface also with educational processes and continuing education within the profession. That's indeed a long string of relations for the "and" of theory and practice.

Ethically, a profession has standard aims and self-understandings, which are also evolving in ways appropriate to the various career tracks and their interrelations within the profession. The relationship of ethical theory, professional ethics, and programmatic action may be as complex and extended as it is for the epistmic dimension of a profession.

To think about interfaces of epistemic and ethical dimensions is something untranslatable into either dimension—involving the most mundane relationships of normative and evidentiary understanding and the most elusive issues of professional self-understanding, implying the most abstractable issues of knowledge and value with which professions really live (but may see little need to analyze). Analysis of this is left to the academicians and their opportunities for influence through educational processes (through “the literature” and through processes of pre-professional and continuing-educational curriculum). The epistemic-ethical interface is a “philosophical” problem, in the deliciously vague sense where, on the one hand, the market considers any moment of principled consideration one’s “philosophy” on some matter; and, on the other hand, ‘philosophy’ has been the emblem across millennia for inquiry into what’s immanently most elusive (if not what’s most ultimately perplexing) which is supposed, for the practitioner, to have some enwisening result. (You know what I mean by ‘enwisen’—analogous to enable—but I actually just now coined ‘enwisen’ in the moment, having no association to German, until afterward). The arcaneness (I wanted to say arcanity, but see that I’m coining that, too)—the arcane character of such interfacing, relative to the practitioner, is good reason why philosophical idealism easily seems gnostic (if not mystical) and is easily as discomfiting as psychotherapy.

So, the distinction between what’s proximal and what’s primordial (I take from Heidegger’s Being and Time) is quite real, in an existential sense. A hallmark of great teaching is mastery of this difference, relative to really being with the other (what Heidegger called “Mitsein”, literally: with-being), like an Oxbridge tutor, if not a psychotherapist (cf. the Wittgensteinian, “ordinary language” philosopher).

November, 2004 / February, 2007

Proximally, the theory-practice relationship can be usefully considered in terms of two interfaces (two relationships). One interface is between the practice and its client world. The other is between the practice and its theoretical background. The client world involves the entirety of the lifeworld that’s relevant to the professional-client relationship, in terms of particular lives—which may become the academician’s ethnographic interest in locales. I would pursue this in terms of professional education and health care.

A practice itself is implicitly theory-laden (in the profession’s terms), as background implicature of expertly doing the practice, in terms of its many capabilities, employing a once-explicitly theory-laden background and also generating knowledge through problem-solving and innovational endeavors. This difference within the practice between channeling a background expertly and generating theorizable knowledge may suggest a differentiation within reasoning between what’s practical and what’s theoretical. Immanently, it shows in the difference between performative and representational aspects of action. This “horizontal” difference within action (the self-differentiating capacity of action as performed representability) has a “vertical” complement of isomorphism across levels of differentiation: A Theorization of activity may be concerned with a continuum from what’s present-at-hand (phenomenology) to the various kinds of capabilities and inquiries that constitute the profession.

So, theory is really a practice, rather than like an inanimate body of understanding (or epistemic conceptuality). One may do theory as, so to speak, midland-to-highland endeavor of Theory or as appropriation of such work to contexts or sites (applying Theory to theory or theory to professional practices). Doing theory/Theory well is evaluable relative to discerned complexes of moving laterally and abstractively/appropriatively among kinds of sites and trans-sitational endeavors, which is usefully facilitated by the conceptual freedom that philosophy traditionally provides.

Standardly, the commons (or common ground) supporting the practice of Theory is the university and the interfaces—mutuality and reciprocity—of field interests within and among academic domains, interfaces with the professional schools, and with our shared representations of the world “outside” the university. Since the professions do theory in usually a derivative sense (taking their applied field research theory as paradigmatic), the academic Theorist can easily appear to the professions as parochial relative to the “real world.” TheoryT is too abstract, too extracted from “the world.” It may be common that the professional finds the Theorist useless. So, the Theorist in the world (not stereotypically culpable for living in ye ol’ “ivory tower”) has the endless challenge of remaining insiteful, so to speak.

So, doing Theory is a practice in several senses: (1) working with Theory well as such; (2) mediating oneself as professional Theorist with others’ Theoretical or theoretical practice outside one’s specialty (which is much less than the outside world beyond academia)—which, then, may become furthered (3) as mediation of one’s field specialty with professional schools outside academia or even representation of one’s entire academic field to professional schools, either with theorists in the professional schools or, in solidarity with professional schools, (4) mediating one’s work with professionals “outside” the university (e.g., symposia of practitioners). Also there’s (5) the client public (addressed by the street professional and addressable by the Theorist) and, of course, (6) the relevant general public (probably a relatively intellectual public for the Theorist).

So, the possible mixes of Theory, theory, specialty, field, professional school, street practitioners, and public makes the so-called “theory-practice” relationship quite rich, to say the least, but quite vague, short of specification about what focus one intends.

Each mode of interface indicated above—each kind of appropriation—can be considered the practice of doing theory (e.g., between the academic Theorist and the theorist or researcher within a professional school) or doing practice (e.g., a practice within the professional school or a practice within academic Theory).

That sixth sense of theory-practice relationship—targeting the higher educated public—is typified by the notion of public intellectual, which becomes the centerpiece of Habermas’s essay, “The Relation of Theory and Practice Revisited,” Truth and Justification (MIT Press, 2003, last chapter—which inspired the initial version of this discussion, Nov. 2004). The other senses above don’t come into focus by Habermas's discussion, but the other senses—a holism of manifold interfaces—belong to Habermas’ idea of the university referenced above.

The career of theory is, ideally (in Theory), a philosophical venture, such as what Habermas exemplifies by his career. But it’s also a venture in appropriative thinking, laterally (re: field interfaces, professions—like Habermas' engagement with law—to the horizon of our planetarity); “downward” from conceptual grasp of Theory as interdisciplinary research, re: practitioner site-ation (e.g., teacher education or clinical supervision); and “upward” from interdisciplinary research into what might be exemplified by inquiry into relations of epistemic and ethical kinds of inquiry in philosophy (without metaphysicalism).

So, the “kind of untamed...polyglossia” that Habermas merely mentions in “...Revisited” (286, 290) is potentially a manifold of appropriations that his work (with others’) has inspired.

Also: This discussion is associated with the “advancing community” area of