It’s pretty common to think that method and theory are abstract means of understanding. Unless simple or limited to an instrumental role, the tendency is to see them as disconnected, cut off from the reality they hope to explain. If they don’t reveal something “concrete” about the world and our dealings with it, the argument goes, method and theory should be relegated to the dustbins of society.
This is not a very hopeful scenario for someone like me whose livelihood depends on teaching theories and methods courses. I’m often bemused by my disgruntled students: “Why do we need to know this?” “These ideas are passé at best, abstract at worst!” “What does this have to do with real life [read: me]?” “Patriarchal BS!” “Scientistic bullying!” etc. etc.
Let me offer a few points for a different perspective. First, a theory, or a method that helps us to get to theory, is not real life gone on holiday. It explains and organizes our views of “real life” (a dreadful term, by the way. Sorry!) Take the pedestrian example of Freud. Not only did Freud put us on a different footing from his predecessors when it comes to viewing ourselves. He also provides the ether in which we communicate. Think about screenplays today. There’s no shortage of Freudian references as narrators relate to audience and characters relate to one another. Rolling one’s eyes at all the references to this or that neurotic tendency, this or that unconscious motive, this or that complex, only proves the point. Freudian theory is not only important historically but it has become part of the scaffolding by which we dress our existential edifice.
Second, theories and their methods can heighten the sense of our place in history. Too many focus on the objects of theories and methods, which dulls this sense. We learn about how X was understood by Y, which becomes unfashionable once theory Z replaces it. If we are even willing to recognize the legitimacy of such a procedure, a sense of superiority is created in us as we close the book on X. Rather than close the book on X (or anything for that matter), we might do well to focus on Y and what our position with regard to Y’s theory reveals about a developing understanding of X and Y. More importantly, I believe, we should focus on Y and what it reveals about Y’: us as participants in the analysis. Here an understanding opens up with regard to our embodied role in theorizing, which, it is crucial to note, is provided by our beliefs and values.
A connecting point is how this worm’s-eye view makes us feel as participants in an emerging world of understanding. This “historicality” (if I may) connects us with a past in deep appreciation, hopeful that it connects us with our present, with an ability to reshuffle things, to reconstitute them, in accordance with a self-awareness tugged by a future. We are not spectators in this arena. That luxury is not afforded us, as if that were even desirable. We are participants. We are involved. We learn. Theory is speculation (speculatio), a “seeing” constituted by judgment and self-affirmation. It is birthed by a method of self-care. Own that and you may find yourself enticed by the concrete dividends of theorizing.