On Theory

Here I curate different authors description of what theory is, to their ethics and politics.

In Undoing Gender (2004, pg. 204-205) Judith Butler notes:

“… we must also have an idea of how theory relates to the process of transformation, whether theory is itself transformative work that has transformation as one of its effects… I will argue that theory is itself transformative… I do not think theory is sufficient for social and political transformation. Something besides theory must take place, such as interventions at social and political levels that involve actions, sustained labor, and institutionalised practices, which are not quite the same as exercise of theory. I would add, however, that in all these practices, theory is presupposed. We are all, in the very act of social transformation, lay philosophers, presupposing a vision of the world, of what is right, of what is just, of what is abhorrent, of what human action is and can be, of what constitutes the necessary and sufficient conditions of life.”

Elsewhere, Butler (pg. 201) highlights:

“Theory emerges from location and location itself is under crisis in Europe, since the boundaries of Europe are precisely what is being contested in quarrels over who belongs to the European Union and who does not, on rules regarding immigration, … the cultural effects of Islamic communities, of Arab and North African populations.”

Butler notes above, that in all these practices of social transformation, theory is presupposed.

My (elementary, rudimentary) reading of Heidegger presents an alternate view:

In Being and Time, Heidegger notes (page 177, Macquarrie and Robinson trans.):

“By looking at the the world theoretically, we have already dimmed it down to the uniformity of what is purely present-at-hand, though admittedly this uniformity comprises a new abundance of things, which can be discovered by simply characterising them. Yet even the purest [theory] has not left all moods behind it; even when we look theoretically at what is just present-at-hand, it does not show itself purely as it looks unless this theory lets it come toward us in a tranquil tarrying alongside.”

—Here theory means contemplation. What is revealed through moods cannot be described through contemplation. You can’t observe, stare at, inspect something theoretically the way you can through moods. For instance, if you were to walk through a graveyard at night, with the twigs cracking, the eerieness of the tombstones, and the wind howling, you feel spooked. What’s spooky can’t be revealed by descriptions of gravestone, twigs, and so on. You can be in a mood, and also rationally think through a situation of being spooked.

[It is important to note here that Heidegger’s usage of mood here does not imply a mentalistic state. Rather, it is colloquially a  ‘state of mind’ (without reducing it to mind category) or more closely attunement, disposedness, affectivity (Befindlichkeit)]