Summary and Keywords
The concept of theory takes part in a conceptual network occupied by some of the most common subjects of European Enlightenment, such as “science” and “reason.” Generally speaking, a theory is a rational type of abstract or generalizing thinking, or the results of such thinking. Theories drive the exercise of finding facts rather than of reaching goals. To formulate a theory, or to “theorize,” is to assert something of a privileged epistemic status, manifested in the traditional scholarly hierarchy between theorists and those who merely labor among the empirical weeds. In so doing, a theory provides a fixed point upon which analysis can be founded and action can be performed. Scholar and author Kenneth W. Thompson describes a nexus of relations between and among three different senses of the word “theory:” normative theory, a “general theory of politics,” and the set of assumptions on the basis of which a given actor is acting. These three types of theory are somehow paralleled by Marysia Zalewski’s triad of theory as “tool,” theory as “critique,” and theory as “everyday practice.” While Thompson’s and Zalewski’s interpretations of theory are each inherently consistent, both signal a different philosophical ontology. Thompson’s viewpoint is dualist, presuming the existence of a mind-independent world to which knowledge refers; while Zalewski’s is more of a monist, rejecting the mind/world dichotomy in favor of a more complex interrelationship between observers and their objects of study.
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