The Abuse of ‘Theory’ and the Profundity of the Surface

November 2, 2020 Updated: November 2, 2020


At a moment when the static of partisan passion is blaring at us from every conceivable media outlet, it is a pleasure to take refuge in a quiet profundity or two.

The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, gloomy chap though he was, saw deeply into the nooks and crannies of the human soul. He also understood a lot about the nature of art, as witness his observation that “One should treat works art as one would treat a prince. Let it speak to you first.”

I think that formulation is worth about three years’ tuition at any graduate art history program. That is one reason that Schopenhauer is probably verboten in any self-respecting institution of higher education these days.

At most places, the procedure mocked by Tom Wolfe in his brilliant satire “The Painted Word” is de rigueur. Instead of listening and looking, students are taught to talk over the art in order to demonstrate their cleverness.

Wolfe amusingly exposed the tendency among the art elite of the 1970s to assume that “paintings and other works exist only to illustrate the text,” i.e., the critical text that purported to reveal to us the “real” meaning of some trendy contemporary art.

He imagined a big retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in which the featured works would be huge blow-ups of passages from various influential critics, each illustrated by small reproductions of works by the artists discussed in the text, the discrepancy in size indicating the relative importance of the items.

Wolfe deliciously skewered some prevalent pomposities.


It must also be said that the cautionary tale he offered about the art world of the time is if anything more pertinent today than it was in 1975.

If there were a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Words, the word “theory” would long ago have been granted protected status as an Abused Noun.

Academics wishing to use the word would be required to apply for a special license, submit character references from three persons never convicted of exposure to graduate-school education, and contribute to a fund for other unfortunate words.

The case of “theory” is especially sad, because in it we have an example of serial abuse: first by the professors of literature, then the professors of “cultural studies” and kindred interdisciplinary redoubts, and lately by art historians.

“Theory” has a complicated history. It derives from a Greek word meaning “to look at, behold.”

“Theory” in this sense implies a certain passivity on the part of the beholder: a theory gave us access not to something we made but to something we received when properly attentive.

Today, however, we use “theory” in a sense close to the opposite of this etymological meaning.

A “theory” nowadays is not so much what we see or behold as a mental scaffolding we imagine or project in order to account for what we see or behold.

In short, theory, which once betokened an attunement or congruence with reality, now signifies a willful imposition.

Still, in normal parlance, “theory” remains a perfectly respectable word.

It has plenty of legitimate colloquial uses: “I have a theory about that,” someone says, meaning that he has idea about what happened and why.

We also regularly distinguish between theory—the way things are supposed to happen—and practice—the way they in fact do happen (the idea being that there is often a disjunction between the two). “That’s all very well in theory,” you say, meaning that in practice things are likely to turn out rather differently.

We also use “theory” in a more formal sense, meaning, as “The American Heritage Dictionary” explains, “Systematically organized knowledge applicable in a relatively wide variety of circumstances, esp. a system of assumptions, accepted principles, and rules of procedure devised to analyze, predict, or otherwise explain the nature or behavior of a specified set of phenomena.”

“Theory” in this sense is part of the drama of rational inquiry.

A theory is not just idle speculation but a carefully formulated set of hypotheses offered as a possible explanation of something.

A theory has a tentative or adventurous side—it advances beyond the facts in its effort to explain them—but its legitimacy is measured primarily by its honesty and allegiance to the truth.

Scare Quotes

The truth? You can almost feel the shudder of horror cascading through the professoriate: imagine someone so naïve as to speak of “the truth”!

They don’t do truth in the fashionable precincts of the academy today. They do “theory.”

You even encounter people who use “theorize” as a transitive verb: “So-and-so theorizes the idea of freedom” (or art, nature, cookery, whatever), meaning that So-and-so embellishes whatever it is with a skein of owlish verbal irrelevancies.

“Truth” is rarely spoken of, and then only in deprecatory scare quotes.

Have you noticed how widespread is the use of those instruments of epistemic deflation?

It is positively epidemic. And why not? A simpler method of neutralizing or ironizing meaning can hardly be imagined.

Never speak of virtue when you can say “virtue;” a bit of reasoning is not logical, but only “logical;” the procedure in question is not sound, but merely “sound.” And so on.

It works with words of cognitive failure, too. Don’t say that an argument is refuted, only that it is “refuted.”

To appreciate what is at stake, consider the difference between fresh fish and “fresh” fish: the difference is difficult to define, perhaps, but easy to smell.

The marvelous thing about this use of scare quotes is that it allows you to insinuate doubt without positively asserting anything at all.

You don’t declare that “X” is not true, merely that “X is ‘true.’”

“Theory” in the fashionable new sense is scarcely imaginable without such weapons of semantic sabotage.

Instrument of Politics

And this was only to be expected. For theory as practiced in the academy today is primarily an instrument of politics, not inquiry.

It is meant to insinuate a subplot of unacknowledged motives behind every declaration.

When you hear—as you are always hearing these days—someone say that truth is “socially constructed,” that “knowledge is a function of power,” and so on, it is a good bet that in the next sentence he is going to offer you a dollop of “theory” to support his claim.

What sort of theory?

People who go in for this sort of thing are fond of asserting that “everything is political,” meaning that the ideal of disinterested inquiry is little more than a charade. How could it be otherwise, they argue, since all our acts are by definition our acts, i.e., self-interested?

Thinkers at least as far back as Joseph, Bishop Butler (1692–1752) have exposed the confusion that lies behind the “strange affection in many people of explaining away all particular affections, and representing the whole of life as nothing but one continued exercise in self-love.”

There are three main sources feeding the confusion. The emotional or characterological source of the confusion is programmatic cynicism.

The notion that selfishness is universal and unremitting is as much a matter of temperament as conviction.

The idea appeals especially to those clever people who view every ideal as a blind, every value as a rationalization of some interest.

In one of his essays on painting, Henry James observes that “There is a limit to what it is worthwhile to attempt to say about the greatest artists.”

I believe that is true of all art.

The great occupational hazard for an art critic or art historian is to let words come between the viewer and the experience of art—to substitute a verbal encounter for an aesthetic one.

As Clement Greenberg observed somewhere, art is “a matter of self-evidence and feeling, and of the inferences of feeling, rather than of intellection or information, and the reality of art is disclosed only in experience, not in reflection upon experience.”

The chastening truth is that most good art reduces the critic to a kind of marriage broker, a middleman between the viewer and the work of art.

Often, the best thing a critic can do is to effect an introduction and then get out of the way.

There are several reasons for this. One reason has to do with what we might call the deep superficiality of aesthetic experience.

The experience of art, like the experience of many human things, is essentially an experience of surfaces, of what meets the eye.

When it comes to such realities, the effort to look behind the surface often results not in greater depth but in distortion.

The philosopher Roger Scruton touched on this truth when he observed that “There is no greater error in the study of human things than to believe that the search for what is essential must lead us to what is hidden.”

This is the deep truth behind Oscar Wilde’s quip that only a very shallow person does not judge by appearances.

I am sure this has some connection to the electoral contest now raging around us, but spelling that out would take at least another column.

Roger Kimball is the editor and publisher of The New Criterion and publisher of Encounter Books. His most recent book is “Who Rules? Sovereignty, Nationalism, and the Fate of Freedom in the 21st Century.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.