The Limits of Theory

Much of the liberal arts has, for some time now, been dominated by what is sometimes called "theory" -- that is, one of several modes of interpretation that starts with several assumptions and then applies them to reality.    Several famous modes are Marxist theory, Freudian theory, and Feminist theory.  The intent is to generate insight into the mechanisms behind observed reality, but since you are assuming the mechanisms, the quality of the insight you generate is limited by the degree to which your assumptions are correct.

A glaring example Paul Strom's article "Mellyagant's Primal Scene," (available in The Norton Critical Edition of Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte Darthur, p. 894).  The whole article is an extended attempt to apply one of Freud's theories about the effect on a child of witnessing his parents engaged together to a scene in Malory's work that involves neither children nor an actual witnessing of any such engagement.  The result is pathetic. There is no reason to believe that Freud's theory is correct applied to other cultures; nor to different centuries; nor that a theory pertaining to a child can inform the reaction of an adult; nor that a theory built around the child/parent relationship should apply to cases of unrelated adults; nor that a theory about witnessing sex in progress captures the reaction of discovering some evidence of sex having happened at another time. In point of fact, there really is no evidence that Freud's theory holds even for all children living in his own time and culture. Nevertheless, the inclusion of Dr. Strom's article in the Norton Critical Edition shows how much academia is captured by this approach.  It's a masterful example of the genre, even if it generates misapprehension and misunderstanding rather than insight.

There's another good example linked by Arts & Letters Daily today in a book review by one Sara Wheeler, apparently a feminist theorist.  She is reviewing a book on penal codes related to sexuality, and relates a few examples and then her general complaint:
The supposed Enlightenment transition from religion to reason was patchy: in 1806 England hanged more sodomites than murderers, while fear of masturbation reached such a climax in Germany that men caught at it had their foreskins tied shut over their members and held fast with iron rings.
The very next paragraph begins:
What all this amounts to, in most of the human cultures that have ever existed, is the male fear of and wish to subjugate women. I would have liked Berkowitz to spell this out.
Apparently the irony of the remark was lost on her and her editors, if any.

What is also lost is the sense that the theory isn't adequate to the reality being encountered. This is not to say that codes regulating sexuality never have to do with a wish to subjugate women; but the assumption that they always or mostly do is an assumption being brought by the theory. These should stand as counterexamples to the sufficiency of the theory as a mode of understanding human sexuality. It may be that a more complex set of assumptions is needed: it may even be that the assumptions need to be revised.


MikeD said...

The problem is the same as AGW, they develop their theory* and rather than test it by repeatedly experimenting (you know, the scientific method?) they search for evidence that supports their theory* and discard that which does not.

*theory does not mean what they think it does. For them, it is actually a conclusion rather than a testable hypothesis. If you come to your conclusion prior to experimenting (as the folks you mention do), then you're not engaging in science.

Texan99 said...

It's hard to tell what she thinks she means by "all this." Even if you include the passage between the two bits you quoted, the antecedent is a mystery. Does she mean "all" the material from the book that she hasn't summarized? Or (as seems more likely) does she mean something more like "all" the information she already had about sexual mores through the ages before she read the book -- a mass of data and conclusions that she assumes the reader shares? So "all this" would mean something a lot like "the academic culture in which I live and move."

Grim said...

I omitted that part because I wanted to clarify the point that clearly not "all this" was according to theory. But here's the omitted part, for the convenience of readers:

At the same time, legislators became obsessed with the question of what age should be considered 'underage' for sex. Berkowitz judges this 'one of the most explosive issues in nineteenth-century sex law'. In Delaware, the age of consent was ten. Berkowitz stops on the eve of the twentieth century, correctly reckoning that, 'if I travelled much further into the present, the noise of our most recent century would drown out the voices of our ancestors'.

I looked this up, and it turns out she's wrong on the details: in most states, it was ten, but in Delaware the age of consent was seven.

The piece is apropos of the Roman Polanski trial; the author is making the point that what Polanski did probably wouldn't have constituted statutory rape a century earlier. (That is somewhat beside the point, since what Polanski did was forcible rape, but the author argues that the victim's non-virginal status would have meant she would not have been protected by many courts. The author misses the point that a young woman of that class, a century before, would have been a virgin.)

Anonymous said...

We have far too many uncreative people in academia who feel driven to find a "fresh" approach. Thus, they look for something that hasn't been done before (sometimes for good reason).


Anonymous said...

My first semester in grad school, I was cautioned that using Freudian analysis on pre-modern minds was asking for problems. After 1875, when considering urban Europeans and residents of North America, it might be useful if done very, very carefully by someone who had done a great deal of study in Freudian techniques and of Freud's writings. In short - don't do it.


Texan99 said...

No doubt Freud had some valuable insights, but I'm not sure his overarching theories of basic human conflict and development hold water even for the half of the human race he was interested in, and it's pretty clear that they are the purest nonsense as applied to the other. The man's notions of what was innately human were absurdly parochial.

MikeD said...

That's one way of putting it. "Freud was a dirty old man," is another. My favorite quote regarding Freud was "His error was in that thinking the repressed sexuality of the Victorian Era was completely normal."

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I echo Valerie. Theory is a game, similar to artists who do random irritating things because it "starts a conversation about what art is." The point is for them to have something to talk about in code to exclude outsiders. there is no further meaning to any of it.

Texan99 said...

Agreed - I'll go a long way to avoid "a conversation about what art is."