If I ran the zoo . . .
1. An Interdiction:
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 and others “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. 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,” which once-upon-a-time was thought to be the end or goal of theorizing, is rarely spoken of, and then only in deprecatory scare quotes.
Think about those quotation marks. Have you noticed how widespread is the use of those instruments of epistemic deflation? It is positively epidemic. And why not? As the philosopher David Stove has pointed out, 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. 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,” etc., it is a good bet that in the next sentence he is going to offer you a dollop of “theory” to support his claim.
2. An Admonition:
From John Alexander Smith, Waynflete Professor of Moral and Metaphysical Philosophy at Oxford, who in 1914 began a course of lectures with the following observation:
Gentlemen, you are now about to embark upon a course of studies which will occupy you for two years. Together, they form a noble adventure. But I would like to remind you of an important point. Some of you, when you go down from the University, will go into the Church, or to the Bar, or to the House of Commons, or to the Home Civil Service, or the Indian or Colonial Services, or into various professions. Some may go into the Army, some into industry and commerce; some may become country gentlemen. A few—I hope a very few—will become teachers or dons. Let me make this clear to you. Except for those in the last category, nothing that you will learn in the course of your studies will be of the slightest possible use to you in after life—save only this—that if you work hard and intelligently you should be able to detect when a man is talking rot, and that, in my view, is the main, if not the sole, purpose of education.
There is a lot of rot in the academy today. But optimists like me believe that the universities are a like a nation according to Adam Smith: there’s “a deal of ruin” in them. They’re tough. They’re often in crisis but manage to survive. To help them along interested parties (presumably anyone reading these words) needs to refine his “rot detector” and speak forthrightly, calling a spade a spade, and politically correct abomination a politically abomination, and exercise intellectually mendacious pseudo-diversity just that. The hope is that by so doing, everyone will find it easier to identify, laugh at, and reject the rot that has infected the academy, especially in the humanities and social sciences. That exercise in mental housecleaning is valuable in itself, providing as it does a measure of resistance to the de-civilizing tendency of politically-motivated interpretive hyperbole.
There is also a subsidiary benefit, having to do with intellectual back-stiffening. Calling things by their real names—identifying rot as rot, not a beneficial education “innovation”—can provide some inoculation against academic intimidation. The claims made by the critical marauders presiding at most colleges and universities today can be so outlandish, and they are typically expressed in language that is so rebarbative, that many people are stunned into acquiescence or at least into silence. It pleases me to think that living up to John Alexander Smith’s desideratum will help counteract that anesthesia, prompting more people to object to the objectionable.
If I ran the zoo, I’d probably begin there . . .