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don't be suckered by theories

Jeremy Narby reports, in his excellent book The Cosmic Serpent, that amongst the Ashaninca Indians of the Amazon rainforest the worst insult to throw is “es pura teoria”- that’s pure theory. For them practica and tactica- practice and tactics are what count. They don’t talk of doing things; they do them.

In the West, especially in academia, but also within the bureaucratic entrails of any big organisation, including many businesses, they talk a lot about doing things and do little. In these places there exists an unstated reverence for theory. Theory is held in higher esteem than practice.

What interests me, though, is the way theory and practice have become divorced and treated as though they are part of two different enterprises.

It’s easy to see that mathematics, which can be used to describe a theory, usually rather well, has become interchangeable with theory. But maths is a tool, a language, that can be used in an abstract or a concrete way. Abstract patterns, made prettily with paint are not theories, they are paintings, or can be. Abstract maths, which produces a pretty pattern of numbers is also pleasing- to those who can understand such stuff but it is not ‘theory’.

Theory can only ever be theory, when it relates to something out there in the world. If it relates to nothing it is simply a pattern of some sort.

So theory and practice are always joined by their need for the world. The theoretician claims he is describing the world, or a process that would work in the world. The practical person is making it happen or testing some idea out in reality. Maybe because of some crazy idea that the man who has the idea is ‘better’ than the man who gets his hands dirty we have ended up with this competition between practical men and theorists. From my perspective, as someone with a fatal love of theory, I can say that theory attracts lazy people. Workers are more likely to go towards the practical.

But really there is no such thing as an absence of theory. Even Thomas Edison, who scorned mathematicians, and claimed all his work was trial and error, used theory. For his lightbulb he took an idea developed by Joseph Swan (a glass bulb containing a carbon filament) and just kept coming up with different solutions until he had a long lasting lightbulb. Edison had some grasp of the relationship between current and resistance otherwise he would have wasted vast amounts of time producing ideas that never had a chance. This relationship is called Ohm’s law, and is a theory about how the world works that is used by electrical engineers all the time. Also, each time he tried a new test, he was testing a new idea, a new configuration. So even a man who scorned theory had a ‘theoretical’ element in his work. Maybe not high theory, but it was there. But it was subordinate to the whole enterprise – which was about making a light bulb that lasted for more than a few minutes.

What I’m working towards is the fact that practice is the highest form theory can take. It’s useful to avoid any theory that is detached from some practical application. It’s like being immersed in failure too much. It’s like putting the cart before the horse. The project is conceived and then you come up with as much theory as you need to get things done and no more.


Because over dependence on theory does your head in. Engineers joke- "there's no problem too difficult a theoretician can't solve it." In other words, theory people live in a fantasy world. Sanity is a walk in the other direction, towards the 'realer' world with all its insoluble problems, jokes, setbacks and miracles.


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