Harvard Educational Review
  1. Spring 1999 Issue »

    Further Comment - Hollow Theory: A Reply to Rajagopalan

    Gary Thomas
    I enjoyed reading Kanavillil Rajagopalan’s article “On the Theoretical Trappings of the Thesis of Anti-Theory; or, Why the Idea of Theory May Not, After All, Be All That Bad: A Response to Gary Thomas” in the Fall 1998 issue of the Harvard Educational Review, and I am grateful to him for his thoughtful and detailed response to my article, “What’s the Use of Theory?” (HER, Spring 1997). I am glad that we can agree on the pretensions of some kinds of theory and on its inhibiting effects on original thinking. I am pleased that he believes that I examine certain theories “with great skill and perspicacity” (p. 337), even if I am also guilty of “smug skepticism” (p. 346), “crypto-scientism” (p. 344), making an “impassioned harangue” (p. 336), and making a “fatal mistake” (p. 347) in my reasoning.

    Rajagopalan’s critique comes in two waves: in the first he tries to establish that theory’s ambit is wide — indeed it is so wide that it encompasses anything to do with structured thought. A simple proposition follows: theory is any structured thought, ergo Thomas’s structured thought is theory. Once this ground is established (that I’m a theorist), the way is easy for the second surge. Here, Rajagopalan claims that since I am a theorist I am guilty of grave contradictions and inconsistencies in my argument against theory.

    I organize my reply in two parts, in response to these two fronts of criticism.

    Part I: Theory’s Ambit

    The concern I expressed in my essay was that “theory” in educational discourse has come to denote just about any kind of intellectual endeavor. In this happy guise it has acquired a falsely deserved reputation and has led us into blind alleys in our thought about matters educational. Against my argument, Rajagopalan avers that theory should indeed be seen loosely in what he calls the “generic sense” (p. 337) as structured thought. He even insists that seeing is theorizing.

    He insists that one has to do this (that is, make theory mean all structuring) for two reasons: first, because “we homo sapiens are, by our very nature, theorizing creatures” (p. 338) and we have been “since the dawn of civilized life on earth.” This is taken by Rajagopalan to be self-evidently the case: it is in “our very nature” and, what’s more, it always has been. Second, we should understand theory to mean structured thought in order to counter the “grave misconception” (p. 339) that theory — and presumably he is here thinking of the “grand theory” of Wright Mills (1959) — is necessarily superior to other kinds of structured thought.

    Rajagopalan and I are as one on the need to dispense with the notion that ideas can be ranked and graded so that some kinds of ideas are made to stand superior to others. But we drift apart on responses to this problematic notion. His response is to gather together everything about structured thought and to call it “theory.”

    I have three reasons for disagreeing.

    1. If theory applies to all structured thought, it confuses us.

    Thinking and finding out are central to education, and it is thinking and finding out to which contemporary uses of “theory” and “theorizing” apply. Now these words — theory, theorizing — apply not only to thinking, but also have become encumbered with some heavy epistemological baggage over the years. Illich and Sanders (1988) suggest that this baggage accretion is troublesome: there comes to be employed a hybrid technical-vernacular use of words like “theory” in pretending technical expertise or scientific knowledge. They thus become merely “sub-linguistic grunts” (p. 106).

    The use of a word like theory in a field like education — which has at its center a study of thinking — has surely to be something more than a sub-linguistic grunt. To make this suggestion is not, as Rajagopalan implies, to buy in to some Académie française-like attempt to legislate for correct language. Rather, it is to say that in our scholarly discourse and with an idea as important as “theory” is for education, we’d better be sure what we’re talking about, for if we are not, we are prone to be bewitched by the word.

    As educators — thinking about thinking, learning, performing — we must be sure of our ground when we use a word which comes in as many varieties as “theory.” Even if the language games of our everyday discourse are played on shifting sands, the language of our scholarly discourse must be conducted on something firmer. If a surgeon, on a whim (perhaps after having read a paperback on the later Wittgenstein), were to decide habitually to call all surgical instruments “scalpels,” or a greengrocer to label all vegetables “asparagus,” they would surely soon be out of business.

    One can entertain a position such as this without signing up to some Saussurean structural linguistics — a “theory,” according to Rajagopalan, to which I am prey. The point is not to legislate for what is correct, but rather the obverse: to counter an academic tendency to want to scoop up all thinking words and paint “theory” over them in large red letters. This tendency has two consequences: 1) the other words and ideas about thinking are belittled, and 2) “theory” becomes meaningless, as “theory” is meaningless in many sentences in Rajagopalan’s piece. Take, for example, his observation that language is “replete with theories of the past” (p. 342) — in, incidentally, a section about “the underlying theory of meaning” (p. 341). What can “theories of the past” mean? It could mean — given the promiscuity proffered to theory by Rajagopalan — theories like, for example, Newtonian theory or Freudian theory (both having come from the past). It could mean theories of past thinking, historiography, or theories about the past. It could mean myth, legend, narrative construction, or indeed any conjoining of ideas belonging to the past. Theory as such a Hydra is a potent ally in polemic, its versatility enabling a new manifestation for every purpose.

    The point is not to legislate about the use of words (as Rajagopalan seems eager to prove I am doing), but rather, as Wittgenstein (1967) put it of philosophy, to try to “battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language” (p. 47).

    In understanding this bewitchment, one has to look closely at a word like theory and understand its employment, as Eagleton (1991) has done with the similarly overworked word “ideology.” As he puts it nicely of that word:

    Any word which covers everything loses its cutting edge and dwindles to an empty sound. For a term to have meaning, it must be possible to specify what, in particular circumstances, would count as the other of it. . . . If any piece of human behavior whatsoever, including torture, could count as an instance of compassion, the word compassion shrinks to an empty signifier. (pp. 7-8)

    Eagleton’s invocation of “other” here — torture against compassion — is interesting, drawn as it is to demonstrate that if everything is compassion, compassion means nothing. Note, however, what Rajagopalan unearths when he employs the find-the-other strategy in elucidating the meaning of theory: he suggests that this “other” is folk theory and now-discredited theory. This is a convenient “other” for his case. Making theory’s other simply previously held theory and that which theory “constantly works to discredit,” Rajagopalan shines onto the screen an opposition at which we can all catcall and hiss, since all who have completed an introductory course on the history of ideas can agree with him that “one person’s science may well turn out to be another’s myth” (p. 340).

    He fails to describe theory’s other here, and instead describes a process which Canguilhem (1994) calls the “elimination of the false by the true” (p. 41), a process which has tended to downplay “the forgotten dreams, discarded projects, failed procedures and erroneous conclusions” which have contributed to current scientific knowledge (p. 41). But surely only the most culturally chauvinistic would want to minimize the value of previously held knowledge or ideas; we all know their value and would not subscribe to a position which belittled them. These previously held ideas are not theory’s other. If one is looking for theory’s other, one will properly find it in “practice” — and more of theory versus practice under point 3, below.

    Rajagopalan cites Fish (1994) approvingly in his piece, but he could also have noted the neo-pragmatist’s recent views on this issue of what theory is. Fish highlights the highly varied activities shoved under the voluminous cloak of “theory,” concluding that “to include such activities under the rubric of theory is finally to make everything theory, and if one does that there is nothing of a general kind to be said about theory” (p. 378). He distinguishes between theory and theory talk; the latter is “any form of talk that has acquired cachet and prestige” (Fish, 1989, pp. 14–15). This leads to my second point.

    2. Prestigious theory: its pompous use and its camouflaging effects

    This is the problem with “theory” scattered like confetti into our discourse about ways of finding out in education. Its use is often merely a way of trying to prettify or affix kudos to a simple idea. By calling constructs, reflections, and ideas — indeed any kind of structured thinking — “theory” or “theorizing,” as Rajagopalan wants to do, we claim some epistemological legitimacy and explanatory currency for them. Use of the word “theory” is often about the need to associate oneself with something heavy-sounding and explanatory. “Theorizing” sounds better than “pondering.” If theory is the clearest distillation of intellectual endeavor, then theorizing is an appropriate activity for serious scholars.

    I reassert for Rajagopalan that I am not against thinking, nor cogitating, pondering, guessing, hypothesizing, reflecting, considering, having a good idea, contemplating, musing, guessing, saying “Ah Ha!”, having inspiration. All these are wonderful things, but it helps not at all to call them “theorizing,” however much more prestigious the latter sounds. To call all geese, ducks, and other waterfowl “swans” not only fails to transform the former into the latter, it also points unerringly to the possibility that one really thinks that the former are in need of some transformation. To want to call all thinking theorizing not only destroys the useful distinctions that different words make between different kinds of thinking,1 but by implication it also relegates them to thinking’s second league.

    3. Ubiquitous theory relegates poor old practice.

    My third and most serious concern over the all-encompassing notion of theory, with which Rajagopalan wants us all to proceed, concerns its implications for its true “other.” This is not — as he asserts it to be — previously held theory or theory-that-is-disagreed-with, but practice. Note that we don’t talk about musing and practice, guessing and practice, hypothesizing and practice, saying “Ah Ha!” and practice, or even thinking and practice — only theory and practice. The theory that Rajagopalan hankers after sets a fault line between theory and practice.

    And once set, this fault line manufactures a relationship between the one and the other, and that relationship is one of priority and subservience. Theory is first; practice follows. This manufactured disjunction is important for education, for theories of whatever kind — grand or personal — are taken to inform practice, and in this informing process some explanatory value is made to inhere in “theory.”

    Rajagopalan draws parallels involving Sherlock Holmes and rearview mirrors on freeways to note that all seeing involves selection and structuring. By some mental transmutation which involves the assimilation into this process of already acquired knowledge of the world, theorizing evidently follows. Theorizing is what all humans do, says Rajagopalan; indeed, he asserts that it is our defining characteristic.2This well-meant attribution of theory to everyone, made sensibly enough to deny the exclusive prerogative of “theory” to the grand theorists, seems benign enough. But incorporated into this kindly attribution is the ineluctable separation of theory from practice. Once invoked, the notion of theorizing sits like an incubus, pushing practice away and demoting it. Once theory is summoned, theory and practice forever remain separate, in a relation of priority and subservience.

    For a profession like teaching (which, incidentally, Rajagopalan fails to mention in his entire piece), this raises some profound questions concerning not only the putative contribution of theory to practice in education, but also concerning the way we as teachers think about our own thinking and that of our students. The issue at stake is thus not simply the relatively trivial one of what we call this or that process, but what we conjure up when we rub the theory lamp.

    When we conjure up the “thinking theory” or “personal theory” on which Rajagopalan is so keen, a key question has to be posed: do people deliberately theorize in such a way that their practice is affected — are there two distinguishable and separable processes — or is “tacit knowing” (Polanyi, 1958) a kind of knowing out of which theory cannot be drawn? Ryle (1949) made a crucial distinction here between “knowing how and knowing that” (p. 27). Knowing how to do something is not predicated on knowing principles for doing it, nor on the possession of articulated knowledge. As Ryle put it, “Intelligent practice is not a step-child of theory” (p. 26). In fact, if all our practical movements and thoughts depended on theorizing and planning, we should never think at all, for the planning would have to be planned. One would have to have a theory about one’s theory, and so on . . . and on. Ryle proceeds thus: “If, for any operation to be intelligently executed, a prior theoretical operation had first to be performed and performed intelligently, it would be a logical impossibility for anyone ever to break into the circle” (p. 30). Practical knowledge and practical competence and proficiency cannot, in other words, be governed by a theory — by another ghost in the machine. As Quine (1963) puts it of the similar word “idea”: “The evil of the idea idea is that its use, like the appeal in Molière to a virtus dormitiva, engenders an illusion of having explained something” (p. 48). Note Quine’s different uses of idea in “idea idea.” In the first he is referring to some imagined (but assumed to be extant) positioned object — some engram — used to explain some action: an explanatory fiction. In the latter he is using it simply to refer to the things we talk about. They are technical and vernacular uses, but by pointedly juxtaposing them he draws just enough of our attention to the different uses to make this clear. No such confusion is avoided in the use of “theory,” where “theory” as explanatory fiction melds effortlessly with “I have a theory why my chrysanthemums are dying.”

    The problem with Rajagopalan’s kind of theory is identical to that of Quine’s idea idea: it seems to want to evoke some arcane explanatory process lying behind the action itself. Behind the driving mirror maneuver is . . . what? A theory! As Dennett (1993) points out, homunculi are adaptive creatures that have a habit of changing with the times, so that we now have micronemes, censor-agents, and suppressor agents in place of ghosts. Theory (having a good long epistemological pedigree and a Greek etymology) is an entirely apposite homunculus for serious academics.

    All this is important for education, since teaching and learning are about intelligent performances and there is a common misconception that, as Ryle puts it, “the execution of intelligent performances entails the additional execution of intellectual operations” (p. 49). This is the case whether or not one wants to bother about calling those intellectual operations “theory.” When someone does or thinks something in the practical world, asking them to reflect or theorize on it merely produces what Ryle calls a ghostly double, “a soliloquized or muttered rehearsal” (p. 296). He asks, “Why are people so strongly drawn to believe, in the face of their own daily experience, that the intelligent execution of an operation must embody two processes, one of doing and another of theorizing?” (p. 32).

    So the problem as I see it is not simply with grand theories, about whose unfortunate effects I think Rajagopalan and I agree. The problem with the all-encompassing view of theory which Rajagopalan holds is the inevitable invocation of theory as the other of practice: theory as the point around which significant explanatory ideas crystallize. Related to this, in the context of teacher development, it is the belief that one’s own observations and reflections can be corralled, cleansed, and transformed to provide an improved explanatory structure and practical guide for one’s professional life. It is the idea that following the injection of suitable kinds of knowledge and training in reflective methods and theorizing, thoughts and experience are elevated by some alchemy to “personal theory” or “practical theory” (Carr, 1995; McIntyre, 1995) and that these furnish us with some glittering epistemological weapon.

    Is the teacher who is encouraged to engage in this “personal theorizing” really a better teacher? As Berlin (1979) says, “What do the greatest classical scholars of our time know about ancient Rome that was not known to Cicero’s servant girl? What have they added to her store? What, then, is the use of all these learned labours?” (p. 86). The student of education, armed with the theoretical and methodological tools of the trade, is in danger of becoming a latter-day Midas, unable to touch anything without turning it into a theory.3 I explore this further elsewhere (Thomas, 1998).

    To call all structured thinking “theory” is unnecessary. More than this, it is misleading, for it first leads us into assuming that the hollow theorizing of the kind Rorty (1998) despises is in some way the proper activity of scholars and professionals,4and it also follows well-worn ruts into the assumption that an ability to engage in advanced personal theorizing should be the hallmark of the successfully developing teaching professional. But practice is therein demoted to its opposite and other, as though practice were forever dependent on superior theoretical processes.

    Part II: Contradictions and Crypto-Scientism

    The second wave of Rajagopalan’s critique rests on supposedly having established that all structuration of thinking is theory. I have argued that this case is not made, but given the energy of Rajagopalan’s rhetoric in the remainder of his piece, I must address elements of the argument which is predicated on it.

    His case is that structuring of thought is a theoretical activity, so I am a theorist and my doubts about theory in education are therein confused and contradictory. The strategy in this second part of his response is to characterize the debate by position — of ally and axis — and then to position me as some kind of dupe fifth columnist, unwittingly doing the bidding of the enemy (a term he uses in the article’s conclusion) since I’m not aware of my own stance and my own theoretical allegiances. Unaware of my own position, I commit all sorts of grave errors and inconsistencies: though I claim to reject theory, I am really being theoretical; though I identify with “the postmodern position” (p. 347) — whatever that is — I am really a modernist; though I take an anti-foundationalist stance I am really a foundationalist. In short, I’m not playing by the rules. Worse, he seems to say, like the unfortunate kid who doesn’t know which direction to kick in the football game, I don’t realize that I’m not playing by them.

    I’ll concentrate on the crypto-scientism of which I am charged, since it is in this section (“Thomas’s Crypto-Scientism,” pp. 344–349) that Rajagopalan’s imagination and invective become most floriferous. Flattered as I am by the fastidiousness with which Rajagopalan has pored over my essay, I am also concerned that over-long exposure to it seems to have induced in him mild hallucinations. I did not, for example, say that Bryant had “come up with better theories” (p. 349, Rajagopalan’s emphasis) than Piaget’s, nor anything like it. (In fact, I cited Bryant’s work to establish the frailty of putative educational theories and I discussed how easy it is to put other interpretations on the observations in question.) Nor did I offer “ad hocery” as anything remotely like a “wonder drug, a magic cure, a veritable panacea” (p. 348). To make me sound like a snake-oil salesman is good for a round of applause, but little else. There’s more: “[Thomas] ought to steer clear of all talk of essentialism and ideal types” (p. 348). I’ve checked my article for such “talk,” but it doesn’t exist; it is imputed to me by Rajagopalan, and though I have now read the relevant paragraph in his piece several times I can see no justification for the imputation. And he even attributes an invented word to me (“theoriphobe” in contradistinction to the neologism “theoriphile” which I had used) and puts it into quotation marks as though I had a) used it, and b) used it in the sense convenient for his argument: “Thomas divide[s] the philosophers of science he mentions in his article into the two cut-and-dried categories of ‘theoriphiles’ and ‘theoriphobes’” (p. 349). I did nothing of the kind. Not only did I not mention “theoriphobes,” neither did I crudely divide scientists in the way he asserts.

    I need also to say something about style, since the words which pepper Rajagopalan’s critique — “crypto,” “secret,” “blindness,” “betray,” “unbeknownst to him,” “lurking,” “unselfconsciously,” “unconfessed” — point not merely to my ignorance, but also to some alleged hidden motive. But why should I be secret about anything? To speak up against theory in education is hardly to court popularity. If I am open about this, why should I be secret about anything else? This Cold War imagery is, I think, unhelpful in scholarly discussion, its only ostensible purpose being to spice up the plot with intimations of artifice and subterfuge.

    And when this imagery subjoins the vocabulary of the boxing commentator — “clincher,” “knock-off,” “self-defeating,” “victory” — a confused adversarial semiology is concocted which illuminates little, but does at least reveal the need for a vigorous rhetoric to inject energy to a case for theory. An essential part of this adversarial rhetoric is a narrative of stark oppositions, which Rajagopalan duly provides. The sharp distinctions thus produced are, however, unfruitful for understanding theory in education.

    Anyway, let’s take his case at face value. My position on science is “uncomfortably ambivalent” (p. 345). I cannot from a modernist position (which Rajagopalan has fathomed is my real position, despite what he sees as my leanings toward postmodernism) attack theory and theorizing. The essence of his case is that my “theory” (as he puts it) is strongly influenced by “a certain thesis in epistemology, indeed by a highly influential tradition in the philosophy of science that reveals close affinities with positivism and the so-called ‘scientism’ that is an offspring of that movement” (pp. 344–345).

    Well, there are some breathtakingly spectacular connections made here between epistemology, the philosophy of science, positivism, and scientism, but no matter. I shall address Rajagopalan’s criticism about my crypto-scientism and the contradictions in my position which stem from it.

    There are four points to address here: a positional one, a substantive one, one about ad hocery, and one about “anti-theory.”

    1. Positional

    Rajagopalan’s conceptual map seems to be divided with straight-as-a-die faultlines within whose bounds he is compelled to construct his case for theory. Surveying the intellectual terrain, his reconnaissance seems to say: “Over here we have x (accompanied by positions a, b, and c); over there we have y (accompanied by positions d, e, and f); and in the distance is z (accompanied by g, h, and i).” He believes that my main problem is that I am not sure which position I am in. Though I seem to harbor a proclivity for postmodernism, the things I say make me a modernist. Though at times I express a mistrust of science, I make the grave error of also expressing a respect for science.

    Rajagopalan’s thirst for conceptual map references is akin to that of the unfortunate editor and referees of the respected journal Social Text, who allowed Sokal’s (1996) audacious parody of silly postmodern attacks on science (entitled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”) into their journal. With argument judged more by consistency of position than by substance, it made perfect sense for a phony postmodern critique to pass through the refereeing process. Never mind that the argument was entire nonsense and the scholarship bogus. It was consistent with assumed positions for a presumed postmodernist to attack science (for, as the textbooks tell us, postmodernists are about uncertainty, and scientists are about certainty). Everyone was in the right house and all was well with the world.

    It’s a world of binary oppositions, this: a two-dimensional world with no gradients. You are either For science or Against it. In Rajagopalan’s world, to accept some of the claims of science while rejecting some of its pretensions is to be guilty of the sin of ambivalence.

    This construction of oppositions is almost too superficial an attack on my views about science to be taken seriously. Nevertheless, I believe that there is a sincere belief behind Rajagopalan’s position here, though I think it is a sincere belief based on a confusion. Canguilhem (1994), borrowing from Buchdahl, says that the confusion, often made, is between “internalism and externalism” — which arises from a conflation of the varied activities occurring under the portmanteau of “science,” which some critics for convenience insist on handling as an undifferentiated enterprise. Thus, attempts by “externalists” to explain science as a cultural phenomenon often fail “to interpret the truth claims intrinsic to scientific discourse” (p. 47). It is those truth claims that are at the heart of the matter. Confusing my position with that of the externalists, Rajagopalan has taken it that the allegiances he presumes I owe to what he assumes to be postmodernism deny me the opportunity to accept the truth claims of science. He has tugged me into his land without gradients. Let me explain in the following section my position with regard to these claims, since the latter part of his article makes much of my discussion about the rightness or wrongness of certain theories.

    2. Substantive

    I am not against theory or theorizing in science, though I dislike some of its pretensions. I respect the methods and achievements of science. I share Berlin’s (1979) view that the sciences’ achievements are the most important of the human mind. But the problem arises, as Berlin makes clear, from the assumption that the methods of science reach a level of “verisimilitude or probability quite sufficient for human affairs” (p. 88).

    There is no “Cartesian dualism” in noticing this, as Rajagopalan asserts there to be. The problem I discussed in my essay is of the conferring of the special title “theorizing” to some of the research activity in education and the collateral assumption that the kind of theory made use of in science is of a particular kind, that it comprises some unvarying canon of received procedures, and that these should also be used in what goes under the name of some (but not all) educational theory. Now there are special problems for Rajagopalan here, for — in insisting on the use of “theory” for all structured thought — he has constructed an undifferentiated weave of theoretical activity spanning everything from looking in the driving mirror to the general theory of relativity. In having done this, he has rendered it difficult to make useful distinctions between theory-here and theory-there.

    But these distinctions are real and it is necessary to make them. Theory in science refers to particular processes which, though too much may be made of the elegant progression of the method in the laboratory, and though they may be subject to what Foucault calls a “desire to appropriate”5 (1989, p. 13), have been demonstrably successful in producing knowledge on which we can rely. Scientific method involves making heuristic generalizations from which theory can be drawn and then tested, and this involves the emphasis on falsifiability of which I wrote — an emphasis which does not often occur in educational research as far as I can tell. But Rajagopalan asserts that words like “falsifiability” should have no place in the vocabulary of an anti-theorist.

    There are two points to be made here about this censure of my use of “falsifiability”: a trivial one and a substantial one. First, the trivial: assuming for a moment that I might be happy with the label “anti-theorist” (and I’ll come to this label in a moment), why should I not speak of falsifiability? It’s a bit like saying that the word “meat” should have no place in the vocabulary of a vegetarian. How is the vegetarian to have the wherewithal to discuss the pros and cons of the meat trade? By complex circumlocutions? Second, the substantial: if some educators purport to have theories in the likeness of scientific theory, then their theories must be constructed and judged in the same way that scientific theories are constructed and judged — in terms of falsifiability and predictive value. Indeed, it was the promiscuous adoption of science’s theory-vocabulary by social science which led to Popper’s insistence on falsifiability: he had been shocked, he said, by the fact that people who called themselves social scientists could “interpret any conceivable event as a verification of their theories.” This led him to the view that “only attempted refutations which did not succeed qua refutations should count as ‘verifications’” (1977, pp. 264–265). Popper’s observation is perhaps what has also led the sociologist Bourdieu to liken theory in social science to “conceptual gobbledygook” which arises from “an extraordinary misconstrual of the logic of science” (cited in Jenkins, 1992, p. 67). And it is precisely falsifiability which Popper says is the criterion of demarcation between theory in science and that in non-science.

    There are real distinctions between the one and the other, yet Rajagopalan chides me for “scientism” in drawing attention to them. The kind of theory which Rajagopalan would have us talk about makes easier the elision of distinctions between this and that kind of theory. This is troublesome, for in the absence of distinctions, elisions are indeed casually made between the theory of educators (and other social scientists) and that of scientists. In the “generic sense” which Rajagopalan wants for theory, it has to incorporate informed guessing and, indeed, even all seeing, but it also has to sit alongside the scientific theory I described in my article.

    The mistake of the imaginary postmodernist — whom Rajagopalan is so energetically shadow-boxing — is to assume, as an “externalist,” that scientific method, being subject to human frailty, produces knowledge as contingent as any other, and Rajagopalan draws in Fish (1985) on anti-foundationalism in his support on this issue. But it’s a bit unfair to drag in the Fish who is so uniquely insightful on essentialism and anti-foundationalism in literary studies and jurisprudence and to imply that he is making (in a section about my “crypto-scientism”) equivalent points about the truth claims of science. To do so is to equate Fish with the postmodernists whom Sokal so effectively parodied. One might also mention Rajagopalan’s use of the quotation (p. 346) he takes from Fish. The essay from which we are given the quotation concludes with the comment that “theory’s day is dying” (p. 128), and is broadly in support of, not against, Knapp and Michaels’s Against Theory (1986). The quotation is given to imply that Fish really holds that something called “antifoundationalist theory” is actually a kind of theory, when at the beginning of the same paragraph Fish has made it clear that “antifoundationalism really isn’t a theory at all; it is an argument against the possibility of theory” (p. 112).

    This anti-foundationalist discussion has been presented by Rajagopalan to attempt to show that I am an anti-foundationalist with unrecognized modernist predilections; that I have, in other words, “theory hope.” By expanding the category “theory” to mean any mental construction, of course, anyone can be shown to have theory hope: even Fish himself.6 But to enter into such an exercise is less than interesting for a debate about theory’s contribution to education.

    For his argument to make sense, Rajagopalan has had to create an ontological fantasyland peopled by grotesque caricatures who take an unyieldingly monistic view of the issues at stake: science, for example, has to be bad if one is a postmodernist. His argument will survive only inside this fantasyland with its monster postmodernism (with whom I am made to hold hands); but it disintegrates on contact with ambiguity and indeterminacy and it has a half-life measurable in nanoseconds when it encounters the world of education. In fact, I recognized the error of the caricature postmodernist in my essay in what I called the “flotsam and jetsam” of postmodernism. Such postmodernism is mercifully rare. Its arguments reside in what Eagleton (1991) calls a “metaphysical outer space” (p. 169), where any view is as good as any other, and where a statement such as “naughty children should be beaten” is of the same character and as immune from criticism as one like “Washington, DC, is the capital of the USA.”

    I argued in my article that educational theory is, unlike science’s theory, non-progressive — that a process of elimination of false by true rarely occurs — and I stand by that argument. While today’s schoolchild knows more about electricity than Faraday, more about chemistry than Mendeleyev, and more about genetics than Mendel, it’s unlikely that today’s student of education knows more about education than Froebel, Pestalozzi, or Rousseau. But today’s experienced teacher may well “know” more than these luminaries. The reasons for the contrast between the education student and the practicing teacher lie in the difference between know-how knowledge and know-that knowledge. The know-how knowledge is the practical knowledge behind which “personal theory” is merely a virtus dormitiva — and the practicing teacher’s know-how knowledge may (or may not) be more sophisticated than that of Froebel. The “know that” knowledge is putative knowledge from grand theory; but this latter has offered little progress that I, for one, can discern in education: there has been little conspicuous elimination of the false by the true.

    3. Ad hocery

    Rajagopalan comes to the regrettable (for him) but inevitable conclusion that if all thinking involves some kind of structuring, then “there can be no telling theory from non-theory. I am afraid that that may well be the case” (p. 339). But therein having to conflate theory and non-theory and call them collectively “theory” leads him into all sorts of mental dead-ends, as he confesses when he later says that my term “the hegemony of theory” invites us “to imagine some entity called non-theory in relation to which the generic theory is said to be hegemonic. This is a mind-boggler, to say the least” (p. 350). Well, it boggles one’s mind only if one forces one’s mind to expunge any possibility of something which is not theory.

    In his eagerness to show my inconsistency, Rajagopalan has had to create a world where there is no non-theory. There is, of course, non-theory, and it is to this that Fish (1985) refers when he draws on Hirsch’s notion of “local hermeneutics,” which are particular decisions and calculations “based on an insider’s knowledge of what is likely to be successful in a particular field of practice” (p. 107). These are rules of thumb and good things to try. They are similar to the ad hocery of which I wrote, and to the bricolage discussed by Derrida (1978, p. 285). It is only in the theory-saturated world which Rajagopalan wants to inhabit that practices such as these have to be labeled theory.

    4. Anti-theory theory

    Rajagopalan critiques what he calls my “anti-theory theory” (p. 344). In having an anti-theory, in other words, I have a theory. I’m contradicting myself again.

    “Anti-theory theory” creates another of those bewitchments of our intelligence by language, a bit like the question, “Since a mirror reverses your image left and right, why doesn’t it reverse it up and down?” The problem is entirely due to the form into which the mind-picture is frozen by the language used to describe it. In concocting “anti-theory theory,” Rajagopalan has given corporeal status to a diverse set of criticisms for the purpose of setting up another of his grand oppositions. Whereas the creation of, for example, anti-heroes and anti-novels is fine, for there are clear reasons for thinking of these things as part of the original category, the invention of “anti-theory theory” is more troublesome. For who says that any set of proximate questions or cognate issues can legitimately be called “theory”? How is it useful (except for the purposes of an oppositional polemic which can then lay self-contradiction charges on theory critics) to draw these critical points inside the now-billowing category of theory alongside, if I remember rightly, seeing, grand theory, looking in the driving mirror, theories of the past, together with all structured thought in the “generic sense”?

    And why add “theory” to “anti-theory” to make “anti-theory theory”? One doesn’t talk of an anti-novel novel, or an anti-hero hero, or anti-matter matter, for the mere use of the prefix makes the subject automatically a sub-set of the category. In spiriting up this tautology, Rajagopalan reveals the real essence of the theory problem: the desire — no, the seemingly deep-rooted need — to explain practical human discourse and behavior with ethereal phenomena which lie beyond the thing itself, for in “anti-theory theory” we have theory as synonym for “mental construction.” In this form, theory always lies behind, undergirding, below, underpinning, or somewhere beyond in some dark, cortical explanatory hinterland. And on this basis one could go on adding “theory” to “anti-theory theory” for ever and ever.


    So let us suppose that personal reflections are theory. Suppose established ideas are theory. Suppose a bright idea becomes theory. Suppose any constructions about alternatives to theory become “theory hope.” Suppose any conjoining of ideas becomes “theory building.” Suppose theory-over-here is judged on the same basis as theory-over-there. If all this happens, then debate about theory may as well not take place. When even criticism of theory becomes theory, a Kafkaesque world has been created in which the solution to theory-dissidence is to define it out of existence: if dissidence is itself “theory,” says the prosecutor, what validity can there be in the dissident’s critique?

    In the latter part of his piece, Rajagopalan gives us a confection of constructed opposites. Such stark opposites are convenient for his polemic, for in constructing them he is able to erect some ugly sitting ducks which he can assert to be mine, only to thwack them down. But one unfortunate consequence of such stark oppositions is that distinctions between different kinds of putative theory are elided, and there are many issues which stem from these distinctions. A crucial one for education, which stands in importance well above the relatively trivial one of what we call different thinking processes, is the lowly place made for practice if we spend too much time genuflecting before the kind of theory to which Rajagopalan and others are devoted. Talking about theory is not, in other words, just talking about what we name thinking. In summoning theory lies the potential for artificially separating and ranking the intelligent performances demanded of all who act in the educational arena — children, students, teachers, and researchers — and subjugating those performances to some elusive, illusory explanatory phenomenon to which we give the name “theory.”

    I reiterate that I am grateful to Rajagopalan for his response and to the HER editors for the opportunity for this continued dialogue, for the views that my critic holds represent, I suppose, received opinion on these topics. I am glad therefore of the chance publicly to address them. Continued discussion is important. And no — I don’t mean continued theorizing.

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    1. Smith (1992), in his excellent book To Think, identifies a storehouse of no fewer than seventy-seven thinking words, all with different nuance — some about “forward” thinking (e.g., expect, imagine, foresee), some about “current” thinking (e.g., analyze, argue, examine), some concerning “past” thinking (e.g., deduce, review, reflect). It doesn’t help to call them all “theorizing.”

    2. Why, incidentally, are just humans theorizing when they see? Since dogs, chickens, frogs, and sticklebacks all see, why aren’t they (and, for that matter, the entire animal kingdom with any visual apparatus, within or without a cortex) also theorizing when they make judgments about how to move from here to there?

    3. Apologies to Oakeshott (1967) for the paraphrase. His words are, “Like Midas, the Rationalist is always in the unfortunate position of not being able to touch anything, without turning it into an abstraction” (p. 26).

    4. In his assault on academic “theorizing,” Rorty (1998) says that it often offers “the most abstract and barren explanations imaginable” (p. 93), that “disengagement from practice produces theoretical hallucinations” (p. 94), and that “in committing itself to what it calls ‘theory,’ this [cultural] Left has gotten something which is entirely too much like religion” (p. 95).

    5. My translation.

    6. When Fish says that we have taken ourselves too seriously “as a priesthood of a culture already made, and not seriously enough as professionals whose business it is to make and remake that culture” (1989, p. 214), it’s a sentiment with which I heartily agree, but he surely sounds “conservatively modern” in Rajagopalan’s terms.
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    Spring 1999 Issue


    Opportunities and Obstacles in the Competency-Based Training of Primary Teachers in England
    Denis Hayes
    Good Readers, Good Teachers?
    Subject Matter Expertise as a Challenge in Learning to Teach
    Diane Holt-Reynolds
    Further Comment - Hollow Theory: A Reply to Rajagopalan
    Gary Thomas
    Essay Review - Questioning Core Assumptions: A Critical Reading of and Response to E. D. Hirsch’s The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them
    Kristen L. Buras

    Book Notes

    Critical Education in the New Information Age
    By Manuel Castells, Ramón Flecha, Paulo Freire, Henry A. Giroux, Donaldo Macedo, and Paul Willis

    Whose Judgment Counts?
    By Evangeline Harris Stefanakis

    Good Education
    By Ivor A. Pritchard

    The Curriculum
    Edited by Landon E. Beyer and Michael W. Apple

    And There Were Giants in the Land
    By John A. Beineke

    Call 1-800-513-0763 to order this issue.