Dan Pătroc, pp. 47-58
Annales Philosophici 5 (2012)
Dan Pătroc
Romanian Academy – Iaşi Branch
[email protected]
Abstract. Since the times of Plato and Aristotle we have lost our
innocence in thousands of ways. One of them means theory’s double
transformation from the act of observing the world and the heavens
through the intellect to the act of measuring the world through our
senses, on one hand, and, on the other, its transformation from the
best way of living (superior to any kind of pragmatic endeavor) to a
vague and abstract waste of time, inferior to any kind of praxis. This
article studies the shifts in the meaning of “theory”, the shifts in the
public perception of this term (with some particular references to the
case of contemporary Romania) and, finally, it offers some
considerations on the relationship between humanities and the
theoretical paradigm.
Keywords: theoria, theory, theorizing, humanities.
Acknowledgment: This paper was made within The Knowledge
Based Society Project supported by the Sectorial Operational
Programme Human Resources Development (SOPHRD), financed
from the European Social Fund and by the Romanian Government
under the contract number POSDRU/89/1.5/S/56815.
Born as a consequence of a larger research project on the notoriety of Romanian
theorists in the European academic world, this paper was originally meant to discuss (and,
hopefully, to make the matter clear at least for me) the problem of theory-building in the
realm of humanities. Almost a year ago, when I established the goals of my project (and,
consequently, when I signed the official papers stating that one of the articles would bear this
title) I thought that this was a natural step in the process of my research and, among other
things, I would have to determine what makes the difference between a well-established
theory and less successful attempts. Logically, for this endeavor one should try to define as
accurate as possible the meaning of “theory” and of “humanities” as well as to stress out the
difference between a theory within humanities, a theory within the social sciences and a
theory within the more empiric sciences like physics or chemistry. While researching this
subject it has become more and more clear to me that it is almost impossible and worthless to
compare the meaning of theory in these fields since, apparently, “theory” acts like a
homonym, its meaning depending on the main formation of the person who tries to define it.
Annales Philosophici 5 (2012)
Radu Uszkai, pp. 59-68
To make matters even more complicated, I realized that there may be some
differences in the contextual meaning of “theory” depending on one’s cultural (and, implicitly,
the geographical) background. Finally, there is that obvious and striking difference between
what “theory” means in the specialized language(s) as opposed to what it means in the trivial,
day-to-day talk.
My philosophical background leads me to start my investigation from the ancient
considerations on theoria and the way its meaning shifted in modern times towards the
contemporary understanding of theory. Most of the Greek lexicons or dictionaries assert that
theoria (θεωρία) was originally an everyday word derived from theorein (to look at), theoros
(spectator, watcher) and ultimately from thea (a view) and horan (to see). Thus, the primary
meaning of theoria was to express the state of being a spectator, an observer of what is going
on in the outside. Derived from this (but still rather early in the history of the word), theoria
“is the normal term for state-pilgrimage, as we see in the famous introduction to Plato’s
Phaedo (58b) describing the Athenian pilgrimage to Delos” (Rutherford, 2000). The cited
article also mentions that theoros, the corresponding term for “pilgrim”, can be frequently
found during the 5th century B.C. Early in the development of philosophy as we know it, there
are significant comparisons between being a theoros (a pilgrim or a spectator) and a
philosophos. It is enough to say that, according to Herodotus, Solon travelled for ten years
after his laws were decreed, “just for the sake of theoria” (apud Riedweg and Rendall, 2008,
p. 96), to say that the pythagoreans (especially in their late phase) frequently used the
metaphor of the theoros in order to describe the duty of the philosopher, that Anaxagoras (as
Aristotle’s Protrepticus tells us) asserts that theoria is the purpose of life and freedom is born
of it1. Later, Heraclides of Pontus, a member of Plato’s Academy, specifically puts together
the behavior of the theoros at the Olympic games with the condition of the philosopher who
gazes at the nature of things. Thus, for Heraclides 2 (though Heraclides puts these words in
Pythagora’s mouth) “the life of man seems to resemble those games which were celebrated
with the greatest possible variety of sports and the general concourse of all Greece […] there
was likewise one class of persons, and they were by far the best, whose aim was neither
applause nor profit, but who came merely as spectators through curiosity, to observe what was
done, and to see in what manner things were carried on there […] these men call themselves
studious of wisdom, that is, philosophers” (Cicero, 2012, p. 166). Nonetheless, the
contemplative ideal of the philosopher became the standard for the next centuries only
through Plato’s and Aristotle’s help. [Of course, this is somewhat of a controversial matter;
Thomas Bénatouïl and Mauro Bonazzi (2012, pp. 1-15) show that during the last 50 years,
historians of the Ancient philosophy “have focused on Plato and, above all, Aristotle to the
point that it seems that theoria and the contemplative life have no history outside the Republic
and the last chapters of the Nicomachean Ethics” and that this focus, being a by-product of
academic fashion “testifies also to a belief in the lack of significant theoretical ambitions in
“And they say that when somebody asked Anaxagoras for what reason anyone might choose to come
to be and be alive, he replied to the question by saying, ‘To observe the heavens and the stars in it, as
well as moon and sun,’ because everything else at any rate is worth nothing.” [51.7-15]. (we used the
latest reconstruction of the Protrepticus by D.S. Hutchington and M.R. Johnson, available at
We know this not directly, since the mentioned fragment was not preserved, but through Cicero’s
Tusculanae Disputationes
Dan Pătroc, pp. 47-58
Annales Philosophici 5 (2012)
Ancient philosophy after Plato and Aristotle”. While interesting and challenging, this matter
cannot be the focal point of our attention at this moment]
According to Costas Constantinou’s analysis (1996, p. 56-64), Plato uses theoria to
convey a number of other meanings next to that made classic by his interpreters. Thus, aside
from meaning the act of philosophical contemplation, theoria also means: the solemn embassy
sent to the Delian oracle, the participation in any kind of festival or campaign, simply as
journey, the travel for the purpose of viewing and careful observation and, finally, the
contemplation of the divine. As Constatinou shows, the multiple meanings of theoria for Plato
caused his translators to carefully inspect the context and to choose different words, as early
as the first Latin translators; thus, theoria was translated as spectatio, contemplation, legatio,
pompa solemnis, or sacra procuranda (Constantinou, 1996, p. 56). One of the reasons for
which Plato decided to use theoria in such different contexts (note that the ancient Greeks had
linguistic alternatives for this) is the fact that “for Plato, the most significant organ whereby
the human being apprehends is the eye” (ibid., p. 57). Without extending this digression, let us
just note that, as a proof of theoria’s importance for Plato, the famous Cave story from The
Republic is one of the most powerful metaphors describing the role of the sight, the role of the
journey and the way these two add up to create philosophy.
As for Aristotle, he attempts a longer and more consistent approach on theoria,
especially in his Nicomachean Ethics where theoria is compared to praxis, a comparison
which leads him to the conclusion that a life of theoria is by far the best was of living,
although (or, even better, exactly because) from contemplation (W.D. Ross’ translation of
theoria) “nothing arises […] while from practical activities we gain more or less apart from
the action” (1999, p. 174). “The activity of reason (nous) – theoria, that is – which is
contemplative, seems […] to be superior in serious worth and to aim at no end beyond itself,
and to have its pleasure proper to itself, and the self-sufficiency, leisureliness, unweariedness,
and all the other attributes ascribed to the supremely happy man are evidently those connected
with this activity, it follows that this will be the complete happiness of man” (ibid.). Or, as
A.W.H. Adkins puts it: “theoria and eudaimonia in the primary sense of the terms, then, are
co-extensive and co-variable” (1978, p. 298). And, since we cited Aristotle’s lost Protrepticus
before, let us add that following Anaxagora’s example, the Stagirite also uses the metaphor of
the festival in order to emphasize the virtue of “theorizing”: “For just as we travel to Olympia
for the sake of the spectacle itself, even if nothing more is going to accrue from it (for the
observing itself is better than lots of money),and as we observe the Dionysia not in order to
take something away from the actors (rather, we actually spend on them), and as there are
many other spectacles we would choose instead of lots of money, so the observation of the
universe, too, is to be honoured above all things that are thought to be useful. For surely we
should not travel with great effort to see people imitating women and slaves, or fighting and
running, and yet not think we should observe the nature of things, i.e. the truth, without
payment. […] For the cosmos is a most holy temple; into it man is introduced through birth as
a spectator (theoros)”.
Since theoria received rather early in its history a religious connotation, it is no
wonder that Christianity (through the Church Fathers) absorbed and integrated the notion,
making it (for a while) an almost exclusive religion-related term3. We shall not insist on the
Somehow tangential to this, but with little interest to our main matter here, we must add that some
interpreters notice a striking similarity between the concept of theoria and the Indian notion of darshan
Annales Philosophici 5 (2012)
Radu Uszkai, pp. 59-68
particularities of this concept in the Christian Faith or on the differences between the
Orthodox and the Roman-Catholic dogmas in this matter. Unfortunately, we also cannot insist
on what should be one the focal points of interest for this article: the transition from theoria to
the contemporary meaning of theory. Most of the etymological dictionaries on the market
point out that “theory” (in English) appears at the beginning of the 17 th century (approx.
1610), with the sense of “the principles or the methods of a science or an art rather than its
practice” and that the sense “of an explanation based on observation and reasoning” first
shows up around the 1630’s (Online Etymology Dictionary by Douglas Harper). Still, there is
no mentioning of the person(s) (and the respective works) who start using the modern notion
of theory. Therefore, we can only speculate on the circumstances which lead to the transition
from the religious and medieval theoria4 to the modern “theory” (or, if you prefer, the French
“théorie”). One of the handiest explanations for this is that followed by Case, French and
Simpson (2012) who suggest that the context of the transition from theoria to theory is the
context of the pre-Enlightenment and of the Enlightenment itself, a context of disenchantment
and secularization. As the authors assert (and we accept this speculation), “the terminology
inherited from the past, in this instance the concept of theory, has been divorced from the
context in which it received its meaning” (p. 347). Of course, this explanation could be
extended and we could enrich it by remembering some of the marks of the Enlightenment (in
what concerns the growing importance of science, the establishment of the scientific method,
secularization and the effects of these into postmodernity), but since these are relatively
extended matters and since we have dedicated a comprehensive analysis to them prior to this
(2011), we shall move on to the main point of interest of our article.
Despite this uncertainty, there is one thing we can be sure of: during the last centuries,
since the presumed “re-invention” of theoria under its modern translation of “theory”, its
meaning not only shifted away from the initial sense (be it the ritual journey or the life of
contemplation) but also gained a pejorative connotation. Thus, most of the contemporary
dictionaries (no references here, but the reader is free to check this fact for him/herself)
mention at least two definitions for theory, or – to be more accurate – two classes of
definitions. The first class surrounds what we could call “scientific theories” and aims at
interpreting a theory as a coherent group of general propositions, necessarily tested and
confronted with the objective reality, which have the propriety of explaining observed
phenomena and, ideally, of making predictions about the occurrence of similar phenomena. At
the opposite spectrum of definitions there is an almost pejorative class of meanings for
“theory”; in these cases, depending on the context, theory means something as far away as
possible from the certainty of true knowledge, a speculation (a term which also has a double
meaning), a conjecture, a supposition. A classic example for the perverse effects of this
homonymy5 is the case of the “theory of evolution”, a subject which continues to stir the
(darsana), a Sanskrit concept derived from the root drs (to see) and meaning “sight, vision”.
Researchers like Ian Rutherford (2000) have dedicated extensive studies on this matter.
Nota bene: the fact that in the Middle Ages theoria was used only in the above-mentioned religious
context and that today “theory” represents a shift away from this paradigm does not mean that theoria
has become obsolete in the religious context. Au contraire, it still remains (apparently with more weight
in the Christian-Orthodox media) one of the most refined and subtle concepts debated.
I have mentioned homonymy earlier and I feel it is time to make some amendments: first of all, let us
understand that, technically speaking, “theory” (in the sense of a scientific set of propositions aimed at
explaining an objective reality) and “theory” (in the sense of “speculation” are not absolute homonyms
like, for instance “rose” (past tense of “to rise” vs. the flower) or “just” (fair vs. only). According to
Dan Pătroc, pp. 47-58
Annales Philosophici 5 (2012)
already shady waters of the creationism-evolutionism was. There are times when the
proponents of creationism charge evolutionism of being “a theory. Just a theory”. In other
words, evolution is regarded in this case like a simple speculation, one of the many
suppositions available out there. Just like when asked of what could be the intentions of the
politicians when they announce one of their typical strange “reform methods”, one could only
emit a theory which might as well presume insanity, lack of competence or personal interest.
Of course, evolution’s major disadvantage here is the fact that the word “theory” is associated
with it even by its proponents and defendants, though they obviously use the term not in the
profane meaning, but in the specialized, “scientific”, understanding. Here’s a better way of
describing the phenomenon: “but here’s an important and commonly heard refrain: evolution
is only a theory, isn’t it? Addressing an evangelical group in Texas in 1980, presidential
candidate Ronald Reagan characterized evolution this way: Well, it is a theory. It is a
scientific theory only, and it has in recent years been challenged in the world of science and is
not yet believed in the scientific community to be as infallible as it once was believed. The key
word in this quote is only. Only a theory. The implication is that there is something not quite
right about a theory – that it is a mere speculation, and very likely wrong” (Coyne, 2009, p.
So, in this pejorative sense, theory is nothing more than a guess, lacking almost any
kind of solid proof for its validity or its truth. But this is not the worst thing that could happen
to theory. Another pejorative meaning (quite cynical, I might add) is even more distant from
the scientific meaning of theory and it is far more detrimental to those who want to theorize.
Before anything else, as a Romanian with little experience of the real Western world,
I cannot tell if what I am going to describe here is a generalized phenomenon, so I will state
that – until extended by proof for other cases – this is only a local situation. Like any other
language, in (colloquial) Romanian there are some clichés, sayings, “wisecracks” which
cannot be accurately translated and the history of which is many times a mystery (unless some
deep anthropological research occurs). Our interest is stimulated here by three exemplary
contexts in which “theory” plays a major role (of course, there are some others, but I’ve
chosen only these three for now); I will try to render them as accurately as possible, in
Romanian, followed by a mot-a-mot translation and, finally by their actual meaning in
English. “Teoria ca teoria, dar practica ne omoară” / “Theory like theory, but the practice is
killing us” / it is used when there is a big difference between what should happen according to
the plans (or “the theory”) and what is happening in reality (usually, this expression is used
with the intent of being ironic or self-ironic). Secondly, “a ţine teorii” / “to hold theories” / is
similar to “giving lectures”, in a pejorative sense. In other words, it is used to designate
someone who talks much, who gives long, complicated and unnecessary advice, explanations
linguists [see, for example, Lyons (1995, p. 52-60)], homonymy (be it absolute or partial) can occur
only in instances in which the origins of the words are different. When the origin is common we can
speak of polysemy, though throughout history people happened to mistake polysemy for homonymy or
viceversa: “it sometimes happens that lexemes which the average speaker of the language thinks of as
being semantically unrelated have come from the same source” (Lyons, p. 59). So, to conclude,
technically speaking “theory” is a polysemantic word. But, unlike “foot”, “bank”, or “check”, cases in
which the various senses are derived by metaphor from an original, single sense, I feel that in the case
of “theory” and the strikingly different connotations of this lexem we may as well say it acts more like
a homonym. The common origin of this/these word(s) has no relevance, it seems to me. Of course, I
might be wrong and this is why I am not a linguist or a grammatician.
Annales Philosophici 5 (2012)
Radu Uszkai, pp. 59-68
or rules of behavior to other people6. Finally, a third expression: “teoria chibritului” / “the
theory of the match7” which, apparently, used to be a joke8 at one time in the last century and
then became a colloquial expression and which designates a long, useless, pretentious babble
from someone who pretends to be an expert but actually has no idea of what he is talking
about, who is carrying a topic far beyond the patience of his listeners or is just totally out of
tune with the people he is talking to.
You might say that these three examples are not really relevant and such expressions
can be met in other languages, while they do not express a collective state of mind. In which
case, we have some other examples for you, skeptic reader. In December 2009, the newly
appointed (then) minister of education in Romania, Daniel Funeriu 9, stated in a couple of
interviews meant to share his reforming vision on Romanian education that our schools tend
to promote too much theory instead of practical knowledge, or “skills for life” as he used to
put it, and that by doing so the school produces only “nerds” 10. At the same time, the
Romanian president, Traian Băsescu, (he currently serves his second term as president)
accompanied him in repeatedly declaring that Romanian school focuses too much on theory.
According to the Romanian president 11, “the Romanian educational system produces too
many philosophers and too few engineers” (while, in other contexts, he mentioned that there
are too many philosophers and too few tinsmiths and waiters or. In a memorable confession to
his counselor, Romanian philosopher (!) Gabriel Liiceanu, Traian Băsescu admitted to the fact
that he actually meant to say that “the Romanian school produces idiots”, but was fortunate
enough to hold back his words) 12. Even more, many of the Romanian employers (and, as it
Just for the sake of originality in the references of this article, let me cite a Romanian rapper who goes
by the name of “Guess Who”, a young, upset and extremely critical fellow, and who says in his 2012
“Manifest” (please excuse the long quote, but I feel the whole of it is somehow relevant for this “bad”
meaning of theory): “Da’ tu-mi zici mie teorii / De parcă tu le scrii / De parcă eu n-aş şti că ne prosteşti
ca pe copii / Ştii că dacă te complici prea mult pierzi timpul / Timpu-nseamnă bani, ţine-o simplu”
which can translated as “But you give me lectures [theories] / As if you’d write them / As if I didn’t
know you trick us like they trick kids. / You know, if you make it too complicated you’re waisting time
/ Time is money, keep it simple”.
“match” as in “a tool for starting fire in controlled conditions”
The most common version of this pun (actually it’s far from a pun or a joke; people used it – until it
got old and boring – just to tease a listener by never getting to the point) goes like this: “Do you know
the theory of the match? A match can be divided in three parts: the upper part, the middle part and the
lower part. The upper part of the match can be divided in three parts also: the upper part of the upper
part, the middle part of the upper part, the lower part of the upper part. The upper part of the upper part
can also be divided in three parts: the upper part of the upper part of the upper part” ….. etc. etc (to
infinity, if possible).
Although I hope it is obvious, I should add explicitly that my political views are absolutely irrelevant
for this example.
I used “nerds” in lack of another better translation of the Romanian word “tocilari”, a term which
designates those students who are only able to learn by heart the content of the textbooks, but who do
not do any kind of thinking about what they learn. In Romanian, “tocilari” is a strongly pejorative word.
In several Government meetings and, in more than one occasion, in interviews for Romanian or
foreign mass-media (no references here. There many instances of these declarations which can be easily
found on the Internet)
An extremely relevant, documented, insightful and detailed review of these statements and their
connection with the public perception of philosophy in Romania is being done by Romanian
philosopher Sandu Frunză (2009).
Dan Pătroc, pp. 47-58
Annales Philosophici 5 (2012)
happens, many of the students also) claim that there is too much “theory” in schools and that
students are not ready for the “real life” and for a specific job 13.
In these contexts, theory is obviously perceived as something bad. It is not even
remotely close to “theory” in the scientific understanding of it, but still, by its comparison
with “the real life” it brings us back to Aristotle and the opposition between theoria and praxis
(or techne). Back then, though, theoria was not the enemy of praxis. Maybe that our overlypragmatic, mercantilist world brought us to this (a world in which, more and more, almost
everyone puts profit and quick, financial gain ahead of anything else), maybe it is the final and
unavoidable consequence of Enlightenment’s disenchantment of the world or maybe that this
is only natural on an over-populated planet where actual skills can mean the difference
between fail and success. Still, as a philosophy teacher (for I dare not claim to be a
philosopher) I cannot help but wonder how did we manage to bring theory from Aristotle’s
“complete happiness of man” to the enemy of success in life. Of course, like I mentioned
above, I cannot extend this conclusion to other place than contemporary Romania 14 and the
fact that there could be some local factors influencing our perception of theory could serve to
explain why the Romanian culture gave extremely few influential theories to the body of
global culture.
To conclude this major part of our article, let us say that those few meanings (and
contexts) for “theory” are not the only ones, and that in each of these paradigms there are
several sub-categories with their own connotations. We have not mentioned here the “Grand
Theory” mockingly described by Wright-Mills in his Sociological imagination, or the
extremely vague “Critical theory” 15. While studying the different meanings of “theory”, Gary
Thomas (2007, p. 147) draws the conclusion that there are six different uses, and proposes –
more or less seriously – alternatives for each of them, according to the following table:
“Theory” as used
Theory contrasted with fact
Theory, or theorizing, as thinking
Call it …
Possible alternatives
A random example: an audio material broadcasted by the National Radio Station (Radio România
Actualităţi) under the title “Bachelors with too much theory and weightless diplomas”
For example, mr. Horst Hippler, the President of the German Rectors’ Council, asserted in an 2012
interview for Spiegel ( that universities should not train “just professionals” but
“people” and for this purpose they need to teach the students not only the basic skills required for a
specific job, but they need to form personalities, to make them think rationally and critically – in a few
words: to teach theories. As a complement, the article published along with the interview mentioned
that German students protest against the implementation of the Bologna system, feeling that three years
is no longer enough to correctly apprehend theories.
“Critical theory”, or even simply “Theory” as some of its proponents / enemies name it, has – in its
turn – at least two very different definitions: one of them refers to the school of critical philosophy and
sociology known under the name of The Frankfurt School (and all of its followers in the later 20 th
century), the other one applies – with little connection to the first – to literature, being a very vague
concept which designates a theory founded upon critique (a bit more information on this can be found
in my previous article published in Annales Philosphici no. 4 / 2012, Abnormal Theories. The Case of
Romanian Postmodernism at pages 23-24.
Annales Philosophici 5 (2012)
Radu Uszkai, pp. 59-68
Personal theory or practical theory
Theory as a body of knowledge
Theory as a clearly developed argument
Theory as craft knowledge
Reflection, reflective practice
A body of knowledge
A clearly developed argument
Craft knowledge
Sociologist Gabriel Abend (2008) goes beyond this and finds seven different uses of
“theory”16, a situation which has “brought about undesirable consequences, including
conceptual muddles and even downright miscommunication”, while way before the both of
them, in 1958, mathematical psychologist Anatol Rapoport spoke of five distinct meanings of
“theory”, a rather distinct interpretation than those mentioned above. Obviously, the list of
people trying to define theories or to find the various uses is much, much longer, but I feel that
I have constructed a rather solid case so far.
As it concerns the second part of this article, it should approach the matter of
humanities (since this is the second term of our equation: “how to theorize in humanities”). By
now you might be already guessing where this is going: if theory proved to be an unusable
concept due to the variety of meanings, connotations and attitudes surrounding it,
“humanities” seems to be yet another one of those terms we all appear to understand and use
quite frequently, but whose definition is actually an extremely difficult task. It is not enough
that “humanities” is in itself a diffuse concept, but in some cases (from my experience so far, I
draw the conclusion that it is the case of emerging academic environments like Romania)
people use the more complicated English translation of “humanistic sciences”. I shall return to
this topic.
Meanwhile, let us try to find some simple definitions for humanities. For example, in
a very light and easy to comprehend “Introduction to humanities” (1998, p. 3), Sanchez states:
“the term humanities refers to the arts – the visual arts such as architecture, painting and
sculpture; music, dance, the theater and literature. They are the branches of learning
concerned with human thought, feelings and relations”. Obviously, this definition, although it
expresses what many of us have in mind when talking of humanities, has serious
methodological issues. First of all, for some academic traditions (this goes back until the
Middle Ages, but is partially kept throughout Europe these days) arts are quite different from
the humanities since, in those terms, arts refer to something practical (think again of
Aristotle), while the humanities are purely theoretical. And even if this is something that can
be disregarded, we cannot help but being skeptical towards humanities as being the study of
“human thought, feelings and relations” since this definition might as well be applied to
psychology, sociology or, why not, to psychiatry. Another kind of definitions does not even
a. “general propositions [..] or a system of general propositions which establishes a relationship
between two or more variables”
b. “an explanation of a particular social phenomenon”
c. “an original interpretation of a certain slice of the empirical world
d. “the study of authors such as Marx, Weber, Durkheim, Simmel, Parsons, Habermas or
e. “a Weltanschauung, an overall perspective from which one sees and interprets the world”
f. “accounts that have a fundamental normative component [..] for example, the contemporary
projects of critical theory, feminist theory or postcolonial theory”
g. “discussions about the way in which reality is socially constructed, the scientific status of
sociology or the relativity of morality”
Dan Pătroc, pp. 47-58
Annales Philosophici 5 (2012)
come as close to what we expect as the above mentioned one: “humanities are for the living,
not memorials for the dead. They animate present-day cultures. […] The humanities are
perhaps the single and most important and useful cultural philosophy driving societies and
human actions. They oppose greed and lust and unbridled individual rapacity. They drive
toward what is good in and necessary in society” (Browne, 1992, p. 3). Needless to say that
such an approach is anything but a definition.
The appeal to the history of the term will not provide much help either, since – as
Nauert points out (2006, pp. 8-24) – the use of “humanities” and its related forms (like
“humanistic”, “humanist studies” or even “humanism”) has been extremely different from one
context and age to the other. For instance, while speaking of studia humanitatis in Pro
Archaia, Cicero suggests that the humanities are those subjects that boys have to study in
order to become fully developed human beings. On the other hand, the Italians of the
Renaissance viewed as humanistic those subjects which had a practical use in education, while
logic and the natural sciences, for instance, were regarded as abstract and useless for the real
life. Obviously, the meaning of humanities has abruptly changed in the recent centuries (and,
even if the meaning was the same, the status of humanities is different). For most people of
today – except those concerned precisely with the subject of defining humanities – the best
approach to understand what this concept means is to oppose it with the natural sciences and
mathematics, just as Proctor (1998, p. XXIII-IV) explains: “no one today knows what the
humanities are. […] Why can’t we define them? Because the original humanities are dead and
we have found nothing to replace them. […] Most people are able to think about the
humanities only in terms of their opposites, the sciences. While the sciences limit themselves
to studying that which is objective and quantifiable, the humanities have as their proper
domain of inquiry the subjective and qualitative dimensions of human life and culture”. For
instance, most of the Romanians educated under the old regime had to choose, when getting to
high-school, from two alternatives 17: real and human (literally, in Romanian). The human
profiles were focused on subjects with little or no connection to mathematics, physics,
chemistry or biology, subjects like literature, languages, history etc. Young people used to
decide (when the parents didn’t do it for them) according to their affinity or dislike towards
mathematics – and this choice usually directed the rest of their life (school orientation and
career decision is a rather inertial matter in Romania; changing the trajectory one took upon as
early as high-school was and is a very rare situation18). A somehow similar situation was to be
found in Germany, as a result of Hegel’s (indirectly) and, most of all, Dilthey’s work to
establish an epistemic model for all non-natural sciences. He labeled those sciences as
Geisteswissenschaften, a term which can be literally translated as “spirit sciences” which were
different from the Naturwissenschaften by the fact that they try to understand the world not by
terms of cause and effect but by relation between the part and the whole. That difference is
still maintained in some German universities and in the context of science policies (where all
of the Geisteswissenschaften are considered to be non-empirical – this excludes the social
sciences), while in other contexts there is a strong division between purely speculative “spirit
sciences” and those using empirical data (history, archeology, some branches of philology
along to these two alternatives, also called “theoretical”, there were – and still are – vocational
profiles (teaching, economics) or the so-called “professional schools”, considered to be inferior to the
theoretical profiles and which train young people for various technical jobs (from auto-mechanics to
cooks or hairdressers).
A more detailed investigation in Perţe & Patroc (2012)
Annales Philosophici 5 (2012)
Radu Uszkai, pp. 59-68
and, of course, social sciences). One thing is clear: the ever-changing status of the humanities
makes it almost impossible to treat them as a whole or to draw a precise line between what
belongs to them or, au contraire, steps to the field of natural sciences. As Bod, Maat and
Weststeijn (2010, pp. 9-14) put it, “a comparative, interdisciplinary history of the related
humanistic disciplines is badly needed” because “both in content and period, the history of the
humanities has remained underexposed [which] is all the more striking because many histories
of the natural sciences were written during the last two centuries”.
Without being able to configure the possibility of a simple and accurate definition for
humanities, let us be content with saying that, apparently, humanities (at least in the
contemporary, vulgar understanding of the term) consist of all non-quantitative, non-scientific
endeavors to understand the world (we shouldn’t make the mistake of presuming that
humanities deal only with what is human and not animal or vegetal, for example). And I say
“vulgar” (in the sense of “common”, “unprofessional”) because in the academic world things
are a bit different, and according to my system of values, they are different in a bad way. Just
like we have lost our innocence regarding theory, we have lost it regarding the humanities.
Slowly, but surely, in the last century a humanists’ complex was born, a complex which – to
my best guess – made them feel inferior to natural scientists, probably due to lack of social
benefits and of technological progress when compared to the results of sciences. Edmund
Husserl addressed this problem in the famous 1935 “Vienna Lecture” (1970, pp. 269-301)
when he stated that “blinded by naturalism (no matter how much they themselves may
verbally oppose it), the practitioners of humanistic science have completely neglected even to
pose the problem of a universal and pure science of the spirit”. To be completely honest,
Husserl speaks onward about the possibility of gaining scientific explanations about “the
spirit” in an absolutely conclusive sense, which – in my humble opinion is just plain nonsense – but let us stick with his observation about humanists being blinded by naturalism. (Of
course, this explanation concerning the humanists’ complex towards natural sciences is rather
primitive and simplistic and it could use a much longer digression, but I accept this as an
inherent limit in this particular occasion.)
Anyway, people involved in humanities started conforming, as much as it was
possible, to the requirements of the natural sciences’ method and, by the end of the 20th
century, along with the “explosion” of scientometry in the academic world, things were pretty
much set so that today humanists follow their Hirsch-index, look for better indexed journals,
write projects with results as quantifiable as their scientist fellows. As I mentioned above, in
the case of emerging academic environments 19, this process seems even more powerful since
there are just a few traditionalists or conservators to oppose it while the bureaucratization of
academic life transforms the “scientificization” of humanities into a juggernaut. For instance,
in Romania there are a few faculties (or faculty departments) and even ministerial
commissions or committees (within the Ministry of Education) which have in their names the
phrase “humanist/(humanistic) sciences” (“ştiinţe umaniste” in Romanian)20 – a phrase which
more than a century ago would have been an oxymoron. And, to amplify the confusion, let us
By “emerging academic environments” I am referring to those countries which lacked a solid
academic tradition and which are now connecting rather fast to the customs of Western higher
education by imitating their practices. It is the case of Romania and several other former communist
countries in Eastern Europe.
Very few of the above mentioned Romanian institutions translate their name in English by
“Humanities”. Instead, most of them prefer to use “humanistic sciences”.
Dan Pătroc, pp. 47-58
Annales Philosophici 5 (2012)
mention here that special category of “social-human sciences”, a phrase which in Romanian
designates every academic subject at the conjuncture between natural sciences and
humanities: psychology, sociology, anthropology and even political sciences.
Again, like in the case of “theory”, although there is much that can be said I feel that
the point has been made already and that I can skip to the end of my argument. First of all,
when one asks – like I hastily did before writing this article – “How to theorize in
humanities?”, one should expect to find out that neither theorizing, nor the humanities are
clear, comprehensible and doubtless terms. Interesting enough, both of them have undergone a
major shift along the centuries, the Enlightenment and its consequences turning them around
from a bohemian and loose connotation towards a rigorous and scientific one. Still, if things
were as simple as I put them, then the humanities would only have to follow the wellestablished scientific method since the times of Ibn al-Haytham or Francis Bacon. And
indeed, there are people who feel that the division between humanities and sciences is
artificial and that they can and must be brought together for the better being of all humans. For
instance, the world-wide famous “History of Science and the New Humanism” by George
Sarton is an early attempt to reconcile humanities and science, but in an extremely positivistic
approach, focused on the concept of progress, while – just another random example – the
above cited work of Bod et al. (2010, p. 8) addresses the question “why should one wish to
separate the history of the humanities from the history of sciences rather than aiming at a
history of all scientific activities, from the natural and the social to the humanistic?”. Despite
this, my personal opinion is that we shouldn’t be hasty in envisioning a “one, collective
knowledge”, indifferent of the forms it could take. In other words, I do not feel that the fact of
producing some form of knowledge is enough to treat the natural and social sciences together
with the humanities. Au contraire, I think that we should acknowledge, admit, accept and
embrace the fact that humanities cannot be changed into a real science without definitively
losing the best of them. While trying to replicate in humanities the tasks, methods and forms
of expression (not to mention the forms of evaluation, both epistemologically and
institutionally) common to the natural sciences, we might be so preoccupied and “blinded” (in
the words of Husserl) that we could forget we actually have no criteria for truth in humanities.
Sociologist Talcott Parsons wrote – in an otherwise admirable essay – that humanities should
be treated consonantly with the natural and the social sciences as “intellectual disciplines
concerned with gaining rational knowledge of the human condition and of its products and
environment” (1970, p. 495). As he details, “the concept of rational knowledge involves two
basic methodological standards of science: logical clarity and coherence – and empirical
validity”. And while the logical clarity and coherence seem reasonable enough, I express my
deep doubts concerning the problem of empirical validity. The way I see it, the core value of
humanities (obviously, except the cases when they explicitly treat empirical data – like in the
case of archeology, linguistics or, maybe, history) is precisely that it lacks any kind of
possibility of confronting it with an objective, empirical, quantifiable reality. And, also as a
personal feeling, that is the beauty of it.
As for theorizing in the humanities: either we all change back the meaning of theory
to that employed by the Ancient Greeks (and this is, obviously, as far-fetched as colonizing
Pluto), or we stop pretending theory is possible at an equal level in sciences and humanities.
How do you theorize in humanities? You don’t. You just keep your discourse as coherent and
logical as possible; accept the fact that it’s just one of the many possible ways of looking at a
certain subject and stop trying to prove that others are wrong while you are right. Naturally,
this is just a theory of mine.
Annales Philosophici 5 (2012)
Radu Uszkai, pp. 59-68
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