In defence of theory

theory as drug
theory as drug

A recent article for frieze by Simon Reynolds defends the importance of theory in discussions of music. Several issues raised by this:

1. The fact that writers such as Reynolds feel the need to jump to its defence is a symptom of the profound mistrust that large parts of society have of Theory, specifically critical/cultural theory, sometimes known as continental philosophy. Is this something that is growing or has it always been the case?

2. “Theory”, an abstract concept, also implies “theorising”, a practice, perhaps the most dangerous of all the activities that academia is engaged in. And surely this “theorising” is virtually synonymous with “philosophising”, philosophy being the discipline that takes as its building blocks the slippery conceptual material of thought itself. This mistrust of theory would therefore indicate a profound mistrust in the practice of philosophy.

3. It is implicit in all philosophical activity that we are engaged in a task that is both useful and relevant to our lives. Reynolds likens the synthesis of Theory and (for want of a better phrase) empirical reality with combining two drugs to get a more intense high than might be achieved by taking each of them separately, a “potentiation” in which the outcome is greater than the sum of its parts. This in mind, what can be done to stop philosophising being sidelined from the cultural field of play?

4. We might also ask – what of analytic philosophy? If Reynolds and others are distressed by the apparent evaporation of continental philosophy (critical/cultural theory) from critical discourse, what about the Anglo-American tradition? Note that the giants of twentieth-century analytic philosophy – Wittgenstein, Russell, Moore – are not even mentioned in Reynolds’ article (nor will you find their names in related literature/blogging). What does this say about analytic philosophy/philosophers?

5. A final thought – philosophy has always taken upon itself to carry out the rather hubristic task of providing a critical assessment of the other academic disciplines. As philosophy has progressed through history, it seems that it has refined itself to the point of restriction, with certain areas accorded status as the “proper” domain of philosophy (logic and grammar for analytic philosophy, to a lesser extent hermeneutics and history for continental). Thus we might pose a quasi-inversion of the question I asked at the end of the second paragraph above, something along the lines of “Is philosophy sidelining itself”? Surely the pre-twentieth century hubris was better, a true polymathic endeavour, the philosopher as the lover of knowledge, the chance to “set your brain on fire”, in contrast with the ever narrowing dark alleyway of modern academic “Philosophy”?

Another frieze article on a similar subject by Mark Fisher, aka K-Punk, can be found here

Related articles:

Musical Expressiveness
By Derek Matravers , The Open University
(Vol. 2, April 2007)
Philosophy Compass

Musical Works: Ontology and Meta-Ontology
By Julian Dodd , Manchester University
(Vol. 3, October 2008)
Philosophy Compass

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