Are Theories Bad?

Historians favour evidence. Political scientists/international relations scholars favour theory. True or false? Is there a great divide?

I remember reading a 19th century Irish figure denouncing journalism for consisting only of shibboleths, i.e., customs/language of a particular class that have no greater relevance.

Could one say the same (“shibboleth!”) regarding much academic terminology, particularly theoretical terminology? Are theories bad or good for a greater understanding?

Here is a YouTube video of someone saying they are good, almost to the point of saying you cannot do with them.

Yesterday, I picked up a book that I probably saw in my student days and now feel a desire to read again. If over-preoccupied with the growth of Marxism (it was written in 1980), It is a study of the mentality of revolutionaries from the 18th to 20th centuries and the language that they used. Some of it was theoretical. Some of it was not.

A surface glance today (the 15 minute coffee break phenomenon) reminded me how terminologies were in vogue at different stages during the 19th century that later disappeared, particularly amongst those who attempted to coin ideologies. My interest in reading, or re-reading, Billington’s text is to see how he covers all of them by denoting underlying themes. In doing so, I think (or hope) he treats the terminology as being of its time.

Do we do the same with theories? Do people think of political philosophers as beyond the time that they lived in? Who today typifies Thomas Hobbes as an English civil war era figure (which he was) rather than the master theoretician of realism for all the ages? Who thinks of Aristotle as Alexander “The Great”’s hireling (which he was)? Who thinks of Karl Marx as “just another journalist” (which he essentially was) among thousands? Not many. Instead, their theories are seen as timeless and touchstones for reasoning in every age. I guess that makes me a sceptic regarding notions of a “philosophy of history”, particularly if it is seen as an abstraction.

I’ve seen a few internet commentaries or contemporary news stories recently that surprised me a little because they were focused on the one question that preoccupied the political philosophers and which certainly is a perennial or central question: are people drawn primarily to individuality or social consensuses?

To what extent were the revolutionaries of the 18th to 20th centuries driven by individualism or abstract ideas of community? Which was the predominant trait? There is no easy answer to that. Maybe it is my own inclination to consider theory “bad” that leads me to consider the former as predominant. Yes, they were individuals. Nutty perhaps, but fascinating. Yet most would not fit the bill of what theoreticians today would describe as “liberal”. Neither were the civil servants of the day (bang goes the ahistorical “liberal democracy is with us since the 19th century theory”).

Does that present a paradox to the political historian? Not to my mind. It simply makes the subject, or era, more fascinating. “Fire in the minds of men” was Billington’s catchphrase (drawn from a Fyodor Dostoevsky story) to describe the revolutionaries. “Sunbursts in the minds of men” was a catchphrase that both authors and critics of Irish nationalist diatribes in the 19th century often used.

I remember suggesting once (or twice) that the 1916 rising was an 1848 style rebellion: first, for its format; and second, because Ireland did not experience a similarly broad spectrum of ideological debates as Europe did in 1848 until, in or about, barricades were manned in Dublin in 1916. But that is not “entirely true” and someday I will have to venture back, locating the Irish nationalist imagination c.1848-1916 into a transnational focus. Even as the historiography of the 1848 revolutions become more European in focus, with few exceptions, they are not usually spoken of as including Ireland. One can see European, British and American influences on Irish attitudes of the era. But how can it all be “summed up”?

I sometimes wonder if it would be a surprise to Americans that American history books can usually only be read by non-American authors in this part of the world. In turn, any time I read a history by an American author (be it about America or something else), the line of reasoning in the book (even the choice of language) always seems unfamiliar and, thereby, fascinating. The same can apply to works by European authors. “You see” British authors control the historical reading market here (both popular and academic) so “we” (most of us) think like them. Many cannot even conceive of seeing things differently and to suggest doing so is seen as either incomprehensible or shockingly inappropriate. “Ye cannae reject the canon”.

“Transnational”, being an American lexicon, may imply an American-biased focus. But what if the transnational is directed in every direction from every country? Place the pin in any part of the globe and go 360. Can history be more effectively internationalised? Simply put, that tends to be my intuition or, at least, suspicion, in the sense that if history were thus reconsidered its heart could become more evident. Idealistic or naïve, perhaps. But, “at least”, it is not a theoretical notion. It is an old fashioned, historical, literary and evidenced based one.

“And so on, and so on”.

Well, it is time for me to start reading Billington, I guess, and hopefully I will have something more interesting to blog about next month!