Elegy for Theory

by D. N. Rodowick

24 January 2014

While university curriculums are being driven by scientism and market forces, Rodowick argues for the importance of the arts and humanities as transformative, self-renewing cultural legacies.

While university curriculums are being driven by scientism and market forces, Rodowick argues for the importance of the arts and humanities as transformative, self-renewing cultural legacies.

Excerpted from Elegy for Theory by D. N. Rodowick, (footnotes omitted) published by Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2014 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved.  No part of this excerpt may be reprinted, reproduced, posted on another website or distributed by any means without the written permission of the publisher.

3. Theoria as Practical Philosophy

The best in us has perhaps been inherited from the feelings of former times, feelings which today can hardly be approached on direct paths; the sun has already set, but our life’s sky glows and shines with it still, although we no longer see it.
—Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human

Theory has, in the course of centuries, been a highly variable concept. One finds the noble origins of theory in the Greek sense of theoria as viewing, speculation, or the contemplative life. For Plato, it is the highest form of human activity; in Aristotle, the chief activity of the First Unmoved Mover and the only practice loved for its own sake. For Hellenic culture, theory was also an ethos that associated love of wisdom with a style of life or mode of existence based on practices of self-examination and self-transformation. A profound incommensurability thus separates our contemporary senses of theory from the Hellenic conception of philosophein as simultaneously a “theoretic” activity and an ethos, desirable above all others. Indeed, the association and disassociation of theory from ethics and from philosophy will be a recurrent theme in this book and its companion volume, Philosophy’s Artful Conversation.

Bringing together thea (sight) and theoros (spectator), theory has often been linked to vision and spectacle. Theorein meant to observe attentively, to survey or witness. With its etymological link to witnessing, theater, and spectatorship, no doubt it was inevitable that the young medium of film should call for theory. Nevertheless, the idea of theory as beholding has deep and varied roots. In pre-Socratic thought, the philosopher is the spectator par excellence. When Leon the tyrant of Phlius asked Pythagoras who he was, Pythagoras responded with a word nearly unknown at the time, “A philosopher.” In Diogenes Laertius’s account, Pythagoras continues by comparing life to the Great Games where some are present to compete in athletic or musical contests and others come to buy and sell at market. The best of all, however, are theoroi or spectators—those who neither serve nor seek fame and wealth, but rather observe and pursue wisdom. The ethical dimension of this parable is important. The Pythagorean concept of theoria as contemplative spectatorship promoted the active intellectual study of number theory, geometry, music, and astronomy as bringing understanding of the ordered movements of the kosmos and the structure of everything it contains, including human thought. But at the same time, these contemplative activities were meant to promote a change in the philosopher’s existence, for through theoria one attained active assimilation to the divine Intellect or nous present in all of us.

This little parable already embodies some fascinating historical paradoxes. The source of this story comes from Cicero’s summary of a fragment from Heraclides of Pontus (a member of Plato’s Academy). Andrea Wilson Nightingale argues that this is already a fourth-century retrojection of philosophy and theoretic wisdom onto pre-Socratic thought in order to produce a venerable genealogy for a later invention. The emergence of classical philosophy thus already evinces a contestation of theoria that dissembles its discontinuities and incommensurabilities with earlier conceptions. Later I will argue that retrojection seems to be a persistent feature of theory formation as all the various and discontinuous senses of theory displace one another in ways that impose forms of continuity that make present history the inevitable culmination of a past trajectory. One important task of a genealogy of theory, then, is to identify, in all their dissension and contradiction, the many lines of descent covered over by the historical force of retrojection.

Diogenes Laertius credits Pythagoras, no doubt apocryphally, with coining the term “philosopher” to characterize Pythagoras’s thought and way of life. Before the fourth century, theoria most often referred to the civic practice of sending delegates to witness oracles and religious festivals. Moreover, philosophein was used only rarely and in a vernacular sense as intellectual cultivation. Thus Plato’s setting out of philosophy as a specific kind of practice in The Republic shows that by the fourth century BCE theoria, in its various conceptual connotations, had become central to a Hellenic characterization of philosophein as a specific kind of activity—the ethical choice for a mode of existence devoted to a contemplation of the world that required, in equal measure, an active transformation of the self. This conception is most fully realized in Book X of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics where theoria is singled out as the highest good of humanity and the summit of happiness. Contemplation is perhaps not the best modern equivalent of the word, which in ancient Greek involved not only observation and activities of sight but also the sense of pursuing a theoretic life devoted to pure thought with no ulterior practical motive. For Aristotle, this is the ultimate virtue.

Aristotle encourages a theoretic life as more desirable and more enjoyable than either an apolaustic or a political existence. The life of the intellect, as it contemplates knowledge and seeks out more knowledge, fulfills all the criteria Aristotle thought necessary for happiness: it is the most independent activity, though not an asocial one; compared to practical action, it may be practiced for longer continuous periods; and containing its end within itself enjoys a greater schole or leisure. The activity of philosophic thought is thus commensurate with humanity’s best part—the intellect or nous—that is, “the naturally ruling element which understands things good and divine and is ‘either itself divine or the most divine thing in us,’ and its activity according to its own particular virtue is perfect happiness.” In this respect, “the human nous is a faculty or capacity (dynamis) activated, like everything else in the world, by the attraction of the First Unmoved Mover who, unlike mankind, is intellect pure, simple and tireless” (Aristotle 395). In this way, Greek reason was of a natural order wherein mind and nature were proportionate. To seek wisdom was to understand the eunomia of the world, its lawful and just order, by searching for landmarks or guidelines to ways of life in harmony with the divine ordering of nature. In contrast to the “practical sciences” (episteme praktike), then, through theoria the human mind was capable of deciphering the logos of things on its own; call this philosophy as noninstrumental reason. In this manner, ethics and epistemology were inseparably linked in classical philosophy with its axiological or value-oriented approach to the investigation of nature. Greek thought was governed by a holistic perception of world and mind emblematized by the interlocking meanings of physis as nature (both the physical world and the nature of the world as rationally ordered) and of physis as logos, an intelligible message written in nature. Reason and value defined a virtuous circle for Hellenic culture where one of the fundamental goals of the theoretic life was to discern a norm for the reasonable order of society in the rational order of nature. And as humanity is one with nature in this holistic perception, rational order could be sought for within oneself, noninstrumentally.

Another incommensurability confronts us here. The Hellenic sense of ethics does not completely correspond to our modern conception of a life guided by implicitly or explicitly stated deontological principles that model moral behavior as duty. Rather, as Pierre Hadot argues, the desire for a philosophical life is driven first by ethical dissatisfaction and existential dilemmas that encourage the quest for a new way of life or mode of existence. Only afterward does philosophy try to justify that choice and that existence through discursive argument. Since at least the time of Socrates, then, the choice of a theoretic mode of existence was not the final outcome or telos of philosophical activity. Indeed, the choice of or for philosophy begins in confrontation with other existential attitudes as a critical reaction seeking another vision of the world and another way of life. But this reaction and this choice are not guided by philosophical discourse; philosophical discourse finds its origins in a life choice and an existential option, and not the other way around.

Philosophical expression is not only discursive; it also finds itself crafted as a life, and this process is open-ended and unfinished. Philosophein asks of the novitiate a conversion of being driven by the desire to be and to live in a new way, in tune with a changed conception of the world. This decision—the choice of a new mode of existence—also implies the presence or formation of a community as the expression of an ethos. Only afterward, in Hadot’s account, will the task of philosophical discourse be “to reveal and rationally justify this existential option as well as this representation of the world… Philosophical discourse must be understood from the perspective of a way of life of which it is both the expression and the means. Consequently, philosophy is above all a way of life, but one which is intimately linked to philosophical discourse.” Philosophy is lived or presents itself in a life before it is spoken or written. Or rather, it cannot be spoken or written in the absence of a desire for change and the ongoing execution of an existential choice. There is always a separation between philosophy and wisdom, then, for philosophein is only a preparatory exercise toward wisdom. At the same time, philosophical expression can and must take place simultaneously on two reciprocal planes: that of discourse and that of a mode of existence that must continuously be examined and challenged or reaffirmed. Call this the perfectionist strain of philosophy, so important to Stanley Cavell’s later writings, which—as discourse and existential choice, both in a state of change fueled by dissatisfaction with one’s self and the world—reaches for a state of knowledge that can never be fully attained. Philosophein is a dynamic state to which one may aspire, and philosophia may fuel the desire to attain this state, but one never becomes, ultimately, a philosopher.

For these reasons, the two expressive planes of philosophy—as discourse and existential choice—do not correspond to a distinction between theory and practice. As Hadot insists, philosophic discourse already has a practical dimension—it is meant to transform or to produce a change in the practitioner, but in a noninstrumental way and with no other end than the unending pursuit of wisdom. At the same time, a philosophical life is not theoretical, but rather theoretic; contemplative, certainly, but a form of contemplation whose reach toward understanding the world is also aimed at self-transformation. Theoria as practical philosophy.

D. N. Rodowick is Glen A. Lloyd Distinguished Service Professor in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Chicago. He is the author of The Virtual Life of Film and Elegy for Theory.


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