Fred Dallmayr

University of Notre Dame  

                Being human means to think or philosophize.

Martin Heidegger


(Prelude:  At this Silver Jubilee of the “Forum on Contemporary Theory,” it behooves members and friends of the Forum to reflect on the meaning of “theory,” its continuing significance and possible future.[1]  Due to my advanced age, I can unfortunately not be present at this celebration in India .  However, my handicap does not carry over to theory.  Although human bodies age, theory or thinking does not age; forever young, it is being lifted on wings of a dove to the sky.  Yet, precisely because of its innocent youth-fullness, theory is also fragile and vulnerable.  In the course of its history, it has been exposed to all kinds of slander and vilification.  In recent times, a massive danger has emerged in the form of an inner corruption or cooptation seeking to enlist “theory” in an agenda of global domination.)  

            As we know, the term “theory” comes from the Greek “theoria” which meant the practice or attitude of “looking” or “gazing at,” a noun derived from the verb “theorein” meaning “to consider, to regard, to ponder, to view or see.”  Someone engaged in the practice of “theorein” was called a “theoros,” a looker, a seer, a spectator.  The Greek noun “theoria” has usually been rendered in Latin as “contemplatio” which carries a similar meaning.[2]  In its long history, no doubt, theory has gone through many phases and been assigned different connotations or shadings.  Perhaps, in a rough overview, one can distinguish between a premodern, a modern, and a postmodern or impending phase.  For present purposes, I find this sequence helpful.

Historical Comments on Theory and Praxis

            As noted, in the original Greek sense, the theorist or “theoros” was an onlooker or spectator.  However, was theorizing or “theorein” simply a spectator sport in the modern sense of that term?  Here we have to take a closer look at looking or seeing.  What the theorist in the Greek sense was looking at was not some random phenomenon but rather the “cosmos” or “being” in its manifold appearances.  This cosmos, in turn, was not just a cause-effect nexus but a meaningful whole, a whole permeated by, and oriented toward a telos:  a telos expressed by Plato as the loadstars of truth, goodness, and beauty.  And since the whole was really a whole (excluding nothing), it necessarily also included the viewer or seer as a being oriented toward the same telos.  Hence, the viewer was not merely an onlooker or bystander (on the outside), but a participant in the great disclosure or epiphany of the cosmos.

            As one can see, this kind of “theorein” was still far removed from the modern dichotomy of theory and praxis, of knowing and doing.  Rather, theorizing was itself a praxis:  the praxis of participating in the movement toward truth, goodness, and beauty.  In order to participate properly in this movement, the theorist had to undergo a certain seasoning, purification, or transformation, a seasoning enabling the theorist to be whole-heartedly devoted to, or focused on, truth, goodness, and beauty.  Just as in order to physically see one needs to have eyes, in order to hear sounds one needs to have ears, so in order to observe, regard, ponder what is genuinely “real” one has to have a heart-mind which is fully attentive or attuned to Being expressed traditionally as the telos of thinking.

            Here, theorizing and practicing are closely linked.  To put things more sharply:  theory in the Greek sense requires a combination of interest and disinterest.  The theorist need to be fully engaged and completely, even urgently interested in the quest for truth, goodness, and beauty; but at the same time, the theorist needs to bracket selfishness and to be disinterested in the pursuit of his/her own particular “good” or advantage.  Much later in history, the French thinker Maurice Merleau-Ponty will say that theory or philosophy is a “limping” enterprise, and this is correct because it limps between interest and disinterest, between whole-hearted involvement of self and whole-hearted self-abandonment.

            Later on in Western history, the Platonic telos of theory—which, by the way, Aristotle never discarded—was merged with, or supplemented by, Christian faith and its intrinsic yearning to perceive or see the divine “face.”  Despite many struggles between philosophy and theology during the Middle Ages, the shared assumption of both was that proper seeing, understanding or “knowing” depended on the genuine preparation or attunement of the seer or seeker, that is, on a certain practical orientation and habituation.  While for medieval philosophers the practice involved the inner attunement to the Platonic triad—sometimes reinterpreted along more spiritual, neo-Platonic lines—for theologians the practice included prayer, meditation, and, of course, divine assistance.  It was in the latter context, that the fascinating idea of “theosis” was formulated, that is, the idea of the ongoing “divinization” of the faithful as a requisite preparation for a deeper understanding of the essence of faith.  In Western Christianity, this idea—most prominent in Eastern orthodoxy—finds a parallel in mystical contemplation and in Saint Bonaventure’s notion of the “itinerarium mentis in Deum.”

            This older conception of theory and theorizing came to an abrupt end with the onset of Western modernity.  The major change that happened was the replacement of a teleological cosmos with an indifferent universe denuded of meaning and purpose; coupled with this change was the transformation of the theorist from a participant into a detached onlooker or analyst.  This shift was most prominently and most dramatically announced in Descartes’s philosophy, especially in his bifurcation between the cogito and the rest of the world.  With this bifurcation, the thinking ego was in fact expelled from the world and thus turned into a pure spectator or onlooker; the goal of the ego was to know itself and the world, but knowledge was no longer predicated on existential participation.  The Cartesian move was buttressed by Francis Bacon’s inauguration of the “new science” inspired by the motto “knowledge is power”—a motto where human power over nature replaced the earlier accent on attunement, transformation and any kind of “theosis.”  Carried forward by Enlightenment philosophy, the Cartesian and Baconian formulas became the distinctive hallmark of Western modernity—although one should not forget the many currents and counter-currents inhabiting the modern era.  Even a leading philosopher like Immanuel Kant had to invest great effort to reconcile or re-connect pure (detached) theory and ethical praxis—and his effort was not entirely successful.  As he wrote soberly at one point:  “A theory which concerns objects of perception [seeing, viewing] is quite different from one in which such objects are represented only through concepts, as with objects of mathematics and [abstract] philosophy.  The latter objects can perhaps quite legitimately be thought of by reason [the cognito], yet it may be impossible for them to be given [in experience].”[3]

            Since the heyday of the Enlightenment, Western modernity has moved steadily and relentlessly in the direction of pure knowledge and pure science, that is, a spectatorial vista far removed from engaged practice.  Ever so often, to be sure, this trajectory was disrupted by the upsurge of various kinds of fundamentalism (national, ethnic, religious)—but without altering the course of “reason.”  Even counter-currents within the ambit of science—like Einstein’s relativity theory—were not able to affect this course in any lasting way.  The goal point of the modern trajectory was to reach a detached vantage point from which the whole universe could be cognitively grasped and subjected to technical control.  In Baconian and Cartesian terms, the goal was to establish a central all-knowing cogito whose absolute knowledge of everything would give it absolute power.  In near-prophetic manner, this idea of central spectatorial power was anticipated in Jeremy Bentham’s notion of the “panopticon”—whose stark political implications were much later discussed by Michel Foucault.[4]  In our own time, this vision of a “panopticon” has become reality in the form of massive surveillance centers established by global hegemonic power, centers which allow the gathering of data about everything from everywhere in the world.  As always, science and technology are closely linked:  Global knowledge entails global control—evident in the ability to eliminate all obstacles to global “security” (preferably via remote control).

Thinking at the Crossroads

            Half a century has passed since Foucault’s comments on the panopticon.  In the meantime, the global situation has grown still darker and more threatening.  In his What Calls for Thinking?, Martin Heidegger invoked Nietzsche’s saying “The desert grows; woe to those harboring desert.”[5]  In the intervening years, the desert or wasteland has not stopped growing.  Coupled with other “advances,” the “information revolution” has conjured up the prospect of a total calculation of everything, of a universal panopticon or data center fulfilling the dream of human  “omniscience.”  Supplemented by the advances in military technology, this prospect yields the vision of human “omnipotence” capable of destroying everything at the push of buttons.  Although allowing for the possibility of an “other thinking,” Heidegger’s late writings do not mince words about prevailing and looming dangers.  Referring to the statement of a Nobel laureate that life will soon be “placed in the hands of the chemist,” he states:

We marvel at the daring of scientific research, without thinking about it.  We did not stop to consider that a technological attack is being prepared upon the life and nature of human beings compared with which the explosion of the hydrogen bomb mean little.  For even if the hydrogen bombs do not explode and human life on earth is preserved, an uncanny change in the world moves upon us.  Yet it is not that the world becomes entirely technical what is really uncanny.  Far more uncanny is our being unprepared for this change, our inability to confront mindfully (besinnlich denkend) what is dawning in this age.[6]  

This statement should be read in conjunction with a similar statement by the French philosopher Maurice                Merleau-Ponty who wrote:  

Thinking ‘operationally’ has become a sort of absolute artificialism, such as we see in the ideology of cybernetics, where human creations are derived from a natural information process, itself conceived on the model of machines.  If this kind of thinking were to extend its reign to humanity and history, if . . . it were set out to construct human life and history on the basis of abstract indices . . . then, since life really becomes a manipulandum [subject to technical control], we enter into a cultural regimen where there is neither truth nor falsity concerning man and history, into a sleep or nightmare from which there is no awakening.[7]  

            The alternative suggested by Merleau-Ponty is an engaged human thinking fully attentive to our finite human condition, to our status as Dasein (in Heidegger’s sense) and not as pure spectators.  So, if this is the situation, what about “theory” and “theorizing”?  Is there a future of theory, and what kind of future?  What kind of theory do we want to foster, and what kind of theorist are we aiming to be?  


[1].The 25th anniversary of the “Forum for Contemporary Theory” is held in Baroda , India , on February 10-11, 2014, under the guidance of its director, Professor Prafulla Kar.

[2].For the etymological background see Martin Heidegger, Einführung in die Philosophie, ed. Otto Saame and Ina Saame-Speidel (Gesamtausgabe, vol. 27; Frankfurt-Main: Klostermann, 1996), p. 167-170.  Heidegger links “theoria” also with “theos” and “theia,” and “contemplatio” with “templum,” adding (p. 169) that, in Greek etymology, “theos” and “theoria” refer basically to the “viewing of divine things.”

            [3]. Immanuel Kant, “On the Common Saying:  ‘This May be True in Theory,’ but it does not Apply in Practice,” in Kant’s Political Writings, ed. Hans Reiss, trans. H. B. Nisbet (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1970), p. 62.

[4].For Michel Foucault’s use of “panopticon” see his Discipline and Punish:  The Birth of the Prison (New york:  Random House, 1978), pp. 195-228.

            [5].See Martin Heidegger, Was heisst Den Ken? (3rd ed.; Tübingen:  Niemeyer, 1971), pp. 12, 26; What is Called Thinking?, trans. J. Glenn Gray (New York:  Harper & Row, 1968), pp. 38, 46.  The citation is taken from Friedrich Nietzsche, “Thus Spoke Zarathustra,” Part IV; see The Portable Nietzsche, ed. Walter Kaufmann (New York:  Viking Press, 1968), pp. 417, 421.

            [6].Heidegger, Gelassenheit (Pfullingen:  Neske, 1959), p. 20; Discourse on Thinking, trans. John M. Anderson and E. Hans Freund (New York:  Harper & Row, 1966), p. 52.

[7].Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “Eye and Mind,” in The Primacy of Perception and Other Essays, ed. James M. Edie, trans. Carleton DaVery (Evanston, IL:  Northwestern University Press, 1964), p. 160.