How to Read Theory

People who love political and economic theory tend to read it critically, usually based on their decision to align with a particular school of thought or even one author. This is good, so far as it goes. If you love theory, of course you’re going to be critical. You’ve read enough of it to know what you like, and also to know at least part of what each author is missing. The critical perspective comes in particularly handy to sort out the promising reading from reading that has no real redeeming value (and there is some of that because it’s entirely repetitive or derivative or just obviously banal).

However, if we find ourselves primarily in the mode of criticism–pointing out what is missing, what is incomplete or wrong–we will lose out in the long run.

There are at least a couple of reasons not to simply launch into critical evaluation mode when reading political theory or philosophy.

The first reason a person might not want to look for what is wrong is because when the focus is so squarely on what is wrong, there’s a strong possibility that they’ll miss what is right. Put another way, this approach can result, unbeknownst to the evaluator, in a “closed mind.” As an author myself, I can say that we put our ideas out into the world with the hope that people can use them somehow, even though they are likely very flawed. Thinkers whom we consider “great,” whose ideas have risen to prominence over time, are perhaps a bit more certain of themselves than I am, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t approach their work as if they are inherently flawed but still have insights to extract. If we miss what can be drawn from the work because it makes sense to us, then we have also missed the gift the author has to give us.

The second reason a person might want to go beyond critique (or sometimes around it) is related to the first. If we want to think for ourselves, we are quite limited if we aren’t spending a good chunk of time drawing what wisdom we can from what we read, discarding the rest, and then actively applying the wisdom to our own thinking. Critique comes in when it comes to what to discard, but generative work involves what we keep. To truly do that, you cannot be so attached to your preferred approach or theorist that you can’t see good ideas coming from unusual places.

After all, when we’re reading theory, surely we’re not looking for that golden unicorn–the one thinker who can give us the answers to everything already formed. Surely we’re reading theory because that comprehensive answer is still lacking, and we’re trying our best to put the comprehensive answer together. No one has yet provided the comprehensive answer, and maybe no one ever will, but one thing I know is, that unicorn has yet to be born.

So this is an argument for a highly charitable approach to reading with a primary agenda of thinking, not evaluating. It feels slightly arrogant to count oneself a “thinker,” but nevertheless, it’s really what moves one from being a fan of theory to being a theorist. It’s not for everyone, but I suspect that there are quite a few extremely bright people out there who “geek out” on theory who could be sources of really useful proposals with a change in orientation, at least part of the time.

We need all the good ideas we can get, because the world is messed up, and we don’t have an infinite amount of time left to get it right.


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