“das Höchste wäre zu begreifen, dass alles Faktische schon Theorie ist.”
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Wilhem Meisters Wanderjahre
I scribbled down a draft of these Theses in the parking lot of Wegmans Food Market in Lawrenceville, NJ. It was late morning of May 25th, 2020, and I was in a foul mood for some decisions in my institution that I firmly rejected. I posted some of them on Facebook, and the reactions from my contacts suggested I prepare some thoughts for a wider audience.
The immediate inspiration for these theses, painful as it was, is irrelevant. They result from years of increasing discomfort with some tendencies within the scholarly field I belong to. Their untimeliness is a direct effect of the predicament they address, namely the disavowal of theoretical labor in academic life. Thesis #1, the most important of them all, takes this as its starting point.
This disavowal takes different forms. It may take the shape of emphasizing “expertise” and praising technical skills and competence over reflection and critical inquiry. It may mask itself as archival empiricism that downplays the role of interpretation. Most often, it takes the form of an absurd opposition of empirical vs. theoretical approaches, as if theories were built upon nothing and facts not already wrapped in a theoretical frame, as in Goethe’s quote above.
I leave the Theses as I originally wrote them: they are rough, hyperbolic, angry, almost preposterous. To be clear, I don’t intend them to be normative but only wish to inspire discussion. My goal is simple: to defend the value and necessity of critical reflection in knowledge production and its autonomy from heteronomous control, as well as to reassert the emancipatory nature of education in general.
So long as theoretical reflection is not acknowledged as intellectual labor, all intellectual production, even (and especially) the most empirically oriented, is alienated from its intellectual substance.
There is no act of writing that is not already enfolded in a theoretical framework, however minimal or disguised as narrative. Concomitantly, there is no act of reading—of a textual, visual, auditory, or material source—that can be completely exhausted through technical expertise.
Every act of reading is, in fact, interpretation, and as such it is theoretically grounded.
The disavowal of theoretical self-reflection must be understood as a refusal to question or justify one’s claims.
At a minimum, theoretical reflection consists in critical examination of the epistemological labor behind one’s claims.
Direct consequence of the disavowal of theoretical reflection in intellectual production is the reliance of scholars on the legitimating authority of the institution rather than on their discursive labor.
The more scholars rely on institutional authority to give epistemological legitimacy to their research, the less autonomous their inquiries will inevitably be.
An educational and research system that disavows theoretical reflection inevitably tends to rely on formulaic models and on the reproduction of received claims; i.e., in more precise terms, on an unrecognized dogmatic orthodoxy.
If today the Humanities are the only division where theoretical reflection is not yet completely disavowed, their systematic defunding will inevitably reduce the autonomy of intellectual production in other fields as well.
Scholarship that disavows theoretical reflection—and is therefore dependent on institutional legitimation for the authority of its research—renders its practitioners marginal and useless to intervene in society. Scholars are asked to be mere technicians, whose expertise is demanded only for the reproduction of the current social order.