Rieff on theory

June 11, 2009

There are two theories of theory.  The first, and earlier, asserts that theory is the way in which “what ought to be” establishes its hegemony over “what is”.  Value and truth are inseparable; thus is content specified, a fact put in its place.  Theory is the reflecting mirror of man’s mind, catching glimpses of an order eternally right and good.  In this first tradition of our culture, which continued unbroken until the time of Francis Bacon, there could be disagreement on the means of bringing mankind to conform to the eternal and stable order of things as they really are, but not on the ends.  Things being what we know them to be, the intellectual and emotional task of life is to make our actions conform to the right order, so that we too can be right.  Theoretical knowledge is therefore of the good; the ideal is therefore most real, the model from which the is-ness of things, in their splendid variety, derives.  Theory is the way of understanding the ideal.  In this theory of theory, knowledge finally emerges, at its highest level, as faith; the best life is that of true obedience.  God is the final object of all classical theorizing; to contemplate God in the unity above all the variety manifested in His natural and social orders (or moral commandments), was the highest good.

But there is a second theory of theory, one that arose both as a response to the death of the gods and also as a weapon for killing off those surviving, somehow, in our moral unconscious and cultural conscience.  In this second and more recent tradition of theorizing, theory arms us with the weapons for transforming reality instead of forcing us to conform to it.  The transformative cast of theorizing, unlike the conformative cast, is silent about ultimate ends.  In the absence of news about a stable and governing order anywhere, theory becomes actively concerned with mitigating the daily miseries of living rather than with a therapy of commitment to some healing doctrine of the universe.  In fact, the universe is neither accepted nor rejected; it is merely there for our use.  In the second tradition, theory at its highest reach is not faith but, rather, power.  A good theory becomes the creator of power.  And from that creation of power derives man’s freedom to choose among the options specified by the reach of potential powers laid down in the theory.

– Philip Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic, Ch.IV.

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4 Responses to “Rieff on theory”

  1. Christina A. Says:

    This is way over my head :(

  2. cburrell Says:

    Don’t despair. The book from which it comes is a thorny read; this is one of the more lucid passages. 8(

    The same point is made somewhere by C.S. Lewis (anyone remember where?): the older understanding of the moral and intellectual life held that the challenge of life was to conform oneself to an existing order, to become a person capable of perceiving and loving the real and the good. Thus, contemplation of the good — a basking, as it were, in the glory of reality without trying to meddle with it — was considered the highest activity.

    The modern view, however, turns the whole thing around. Now our task is to assert our will so as to make the world conform to our desires. This sort of thinking had its seed in the early modern period (Bacon’s “knowledge is power”), and has been unfolding ever since. Its reductio ad absurdum, I suppose, is The Matrix.

  3. Adam Hincks Says:

    “Now our task is to assert our will so as to make the world conform to our desires.” This is not a modern view. It is as old as man himself.

  4. cburrell Says:

    Fair enough; there’s nothing new under the sun. But I do think there is a point to be made here, even if I am not making it well. There really has been a change of emphasis in the modern period. It is more than just saying that ours is a technological society — though that is not irrelevant. We have the idea that man defines for himself what his good is; one only lives “authentically” by producing this good out of one’s own will. I don’t think I am imagining things.


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