Why Theory Matters

When interpreters find out that I am working on a Ph.D., they often respond with a nod of vague affirmation and say, “yeah, we need more research on interpreting.” Do we really? Do we need more research on interpreting?

When Americans are faced with a complex social problem, the name that we commonly call our approach to solving the problem is “research”. The enlightenment has passed on to us what Horkheimer calls “instrumental reason”. That is, we assume that when we are faced with a problem, that the basic feature of this problem is that it hasn’t been sufficiently illuminated with reason. In other words, the problem isn’t the problem itself, but our scientific ignorance of the problem. If we could only understand the problem scientifically then the problem would simply reveal itself to us. “Research” is the name that we give to this rational process of analyzing a problem and revealing a solution.

What’s wrong with this? Well, if we are trying to cure malaria or find medication to alleviate suffering from AIDS, perhaps there’s nothing wrong at all. But the majority of the world’s problems – including malaria and AIDS – are not mere technical problems. They are complex social problems. And when dealing with social problems, we cannot assumed that  the problem is just “out there” in an objective, empirical sense. You may be able to isolate the virus that causes AIDS, but you can’t simply point to the social prejudice that repressed the global recognition of AIDS early on before it spread so catastrophically.

To understand social and political problems, therefore, it’s not enough to conduct a technical investigation of the simplest components. Instead, we have to understand how problems are created and imagined by people. This is not something you can discover by conducting a survey. It requires us to analyze the unacknowledged epistemological frameworks that allow us to recognize the problem as a problem. And since we aren’t individually in control of these frameworks, we often don’t rationally know where they came from. We are like hikers walking around with heavy backpacks, but we don’t know where the contents came from.

This is why we need theory. We need theory because we need to understand our world, and we can’t do so with it. Theory is not the opposite of the real world, but the conditions of the real world.


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