Geographer David Livingstone launches a five-part series in which leading academics and their postgraduates describe how theoretical approaches derived from French philosophy have transformed their subject
Writings of a theoretical bent have lately come under attack from several different regions of the academy. My subject is human geography, but it is worth pausing to reflect generally on a few sources of this anti-theoretical bias to appreciate the nature of the complaint. What does it mean to attack "theory" and claim its influence is on the wane?
One possible cause of discomfort is the idea that genuine intellectual progress is resolutely empirical. After all, has science - that paragon of cognitive probity - not achieved its successes through hard-nosed empiricism? Some support for such a claim might even be gleaned from Isaac Newton himself who insisted that, in the prosecution of natural philosophy,there was no room for hypothetical speculation. Yet we surely know that, even while he claimed to feign no hypotheses - "Hypotheses non fingo" as he put it - he actually "fingoed" them all the time. Indeed, there is much to be said for the view that scientific achievements have massively consisted of theoretical advance and that the empirical cannot play the role it does in science without theory.
A perhaps more plausible source of discontent stems from the feeling that the term theory has lost its epistemological cachet and that what passes for theory in the humanities and social sciences is just not robust enough to warrant any serious claim on the term. Consider, for instance, George Steiner's judgement that in literature, music and the arts, "the concept of theory and the theoretical, in any responsible sense, is either a self-flattering delusion or a misappropriation from the domain of the sciences". The heart of the matter here is that the "word theory has lost its birthright". But, given that the term had already undergone massive evolutionary transformation by the mid-17th century, the assumption that the natural sciences offer the only model for theory is certainly contestable.
My feeling is that neither of these judgements constitute the root cause of the recent offensive on theory. Rather, I suspect it stems from an irritation with the abstract, a sense of exasperated incomprehension at what seems like the pretensions of a self-appointed, theory-sated elite. How justifiable that portrait is, I leave to one side, for the simple reason that railing at theory per se is hardly a substitute for the hard work involved in assessing the persuasiveness of a new proposal or a novel set of speculations. Querying whether these pass muster as "theory" is immaterial as to whether or not conceptual enrichment may be derived from conjecture, reimagining, supposition, redescription. These are rich concepts, and if we dismiss them as cognitively anorexic we may miss insights that may be on offer. Yet it has to be admitted that overly complex language is perhaps too frequently deployed in the recent writings of those with a theoretical inclination, and this is especially worrying when the subjects of such work would not have the foggiest notion what is being said about them.
For its part, human geography has been the subject of a sequence of theoretical interventions in recent years. The favoured source of supply is cultural studies; but in the not-too-distant past it was economic theory and before that social physics. It also has to be said that the acreage devoted to tending theory within the discipline's journals has dramatically increased of late and it is not surprising that opportunism, self-indulgence, and empirical unaccountability have not exactly been conspicuous by their absence.
That said, I have found valuable insights in some of the recent reconceptualisations of space forthcoming from a variety of "theoreticians". Space, we have come to realise, is not an empty container within which human action takes place, or a mere stage on which the human drama unfolds. Rather, it is constitutive of social interaction. Getting a handle on some of the ways space is produced has done a good deal to open up fresh lines of inquiry at every scale - from the quotidian spaces of life's routines, to geopolitical relations at the international scale. These have resulted in a more profound understanding of the ways a variety of sites - the school, the hospital, the asylum, the laboratory, the boardroom - exercise immense social power, of how vast stretches of the globe have been "imagined" and constructed in ways that consign whole cultures to the margins of western significance, and of the manner in which cartographic representation persistently acts as an instrument of domination or liberation. How people and places have been, and continue to be, represented to different audiences is a matter of profound moral significance and political concern, for representations have material consequences.
In other words, the recognition that space is as much a social construct as an ontological "given" has been intellectually and empirically fertile. Of course, to find something of value in these reconceptualisations of local and global space one does not have to endorse the entire theoretical edifice of a Foucault, a Giddens, a Goffman, a Lefebvre, a Said - just some of the figures whose insights have done much to reconfigure human geography's conception of its own cognitive domain. For one thing, there are mutually incompatible elements in the conceptual structures these theoreticians have erected. For another, there is much within their thinking that militates against the wholesale adoption of any single theoretical stance or "grand narrative". But their persistent seriousness about theoretical engagement has resulted in a sequence of empirically compelling disclosures about the "where?" of human interaction.
Agonising over whether these reorientations in our thinking about spatiality are epistemologically sturdy enough to meet the requirements of "theory", narrowly conceived, is an intensely uninteresting exercise. The issue is whether they are illuminating and insightful. Interlocutors may not find them so, of course. The point is they challenge our taken-for-granted assumptions; they subvert our anticipations; they demand and deserve a hearing. To be sure, some ideas will turn out to be false, some suppositions spurious, some redescriptions mis-descriptions, some speculations misconceptions, some conjectures misconstruals. But in our haste to make such adjudications, perhaps it would be well to recall the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes: "There never was an idea started that woke up men out of their stupid indifference but its originator was spoken of as a crank."
David N. Livingstone is professor of geography at The Queen's University of Belfast.