It has been more than a quarter-century now since C.P. Snow first told us that we educated Anglo-Americans belong to two mutually uncomprehending and antagonistic cultures, one scientific and the other humanistic. In 1959, with the beeping of Sputnik still echoing in the public ear, no one expected Snow to accord the two camps equal sympathy, and he did not. The forbidding technical intricacy of the sciences, he declared in The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, was hardly a sufficient reason for humanists to turn their backs on science, retreating into spiteful ignorance and misrepresentation. Nonscientists grumbled under Snow’s tongue-lashing, but many of them secretly agreed with the consensus that they had better mend their ways. Certainly it would have been an unpropitious moment for anyone to launch a major counter-offensive against scientific authority.

That episode came to mind as I was reading the Cambridge political scientist Quentin Skinner’s introduction to a collection of essays by various hands on influential recent thinkers, portentously titled The Return of Grand Theory in the Human Sciences (RGT). Snow’s name is never invoked, but the idea of the two estranged cultures pervades Skinner’s introduction, which spells out for us how radically the academic mood has altered. Moreover, Skinner begins his story just around the time that Snow’s polemic appeared.

In those days, we are reminded, the most prestigious general model of explanation was logical positivism, the view that the meaningfulness of a statement is vouchsafed by its testability. Judged by that criterion, much of what had long passed for important discourse had to be dismissed as vacuous. Consequently, a generation of no-nonsense philosophers abandoned metaphysics for more modest pursuits, including, for example, clarification of the exact meaning of scientific terms. Social scientists, caught in the same wave, declared an “end of ideology” and steeled themselves to perceive only narrow empirical issues. And historians followed Sir Lewis Namier in rejecting all theoretical “flapdoodle,” as he had called it, and in fixing their attention on “the detailed manoeuvres of individual political actors at the centres of political power.” Thus, while most academics may have been as scientifically illiterate as Snow alleged, their own work implicitly honored what they took to be the heart of science, namely, deference to the almighty fact.

But by now, Skinner reports, a dramatic change has occurred. Among recent “general transformations” in the “human sciences” (which I will call, more neutrally, “human studies”), “perhaps the most significant has been the widespread reaction against the assumption that the natural sciences offer an adequate or even a relevant model for the practice of the social disciplines. The clearest reflection of this growing doubt has been the revival of the suggestion that the explanation of human behaviour and the explanation of natural events are logically distinct undertakings.” Thus,

During the past generation, Utopian social philosophies have once again been practised as well as preached; Marxism has revived and flourished in an almost bewildering variety of forms; psychoanalysis has gained a new theoretical orientation with the work of Lacan and his followers; Habermas and other members of the Frankfurt School have continued to reflect on the parallels between the theories of Marx and Freud; the Women’s Movement has added a whole range of previously neglected insights and arguments; and amidst all this turmoil the empiricist and positivist citadels of English-speaking social philosophy have been threatened and undermined by successive waves of hermeneuticists, structuralists, postempiricists, deconstructionists and other invading hordes.

Anyone who has been close to the Anglo-American humanities and social sciences in recent decades will know what Skinner is talking about here. The paragraph, however, is arresting as an index both to the feelings stirred by its subject matter and to a resultant confusion in RGT. A quick reading could give the impression that Skinner is caught up in the irresistible energy of an ascendant movement, but his choice of language points elsewhere: to bewilderment, turmoil, threats, underminings, successive waves, invading hordes. Skinner sounds rather like a hostage on videotape, assuring the folks at home that he is being exposed to a lively new slant on things, meanwhile signaling with grimaces, These people mean business!

This mixed impression deepens when we realize that the “invading hordes,” clearly of uppermost concern to Skinner, are only spottily represented by the nine figures treated in the volume he has edited: Hans-Georg Gadamer, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Thomas Kuhn, John Rawls, Jürgen Habermas, Louis Althusser, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Fernand Braudel.1 What, for example, do Marxists, Freudians, feminists, and deconstructionists have to do with Gadamer, the tradition-minded seeker of interpretive certainty, or with Rawls, the Kantian ethical philosopher who deduces rules of justice from an imagined social contract, or with Braudel, the student of geographic necessities that transcend and outlast all linguistic networks? Why, on the other hand, are such idolized system builders as Jacques Lacan and Gilles Deleuze not afforded chapters of their own? Lacan is mentioned only in passing, Deleuze not at all. One wonders if Skinner wants to allay his doubts about the “invading hordes” by putting them into the most respectable company he can find.


Not surprisingly, some of the contributors to RGT appear less than comfortable with Skinner’s vague notion of Grand Theory. Thus Barry Barnes deems it “ironical” to include Thomas Kuhn, whose “mental universe could scarcely be more distant from that of Althusser, or even Habermas.” And Mark Philp observes that Michel Foucault’s presence in the book “might seem paradoxical,” since “his work is above all iconoclastic in intent.” Skinner himself perceives this latter problem, confessing that it “may well sound dangerously like missing the point” to characterize as grand theorists those extreme relativists who seek “to demolish the claims of theory and method to organise the materials of experience.”

This anomaly remains in place after Skinner has lamely tried to banish it, first by claiming that iconoclasm is itself Grand Theory, then by calling its influence grand, and finally by hazarding that the iconoclasts at any rate “cleared the ground” for other thinkers who have reopened such classic topics as “the character of the good life and the boundaries of a free and just society.” Here we are apparently being invited to imagine that a figure like Rawls must have been made possible by ground breakers like Derrida and Foucault. But even a surface acquaintance with the latter pair would show the absurdity of such a suggestion. If Derrida and Foucault lead anywhere, it is not to social contracts and laws of human nature but to a ban on recourse to such flagrantly bourgeois concepts.

As a set of introductions to important figures, RGT is a sober and useful work, distinguished for the most part by clarity, fair-mindedness, and bibliographical helpfulness. In one contribution, James Boon’s on Lévi-Strauss, it passes beyond utility to significant insight and eloquence. But as a case for a specific return of Grand Theory within determinate limits of time and place, the book is drastically fuzzy. It cannot even make up its collective mind about the meaning of its basic terms or the scope of their application.

In France and Germany, the homelands of all but two of the figures treated, modern philosophical and sociopolitical thought never surrendered to positivism and thus never reverted to sweeping speculation. Heidegger and Sartre, for instance, surely had more to say about “grand” issues of human fate than Foucault and Derrida do. If the new movement arrived with, say, Gadamer’s Truth and Method in 1960, then we must exclude Lévi-Strauss, whose anthropological researches were already under way in the Thirties. And if Braudel is to be counted, Grand Theory began at least as early as 1947, the year that The Mediterranean was submitted as a thèse, and possibly as far back as 1929, when the Annales school of historiography first became known. What kind of “return” would that be?

The editorial muddle behind RGT is worsened by a general reluctance to admit that some currents of theoretical enthusiasm are already weakening in their continental homelands. In one instance, Susan James’s chapter on the structuralist Marxist Louis Althusser, such discretion passes over into apparent disingenuousness. Not only does James fail to report that Althusser’s intricately deterministic and top-heavy system of thought has come to be almost universally repudiated in France; she employs the present perfect tense (Althusser “has revised,” “has held fast,” etc.) to suggest that his position is still being articulated at this hour. But as every “Western Marxist” knows all too well, the curtain rang down on Althusser’s career in 1980 when he strangled his wife and was judged mentally incompetent to stand trial. That culminating shock, as Martin Jay has said, “spelled the end [in France] of structuralist Marxism, whose obituary some observers in fact had written as early as 1969.”

Again, the diffuse idea of Grand Theory obscures a crucial shift of values within the career of Jürgen Habermas, the leading successor to the Frankfurt School, whom Skinner can appreciate only as the harbinger of our brisk Freudian and Marxist renaissance. Anthony Giddens’s chapter on Habermas, though competent and informative so far as it goes, is less candid about Habermas’s self-oppositions than is a still more recent essay of his.2 In RGT Giddens appears to be restrained by the book’s kid-gloves decorum and by the group effort to accentuate “grandeur.” His newer essay, by contrast, is more attuned to Habermas’s dilemma of trying to reconcile traditional intellectual loyalties with a nascent impulse toward the ideologizing of knowledge.

For whatever reason, Skinner has confounded two reactions against positivism, one thematic and the other attitudinal, that are only casually and inconsistently related. The first is Grand Theory proper, the addressing of those general ethical and political questions that positivism had declared senseless. The other is a new peremptoriness of intellectual style, emboldening thinkers to make up their own rules of inquiry or simply to turn their whim into law. Such liberation from the empirical ethos can result in Grand Theory, but it can just as easily lead to a relativism that dismisses the whole idea of seeking truth. Skinner has chosen to minimize the fact that one thinker (Rawls, for example) can be “grand” in scope but flexible in intellectual style, whereas another (Derrida, for example) can be “anti-grand” in a way that brooks no dissent.


It seems obvious which of Skinner’s themes is the more significant for an understanding of our present intellectual climate. The major shift we have witnessed over the past generation is not a growing taste for big ideas but a growing apriorism—a willingness to settle issues by theoretical decree, without even a pretense of evidential appeal. In 1960 nearly everyone, despite the widening fissure between Snow’s two cultures, would have concurred with the American critic R.S. Crane’s observation that one of the most important marks of the good scholar is “a habitual distrust of the a priori; that is to say, of all ways of arriving at particular conclusions which assume the relevance and authority, prior to the concrete evidence, of theoretical doctrines or other general propositions.” But today we are surrounded by theoreticism—frank recourse to unsubstantiated theory, not just as a tool of investigation but as antiempirical knowledge in its own right.

To appreciate the climate of theoreticism, it is essential to recognize a distinction between two related conceptions of empiricism. Philosophers have used the term in several senses, one of which is a faith in “scientific method” or a “logic of verification”—a faith, that is, in the availability of neutral grounds for infallibly showing which of several hypotheses or theories is “closest to the truth.” For excellent reasons, belief in that “foundationalist” empiricism has all but vanished in the past twenty years.3 In a broader sense, however, science remains thoroughly empirical; even its most formalized reasoning is ultimately answerable to the testing of predicted consequences. Thus we both do and don’t live in a “post-empiricist” age, depending on which kind of empiricism is intended.

The empiricism that stands in some jeopardy today is simply a regard for evidence—a disposition to consult ascertainable facts when choosing between rival ideas. In practice, of course, the individual investigator never collects enough evidence to guarantee that a given idea is the best one going. Consequently, the heart of empiricism consists of active participation in a community of informed people who themselves care about evidence and who can be counted on for unsparing criticism.

Now, theoreticists pride themselves on being resolutely “antipositivist”—that is, opposed to the restriction of meaningfulness to verifiability in the foundationalist or “scientific method” sense. They think of themselves as staving off a persistent threat of positivist incursion upon human studies. But there must be something else going on here, since by now one might have to repair to the graveyard to find an authentic positivist to kick around. What “antipositivism” really comes down to is a feeling of nonobligation toward empiricism in the broad sense—that is, toward the community that expects theory to stay at least somewhat responsive to demonstrable findings.

In the rhetoric of theoreticism, that community often gets conveniently merged with “science.” To be a good contemporary antipositivist, then, is to resist the encroachment of science on human studies—to deny, as Skinner puts it, “that the natural sciences offer [us] an adequate or even a relevant model.” This can be done in either of two ways. First, one can declare the human studies off-limits to scientific rigor by saying, in Skinner’s phrase, that they are “logically distinct” from science. Or, more radically, one can deny that science itself is really empirical. Both methods make ample room for willful assertion, but the second, as we will see, leads to more spectacular theoretical claims.

We can observe the first of these strategies at work by looking at the early Habermas’s so-called hermeneutic argument for making use of Marxism and psychoanalysis in social thought. According to hermeneutics, science seeks permanent relations of cause and effect between physical objects, whereas hermeneutic insight consists of empathy with social-historical actors or with texts. Some hermeneuticists go on to assert that different standards of corroboration therefore apply to the two realms. Habermas’s novelty in his first major treatise, Knowledge and Human Interests (1968), was to redescribe Marxism and psychoanalysis as nonscientific so that they could be absolved from empirical scrutiny and employed for utopian speculative ends.

Freud and Marx thought of themselves as scientific lawgivers, of psychic etiology and cure in the one case and of political economy and historical development in the other. Habermas, however, managed to convince himself and quite a few readers that Freud and Marx had made causal claims only through a kind of inadvertence or “scientistic self-misunderstanding.” Properly understood, he explained, their visions must be regarded as context-dependent, self-certifying interpretive techniques, or “historical-hermeneutic disciplines.” Their justification thus resides not in whatever empirical plausibility they may possess—an issue Habermas unceremoniously swept under the rug—but rather in their capacity to produce experiences of liberating “self-reflection.”

In retrospect it seems clear that the acclaim bestowed on this argument owed much to the Zeitgeist—the emerging climate of theoreticism—and little to Habermas’s reasoning, which was wishful in the extreme. As Adolf Grünbaum has shown, Habermas first misconstrued the bounds of science, wrongly decreeing that any historical phenomenon, such as a patient’s therapeutic progress, automatically falls outside the scientific purview. Then he entangled himself in such absurdities as the claim that the etiological causality behind a neurotic symptom is rendered void once the symptom has been cured—as if determinism itself, fully efficacious at one early time, could then be retroactively unraveled. In short, Habermas had sacrificed logical cogency to his overriding value in the Sixties, “emancipation.”4

Nonetheless, we can see that Habermas, whose political evolution soon caused him to begin rethinking the entire liberationist approach to knowledge, had scarcely gotten started down the theoreticist path. He was quite satisfied, for example, with the relatively mild epistemic relativism professed by Marx and Freud. That is, both of those observers faulted the majority for dwelling in occluded consciousness, but they did so—and Habermas approved—in the name of a truer, unrepressed consciousness that could be made accessible through private or mass reeducation. Habermas was already placing his faith in human powers of cognitive adjustment to conditions that could be rationally brought to light.

Moreover, even in 1968 Habermas was concerned to employ only the most plausible-looking features of Marxism and psychoanalysis—which is to say, necessarily, the least deterministic ones.5 His affinity was not for iron laws either of history or of psychobiological compulsion but for holistic humanism, ego psychology, and the mundane actualities of the therapeutic transaction. In all these respects he was showing resistance to theoreticism, whose purest impulse is toward positing ineluctable constraints on the perceptiveness and adaptability of everyone but the theorist himself.6 Habermas’s ethic of widening the individual’s range of conscious choice armed him against that temptation.

It was fitting, however, that Habermas was trying to advance the particular doctrines of Marxism and psychoanalysis when he took his first tentative steps toward theoreticism. Of course the immediate explanation lies in his involvement with the Frankfurt School, which had already diluted Marx with Freud to explain the unfulfillment of Marx’s prophecies. (If the Western proletariat was not arising on schedule, its unconscious must have been in thrall to the oppressor.) Yet it is surely no coincidence that when more committed theoreticists than Habermas have laid claim to anti-empirical “sciences” of their own, their choice has almost always been for some permutation of Freudianism or Marxism. It is important to understand why.

While classic Marxism and psychoanalysis insist upon their observational basis, they also constitute inside critiques of received knowledge (it is distorted by “false consciousness” or “repression”), and they bestow epistemic privilege on a group of deep knowers (the revolutionary vanguard, the analyzed) who possess an antidote to chronic error. Try as they may to blend into the wider scientific community, most Marxists and Freudians know they have a head start toward truth; and they also know why the uninitiated may be compelled (by class interest, by fear of the repressed) to resist that truth. These two movements may have accumulated some well-founded tenets along their troubled roads, but in origin and spirit they are countersciences—creeds that use a dry mechanistic idiom and an empirical facade to legitimize “deep,” morally engaged revelations which can always be placed on some new footing if their specific founding claims turn out to be baseless.

We have seen that Habermas’s way of shielding his countersciences from an empirical audit was to shift them to the nonscientific or hermeneutic side of the ledger. Such an evasion cannot satisfy an all-out theoreticist, since it leaves unchallenged the sovereignty of established science. The more thoroughgoing “antipositivist” strategy, then, is to defy empiricism in general by declaring it inoperative even within science. Practitioners of human studies need only catch distant rumors of philosophers’ assaults on the foundationalist logic of verification to leap to a happy conclusion: we now live in a time, as one humanist (Howard Felperin) puts it, “when science itself is recognizing that its own methods are ultimately no more objective than those of the arts.”

When this obituary for empiricism is accompanied by an argument, the latter usually rests on a loose reading of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), the most frequently cited academic book of modern times. Kuhn, we are told, demonstrated that any two would-be paradigms, or regnant major theories, will be incommensurable; that is, they will represent different universes of perception and explanation. Hence no common ground can exist for testing their merits, and one theory will prevail for strictly sociological, never empirical, reasons. The winning theory will be the one that better suits the emergent temper or interests of the hour. It follows that intellectuals who once trembled before the disapproving gaze of positivism can now propose sweeping “Kuhnian revolutionary paradigms” of their own, defying whatever disciplinary consensus they find antipathetic and trusting that tomorrow’s “sociology” will validate their choice.

One can gauge the emotional force of theoreticism by the remoteness of this interpretation from what Kuhn actually said, especially in the second edition of his book and in subsequent clarifying articles. Kuhn happens to be a fervent believer in scientific progress, which, he argues, can occur only after a given specialty has gotten past the stage of what he calls “theory proliferation” and “incessant criticism and continual striving for a fresh start.” By incommensurability Kuhn never meant that competing theories are incomparable but only that the choice between them cannot be entirely consigned to the verdict of theory-neutral rules and data. (What looks like a “mistake” in one theory’s terms may be a legitimate inference in the terms of its rival.) Transitions between paradigms—which in any case are mere problem solutions, not broad theories or methodologies—must indeed be made globally, through “gestalt switches,” but the rationality of science is not thereby impaired. As Kuhn asked, and as he has continued to insist with mounting astonishment at his irrationalist fan club, “What better criterion than the decision of the scientific group could there be?”

Nothing Kuhn can say, however, will make a dent in theoreticism, which is less a specific position than a mood of antinomian rebellion and self-indulgence. That mood comes down to us from the later Sixties—from a sense of criminal inhumanity in science and technology, a revulsion against dry rationality, a cherishing of direct intuitive belief, and a willing surrender to intellectual, political, and spiritual counterauthorities. Such inwardness can include an unarticulated feeling that one at least deserves the haven of an all-explanatory theory, a way of making the crazy world cohere.

Of course the direct intellectual inspiration for most theoreticism has come from such French thinkers as Lévi-Strauss, Barthes, Lacan, Althusser, Foucault, and Derrida, representing various currents of structuralism and poststructuralism. Anglo-American academics, who seem only dimly aware that structuralism became vieux jeu in Paris shortly after they discovered it around 1966, continue to draw liberally on both structuralist and poststructuralist authorities. In doing so they have absorbed a dogmatism of intellectual style that is plainly apparent in their sources. For while the gurus of theoreticism differ sharply among themselves, in another sense they are much alike: all of them neglect or openly dismiss the principle of intersubjective skepticism, the core of any empirical commitment.7

Consider, for example, the “structural-Marxist” Althusser and the “structural-psychoanalyst” Lacan. Unlike Habermas, both were absolutists who aimed at cleansing Freud’s and Marx’s texts of their bourgeois accommodationist elements, establishing by fiat what was truly scientific in them, and crossbreeding the result with a rigid structural determinism. Observational considerations were totally extraneous to those projects. Indeed, Althusser’s bookish “return to Marx” was explicitly modeled on the equally scholastic “return to Freud” effected by his sometime psychoanalyst, Lacan.

Althusser, reacting against Sartre’s sentimental “Marxist humanism,” arbitrarily excised Marx’s own Hegelian humanism from the corpus of his work, claiming that Marx was being himself only when he was coldly systematic and structuralist—in other words, when he was Althusser. (Hence the title of the most damaging attack on Althusser, by a former disciple: “A Ventriloquist Structuralism.”8 ) Capital, Althusser brazenly decreed, expounds a science as fundamental as physics or mathematics. Then, taking his systematized and depersonalized Capital as irrefutably true, Althusser found within it proof that the philosophy of dialectical materialism is itself scientifically validated. With some changes of terminology, the whole circular argument could have been devised in the thirteenth century.

Similarly, Lacan, repelled by the emphasis on middle-class normality in Freudian ego psychology, concocted a suitably “rigorous” counterpsychoanalysis. The concepts of Freud’s that he endorsed (repression, the castration complex, the death instinct) were not ones that he had winnowed through his own clinical trial and error, but rather those he deemed most powerful—that is, most subversive of appearances. They represented the real, courageous Freud; ego psychology had come into being when a lesser, bourgeois Freud repressed those same unnerving notions. That act of diagnosis-at-a-distance epitomized Lacan’s disdain for corroboration. Moreover, by then mapping the arbitrarily favored concepts, along with newly invented ones, onto a grid of Saussurean linguistic oppositions and paradoxes, Lacan largely abandoned the original reference of Freud’s vision to actual neurotic suffering.

In Althusser’s and Lacan’s hands, then, both Marxism and psychoanalysis exchange an adaptive materialism for allegory. There is no point at which they unambiguously intersect experience and therefore no point where one of their contentions could be modified by behavioral data. They have become not critiques of inhumane arrangements or guidelines for practical intervention, but master transcoding devices that will sort any text or problem into sets of formally opposed categories. And that is exactly how they have been used by phalanxes of humorless acolytes.

After the student uprising of 1968, neither Althusser nor Lacan could secure a compliant audience in France. To activists who felt betrayed by the conservative Communist party and by Althusser personally, every intellectual scheme, including the most radical-looking structuralist models, suddenly appeared complicit with a totalitarian principle uniting right, left, and center against the anarchic young. “Anything devoted to ‘order,’ ” as James Boon remarks in RGT, “even covert marginalised orders of the social and linguistic unconscious, tended to be indicted as part of the establishment’s will to oppress and repress.”9 The cry then arose for an end not just to oppression but to theories about oppression. The immediate beneficiaries on the intellectual bourse were poststructuralists, or cognitive minimalists, such as Derrida, Foucault, Jean-François Lyotard, and Gilles Deleuze.

At first glance, an advocate of empirical prudence might perceive such doubters as welcome allies. They have seen with pitiless clarity, for example, that Marxism is intellectually hobbled by its pseudo-objectivity, its moralized vision of history, its ineradicable utopianism, and its economic reductionism. Similarly, they have been largely immune to the scientific pretensions of psychoanalysis. To be sure, their complaint is an idiosyncratic one: that even Lacanian psychoanalysis wrongly presumes to posit real psychic energies and agencies beyond the play of signifiers, meanwhile referring all of the activity of finding structures to a falsely serene contemplative consciousness. But some wariness toward arbitrary claims is certainly better than none.

Unfortunately, however, poststructuralist cynicism is by no means the same thing as empirically based skepticism. We can see that divergence quite clearly in the writings of Derrida, whose “deconstructionist” viewpoint dominated vanguard opinion on both sides of the Atlantic throughout the Seventies. Deconstruction, the technique of laying bare the metaphorical nature of all attempts to establish referential terms, holds that any use of language points only to further language and that the whole Western “metaphysics of presence” from Plato onward is erroneous. This is an arguable position, but in Derrida’s hands it becomes an inverted metaphysics of its own, an unsupported contention that “différance,” or the endless deferral of meaning, “constitutes the essence of life.”

Derrida’s judgment that “there is nothing outside the text” automatically precludes recourse to evidence. Hence he has no way of arriving at more fruitful ideas than the inherited ones he has doomed himself to deconstruct ad infinitum and thus to retain in a limbo of combined attention and nonassertion. His contentment with that annotative role marks him as an intellectual nihilist, though a learned and exuberant one. Both Derrida and his myriad followers, for example, think nothing of appropriating and denaturing propositions from systems of thought whose premises they have already rejected.10 Why not, after all, when Western knowledge in general is an exercise in self-deception?

By now many theory-conscious academics are willing to admit the monotony and hermeticism of Derrida’s “carrying off each concept into an interminable chain of differences.” All that is behind us now, they say, thanks to Foucault, who showed us a way out of the Derridean maze and back to concrete social reality. But Foucault’s concreteness, such as it was, by no means entailed a belief in regulating his ideas according to the evidence he encountered. Indeed, though his historical works attach portentous significance to certain developments and details, his epistemological pronouncements appear to rule out the very concept of a fact.11

For Foucault the entire Enlightenment was a continuing nightmare of everharsher social control—a movement to draw “reasonable” distinctions (rational–irrational, sane–insane, innocent–criminal, normal–abnormal) so as to stigmatize and punish behavior that threatens bourgeois self-regard. Foucault’s own delicate mission was to trace the origins of that mania without at the same time enlarging its dominion. Such a feat called for a determination not just to “escape the grasp of categories” but to “play the game of truth and error badly”—in other words, to remain unbound by any norms of evidence and logic. Foucault could only hope that his books might serve as “Molotov cocktails, or minefields” that would “self-destruct after use.” The guerrilla imagery, evoking the romantic anti-rationalism of May 1968, points not only to the wellsprings of the continuing Foucault cult but also to the common denominator of all theoreticism: a refusal to credit one’s audience with the right to challenge one’s ideas on dispassionate grounds.12

It is hard in any case to attach positive significance to the replacement of one revered master by another, when the very appetite for unquestioning belief is the heart of the problem. In the human studies today, it is widely assumed that the positions declared by structuralism and poststructuralism are permanently valuable discoveries that require no further interrogation. Thus one frequently comes upon statements of the type: “Deconstruction has shown us that we can never exit from the play of signifiers”; “Lacan demonstrates that the unconscious is structured like a language”; “After Althusser, we all understand that the most ideological stance is the one that tries to fix limits beyond which ideology does not apply”; “There can be no turning back to naive pre-Foucauldian distinctions between truth and power.” Such servility constitutes an ironic counterpart of positivism—a heaping up, not of factual nuggets, but of movement slogans that are treated as fact.

Our intellectual practices, rather than our choice of idols, will show whether we have begun to recover from our twenty-year romance with theory for theory’s sake. Reasons for optimism are as yet hard to come by. I see no decline, for example, in the most curious practice of all, the Derridean habit of simultaneously using a theory and disclaiming responsibility for its implications. Many “human scientists” still assume that the only mistake you can make with a borrowed theory is to “privilege” it—that is, to take its ruling terms as a transcendent foundation or ultimate reality. If you aver that you wouldn’t dream of giving privileged status to theory X but are merely admitting it into the unsupervised playground of your mind, then any weakness in theory X itself is not your problem. Typically, the writer announces that neither his theoretical methodology nor his subject matter will be privileged; each will keep the other from getting out of hand. Whereupon, of course, the methodology is put to work like a jackhammer.

The same license to subscribe to a theory without actually believing what it says also permits the ideologically committed to combine two or more doctrines which look to be seriously incompatible. Sectarian zeal, which now appears stronger than ever in the academy, provides all the guidance required to tell which tenets should be discarded or updated to match the latest political wisdom. Since no one is comparing a given theory to the state of research in its original domain, problems of empirical justification simply don’t arise.

Take, for example, the use of imported theory in American academic film studies, which are now dominated by a pugnacious clique that regards itself as at once Lacanian, Marxist, and feminist. Its journals, which are as fawning toward radical system builders as they are implacable toward the patriarchal capitalist order, allow little room amid the manifestoes for discussion of actual movies. To an outsider such fierce parochialism can be astonishing, and doubly so because it seems bizarre to commit the flamboyantly sexist Lacan into the care of feminists. But to an engaged theoreticist, that very discrepancy of consciousness offers opportunities for useful labor, namely, sex surgery on Lacan’s “phallogocentrism” until it has been rendered suitably “gynocentric.” No one suggests that a system needing such drastic repair might be unreliable in other respects as well; to do so would be to manifest a retrograde interest in connections between theory and observation.

Nor, unfortunately, is such insouciance restricted to ideologues. Many otherwise canny humanists and social scientists would now think it boorish and intolerant to care whether the ideas they invoke have received any corroboration, since only a soulless positivist would want to pass judgment on a theory before seeing what illuminating effects its application can provoke. A trial of sensibility is the only precaution needed: the theory will have demonstrated its cogency if it brings out meaning and coherence in a given text or problem. Of course such bogus experiments succeed every time. All they prove is that any thematic stencil will make its own pattern stand out.

With this self-centered approach to ideas—“everything comes together for me when I’m using this theory!”—we reach the mildest and most elusive refinement of theoreticist apriorism. But it is apriorism all the same: a refusal, this time on a pretext of open-mindedness, to adapt one’s method to the intellectual problem at hand. And a subtle but ultimately impoverishing price is paid for it: a sense of artifice and triviality, of disconnection from the wider enterprise of rational inquiry.

Some readers, I know, will acknowledge this isolation but suspect that it is unavoidable in the value-laden and fashion-sensitive human studies. They should realize, however, that the global antithesis between scientific rigor and nonscientific diffuseness has been crumbling in recent years. We now know that individual subdisciplines, not the sciences en masse, become coherent and progressive when their practitioners have developed solutions to major problems and acquired a feeling for what Thomas Kuhn calls the “good reasons” that tacitly inhabit those solutions: “accuracy, scope, simplicity, fruitfulness, and the like.” Each of the human studies contains comparable specialties—research traditions that generate well-focused debate, high standards of reasoning, and even a degree of consensus. I suggest not that we stop theorizing and expressing our sociopolitical views, but that we notice where our most substantial theories always originate: in concrete disciplinary engagement.

The age of positivism lies well behind us, and we are aware today that there is no algorithm for truth in any field. Science and nonscience are in the same epistemic fix: all we can ever rely on is a dedicated subcommunity that will address shared problems in rationally evolving ways. There can be no question, pace Quentin Skinner, of our deciding whether to humble ourselves before the scientific model of research. No such model exists. Across the intellectual spectrum, each subdiscipline hews to its uniquely appropriate way of addressing characteristic issues—except, of course, where the anti-investigative mood of theoreticism has taken hold.

In the Grand Academy of Lagado, where “projectors” are busy trying to soften marble for pillows and extract sunbeams from cucumbers, Lemuel Gulliver comes across “a most ingenious architect who had contrived a new method for building houses, by beginning at the roof and working downwards to the foundation.” Presumably that project is as insensate as the others. But if Gulliver were to visit our own grand academy of theory, he could witness a like feat accomplished daily, with conceptual gables and turrets suspended on hot air and rakishly cantilevered across the void. And if C.P. Snow is perchance observing from a nearby cloud, it may occur to him that his two cultures stack up somewhat differently by now: not scientists versus nonscientists, but the builders of those floating mansions on one side and, on the other, empirical inquirers of every kind.

This Issue

May 29, 1986