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- (in physical science and in social science) any set of hypotheses or propositions, linked by logical or mathematical arguments, which is advanced to explain an area of empirical reality or type of phenomenon. See also FORMAL THEORY, MODEL.
- in a looser sense, any abstract general account of an area of reality, usually including the use of formulation of general concepts. See also EXPLANATION, SOCIOLOGICAL THEORY.
A theory, in the broad sense of the term, is a complex of opinions, concepts, and ideas aimed at the interpretation and explanation of some phenomenon. In a narrower and more specific sense of the word, a theory is the highest and most highly developed form of organization of scientific knowledge; it provides an integral representation of the regularities and essential relationships in the area of reality that constitutes the object of the theory. V. I. Lenin wrote, in regard to knowledge in the form of a theory, that “theoretical cognition ought to give the object in its necessity, in its all-sided relations” (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 29, p. 193). In structure a theory is an internally differentiated but integral system of knowledge. It is characteristic of a theory that some elements are logically dependent on others and that the content of the theory can be deduced from some set of more primitive statements and concepts in accordance with certain logical and methodical principles and rules.
Since it is based on social practice and provides integral, reliable, and systematically developed knowledge of the essential relationships and regularities of reality, a theory constitutes the most advanced form of scientific grounding and programming of practical activity. The role of a theory is not limited to the generalization of the experience of practical activity and the application of this experience to new situations but extends to the creative processing of the experience. Consequently, a theory opens up new prospects before practice and broadens its horizons. Marxism-Leninism rejects not only the depreciation of theory into an identification with practice but also scholastic theorization, which separates theory from reality.
By making use of the knowledge embodied in a theory, man is able to create that which does not exist in the natural or social reality at hand but is possible from the point of view of the objective laws revealed by the theory. This programming role of a theory with respect to practice is evidenced both in the sphere of material production and in social life. In material production, the role consists in the realization of scientific discoveries made possible by scientific theories, particularly in the age of the modern scientific and technological revolution and the transformation of science into a direct productive force. With respect to social life, the most advanced theory of social development reflects the objective regularities of social development and at the same time embodies the ideology of progressive social forces. This theory provides the scientific basis of the program for a revolutionary transformation of society. The role of theory increases particularly in the epoch of the creation of a socialist and communist society on the basis of the conscious activity of the masses. As Lenin emphasized, “without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement” (ibid., vol. 6, p. 24). Moreover, “the role of vanguard fighter can be fulfilled only by a party that is guided by the most advanced theory” (ibid., p. 25). The Marxist-Leninist theory of society reveals the objective laws of socialist development. The orienting and guiding role of this most advanced theory under present-day conditions is clearly evidenced in the leadership by the CPSU of the developed socialist society in its movement toward communism.
The criterion for the truth of a theory is the accomplishment of a purposeful, practical transformation of reality on the basis of the knowledge embodied in the theory (seeTRUTH). In the course of its practical application, the theory is improved and developed. Practice thus provides not only the criterion of truth but also the foundation for the development of the theory. In Lenin’s words, “practice is higher than (theoretical) knowledge, for it has not only the dignity of universality, but also of immediate actuality” (ibid., vol. 29, p. 195). In the application of a theory, the knowledge formulated in it is mediated by the intermediary of various auxiliary links and concretizing factors. This process presupposes living, creative thought that not only is guided by the theory as by a program but also mobilizes all the possible means of orientation in the specific situation. In other words, the effective application of a theory requires the “living perception” of the object; the use of practical experience, the involvement of emotional and aesthetic aspects of consciousness; and the activation of the capacity for creative imagination.
As a form of a special type of apprehension of the world, a theory functions in the system of culture in close interaction with other, nontheoretical forms of consciousness. Consequently, the formation, development, and application of a theory are always associated with definite ideological, moral, and aesthetic factors. A serious scientific theory, which is always linked in some way with a definite philosophical and ideological orientation, contributes to the strengthening of a particular world view. For example, the theories of N. Copernicus and I. Newton played an important role in the struggle with the religious world view, and Darwin’s theory of evolution contributed to the acceptance of the ideas of the dialectical materialistic world view. On the other hand, the history of cognition contains many instances of pseudoscientific conceptions that lay claim to the role of genuine theories but in reality express an antiscientific, reactionary ideology. Examples are social Darwinism, racism, and geopolitics. The dependence of the content of a theory on ideological orientation and social-class interests is particularly marked in the social sciences, where the struggle of the advanced scientific theory of Marxism-Leninism with reactionary views represents a struggle of opposed ideologies (seePARTIINOST).
As a specific form of scientific knowledge, a theory is more complicated and more highly developed than such other forms as a hypothesis or a law. Consequently, a theory must be distinguished from other forms of scientific knowledge—for example, from scientific laws, classifications, typologies, and preliminary explanatory schemes. Such forms may be genetically prior to a theory and may underlie its formation. On the other hand, they often coexist with a theory, interacting with it in the system of science and may even, as in the case of theoretical laws and typologies based on theory, constitute elements of a theory.
In the division of labor among various modes of intellectual production, the specific function of scientific-theoretical consciousness in general consists in such consciousness being specialized activity concerned with the development of as broad a spectrum as possible of cognitive norms for the relation of man to the world; this spectrum is embodied in the content of science. Consequently, the principal element of scientific cognition in any of its stages is theoretical thought as the activity of “the investigation of the nature of concepts.” F. Engels, it may be noted, characterized this activity as a necessary prerequisite for dialectical thinking (K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 20, pp. 537–38). The fundamental role of theoretical thought means that scientific knowledge is theoretical from its very inception. In other words, scientific knowledge is always associated with reflection on the content of concepts and on the investigative activity that leads to it. The forms and depth of theoretical thought, however, may vary markedly. This fact finds historical expression in the development of the structure of theoretical knowledge and in the formation of the various modes of internal organization of such knowledge. Although theoretical thought in general—that is, theory in the broad sense of the word—is necessarily concomitant with every science, true theory, or theory in the strict sense, appears at fairly high stages in the development of a science and is the result of the systematic development of the capacity for theoretical thought.
The first true theories were formulated in ancient science; an example is Euclid’s work. At about the same time, Aristotle and the Stoics devoted considerable thought to the structure of theoretical knowledge. The next important step in the development of theoretical knowledge was connected with the emergence and development of experimental natural science between the 16th and 18th centuries. In this period and, to a certain extent, in the first half of the 19th century, scientific knowledge involved primarily the collection and processing of empirical data and the derivation of empirical generalizations and regularities. This empirical work, however, was also associated with the development of the capacity for theoretical thought. In particular, a clearly defined development occurred with regard to conceptual and theoretical notions concerning, for example, gases, heat, electricity, magnetism, and optical phenomena. To a considerable extent these notions oriented and guided the empirical research. This fact is evidenced, for example, in the history of the discovery of Coulomb’s and Ohm’s laws.
The general trend in the development of science has been along the lines of intensive development of theoretical research, the improvement and enrichment of the conceptual apparatus of science, and the gradual separation of the theoretical content of science into an independent stratum. The strengthening of the theoretical side of science can be evaluated in terms of the following: the level of comprehension by scientific thought of its conceptual apparatus, which in the early stages retains a close association with prescientific concepts; the degree of critical awareness of and control over the conceptual apparatus; and, above all, the extent of the development of the constructive capacity for the formulation of truly scientific abstractions.
The transition between the empirical stage of a science, which is limited to the classification and generalization of experimental data, and the theoretical stage, where true theories appear and develop, occurs through a series of intermediate forms of theori-zation. Within the framework of these intermediate forms primitive theoretical constructs are developed—for example, idealizations, such as the mathematical point, and hypothetical substances that are used to explain experimentally observed phenomena, as in the early conceptions of current as a fluid. Such theoretical formations are a result of the constructive activity of theoretical thought. Although they may be the source for the emergence of a theory, the constructs do not themselves form a theory. The emergence of a theory is associated with the possibility of forming multilevel constructions, which are developed, concretized, and internally differentiated by theoretical thought on the basis of some set of theoretical principles. In this sense a mature theory consists not only of the sum of interrelated pieces of knowledge but also of a definite mechanism for producing knowledge and for the internal development of theoretical content; the theory may be said to embody a certain program of investigation. These characteristics of a theory are responsible for its being an integral, unified system of knowledge. Because a theory provides such a framework and basis for the development of the apparatus of scientific abstractions, theories constitute powerful tools for the solution of fundamental problems of theoretical scientific thinking—that is, for acquiring knowledge of the nature of the phenomena that make up reality.
Four basic components are customarily distinguished in the structure of a theory: (1) An initial empirical basis, which is the set of facts in the given sphere of knowledge that have been obtained in the course of experiments and require theoretical explanation. (2) An initial theoretical basis, which is the set of fundamental assumptions, postulates, axioms, and general laws that, taken together, describe the idealized object of the theory. (3) The system of logic used in the theory—that is, the set of laws of logical inference and proof that are permissible within the framework of the theory. (4) The aggregate of the statements deduced in the theory and their proofs; this aggregate makes up the principal body of theoretical knowledge.
Methodologically, the central role in the formulation of a theory is played by the idealized object underlying the theory. The idealized object is a theoretical model that makes use of certain hypothetical assumptions and idealizations to represent essential relations in reality (seeMODEL and MODELING). The construction of an idealized object is a necessary stage in the creation of any theory and is carried out in forms specific to the various fields of knowledge. For example, in Das Kapital Marx, after developing the labor theory of value and analyzing the structure of capitalist production, worked out an idealized object that was a theoretical model of the capitalist mode of production. The idealized object in classical mechanics is a system of material plants. In molecular kinetic theory the idealized object is a set of randomly colliding molecules enclosed in a definite volume and represented as perfectly resilient material points.
The idealized object may assume various forms. It may or may not involve mathematical description, and it may or may not have features that are convincing by their obviousness. In all cases, however, it must serve as a constructive means for the development of the entire system of the theory. The idealized object thus not only is a theoretical model of reality but also implicitly contains a definite program of investigation, which is realized in the construction of the theory. The relations among the initial and derived elements of the idealized object constitute theoretical laws, which are formulated by means of certain thought processes involving the idealized object rather than directly on the basis of the study of experimental data, as in the case of empirical laws. It follows that the laws formulated within the framework of a theory essentially pertain not to the empirically given reality but to reality as it is represented by the idealized object. Consequently, the laws must be concretized in a suitable manner when they are applied to the study of objective reality.
Theories can be classified into a variety of types corresponding to the variety of forms of idealization and, accordingly, the variety of types of idealized objects. Descriptive theories are concerned primarily with the description and ordering of, usually, a vast amount of empirical material. In such theories the construction of the idealized object in practice reduces to the refinement of the initial conceptual scheme. In modern mathematicized theories the idealized object is usually a mathematical model or set of such models. In deductive theoretical systems the construction of the idealized object essentially coincides with the construction of the initial theoretical basis.
The development of the content of a theory involves identifying as many as possible of the possibilities inherent in the initial premises of the theory and in the structure of its idealized object. In particular, the development of the content of theories using mathematical formalism involves formal operations with the symbols of a mathematicized language that expresses certain parameters of the object. In theories in which mathematical formalism is not used or is insufficiently developed, reasoning or argumentation predominates that is based on analysis of the content of the theories’ fundamental premises and on thought experiments with the idealized objects. In addition, the development of a theory involves the construction of new levels and strata of content of the theory on the basis of the concretization of the theoretical knowledge of the real object. Here, new assumptions may be incorporated into the theory, or more substantive idealized objects may be constructed. For example, in Das Kapital Marx passes from an examination of commodity production in the abstract to an analysis of capitalist production proper and of production abstracted from circulation to an analysis of the unity of production and circulation. As a result, the concretization of a theory leads to its development into a system of interrelated theories that are united by the idealized object underlying them. This situation is one of the characteristic expressions of the method of the ascent from the abstract to the concrete, a method Marx considered an important feature of theoretical scientific thought (Marx and Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 46, part 1, pp. 37–38).
The process of development is constantly stimulated by the need to handle within the framework of, and on the basis of, the initial propositions of the theory a great amount of varied empirical material pertaining to the theory’s subject. The development of a theory, therefore, consists not in an immanent, logical working of theoretical thought but in an active processing of empirical information into the content of the theory and in a concretization and enrichment of the theory’s conceptual apparatus. The development of the content of a theory places certain limits on the possibilities for logical formalization of the processes of the theory’s construction. Despite the fruitfulness of the formalization and axiomatization of theoretical knowledge (seeAXIOMATIC METHOD), it cannot be denied that the actual process of the constructive development of a theory, in the course of the ascent of theoretical thought from the abstract to the concrete, is affected by the problems of dealing with new empirical material and does not fit into the framework of the formal-deductive conception of the development of a theory.
Theories may be developed, and in fact often are developed, in relative independence from empirical research. The development may be effected through operations with symbols according to the rules of mathematical or logical formalisms, through the introduction of various hypothetical assumptions or theoretical models (particularly mathematical hypotheses or models), and through imaginary experiments with the idealized objects. The relative independence of theoretical research is responsible for an important advantage of thought at the theory level: this independence gives rise to a wealth of heuristic possibilities. A scientific theory, however, is developed and used most effectively when the theory is closely connected with empirical research.
A theory yields practical knowledge about the world only when the theory receives an empirical interpretation. In modern science such interpretations are often far from trivial. For example, in modern physics the construction of a theory often begins with the development of a mathematical formalism whose empirical interpretation is initially unknown, at least in certain parts. Empirical interpretation helps make possible the experimental verification of the theory and contributes to the establishment of the theory’s explanatory and predictive power regarding objective reality.
The empirical verification of a theory and the evaluation of the theory with regard to its explanatory and predictive power are, however, complicated multistage processes. Just as the bearing out of a theory by individual empirical examples does not necessarily constitute unconditional evidence in favor of the theory, so the contradiction of a theory by individual facts does not necessarily provide grounds for rejecting it. Such a contradiction, however, may serve as a powerful stimulus for improving the theory and may even entail the reconsideration and refinement of the theory’s basic princples. The decision to reject a theory is usually associated with a general discreditation of the theory’s underlying program of research and the appearance of a new program that evidences greater explanatory and predictive power relative to the area of reality studied by the theories in question (seeCONSERVATION LAW). The comparative evaluation of rival theories is also an important problem in the methodological analysis of the selection of a theory. Such an evaluation ultimately involves identifying the relative advantages of the explanatory and predictive capabilities of the theories being compared.
REFERENCESEngels, F. Dialektika prirody. In K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 20.
Lenin, V. I. Chto delat’? In Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 6.
Lenin, V. I. Materializm i empiriokrititsizm. Ibid., vol. 18.
Lenin, V. I. Filosofskie tetradi. Ibid., vol. 29.
Kuznetzov, I. V. “Struktura fizicheskoi teorii.” Voprosy filosofii, 1967, no. 11.
Carnap, R. Filosofskie osnovaniia fiziki. Moscow, 1971. (Translated from English.)
Stepin, V. S. “K probleme struktury i genezisa nauchnoi teorii.” In the collection Filosofia, metodologiia, nauka, Moscow, 1972.
Bazhenov, L. B. “Stroenie i funktsii estestvenno-nauchnoi teorii.” In the collection Sintez sovremennogo nauchnogo znaniia. Moscow, 1973.
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Shvyrev, V. S. “K analizu kategorii teoreticheskogo i empiricheskogo v nauchnom poznanii.” Voprosy filosofii, 1975, no. 2.
V. S. SHVYREV