Why Theory? (II).

In the first part of this essay series, I wondered why we constantly theorize and why we seem to find that theory has a kind of value that justifies the theorizing. I attempted to narrow down a reason for this by finding common features that we associate with the act and value of theorizing, specifically with the idea that ‘theorizing’ is a useful way of getting from A to B. This is a picture with which we are usually content: I dubbed it the ‘teleological view’. My findings, however, stood in contrast to it. They included the idea that ‘theory’ always implies more than the teleological reaching of extrinsic or intrinsic goals. I did not really argue for those convictions, but relied on previous debates that were led within the community of Funzel. What I then did was encircle an alternative reason for – or justification of – theory: one that would do justice to the non-teleological convictions of the authors that I summarized. I found such an alternative view by searching not for theory’s goal, but for theory’s function. If we define the point of theorizing not in terms of its goal, but in terms of the function it serves, so the idea, we would get a larger and more interesting picture of how theorizing can be – or ought to be – understood. This, however, stirred up one main question: if the point of theory lies in its function for us, then what kind of function is this?

My interim conclusion consisted in identifying this function with our epistemic capacity to act autonomously; that is, to determine and to realize ourselves by means of our knowledge and our ideas about our surroundings. The function of ‘theory’, so to speak, would lie in its being a fundament for ‘human autonomy’ – a means for us to successfully cope with the world and to navigate in it. Here I want to explore what this ‘epistemic navigation’ might look like and what kind of consequences would result for our own philosophical practice if we consistently employed this ‘functionalist’ understanding in our own construction and criticism of theories.


There is a rather famous quote from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations that compares the structure of our language to the geography of a city. Wittgenstein suggests that

“our language can be seen as an ancient city: a maze of little streets and squares, of old and new houses, and of houses with additions from various periods; and this surrounded by a multitude of new boroughs with straight regular streets and uniform houses.” [1]

Learning a language, on this account, becomes more like the exploration of and navigation within an ordered space, and less like a passive memorization of mere information. On this picture, every single piece of information a capable language-learner processes will already be structured, and integrated in the body of her previous understandings and discoveries. And more importantly, her mastery of the language will not only become a concrete skill or technique, but will transform her own self and end up as a part of her identity, much like the patterns of a city with time change the personalities of its inhabitants. This way, knowing a language is comparable to knowing one’s way about in its ‘maze’, and this knowledge is inseparable from the emancipation with which it comes: from the means of free conduct, the sense of direction and the self-expression in which it results. What I suggest is that we ought to understand the practice of ‘theorizing’ in a similar way – no matter whether we are looking at the most abstract theoretical dealings of a mathematician or whether we are looking at the theoretical activity of literary criticism, religious speculation or the arts.


This approach – to identify the point of theory with its function, and to define this function in terms of the navigational overview that theory provides us with – comes close to Werner Stegmaier’s understanding of philosophy as an ultimate means of ‘orientation’. [2] Stegmaier himself provides an entire ‘philosophy of orientation’ that attempts to spell out the elaborate phenomenology of ‘orientational structures’ in terms of the implicit philosophical manoeuvres that these structures presuppose: for example, the constant positing of systems and taxonomies that cannot work without self-referentiality. We can, for instance, not determine whether the idea of the true and the false is true in itself without making use of the very categories in question. But we constantly do it on a provisional basis – because we practically have to! – and so we overcome the seemingly paradoxical self-reference of our basic distinctions by extrapolating them onto ever new structures and applying them to the world, which, in turn, yield results in terms of orientational overview. [3] Generally, the gist of Stegmaier’s line of reasoning is this: before we start thinking we already have to have recognized that we live in mundane surroundings in which we cannot survive without satisfying our needs, and so we cannot continue living without managing the world around us to some extent. Yet we cannot manage the world around us without having a provisional orientation within it, and so unthinkingly, our first mental movements will have to be attempts of orientation. Once we have then managed to manage the world around us, and once we have the freedom to start thinking about this world more abstractly, the first thing we ought to notice is that we already are profoundly oriented within it, and that each abstract thought presupposes, deepens and changes the pre-existent orientation of which we might not have been aware. [4] There is, so Stegmaier, no way out of the self-referentiality of orientational structures: we are constantly either presupposing or acquiring them. If we accept equating Stegmaier’s understanding of ‘orientation’ with my understanding of ‘theory’, then what I called the ‘epistemic function’ of theory just is the orientational structure it provides. What my earlier account adds to Stegmaier’s account is the insight that this orientation always comes with an increase in freedom, and with a gradual strengthening of our capacity to determine and to realise ourselves.

Stegmaier claims to be heavily influenced by Nietzsche, who famously denied all philosophical aspirations to the attainment of truth or to universal morality. All we ever see in our various theoretical constructs, according to Nietzsche, are our attempts to survive, to master and to manage the Earth and our fellow beings. So, for Nietzsche, not even the natural sciences can count as a warrant for the assumption of spectator-independent objectivity, but should be seen as a mere expression of our desire to ‘overcome the world’. [5] To some, this can seem a very radical, nearly pessimistic view. In connection with Stegmaier’s theory and my insistence on the ‘functional’ value of theory, this Nietzschean background could even stir up some further tricky questions. For if every theorizing and every attempt to attain some sort of ‘orientation’ is nothing but a practical issue of ‘Weltbewältigung’ – ‘overcoming of the world’ –, should we then not simply admit that we fall back to the very simple, instrumentalist picture in which every theoretical activity is just another struggle to attain a goal, and to get from A to B?

I do not think this is a genuine worry, and I think that if we dig deeper into what exactly we have in mind when we talk about ‘overcoming of the world’ or ‘orientation’, we can see that this activity is more than a mere teleological struggle to attain the end of survival, but a more open and indirect perpetual state of mind with the loose function of attaining and securing human autonomy under ever changing conditions. A nice picture to illustrate how this ‘navigational’ epistemic function of theory could be thought of was devised by Hans Blumenberg. I think that if we use the imagery of Blumenberg’s anthropology to enrich and to specify Stegmaier’s philosophy of orientation, we will get a more fine-grained picture of the ‘functional’ point of theory that I have in mind. We should then also see how this understanding rules out the harsh implications of Nietzsche’s pragmatic primacy of survival and power – and how it opens a new way in which we can make sense of and transform our own theorizing.


Blumenberg’s starting point is similar to Nietzsche’s and Stegmaiers: one of his central themes is the treatment of what he calls “the absolutism of reality” [6]. With this, Blumenberg refers to the fact that reality always seems like it independently masters itself, whereas we stand in a constant mode of dependency to it. What is real is ‘absolute’ in the sense that it is detached from us – yet our perspective and our needs can always only be defined ‘relatively’ to it. So, we are, most fundamentally, at reality’s disposal, whereas reality can dispose of us in any way it wants. Much like Stegmaier and Nietzsche, Blumenberg speculates that the origins of thought, language and conceptualisation – thus, everything that I have called ‘theoretical’ – lie in the human attempt to come to terms with that. Blumenberg, however, has a much warmer and milder understanding of the human being than Nietzsche does. Unlike Nietzsche, Blumenberg does not only see the human being as exclusively driven by a yearning for survival and power, but identifies the human as something very fragile, a being determined by concern and care – care in the sense of an urge to feel ‘cared about’ oneself, but to also constantly care about one’s surroundings and one fellow beings. This desire is more than a Nietzschean drive for survival; it is also a longing for ‘being at ease’ and being unconcerned. In working towards the fulfilment of this desire, or so I read Blumenberg, the human being begins his aspiration towards a state of self-realization, and creates ‘theory’ – as well as culture – along the way. How ‘theory’ does this, on Blumenberg’s understanding, is by creating a space between the human realm and the realm of ‘absolute reality’ – a space of foreseeability and easiness, but first and foremost a space of ‘distance.’ Theory, simply put, simply distances us from all the phenomena that first seemed so absolute, and by doing this, it enables us to be: this “distance”, in Blumenberg’s words, “is what makes the human being possible in the first place.” [7]

To visualise this emergence of theory, or, as Blumenberg puts it, of ‘conceptual language’, for the aim of making us feel ‘at ease’ in the world, Blumenberg helps himself to a metaphorical image. He invites us to consider how, during the process of anthropogenesis, when hominids moved from the closed forest to the open savanna and developed bipedalism, the ability of upright walking might not only have led to a better ability to see enemies from far away, but also to an awareness that one is more visible, thus more endangered, oneself. [8] We could narrate or interpret this jump into bipedalism not only as the reason for our retreat into caves and ‘homes’, but also as the literal genesis of conceptual thought and civilisation. For if we take the picture seriously, the idea of a ‘concept’ is quite magical: in a constantly retrievable way it mirrors and represents what is exactly not always retrievable: namely the very absolute phenomena of reality themselves. In this vein, Blumenberg suggests that the attempt of conceptually representing what it is not in concrete sight could be understood as the archaic visualisation of what is “behind one’s back”. [9] The birth of the “concept”, on this interpretation, is an attempt to ban potential dangers and to retain control over ‘things unseen’ by translating them into thought. And this magical, ’conceptual space’ just creates the distance we were talking about. [10] With good concepts at hand, we are not only oriented (in Stegmaier’s sense), but we also feel at ease – in the conceptual sphere, the absolutism of reality is both present and far away. We can go about our ways without fearing the unexpected and unprecedented – we can turn our back on reality. Consequently, Blumenberg remarks, we could quite see the enabling of ‘un-endangered upright walking’, that is, ambling and delightful strolling, as the most defining feature of civilisation. “The idle saunter”, so Blumenberg, “is cultural pleasure at its fullest.” [11]

With this picture in mind, I think, we can really see the different aspects of human ‘being-in-the-world’ that are tied in the function that theory serves. We see how theory is, on the one hand, a very practical means of mastering and controlling reality, a means that, by generating handy patterns, structures and knowledge, makes us feel oriented in the world. But we also see how, on the other hand, it exceeds the satisfaction of this very practical need by providing us with a conceptual space that helps us ‚keep reality at bay‘ [12] – a room in which we can truly, non-instrumentally, be. I guess that it is this space, which – if secured – enables us to be also forgetful of reality, playful, unconcerned and light-hearted – and that is what I associate with the freedom and self-realization that theory brings. I find it also quite interesting that with the metaphor of ‘distance’ and conceptual ‘space’ we have returned to the geographical imagery that Wittgenstein employed when talking about language. There seems to be something of an underlying connectedness and spatial cohesion to our theoretical attempts of being in the world.


I want to close this essay by pondering this, and by reflecting on whether there is something new to be learned from the ‘functional’ understanding of theory that I have just explored. If theory has the general ‘function’ of securing us open spaces where we can meet reality and wander within it without being concerned about it, then what does this say about the way we should be doing theory? Because as philosophers, of course, we are theorizing all the time.

Here again, I think it is really useful to consider the ever reappearing ‘spatial’ dimension of the topic. A space is something inherently unified – something, perhaps, that can contain inner distinctions and boundaries, but boundaries that need to be permeable nonetheless. We would not, for example, call a block of stone one ‘space’ – we would intuitively see it as an object located within space. Likewise, we would not call three entirely different places ‘one space’ – for we would intuitively assume that there needs to be some kind of connection between these places for them to count as spatially unified. Internal cohesion thus seems to be a precondition for the ‘spatial’, and from this we could infer that all the talk about the ‘conceptual space’ that theory permits, and about the ‘distance’ that this space secures between us and the world, and about the (spatial) orientation that theory brings about, really presupposes an intrinsic connectedness of the concepts and images that are the very substance each ‘theory’ is made of. If we take theory to be about the enablement of ‘open space’, then this inherently implies the picture of an integrated body of ideas, concepts and beliefs about the world. If we accept a ‘functionalist’ understanding of theory, we do thus learn something stunning: namely that disintegrated ideas about very particular things might not even count as theory in the first place, at least in the sense that they do not fulfil the function that theory ought to serve.

This makes me think of the origin of ‘θεωρία‘ (theoría) at least in the western world – in Greece. For the Greeks, theoretical activity was deeply linked to the contemplation of the world as a whole, and the Greeks called this “ordered whole” of reality “Cosmos”. [13] There is thus a close conceptual connection between the ‘cosmic’ and the ‘theoretical’, a connection that aims at the ‘integration’ of the available knowledge about the word into one single, rational pattern: for the Greeks, as long as the world was a “cosmos”, it meant that it was rationally readable. Today, we don’t use the word in this sense anymore, but I think the function of theory is still very much the same, and in a certain way, there is no human being that could fully do without it. The Trump supporter who needs to make sense of what is putatively happening in the word needs (conspiracy) theories as much as the scientists or the philosopher who demands their critique. This is why, in the first essay of this series, I saw ‘theory’ as encompassing both what Husserl called ‘Weltanschauung’ and ‘Science’ – for it is both a structure of values, beliefs and ‘worldview decisions’ and a system of what we consider to be our most fundamental certainties. In order to really existentially ‘function’, a good theory needs to provide an integrated pattern tying all these different pieces together. This holism, I guess, does not need to amount to a kind of Hegelian system that pretends it could explain everything with certainty, but it at least needs to attempt to integrate those different pieces we know in a manner that allows us to make general sense of them – to allow for a rudimentary cohesion that makes the theory appear as a space that we can inhabit. If we apply this thought consistently, we should stumble upon the paradoxical conclusion that most modern philosophers are currently quite bad at ‘doing theory’! For most of them do not search for an integrative cohesion between different pieces of knowledge, but rather work in a piecemeal-fashion that suggests they could gather findings by few singular, narrow analyses of particular problems alone. Yet, with all the background behind the function that, I think, ‘theory’ in its most general sense has always served and still ought to serve, this should appear as a somewhat dead end. Hilary Putnam has illustrated this nicely with regards to current anglophone philosophy:

“[Anglophone] analytic philosophy claimed to be piece-meal philosophy. It gave up [..] the dream of an integrated view […]. [But] this was always somewhat of a pretense. [Early analytic philosophers] had very much an integrated view. […] The ‚motor‘ of analytic philosophy was logical positivism; not because all analytic philosophers were positivists, but because the argument pro- and con- positivism were what kept analytic philosophy in motion. [With the disappearance of logical positivism] analytic philosophy has […] begun to lose shape [due to] the disappearance of a strong ideological current at its center. The desire for integration is so central to philosophy, I think, that no philosophical tendency will long endure without it. […]. As philosophers, we seem caught between our desire for integration and our recognition of the difficulty. I don’t know what the solution to the tension will look like.” [14]

The specific examples in question – positivism, analytic philosophy – need not concern us; what is interesting is Putnam’s description of the apparent disappearance of a philosophical movement (or ‘theory’) once it is not able anymore to (‘ideologically’) integrate different arguments and ideas into one coherent whole. There really seems to be something that makes theory ‘work for us’, and once it does not fulfil this function anymore, the theory as such disappears, and we live, for a short while, either in a confused, but theory-free world or a new theory takes over – a new theory, that, at once, can fulfil its function again. There seems to be an existential, holistic, cosmological dimension to the rise and fall of theories – an insight, probably, that is related to the very reason why we theorize. This conclusion does not yet touch certain other questions about theory at all. What distinguishes a “correct” theory from a “false” one, for example? Why is science better than conspiracy, humanism better than dictatorship? Our desire to theorize might still be able to fill and create further open space in the future.


[1] Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, §18.

[2] See Stegmaier 2008, XV.

[3] See Stegmaier 2008, 9–15. On this issue, Stegmaier acknowledges his deep indebtment to Niklas Luhman.

[4] See Stegmaier 2008, XV–XVII.

[5] Nietzsche, Jenseits von Gut und Böse, §24, my translation.

[6] Bajohr et al. 2020, 16.

[7] Blumenberg 2006, 570, my translation

[8] See ibid, 777.

[9] See ibid, 611, 693, my translation.

[10] See Blumenberg 2007, 12, my translation.

[11] Blumenberg 2006, 777, my translation.

[12] See Blumenberg 2006, 587.

[13] See Priebe 2021.

[14] Putnam 1981, 303.

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Blumenberg, Hans (1966): Die Legitimität der Neuzeit. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp (Wissenschaftliche Sonderausgabe).

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Bajohr, Hannes; Fuchs, Florian; Kroll, Joe Paul (2020): Hans Blumenberg: An Introduction. In Hannes Bajohr, Florian Fuchs, Joe Paul Kroll (Eds.): History, metaphors, fables. A Hans Blumenberg reader. Ithaca: Cornell University Press; Cornell University Library (Signale transfer).

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Nietzsche, Friedrich (1921): Jenseits von Gut und Böse. In Alfred Kröner (Ed.): Friedrich Nietzsche. Sämtliche Werke in 12 Bänden, vol. 7. Stuttgart: Kröner (Kröners Taschenausgabe), pp. 3–275.

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Priebe, Maximilian (2021): Welten und Weltbilder. Begriffgeschichtliche Notizen zu den Worten ‚Kosmos‘, ‚Logos‘ und ‚Chaos‘. In Die Funzel 6, 30-31,51,56,64.

Priebe, Maximilian (2020): Zur Freiheit freier Geister. Zwei Bedingungen humanistischer Bildung. In Die Funzel Online, 3/4/2020. Available online at https://diefunzel.com/2020/03/04/freie-geister/: checked on 17/01/2021.

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Würtenberger, Lea; Kitcher, Philip (2019): Philip Kitcher on moral progress and the philosophers role. In Die Funzel (3), 38-40.

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