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Theory and practice

April 16, 2016

In John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography, he recounts how, as a boy, he once thoughtlessly said that some idea was fine in theory but didn’t work in practice; and his father immediately upbraided him for the error – for error it is, apparently. According to James Mill, theory and practice can never be at variance, and anyone who thinks they can has misunderstood the meaning of those terms. John Stuart, suitably chastened, never misused the words theory and practice again. He doesn’t state explicitly why contrasting them is an error, but I imagine the answer lies along these lines: theory is there to explain practice. If it doesn’t do that then it is a faulty theory. So instead of saying that an idea is fine in theory but not so good in practice, we should just say that the theory is wrong (either that or we have mis-observed the practice).

Yet isn’t it the case that sometimes they do seem to be at variance? The apparent variance can always be explained. Here is an example. Suppose someone said, “In theory we could build colonies on the moon, but in practice it would be impossible.” What they mean is that we have the scientific know-how to do so, but the project would be impracticable because it would be too expensive, or dangerous, or there’d be no point to it. But this is not really a contradiction between theory and practice. In scientific terms we could, in theory, build a colony on the moon; and we could do so in practice too. But we won’t, and to explain why we need to turn to other theories – of economics, or psychology; and when we do that we will find there is no contradiction between theory and practice.

So to talk about a gap between theory and practice is a simplification. If there’s a gap then the initial theory is inadequate to the task and more theories are supposed to come along and fill the gap.

However, I think this simplification is too useful to lose. Bertrand Russell in 1920 wrote a book called The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism, after a visit to the Soviet Union. We know from the title that there’s going to be a gap. That’s the whole point. The system looked good in theory but when Russell went there he found that in practice it wasn’t.

I’m going to carry on using it. When James Mill said there could never be a contradiction between theory and practice he was no doubt right in theory. But not in practice.

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