Defending the theoretician’s choice to employ a theoretical reductionism is in some respects a nonsensical exercise.  After all, theory of any kind operates as a manifestly reductionistic articulation of a given thing—even if that thing is another theory. This is the conclusion we must come to if we permit ourselves to define theory by the fundamental function it performs.  That is to say, we must accept that theory is (and seeks to be) a reduction of the busyness of the world’s observable on-goings—i.e., it omits detail in one form or another in an effort to make some specific facet of human experience more intelligible, approachable, operatable, etc. To stipulate any theoretical premise (even one that indicts another theory as reductionistic), then, is to assert a reductionism.

Following such an understanding, we must take a moment to acknowledge that many who regularly engage with theory (particularly those who regard themselves as theorists) will rebuke the present characterization.  To justify their stance to the contrary, they could highlight the theoretical efforts to complicate and perhaps negate those perniciously simple and banal articulations of observable on-goings. They may offer rebuttals that quite closely resemble the following remarks:

  • I employ theory to challenge the taken for granted idea that merit alone determines life-chances.
  • It is by means of dense, sophisticated theoretical texts that I teach my students that gender is more than a binary.
  • Conventional frames of understanding, common sense and norms pervading everyday life portray race as a matter of genetic ancestry and, thereby, biologically determined. We draw upon theory to demonstrate how such an understanding obscures a far more nuanced and contentious story.

Those who make these and like claims are correct to do so.  Theory can and has enriched our understanding of the world by indicating a need for discursive complexity.  Yet the theoretical endeavour that seeks to lend discursive nuance, complication and density to some artefact, dynamic, event, or trajectory does so in manner that requires certain nuances and complexities to take precedence over others.  The act of analysis, then, demonstrates an intelligible differentiation—via conceptual demarcations and frames of reference—between precise analytical objects and a world of noise or irrelevant information (e.g., digressive observations, inchoate musings, palpably present though analytically extraneous effects and affected subjects).

So what, then, are we to make of the reductionism critique? Is the indictment of reductionism absent of practical application and epistemological utility?  If we regard theory as a demonstration of the truth or a closer approximation to some real reality, then yes—the indictment has no intellectual worth. After all, If the goal of theory is truth then the observation of reductionism operates as a proxy for the charge of falsity—i.e., an analytical explanation demonstrates the mutually exclusive condition of being accurate or inaccurate.

When the reduction is accurate—when theory reduces observable on-goings in a manner that seems appropriate—the theoretician performs an analytical act analogous to the magician’s slight of hand.  The performance is one in which the less than relevant (yet not wholly irrelevant) objects remain unacknowledged or the performer asks the audience to disregard the reality or presence of said objects since they exist beyond the figurative curtain enacted by a claim to scope conditions.  Whereby claiming reductionism in an effort to demonstrate inaccuracy draws attention to the epistemological leniencies or precarious merit given to theoretical demonstrations of truth.

The observer may ask, “How does reductionism—an inexorable consequence of theorizing—demonstrate inaccuracy (the condition of falsity) in one circumstance but not another?”  Further probing reveals the theoretician’s implicit request that observers acquiesce to the condition of true enough or true until demonstrated otherwise.  Of course, this request is entirely appropriate—but giving recognition to such a request draws into question the very need for or desirability of employing theoretical stipulations directed at the discernment of truth.

Theory as technology

If we regard theory as a technology, however, we may accept that reductionism and indictment of reductionism are both appropriate and necessary. The function of technology—with respect to the present epistemological concerns—is to accomplish a task, address a problem or manage a dynamic or operation. Theory is the (or rather “an”) analytical (often textual, but not necessarily so) manifestation of such management.  To indict a given theory-technology as reductive then is to suggest that said theory-technology forecloses the possible introduction of or plausible accounting for other theory-technologies.

We may, by way of example, look to the conditions under which one appropriately indicts psychoanalysis as reductionistic.  The most appropriate instances—in accordance with the logics of the present argument—are those where psychoanalytic accounts proffer “repressed wishes and instincts” as wholly responsible for a given set of circumstances or behaviors.  In such instances, the theory intends specific enactments (i.e., repression) or variables (i.e., repressed psychic contents) to account for all observable influence over a given object or dynamic—thereby, denying opportunity for additional analytical explanations and clarifications.

Providing an analytical space for alternating epistemologies emerges as a necessary condition for theorizing since a single variable or set of variables can only account for a portion, and never the totality, of the explanatory influence.  Such is the burden of analysing empirical circumstances, which demonstrate a seemingly infinite complexity (at least far greater complexity than one may account for by means of a single explanation).  Of course, one may continually proffer additional explanatory variables in an attempt to approximate ever more closely (but never achieve) a totalizing theoretical account.  However, the resulting theory would likely read as ambivalent and digressive—failing to make any explanatory variable salient while attempting to lend salience to all such variables.  Efforts at theorizing that correspond to the far reaching scope just described  demonstrate a latent appeal to absolutist logics.  The cultivated explanation emerges as teological in character and intends imperviousness to all counter arguments.  The result operates as an absurdity in both aesthetic and utility.

To recognize theory as technology, however, is to demonstrate and validate a need for pragmatism—i.e., to recognize that a world of seemingly infinite complexity requires metrics able and willing to proffer useful rather than perfect measurements. So we may readily permit a psychoanalytic account of repressed wishes and instincts if such an account seems to demonstrate an explanatory efficacy (in correspondence with or relative to other theories).  The primary idea, then, is to evaluate a theory with regards to the utility it adds.  One would inquire, “Does psychoanalysis help me address the analytical problem at hand?” If the answer is no, the conclusion is that psychoanalysis as a theory-technology is inappropriate for the investigative context.  A claim to validity would simply have no relevance.

With this in mind, we may request psychoanalytic theoreticians to make qualifying remarks if and when they determine the application of psychoanalytic theory to be appropriate; wherein, we expect these theory purveyors to say, “Of course other influential variables are at stake, but it is beyond the scope of the present discussion to account for and make salient such influences.”  This enactment—the disclaimer or admission of analytical limitations—operates as the theoretician’s incantation for warding off the contaminating danger of the reductionistic indictment.

Highly skilled theorists have all manner of requisite incantations at the ready.  They deploy them when necessary to ward off any and all possible indictments seeking to shame ostensible charlatans (and thereby distinguish the more competent and sophisticated wizards… err… I mean theoreticians as better than and qualitatively different from said charlatans).  Such indictments are as follows: 1) you have denied the agency of this subject, thing or any and all things; 2) you have assumed or postulated an essence or ontology in a manner that disregards social constructionism; 3) likewise, you have permitted your conceptions to operate as reifications neglecting contextual contingency and a world of constructive-generative agencies; 4) you have assumed or permitted a dichotomous understanding where a continuum resides or should be; etc.

It would be a mistake to regard these criticisms as hackneyed demonstrations of academic posturing.  Their widespread and continual presence within analyses of all kinds is a necessary circumstance for theorizing a dynamic world of diffuse power and agentic operations. Yet all the offenses highlighted by said criticisms remain analytically unavoidable at some point or another while theorizing.  The most pervasive and inevitable offense being the reductionistic articulation—which constitutes the point (or modus operandi) of theory itself.  So the theoretical incantation to ward off reductionism has become a trite, though necessary, endeavour.  It signifies to onlookers, “Yes, of course this analytical problem is a concern; now please acknowledge that I have not denied this concern a presence within my analysis.”

Yet the incantation should not—in and of itself—be sufficient for warding off the criticism of reductionism.  Providing a textual acknowledgement and concern for an epistemological problem doesn’t negate that said problem may still trouble the utility and applicability of a working theory.  So if psychoanalytic scholars preface their analyses with the requisite incantation to ward off a criticism of reductionism and said scholars proceed to articulate any and all social enactments as somehow indicative of the “repressed made manifest,” we may regard such an analysis as one that pushes beyond the limits of a particular reductionism’s technological utility.

By way of crude analogy, we may recognize that it’s useful to have a pocketknife on one’s person at most times.  There are a numerous circumstances where a pocketknife enables one to accomplish a given thing. Is there something stuck to the bottom of your shoe? Use the pocketknife to scrape it off! Come across a difficult to peel fruit? Slice it a few times with the pocketknife (but wash it first if you just scraped something off your shoe).  Have a package that isn’t designed to open readily? Poke it a few times with the pocketknife.

Though we readily accept that the extent of this technology’s utility is ostensibly interminable, we must also acknowledge that there will be times when other, perhaps similar, technologies are simply more appropriate.  Need to spread some preserves on toast? You may use a pocketknife and possibly cut your hand, or you could use the much safer and more effective butterknife. Such considerations about the apt and effective application of one permissible technology among others is equally relevant to an evaluation of our most trusted (and ostensibly useful) theories.  Psychanalytic logics may provide some reason for how and why I use my laptop to go online shopping, write articles, grade papers, etc.; yet a theory of technological affordances will demonstrate more intelligible and relevant explanations.

Highlighting the use and utility of theory-technologies

Reiterating a previous point, then, we acknowledge that it is only appropriate to regard psychoanalytic theory as reductive when it seeks to ignore or negate the relevance of other explanations for why and how a person is in and of the world.  Such an acknowledgement requires us, those giving critiques to another’s theoretical application, to differentiate the intentions of users from the affordances of the technologies they employ.  Whereby, the history of psychoanalysis tells us that while some have attempted to extend the theory to any and all things, as a paradigm, the psychoanalytic endeavour remains largely fixated on a particular and narrow range of empirical on-goings.

The indictment of user-error thus emerges as a far more appropriate criticism than that of a reductionistic theory.  Furthermore, we must overall applaud the efforts of those who push the application of theory-technologies to their absurd ends.  There is a pedagogical function in such boundary transgressions.  The pedagogy being, “Here in lies the discursive (or intellectually useful) limits of this theoretical endeavour.  Beyond this point or analytical threshold, the explanation appears unintelligible and perhaps offensive.”

So rather than enacting an intellectual culture that casts derision over and discourages those who apply theory in ways that doesn’t quite resonate with a larger intellectual community, perhaps we should permit spaces within the culture to celebrate such forerunners—giving recognition to epistemological failure as a worthwhile function of intellectual growth.  On this point it is worth differentiating the ill- or poorly conceived idea from that which simply does not work.  Such an ideal encourages bold applications of theory in an effort to explore the practical limitations of a given logic or method despite that a tenuous, intellectually unappealing explanation is a likely result.

But this is an ideal we only wish to enact if while doing so we are able to maintain specific intellectual standards—i.e., the expectation that intellectual rigor will characterize the analysis despite an assumed expectation that employed logics will fail to correspond to a given empirical circumstance in any useful manner.  In other words, pushing theoretical logics to the absurd limits of applicability should not serve as an invitation for slipshod scholarship demonstrating a dearth of erudition.  Yet if intellectuals maintain the standards of earnest analysis in their attempts at demonstrating the full range of applicability for each and all the prevailing reductionisms constituting the epistemological cannon, then they may enculturate a general relationship to theory less inclined to disparaging one school or another in the name of epistemological loyalty and defence; whereby, scholars would act less like ideologues and religious converts and accept epistemological diversity as a necessary requisite for the seemingly infinite complexity of the world.


James Chouinard (@Jamesbc81) is a sociologist at the Australian National University.

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