Theory: everybody has one
by Stephanie McMillan
[printed in Salty Eggs]
Whether we’re aware of it or not, we each live our lives according to our own personal internalized philosophical theory—a more or less contradictory jumble of assumptions, beliefs, intentions, and hypotheses about the nature of the universe and our place in it. Each of us has ideas about the nature of existence, motion, and relationships. They come from everywhere and blend together: experiences, conversations, reading, mass media, advertising, teachers, family, friends and foes.
We can think through these theories, try to break them down and understand them, experiment with putting them into practice to determine what is correct and incorrect. As we learn to apply theory, we are able to increasingly align our actions with our thoughts.
The other option is to passively accept the premises and outlook that we’ve been trained in since birth (which, since they are products of the system‘s ideological hegemony, lead to spontaneous total identification with the system), and meekly follow the path our enemy has laid down for us: school, work, unemployment line, prison, FEMA camp, nursing home, death.
Understanding where we are.
In every situation, we use theory to see patterns and tendencies, discern trajectories (insofar as that’s possible) and decide on appropriate responses and strategies—to determine on any given day whether it‘s better to feign compliance, take up arms, or stay in bed with the blankets over our heads. We might still manage to accomplish our goals even if we’re not in control of the theories guiding us, but we’ll be blindfolded, flailing in all directions. Emotion sets us in motion, and willpower fuels us, but without navigational tools we’re lost.
Theory is the topography of our strategic map, determining our starting point and destination, where we lay down paths, and how we focus and direct our energy. At the start of our journey, we don’t need to get bogged down in ultra-complicated minutiae…better to zoom out for an overview of the major contours. As we develop our theoretical skill (which takes practice, like anything else), we can zoom in to explore ever more detailed levels of abstraction. One can pursue any concept to infinite complexity, but first we should sketch some basic outlines.
What determines our actions, our goals, our plans (and often their success or failure), is how we think. Each of us, without exception, has a philosophical theory, ideology and political line–ways of comprehending the world. They may not always be coherent or rational (or have anything to do with reality whatsoever) but we hold them whether we acknowledge that fact or not.
Foundational beliefs about how the world or society works.
“All life is interdependent.”
“The course of our lives is determined by the Flying Spaghetti Monster.”
A set of convictions comprising a worldview.
“History advances through class struggle.”
“In a democracy, everyone is free. I just coincidentally happen to want to go to work every morning.”
Positions on particular topics that determine an approach to action.
“To destroy capitalism, the proletariat must seize the means of production.”
“We can stop fracking by arranging our naked bodies to spell ‘Save the Earth.’”
We could leave our ideas and beliefs unexamined, unarticulated and incoherent, but this is not advised unless we enjoy being brainwashed lumps drooling on the couch. If instead we question and consider our thoughts and their patterns, then our reward is being capable of behavior that is conscious, deliberate, consistent, and most importantly, effective.
If you aren’t in charge of the ideas that guide your life, who is?