Friday, September 07, 2007

Basis and Elaboration (2)

Theoretical and empirical statements are not completely different kinds of beast. Ever since the fall from grace of positivism and falsificationism, however, we have had to make do without any simple connection between them. (Karl Popper, you may recall, got many people to believe that a single statement of empirical fact could render an entire theory suspect.)

Theoretical and empirical statements are properly "about" the same thing, the former are just more general than the latter, which are more specific. In my last post, I started talking about the "sublimation" and even (yikes!) "brutalization" of your research. I want to say a bit more about that now.

Theory is "high culture" to the "base nature" of our empirical world. Theorizing is a more elegant and sophisticated way of engaging with otherwise empirical experience. But theories are as "factual" as the objects they are about; they are, after all, very precisely about those objects.

So my point is that there are sublime facts and brute facts. As in the more familiar (Freudian) application, the sublimated object is just less embarrassing to talk about. Brute facts are just that—you can take them or leave them. But sublime facts (the objects of theoretical statements) can be discussed in public.

This "publicness" is important. As a researcher, you normally have largely "private" access to your empirical materials. Your reader can believe you or not in matters of brute fact. But your conversion of those facts into theoretical insights allows them to be discussed on a ground that you share with the reader, even if the reader is wholly unacquainted with your data.

I'm still thinking this through. More later.

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