The Theory of the Theory is Still a Theory

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The Theory of the Theory is Still a Theory

Writing about Freud and his loss of influence, Samuel Moyn at The Nation observes:

This skepticism toward the overarching theories of the 19th and 20th centuries has come to incarnate something of the spirit of our age and it is another reason why the prominence of psychoanalysis has declined.

But does Moyn not realize that this statement is itself a “overarching” theory? Or as A. J. Balfour put it:

If a proposition announcing obligation requires proof at all, one term of that proof must always be a proposition announcing obligation which itself requires no proof…. If we have a moral system at all there must be contained in it at least one ethical proposition of which no proof can be given or required….”[1]

Compare Leo Strauss:

All studies in social science presuppose that its devotees can tell human beings from other beings; this most fundamental knowledge was not acquired by them in classrooms; and this knowledge is not transformed by social science into scientific knowledge, but retains its initial status without any modification throughout. If this pre-scientific knowledge is not knowledge, all scientific studies which stand or fall with it, lack the character of knowledge….[2]

And Cicero:

For nothing can be reduced into a science unless he who understands the matters of which he would form a science has previously gained such knowledge as to enable him to constitute a science out of subjects in which there has never yet been in science.[3]



[1] Quoted from Pratt, James Bissett. “The Ethics of St. Augustine.” International Journal of Ethics. Vol. 13. No. 2. (January 1903.) 222–35 at 232.

[2] Strauss, Leo. “What is Political Philosophy?” Journal of Politics. Vol. 19. No. 3. (August 1957.) 343–68 at 352.

[3] Cicero, Marcus De oratore. Translated by E. W. Sutton. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP. 1967. I, 41, p. 55; I, 50, pp. 66–67.