Talk:Theory

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"It must come with a number of conditions under which it has been proven true"[edit]

I had removed this i.m.o. vague and incomprehensible (and unsourced) phrase which was inserted by Environnement2100 (talk · contribs · deleted contribs · logs · edit filter log · block user · block log). Environnement2100 re-inserted the phrase and left this on my talk page. This message didn't clear up, nor explain much, let alone provide a source. I also think that the statement is just wrong, after all, we all know that theories can at best falsified, but never proven true. Edit-warring is not really on priority list, but I think this phrase should be removed again.

Comments? DVdm (talk) 22:10, 2 March 2010 (UTC)

As there were no comments, I assume that there is no objection to the removal of the phrase, so I went ahead and removed it. DVdm (talk) 09:23, 4 March 2010 (UTC)

Name change proposal: "Theory and practice"[edit]

As mentioned above this article certainly needs discussion of the theory/practice distinction which is the basis of the whole meaning of this word in modern European languages. There is also no discussion of practice in any Wikipedia article. I think there is no point having two articles, as the two terms make sense in contrast to each other.--Andrew Lancaster (talk) 09:21, 9 March 2010 (UTC)

  • disagree there are wikipedia articles on Praxis (process), practice (social theory) and also Craft. The existing article certainly needs to define theory in relation to practice, but to give the article this title would serve only to confine its scope purely to this matter, rather than allowing it to embrace all the various aspects of theory. Riversider (talk) 14:11, 20 September 2010 (UTC)
What happens if someone is looking up the word practice in the sense covered by this article?--Andrew Lancaster (talk) 14:17, 20 September 2010 (UTC)
Good question, I think there is definitely a case for a disambiguation page, or some other wikiartefact to point people in the right direction. The fact remains though that this article is about more than just the difference between theory and practice, so adopting such a title would be an unneccessary stricture. Riversider (talk) 15:30, 20 September 2010 (UTC)
Possibly a solution can be found in that direction?--Andrew Lancaster (talk) 20:05, 20 September 2010 (UTC)


"Theoretical-only"[edit]

Can some things be theoretical and also non-theoretical (i.e. actual?)? If so, then there may need to be such a distinction as "theoretical-only" or similar, making it clear that certain things cannot exist or won't exist, or probably don't exist. Or maybe all three of those things from the last sentence could do with a distinctive name, or maybe I'm completely missing the point. For example, the ideal gas article refers to molecules of zero mass. Can this exist? I'd suspect not, therefore, some acknowledgement of that along-side the word "theoretical" might be useful. A good idea? --Rebroad (talk) 09:24, 21 December 2010 (UTC)

The use of words like "only in theory" to refer to impossible abstractions is in my opinion something best handled as a word use variant at wiktionary? Although it is common, there are other ways to refer to such abstraction which would not use the word theory. Perhaps there could be a mention of this usage in the article and a link to a more appropriate article, but what article would that be? (Wikipedia is not normally just a collection of word meaning information. See WP:NOT.)--Andrew Lancaster (talk) 12:52, 21 December 2010 (UTC)


Whose "theory"?[edit]

Sorry to butt in, but there is a long-simmering conflict between how scientists use the word "theory" and laypeople understand it which has led to endless confusion. What I did is check dictionary definitions and considered basic understandings. What's written is a suggestion for development. Another thing to consider is that some people don't read beyond the first paragraph(s) so that first paragraph should function as an abstract or a brief overview. Margaret9mary (talk) 22:12, 21 December 2010 (UTC)

What is your concrete proposal?--Andrew Lancaster (talk) 12:14, 22 December 2010 (UTC)
Sorry. I didn't realize you'd already edited. Will look.--Andrew Lancaster (talk) 12:20, 22 December 2010 (UTC)
Oh, so you see this as a battle between philosophy and science? I do not like that approach. The "philosophical" meaning of a word like theory is really the broadest and oldest meaning and therefore the only one which helps makes sense of all the specialist meanings. If you move narrow meanings of a word to the top of an article, without any rationale for making that meaning the main one, you'll just start an edit war with people from different fields reverting each other whether it be slowly or quickly. For reference below are the two versions.--Andrew Lancaster (talk) 12:26, 22 December 2010 (UTC)


Old version[edit]

In philosophy, theory (from ancient Greek theoria, θεωρία, meaning "a looking at, viewing, beholding") refers to contemplation or speculation, as opposed to action.[1] Theory is especially often contrasted to "practice" (Greek praxis, πρᾶξις) a concept that in its original Aristotelian context referred to actions done for their own sake, but can also refer to "technical" actions instrumental to some other aim, such as the making of tools or houses. "Theoria" is also a word still used in theological contexts.

A classical example uses the discipline of medicine to explain the distinction: Medical theory and theorizing involves trying to understand the causes and nature of health and sickness, while the practical side of medicine is trying to make people healthy. These two things are related but can be independent, because it is possible to research health and sickness without curing specific patients, and it is possible to cure a patient without knowing how the cure worked.[2]

The word θεωρία apparently developed special uses early in the Greek language. In the book, From Religion to Philosophy, Francis Cornford suggests that the Orphics used the word "theory" to mean 'passionate sympathetic contemplation'.[3] Pythagoras changed the word to mean a passionate sympathetic contemplation of mathematical and scientific knowledge. This was because Pythagoras considered such intellectual pursuits the way to reach the highest plane of existence. Pythagoras emphasized subduing emotions and bodily desires in order to enable the intellect to function at the higher plane of theory. Thus it was Pythagoras who gave the word "theory" the specific meaning which leads to the classical and modern concept of a distinction between theory as uninvolved, neutral thinking, and practice.[4]

While theories in the arts and philosophy may address ideas and not easily observable empirical phenomena, in modern science the term "theory", or "scientific theory" is generally understood to refer to a proposed explanation of empirical phenomena, made in a way consistent with the scientific method. Such theories are preferably described in such a way that any scientist in the field is in a position to understand, verify, and challenge (or "falsify") it. In this modern scientific context the distinction between theory and practice corresponds roughly to the distinction between theoretical science and technology or applied science.

New version being proposed[edit]

The word theory, when used by scientists, refers to an explanation of reality that has been thoroughly tested so that most scientists agree on it. It can be changed if new information is found. Theory is different from a working hypothesis, which is a theory that hasn't been fully tested; that is, a hypothesis is an unproven theory.
The word theory also distinguishes ideas from practice. The words empirical and clinical are also used to distinguish theory from practice. This is different from laypeople's use of the word theory which is usually used to mean an idea that isn't certain, that is not reality.

Explanation (so all this now split into a new section)[edit]

In philosophy, theory (from ancient Greek theoria, θεωρία, meaning "a looking at, viewing, beholding") refers to contemplation or speculation, as opposed to action.[5] Theory is especially often contrasted to "practice" (Greek praxis, πρᾶξις) a concept that in its original Aristotelian context referred to actions done for their own sake, but can also refer to "technical" actions instrumental to some other aim, such as the making of tools or houses. "Theoria" is also a word still used in theological contexts.

A classical example uses the discipline of medicine to explain the distinction: Medical theory and theorizing involves trying to understand the causes and nature of health and sickness, while the practical side of medicine is trying to make people healthy. These two things are related but can be independent, because it is possible to research health and sickness without curing specific patients, and it is possible to cure a patient without knowing how the cure worked.[6]

The word θεωρία apparently developed special uses early in the Greek language. In the book, From Religion to Philosophy, Francis Cornford suggests that the Orphics used the word "theory" to mean 'passionate sympathetic contemplation'.[7] Pythagoras changed the word to mean a passionate sympathetic contemplation of mathematical and scientific knowledge. This was because Pythagoras considered such intellectual pursuits the way to reach the highest plane of existence. Pythagoras emphasized subduing emotions and bodily desires in order to enable the intellect to function at the higher plane of theory. Thus it was Pythagoras who gave the word "theory" the specific meaning which leads to the classical and modern concept of a distinction between theory as uninvolved, neutral thinking, and practice.[8]

While theories in the arts and philosophy may address ideas and not easily observable empirical phenomena, in modern science the term "theory", or "scientific theory" is generally understood to refer to a proposed explanation of empirical phenomena, made in a way consistent with the scientific method. Such theories are preferably described in such a way that any scientist in the field is in a position to understand, verify, and challenge (or "falsify") it. In this modern scientific context the distinction between theory and practice corresponds roughly to the distinction between theoretical science and technology or applied science.

New Proposal[edit]

Originally the word theory is a technical term from Ancient Greek. It is derived from theoria, θεωρία, meaning "a looking at, viewing, beholding") refers to contemplation or speculation, as opposed to action.[9] Theory is especially often contrasted to "practice" (Greek praxis, πρᾶξις) a concept that in its original Aristotelian context referred to actions done for their own sake, but can also refer to "technical" actions instrumental to some other aim, such as the making of tools or houses. "Theoria" is also a word still used in theological contexts.

A classical example uses the discipline of medicine to explain the distinction: Medical theory and theorizing involves trying to understand the causes and nature of health and sickness, while the practical side of medicine is trying to make people healthy. These two things are related but can be independent, because it is possible to research health and sickness without curing specific patients, and it is possible to cure a patient without knowing how the cure worked.[10]

While theories in the arts and philosophy may address ideas and not easily observable empirical phenomena, in modern science the term "theory", or "scientific theory" is generally understood to refer to a proposed explanation of empirical phenomena, made in a way consistent with the scientific method. Such theories are preferably described in such a way that any scientist in the field is in a position to understand, verify, and challenge (or "falsify") it. In this modern scientific context the distinction between theory and practice corresponds roughly to the distinction between theoretical science and technology or applied science. A distinction is often made in science between theories and hypotheses, which are theories that are not considered to have been satisfactorily tested or proven.

And to be moved to a new section called something like "Other Ancient Uses"[edit]

The word θεωρία apparently developed special uses early in the Greek language. In the book, From Religion to Philosophy, Francis Cornford suggests that the Orphics used the word "theory" to mean 'passionate sympathetic contemplation'.[11] Pythagoras changed the word to mean a passionate sympathetic contemplation of mathematical and scientific knowledge. This was because Pythagoras considered such intellectual pursuits the way to reach the highest plane of existence. Pythagoras emphasized subduing emotions and bodily desires in order to enable the intellect to function at the higher plane of theory. Thus it was Pythagoras who gave the word "theory" the specific meaning which leads to the classical and modern concept of a distinction between theory as uninvolved, neutral thinking, and practice.[12]


Comments please? The above is based on the latest proposal and the most recent version before it.--Andrew Lancaster (talk) 12:37, 22 December 2010 (UTC)

I have a comment. In both the old version and the proposed new version, the first paragraph ends with "... that is, a hypothesis is an unproven theory."
This is a grossly misleading statement. I am not trying to nitpick, but the fact is that no theories are ever "proven". They can only be disproven. So while a hypothesis is, indeed, unproven, theories themselves are also unproven, so trying to use this statement to distinguish the two makes no sense whatever.
That theories cannot be proven is logically correct, and has not been a matter of debate for at least a couple of hundred years. Theories necessarily fit the known evidence, and may be inductively judged to be correct, but that is far from the same as "proven". They are merely testable hypotheses that have -- so far -- passed the tests. History is replete with theories that have later been disproved... therefore they cannot be said to have been "proven" in the first place. They merely fit the evidence that is known at the time.
While I am unsure what may be a good, and correct, substitute for that sentence fragment (perhaps something like "a theory must be testable and has withstood known tests"), the phrase as currently used is just plain wrong. -- Jane Q. Public (talk) 02:46, 28 January 2011 (UTC)
Someone want to propose a better last sentence?--Andrew Lancaster (talk) 19:42, 29 January 2011 (UTC)
I just looked at it again. This sentence is only in the current wording, and not in the older version described above, nor the newer proposal I made as a potential compromise, and which no one has really responded to. Perhaps I've left this discussion open too long. I shall be bold and put the compromise in.--Andrew Lancaster (talk) 07:06, 30 January 2011 (UTC)

"Only a theory"[edit]

The article starts to touch on this public misunderstanding of the word "theory" by discussing "theoretical" but never quite reaches the colloquialism. This really should be addressed someplace since it is so often used. Student7 (talk) 21:24, 25 February 2011 (UTC)

Please explain in more detail what you mean. Are you talking about for example the case of people who say the theory of evolution is only a theory?--Andrew Lancaster (talk) 22:19, 25 February 2011 (UTC)
That sort of thing. "Theoretical" touches on this but does not address the exact wording used by the public at large which has a different understanding of the term. Seems easy to insert but needs encyclopedia tone and references. Student7 (talk) 20:34, 27 February 2011 (UTC)

Isn't a Theory, a Theory?[edit]

Just one thing. I'm explaining alittle more along the lines of the article above. Isn't something called a theory, because that's what it is? Just a theory? Most people confuse "theory" with "fact". Like the Big Bang theory, or the theory of evolution. A Theory is something that could be true, not something that is true. The sad thing is, most schools are teaching theories like those above, as fact. I just wanted to make that clear.Carleen6 (talk) 20:18, 14 March 2011 (UTC)

P.S.= How do I get rid of the box surrounding my text? — Preceding unsigned comment added by Carleen6 (talkcontribs) 20:34, 14 March 2011 (UTC)

It is the spaces at the start of each line doing it. Do you have a source for this distinction between facts and theories? I'd say that your position is a common misunderstanding. You are apparently making a statement about modern science, but modern science does not recognize absolute truth, so there is nothing qualitatively above a theory.--Andrew Lancaster (talk) 21:52, 14 March 2011 (UTC)

Incorrect article reference. (?)[edit]

Under References is listed the following book:

   Mohr, Johnathon (2008). "Revelations and Implications of the Failure of Pragmatism: 
   The Hijacking of Knowledge Creation by the Ivory Tower". New York: Ballantine Books. pp. 87–192.

Problem: The underlined reference to the author is a generic page on the name "Mohr", not a reference to the author.

Problem: A search of the internet using Google shows many Wiki references to this book, but no listing of the title or author.

Problem: A search at both Amazon.com and Biblio.com finds neither an author or title of the listed reference.


I believe that this entry dhould be corrected or removed.

Respectfully Submitted,


    Chip Griffin  
    September 6, 2011

— Preceding unsigned comment added by 76.126.103.97 (talk) 04:03, 7 September 2011 (UTC)

I have removed it. I see no good purpose it was serving, and I also could not anything except an amazing number of obvious wiki mirrors. Have you also looked at the other works in the references?--Andrew Lancaster (talk) 07:26, 7 September 2011 (UTC)

Incorrect article reference. (?) - Followup[edit]

Thank you for correcting the reference error.

No, I did not check the other references, but they "seemed" valid from my earlier readings. When I find time, I will check them.

(It seems odd that none of them are underlined. This would indicate a link to the source. The notes above seem to have valid hypertext references.)

Chip Griffin September 7, 2011 at 1:20pm — Preceding unsigned comment added by 76.126.103.97 (talk) 20:23, 7 September 2011 (UTC)

Reason for recent edit[edit]

I have re-deleted two passages from the article's section "Theories as models", after my original deletion was reverted without explanation.

First, it originally said that theories "explain, predict, and master phenomena", and I deleted "master". To explain or predict phenomena has a scientific meaning, whereas to "master" phenomena does not.

Second, I deleted the passage

[A scientific theory's] statements [can be thought of] as axioms of some axiomatic system.

That is not true. Some of a theory's statements are axioms, and some are not.

Third, I deleted

The aim of [a scientific theory's] construction is to create a formal system for which reality is the only model.

Reality is the model of the formal system? Nope. The formal system is a model of reality.

Fourth, I deleted

The world is an interpretation (or model) of such scientific theories, only insofar as the sciences are true.

No, the scientific theories are interpretations of the world, not vice versa. Duoduoduo (talk) 20:53, 22 September 2011 (UTC)

Theory versus Hypothesis[edit]

It is incorrect to claim that "a theory is an hypothesis that has survived extensive testing."

The difference between an hypothesis and a theory is one of kind, not of degree.

An hypothesis is a single testable statement. Any hypothesis can be restated as single question. A theory is a body of knowledge about a certain subject, organized according to a particular paradigm. A theory necessarily involves the exploration of how certain ideas relate to other ideas within the subject matter. A theory will normally have at its foundation multiple hypotheses. It is absurd to claim that an hypothesis can become a theory via extensive confirmation. To form a theory from an hypothesis requires not confirmation, but rather elaboration.

Theories can be revised as new evidence arises. Is it often possible to modify a small part of theory without requiring major changes to the theory as a whole. In contrast, an hypotheses is generally all or nothing - its either kept or replaced depending on how it fits with newly discovered evidence; incremental tweaking of an hypothesis is only rarely possible, thus failed hypotheses are normally replaced rather than modified. — Preceding unsigned comment added by Waynemv (talkcontribs) 21:27, 20 December 2011 (UTC)

Thank you for your well-articulated explanation of the difference. I hope you like, or will improve on, my modification of that part of the article. Duoduoduo (talk) 23:25, 21 December 2011 (UTC)
I think your modification is brilliant, and better stated than I could have done. Waynemv (talk) 04:56, 23 December 2011 (UTC)

A concern about how theories in science are being described[edit]

I move this remark to a new section.--Andrew Lancaster (talk) 19:31, 25 March 2012 (UTC)

The article contains a completely misleading idea that 'theory' is science while 'experiment' is technology. Not so at all. Scientific theories are put forward to explain natural phenomena in way that allows them to be understood and predicted. Testable theories are produced and refined until they are acceptably right. A good example is planetary orbits, for which theories were put forward and refined over a period of 2000 years, by people from Ptolemy to Einstein and others. As observational techniques advanced the theory was continually refined. Technology uses scientific theory to understand and design useful artefacts, for example the internal combustion engine which uses the science of thermodynamics. In scientific pursuits theory and experiment always go hand-in-hand, one is meaningless without the other. — Preceding unsigned comment added by Historikeren (talkcontribs) 17:49, 25 March 2012 (UTC)

Introduction to lead[edit]

Why is the ancient Greek term given as the primary definition, instead of being in the "Ancient uses" section? Is the term still used in this way? Nearly the entire article is based on the definition a couple of sections down, "Theories are analytical tools for understanding, explaining, and making predictions about a given subject matter." Arc de Ciel (talk) 04:10, 5 July 2012 (UTC)

Yes the old meaning is still used, depending what field you are in. There are many words like this one where an old word now has SEVERAL modern meanings that have almost no obvious connection unless you start by looking at the old meaning. The old meaning still does cover all or most of the new ones. I also think there is no uncontroversial way to argue that any of the specialized modern meanings have now taken priority over old meanings (as in the case of "species") because basically the word theory is still used very flexibly by most people in most fields. The minority of methodology folk who think the word should have a clear methodological definition do not even agree with each other. Concerning your remark that most of the article is about one aspect only, remember this is Wikipedia. All articles are just the result of whatever volunteers have had the time to work on. It can also be that some subjects just require more words to get them explained.--Andrew Lancaster (talk) 10:03, 5 July 2012 (UTC)
Thanks for the reply. Which fields are those? Surely they deserve some mention in the article (if not in the lead). Arc de Ciel (talk) 00:12, 6 July 2012 (UTC)
I've also made a couple of changes to clarify based on your explanation. Arc de Ciel (talk) 00:32, 6 July 2012 (UTC)
I think the original meaning, which is still used widely in philosophy and theology, is still the main meaning, also used in normal western languages on an every day basis, not only in specialist fields. When someone says "in theory" and contrasts it with "in practice" this is still the original meaning more or less, and this is the core of where the term comes from. I think this is reflected in the lead as it stands. Keep in mind that the lead also mentions the late 20th century methodological meanings which I think are the meanings most far from the original, but also the least used meanings, and the meaning least able to be defined in any way where we can say that a major mainstream field has reached a consensus. Anyway, all these ways of talking come from the basic idea that a theory is a reality seen by someone contemplating reality, not watching it directly, or to put it in typical modern term, theory is the model of reality. I see no big problem to be solved here. What seems to concern you is that the the methodological meaning is the one which gets the most discussion in the body? However, this is just maybe a reflection of reality: it probably does need the most explanation in the body of the article, because it is the most complex an misunderstood? Articles need to reflect messy reality. :) --Andrew Lancaster (talk) 10:59, 6 July 2012 (UTC)
I'm not trying to suggest there is a "big problem to be solved" - my concern was that the lead did not seem to reflect the article, mainly by describing the ancient definition not only as the definition from which the modern definitions are derived but also as the primary definition. (I then pointed out that the current composition of the article supports this interpretation.) For example, Wiktionary marks the ancient meaning as "obsolete." Where a word has changed meaning over time, the new meaning(s) should take precedence; where it has become "very flexible" as you put it, that should also be noted as part of the primary definition.
I'm also not sure how you conclude that the modern methodological meanings are the "least used" - the lead seems to make a very general statement that in modern contexts (both arts and science) theories are methodological. Is this a problem with the current lead? Certainly all scientific fields use the scientific meaning exclusively, and as it is taught in essentially all high schools, it is widely known outside of science as well. The everyday meanings are also not identical to the original, especially the definition of theory as "hypothesis" or "speculation."
Also, what was incorrect about my revision? I was only trying to emphasize that there also exist modern meanings which are not the same as the original one. I'm pretty sure from your first reply that you agree with that - is there a better phrasing you would like to use? Arc de Ciel (talk) 20:05, 6 July 2012 (UTC)
The edit I reverted is not all that bad, but I am not sure what it is aiming to achieve. How does it improve the article? I think on balance it makes the article slightly worse by exagerrating the contrast between an "Ancient Greek" distinction of theory and practice, versus all other uses of the term theory. I do believe that the distinction between theory and practice is still well-known, and should be explained in this article, and not as something which is no longer used.
As I explained already I fear you are trying to make the article more orderly than the reality which the article should be describing. What you are calling the Ancient Greek distinction between theory and practice is also connected to the core of the main meaning today, and in the Middle Ages, and pretty much everywhere where this distinction is part of the language. (Wiktionary is of course not a reliable source, but on the other hand it is not clear to me that it says that the distinction between theory and practice is obsolete.)
I do not deny that there are relatively important usages of the term today, such as when a theory is distinguished from a hypothesis, wherein it is hard to any longer see the connection to the old meaning, but the connection is still there. I think it is therefore natural to start at the original meaning and then build up discussion of other meanings. If the article is currently imbalanced, maybe this just means it needs more things added, not removed?--Andrew Lancaster (talk) 12:52, 9 July 2012 (UTC)
I think we're talking past each other, as I don't see how your response addresses most of the points that I just made. I'm not suggesting that all mention of the ancient definition be erased from the lead, or that the distinction between theory and practice should be erased, or that the current definitions have no relation to the original one. I already described how the edit is meant to improve the article - by partially addressing my original concern. (Is it only the "ancient Greek" qualifier that you object to? The important part is the rest of it.) Arc de Ciel (talk) 20:24, 9 July 2012 (UTC)
The other sentence is Ok in isolation I think.Andrew Lancaster (talk) 20:49, 9 July 2012 (UTC)

Okay, I've added it back. I had added the qualifier to try and improve clarity, mainly since my addition split the description of the theory/practice distinction from the example. It occurred to me that this could instead be fixed by switching the two statements (third and fourth sentences), so I've done so (and moved the theory/practice distinction to the beginning of the next paragraph). Feel free to switch it back while we're discussing if you prefer. :-)

Now, returning to my original concern about the definition, as I described above (that edit was only ever meant to be a partial and possibly temporary improvement). To be more concrete, my proposals would be something as follows:

1. At the least, the ancient definition should not be presented as primary without qualification. My impression, as I've explained, is that the methodological definition is predominant, but another approach would be to acknowledge the proliferation of definitions, which is what I had tried to do in a small way with the edit you reverted. I think the 3rd/4th sentence switch I performed comes much closer to what I would find reasonable for that second option, but I am concerned that the theory/practice distinction is no longer juxtaposed with the original definition. So if this break remains in the final version, I think the second paragraph should start with something like, "Under the ancient definition, which is still in use today, [etc]."

2. Related to the first point, I think the example given is also too long relative to its importance, and should be either moved to the "Ancient uses" section (which could be renamed if you don't like having it under that title), or should be shortened. My other concern about the example is that it seems to be making a statement about science, whereas the use of the word "theory" in that sentence (being distinguished from "practical") is not related to the scientific definition except to the extent that the definitions are related to each other. This could be fixed by substituting a different example, or making it clear that the example refers to ancient and not modern medicine. Arc de Ciel (talk) 04:33, 10 July 2012 (UTC)

That change is OK, although I still do not see it as a big improvement. But I think your new comments add to my impression that your bigger idea here is not one I am confident about, and so I hope we can keep working in small steps for now.
I think my concern can be encapsulated in just looking at the sentence you propose above: "the ancient definition, which is still in use today". Is it clearly best described as "ancient" if it is still in use today? You seem to be pushing for getting a message between the lines that the "ancient" use is still out there, but should not be. I say the classical ways of using the term theory are still the main uses today, and also still essential for understanding some of the new uses of the word. For example the distinction between theory and practice in medicine is still very normal, both amongst lay people and specialists. (I believe the classical medicine example should be in the lead, or at least in a quite prominent place where it will be seen as a general concept that readers should be familiar with in order to understand what theory is. I see it as classical in the true sense and not just as ancient.)
The distinction between theory and hypothesis is not as well known, and not as established. Not all scientists or philosophers of science see it as a critical point and the main place one seems to see it is in pointless internet arguments about whether the word theory in the "Theory of Evolution" means that the theory was never confirmed by observation. I think that the confusion of those types of arguments is a good thing to think about when we consider how this article can be improved. It shows what our readers might or might not understand.
The way I see it, theory in science still primarily means mental model (contemplation of things from afar, in general terms), not experimentally confirmed mental model (actual practical experience with actual individual things). (Of course I accept that it no longer means spectating, unless you are Greek, but this was already true in Roman times.) I think this is also the way the word is typically used. Using the word to mean experimentally confirmed or confirmable mental model is not however in direct conflict with this meaning as long as one is aware of the word history. That is because this secondary post Baconian usage is taking a proposed characteristic of a good or worthwhile theory as a way of defining a true theory, so to speak, which is a typical thing that happens in language. But that is why knowing the word history becomes important if we are to avoid turning this article into something like some of the debates about evolution on the internet.
I think that more generally if we want to be more clear about the breaking up of the term into different shades of meaning, then as is usual with more controversial subjects, we need better sourcing and/or talkpage discussion about the controversies and history of the word in recent generations. It is notable that this is an article which is still a bit un-polished and has an un-finished feel. This might indeed be one of the things missing, but it is likely to require some careful thought to get it right.--Andrew Lancaster (talk) 09:57, 10 July 2012 (UTC)
I just violated my own proposal, and tried a major re-work of the lede. I started with some smaller changes but then noticed lots of things that might also be leading to some of your concerns. Maybe the connections are more flowing and the structure more clear? That is the hope.--Andrew Lancaster (talk) 10:38, 10 July 2012 (UTC)

I like a lot of your changes, especially the first paragraph (e.g. your addition "based on the idea that a theory is a thoughtful and rational explanation of the general nature of things.") Some of them are actually better than what I had been imagining for the final version. :-)

The edits I made in return were:
- I reversed some of your changes to the final paragraph per BRD. My main impression is that "thoughtful and rational/cannot be purely speculative" minimizes the central role of experiment. I also think that "seen as" is unnecessary unless the sentence had said "the most reliable [etc] form of knowledge" and left out the word "scientific."
- I changed "philosophers and scientists" in the first paragraph to "natural philosophers," to make it clear that these are not modern scientists. (I also wouldn't mind simply saying "philosophers" here.)
- I think "as a normal work" in the first sentence is a typo for "word," so I fixed that.

I may have some more suggestions, but this will be my last long reply for a week or so as I'm going to be busy.

For the medical example, I am not saying that it cannot be in the lead, only that if it remains in the lead, it should be de-emphasized (which is achieved by placing later in a paragraph as you have done, but I still think that e.g. the second sentence could be dropped). Secondly, a distinction of the sort the text seems to imply no longer exists in medicine today. Medicine is a science, and as such there is only one meaning of "theory" in use. Another option (instead of making clear that it is a reference to ancient medicine) would be to replace "theory and theorizing" with "research." Medical researchers spend the vast majority of their time doing experiments: the distinctions made are between research and practice, and (separately) between theory and hypothesis.

Also, in modern science, the distinction between (scientific) theory and hypothesis is very well established (although you may hear otherwise from those trying to cast doubt on evolution etc). "Scientific theory" refers specifically to experimentally confirmed models, which you may call "mental" if you wish (and which I think you are calling the "secondary post Baconian usage"), that fulfill the necessary criteria. This does not mean that production of a scientific theory cannot be solely a mental exercise (such as if the data have already been collected, or if you are in theoretical physics which is a special case for several reasons) - but you still require the evidence. You can refer to the NAS and AAAS definitions later in the article, for example.

A few other things:
- I didn't mean to imply anything with the suggestion of "ancient definition," only to distinguish it from the others; "original definition" would work just as well.
- If I interpret "as a normal word" correctly, I think it would be clearer if we used "an everyday word" or "a common word" instead (my preference is for the former).
- In what sense are you using the word "politicians"? I find it hard to think of how even the ancient Greek politicians ever tried to explain the natural world, except insofar as they were also natural philosophers, unless maybe you mean to say sophists. Did the ancient distinction refer to "more practical ways of explaining things" or just simply "doing things" as opposed to explaining things? Arc de Ciel (talk) 06:15, 11 July 2012 (UTC)

Your changes seem fine to me. Trying to pick out further proposals from your post:
  • Not sure I see dropping the second sentence of the second paragraph as helpful, because it removes reference to the contrast theory v practice in the lead, or in fact seems to imply this only happens in medicine?
  • Also do not think replacing with research works. Actually research involving testing could be described as partly practical. Designing an experiment, or turning the results into generalized conclusions, is theoretical. So this opens a can of worms?
  • Everyday or common word might indeed be better. Feel free.
  • Yes perhaps we can replace politicians with statesmen or some other word. The "classical" point is that the aim of theorizing (and science) is to know what is really always true and what really always works, not just a tradition for example, or an instinctive "feeling". Some skilled people, for example craftsmen on the one hand, or skilled leaders, business people etc on the other, seem to get things right most of the time, and hence seem to "know" some real truths, but this is not necessarily through theory, and it is not necessarily the kind of truth a scientist wants to find. Having a theory of leather work, or a theory of business leadership is possible of course, but it is something extra to what is required to be a good leather worker or good business leader. A business leader might say he did what his mentor taught him, or what the bible says or whatever.
--Andrew Lancaster (talk) 17:52, 11 July 2012 (UTC)
Comments:
  • I meant the second sentence of the example, which is currently the last sentence of the second paragraph. However, this is a relatively minor point compared to the preceding sentence.
  • In medicine (at least modern medicine), "practice" refers exclusively to what doctors do, and that's what I interpret when I read the sentence. (For example, this is why we use the term "general practitioner.") I agree that research is partly practical (in fact, the practical and theoretical are inseparable), but I can't think of a term that can be better described as "trying to understand the causes and nature of disease," as it's put in the text.
I have infrequently heard the term "medical theory" used to refer to medical literature (i.e. the knowledge produced by research), but this is less common than simply calling all of it research. A proposal: since "medical theory" redirects to "medical research" anyways, I think that linking it (and dropping "and theorizing") would resolve my concerns in this regard. However, it would still be juxtaposed with "theory involves no doing," and since that doesn't apply here, that would have to be resolved as well.
  • Done.
  • I agree that people can be good at doing something involving practical skill (like oration or governance), but I'm not sure how this means that they are explaining something as the text says. Arc de Ciel (talk) 16:05, 14 July 2012 (UTC)
Just homing in on the second point, I'd say theorizing is only part of what we mean by medical research. You may be right that we talk about research more often, and that is because we see modern people it is very important to combine theory with practical experience. We come after Francis Bacon, who was controversial for arguing exactly this point. But this article is about the less common word, and we need to try to explain that term. On the fourth point I see what you mean and I will try an edit.--Andrew Lancaster (talk) 19:59, 14 July 2012 (UTC)
Your edit seems reasonable (though I still need to think about that sentence more - recall that we never finished talking about the relative primacy of the definitions). I will focus for now on the medicine example: I don't really understand what you're trying to say in your last reply. My point is that the example as currently written is invalid - it existed in ancient times, but does not today. I've proposed several changes that would address this, some which would be complete fixes and some (like the most recent) which would only be partial. Arc de Ciel (talk) 20:58, 14 July 2012 (UTC)
It seems to me that your two remaining points of contention come down to the same point which is that you deny that the contrast between theory and practice is as commonly used and understood as the contrast between theory and hypothesis. But I can't see how you can hold this position unless you are taking the position, even for scientists and philosophers. You have not presented any evidence for it.--Andrew Lancaster (talk) 08:22, 15 July 2012 (UTC)
I must be failing in communication somewhere. I am not saying that a theory/practice contrast is not common (which, of course, is why I haven't presented any evidence for it!) I am saying that modern medicine is not an example of this contrast. Again, this is not to say that the example must be removed, but only that it needs appropriate clarification.
I've implemented the partial fix I proposed most recently, since you didn't object to it. As always, feel free to revert. Also, perhaps we should take a break from this discussion for a while after we resolve the example (in fact, we could temporarily leave it with the partial fix, but I would really prefer a better resolution). Arc de Ciel (talk) 18:27, 15 July 2012 (UTC)
I think this edit is fine.--Andrew Lancaster (talk) 13:23, 16 July 2012 (UTC)

15 July edits[edit]

I reverted an edit that put the etymology of the word into a new section and brought the scientific definition to the top. While I agree with the etymology issue and I think there are still improvements that could be made (which we've been discussing in the above section), there are still multiple definitions of the word "theory" in use today - the scientific definition is discussed in greater depth at scientific theory. Arc de Ciel (talk) 20:55, 15 July 2012 (UTC)

First, I want to make it clear that it is site policy to explain what the article's topic *is* before we say anything else about it, such as what it is *derived* from, or that it is "controversial" or "heterodox" or "mainstream", etc.
I think we ought to do both--make the etymology clear and also have the multiple definitions in the lede. So we could start with something like "A theory can refer to either (a) or (b).", or "A theory is (a) or (b)", or something similar. Then, we cover the etymology in the etymology section and not the lede. Is this acceptable? Byelf2007 (talk) July 15 2012
I definitely agree. I have been trying to convince User:Andrew Lancaster to agree on an appropriate first paragraph (among other things) for the last ~10 days. There have been improvements, e.g. the first paragraph now acknowledges the existence of multiple definitions, but there is still some way to go. I believe his position is that what you are calling the etymology is the (primary) definition. You can read some of his comments in the above discussion. Arc de Ciel (talk) 21:23, 15 July 2012 (UTC)
In principle it is hard to disagree with the idea of creating an etymology section, and moving out some of the opening sentence to there, even though to me that seems over-blown, and I still get the feeling that real aim of such edits is to push one meaning of theory as the true meaning. Anyway, back to what the lead should say, I can't see how we can justify making the lead open by just mentioning the special meaning of the word theory which is sacred to some methodology discussions. The words has more meanings than one, and they are linked meanings. To improve the lead we should work together to give the right balance.--Andrew Lancaster (talk) 13:27, 16 July 2012 (UTC)

As you've probably gathered, I've now spent a few days thinking about the new version. :-) It's much better now that it starts with a specific definition. I had actually been visualizing something with the acknowledgement of multiple definitions in the first sentence (not "pushing one meaning as the true meaning," of course), but I think this definition is reasonable. (And while I think it's still possible something even broader might be produced, the definition is fairly inclusive as well.)

Anyways, I made a few tweaks. (The removal of "models" was only because it doesn't seem essential and I think the sentence would flow better, but I won't object if you want to put that one back in.) If you have no concerns about these latest changes, then let's continue the discussion another time, since I think we've both gotten somewhat tired of it. :-) Arc de Ciel (talk) 01:51, 21 July 2012 (UTC)

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  1. ^ Originally the word "theory" was used in Greek philosophy; for example, that of Plato. It is related to θεωρός "spectator", θέα thea "a view" + ὁρᾶν horan "to see", literally "looking at a show". See for example dictionary entries at Perseus website. The word has been in use in English since at least the late 16th century.Harper, Douglas. "theory". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved 2008-07-18. 
  2. ^ See for example Hippocrates Praeceptiones, Part 1.
  3. ^ Cornford, Francis Macdonald (November 8, 1991). From religion to philosophy: a study in the origins of western speculation. Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0691020761. 
  4. ^ Russell, Bertrand, History of Western Philosophy
  5. ^ Originally the word "theory" was used in Greek philosophy; for example, that of Plato. It is related to θεωρός "spectator", θέα thea "a view" + ὁρᾶν horan "to see", literally "looking at a show". See for example dictionary entries at Perseus website. The word has been in use in English since at least the late 16th century.Harper, Douglas. "theory". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved 2008-07-18. 
  6. ^ See for example Hippocrates Praeceptiones, Part 1.
  7. ^ Cornford, Francis Macdonald (November 8, 1991). From religion to philosophy: a study in the origins of western speculation. Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0691020761. 
  8. ^ Russell, Bertrand, History of Western Philosophy
  9. ^ Originally the word "theory" was used in Greek philosophy; for example, that of Plato. It is related to θεωρός "spectator", θέα thea "a view" + ὁρᾶν horan "to see", literally "looking at a show". See for example dictionary entries at Perseus website. The word has been in use in English since at least the late 16th century.Harper, Douglas. "theory". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved 2008-07-18. 
  10. ^ See for example Hippocrates Praeceptiones, Part 1.
  11. ^ Cornford, Francis Macdonald (November 8, 1991). From religion to philosophy: a study in the origins of western speculation. Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0691020761. 
  12. ^ Russell, Bertrand, History of Western Philosophy