The English word theory was derived from a technical term in philosophy in Ancient Greek. As an everyday word, theoria, θεωρία, meant "a looking at, viewing, beholding", but in more technical contexts it came to refer to contemplative or speculative understandings of natural things, such as those of natural philosophers, as opposed to more practical ways of knowing things, like that of skilled orators or artisans. The word has been in use in English since at least the late 16th century. Modern uses of the word "theory" are derived from the original definition, but have taken on new shades of meaning, still based on the idea that a theory is a thoughtful and rational explanation of the general nature of things.
Although it has more mundane meanings in Greek, the word θεωρία apparently developed special uses early in the recorded history of 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'. Pythagoras changed the word to mean a passionate sympathetic contemplation of mathematical and scientific knowledge, because he 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.
In Aristotle's terminology, as has already been mentioned above, theory is contrasted with praxis or practice, which remains the case today. For Aristotle, both practice and theory involve thinking, but the aims are different. Theoretical contemplation considers things which humans do not move or change, such as nature, so it has no human aim apart from itself and the knowledge it helps create. On the other hand, praxis involves thinking, but always with an aim to desired actions, whereby humans cause change or movement themselves for their own ends. Any human movement which involves no conscious choice and thinking could not be an example of praxis or doing.
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