news, theory, and truth
notes on theorizing from practices

gary e. davis
October 27, 2005

The notion of leading news is critically important. It’s not the same as the “news that leads” in a given medium, though the two are related. Any given news medium has to face the issue, in each news cycle, of what news will get what placement/prominence. But leading media that lead stories on the same specific events or issues collectively define the leading news, which often has normative merit (beyond factical normalizing) for the public sphere that tracks events/issues. (Democracy belongs primarily to those who give time to tracking events/issues in the public sphere—those who determine the richness of the public interest.)

Putting aside complexities of normativity vs. normalization (validity vs. facticity), politics of media (monopolistic tendencies in information economy), etc., it’s quite feasible to gain consensus (i.e., valid agreement) about what the leading news of a given time period is. That’s what the editors of a medium have to do in every cycle. The track record of a medium’s editorial staff in this regard (i.e., what the leading news “really” is) is what gives that medium its esteem among those whose esteeming one seeks. (Theory of editing could be a new calling, bridging social “theory” of value with the school/career of journalism [as well as with the business of publishing—trade and academic: After all, why is there so much forgettable work in academic journals?])

The Internet has vastly helped the information economy gain critical checks on the merit of available information (notwithstanding that most powers have always considered public access to information about them as something to cope with rather than foster—while transparency, by the way, is vital for a healthy economy—something China is painfully learning). The blogosphere is exponentiating the democracy of opinion that serves a critical function for the public. Another new calling for “theory”: appreciating the blogosphere. (In this discussion, 'theory' is meant largely in the academic sense capitalized in my November 2004 discussion of “‘Theory’ and ‘Practice’.”)

Though we can gainfully argue about what the leading news is, that argument can always be resolved such that a leading issue can be posed as given and can be tracked relative to whatever interest (“leading” relative to human interest X).

This is not trivial. What may be objectively “leading” is universally important, even though there’s never universal agreement on what is objectively leading. We are the primordially future-oriented species. “Theory” provides the hermeneutical basis for discerning what is really leading in the manifold of “futures” markets, which may be the leading kind of market of ideas (or should be—but it’s not a consumerist, present-oriented kind of market, as the planet lives out its competitions of being in time).

I think that the primary merit of the notion of “theory” in the human sciences is relative to interests in tracking “leading” issues (rather than in the empiricist sense that also belongs to the human sciences, along with natural sciences). In any case, it’s quite unclear what people who do “theory” are really usefully doing. Certainly, model-theoretical empirical work is useful (including protocol-defined ethnographic and clinical research, as well as classically quantifiable research). But what is the use of “theory” done by social theorists (or Critical Theorists) that’s not overtly tied to policy studies or some real domain of practices? (Lack of such connection might be a vital norm for self-critical work in “Critical Theory,” as social theorists may appear to do little more than foster each other’s income security—a brand of guild incest.)

The “leading news” for a model-theoretical project may serve as the primary evidentiary basis for its proper commitment to fallibilism which isn’t oriented to empirical means (due to the kind of media-based activity it is). Reflected back into the project, leading news becomes a critical resource, i.e., a basis for critique of the project.

Resolving dispute about what is really happening, relative to an interest, is a primary purpose of evaluative interpretation, which inevitably implies a “theoretical” or conceptually cohering background (distinct from exegetical interpretation exemplified by investigative journalism, which may be theory-free in order to discover something). Evaluative interpretation is always relative to a background frame-of-mind (if not overt “theoretical” position). “Theory” properly serves evaluative interests of constructive practice.

In short, the important conceptual rhetoric called “theory” in social inquiry (or inquiry in the human interest) has a cohering merit which tends, at best, to clarify the leading (or critically non-leading or invalid pretenses of leading) trends relative to which other methodic activity might be (ought to be) oriented. A Habermasian might expect that “theory” in practice (e.g., the sense of ‘theory’ in “Critical Theory”—which is not the entirety of Critical Theory!) is about the valid cohering of cross-genre endeavors that closely reflect reality (whatever that is, which is always a vital interest). This normatively serves a critical interest by requiring of “theory” a clarifiable relation to reality that doesn’t rely on vague senses of things for strident opinions that are “theory”-led, rather than—more properly—theoretical merit deriving from well-tracked evidence (or theorizing from practice).

Or at least, one should agree that “theoretical” points are either no better than their evidentiary derivation or no better than their cohering validity over contexts that always require well-formed evidentiary bases, e.g., in work that is interdisciplinary in terms shared across disciplinary kinds which are each no better than their evidentiary backgrounds.

Perhaps, interdisciplinarity in discursive inquiry is a kind of metatheoretical conceptual rhetoric, in the best sense of ‘rhetoric’, that idealizes a singularity of conceptuality (across genres) that respects some kind of singularity of the world spinning daily. This would not be to expect that conceptual singularity is attainable, only that endeavors in light of the ever-receding horizon do get one somewhere.

Indeed, the desire for singularity of understanding—a grand cohering—is the initial draw of philosophy and may still persist even among those who think they’ve outgrown essentialism (or hope of First Philosophy), whether by seeking the definitive “non-essentialist” formulation of an issue or by nagging critique that hides the nagging Hope for The Essence, as if life were not evolving, as if there could be closure on—relief from—ontological ambiguity (especially as a relief of job security in one’s field made in self-consolidating terms of The Complete Position or The Comprehensive Theory).

In any case, I think it’s normal that we require—our “hearts” require—a coherence of validity across specific modes of validity (that Habermas addresses). In the sense of ‘truth’ that is lexically rich—such that some “truth shall set you free” (bring relief) or there is intuitively “truth” in ethics (wisdom deserving institutionality), as well as there being “truth” in the realist, factual sense addressed by the contemporary “theory of truth” business—in the tacit cohering of our sense of truth (vested interest?), we confidently get through the day (or not) and normally implicate ourselves in valuing or “believing in” an accessible coherence theory of “truth” that is at best a coherence theory of validity, and this is what Habermas had durably in mind early on, I hope, when he supported a “coherence theory of truth” (as “truth” is classically what the entire meaning of ‘validity’ is: a multimodality of validity as such, relative to differentiated lifeworld concepts (subjective, interpersonal, objective, etc).

By classifying the technical sense of ‘truth’ relative to realism (as Habermas apparently does), one must give up talking about a coherence theory of truth as such. But an implied coherence of validity is unavoidable. So, existential analytics can never be far away, inasmuch as one opens oneself to reflective inquiry. One’s sense of truth may be easily confused, since existential investments live in a real world—and conversely, “the” “real world” is always an interpretive holism. So it goes with lifeworlds: a question of the “and” (bridging verse and converse) survives every issue.