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One theory is generally a by thinking gained recognition as opposed to through experience gained knowledge . In science, theory deviates from a system of scientifically founded statements that are used to explain excerpts of reality and the underlying laws and to make prognoses about the future. In the humanities departments, such as philosophy (philosophy of science ) or mathematics ( theory (logic) ), the term is accordingly narrowed down.

In common parlance , the term theory is often equated with the unproven thesis .

Translation and Etymology

The word theory (from ancient Greek θεωρέειν theoréein , contracted θεωρεῖν theoreîn , "observe, look, look [at]"; ἡ θεωρία hē THEORIA "intuition, reasoning, insight, scientific observation," "contemplation or perception of beauty as a moral category “) Originally referred to the contemplation of truth through pure thinking , regardless of its realization. Or - according to Schipperges - the mere consideration of things, to which it cannot be prescribed that and whether or not something comes out of it in practice. Therefore, the term is also used indefinitely in everyday language as the opposite of practice (Greek πρᾶξις "action, performance", also "completion").


The term theory is explained differently depending on the epistemological standpoint . In general, a theory creates a picture ( model ) of reality . As a rule, it refers to a specific section of reality. A theory usually contains descriptive (descriptive) and explanatory (causal) statements about this part of reality. Predictions are made on this basis . Many epistemological basic concepts and further questions of a fundamental nature, which concern theories of reality in general, are discussed in sub-areas of the philosophical disciplines metaphysics and epistemology .

According to the positivist understanding, theories are linked to the claim to be able to test them through observation (e.g. by means of experiments or other observation methods ) ( empiricism ). This observation then directly yields the truth or falsity of the theory; i.e., it verifies (confirms) or falsifies (refutes) the theory.

In logic , theory designates in the simplest case a deductively closed set of formulas. The following strictly formal, mathematical- logical definition of the concept of theory is also common: A set T of statements in a language is called theory if and only if T is satisfiable and if every sentence that follows from T already belongs to T. To put it more simply: it must be able to be true at all and also be self-contained and free of contradictions.

Various problems have led to more complicated concepts of theories and the informative value of observations being developed in the last few decades. These discussions particularly concern the specification of a concept of confirmation and are closely related to problems of induction, causality and probability.

From the specific point of view of the skeptic movement , only empirical statements can be called theories. This does not include, for example, a tautology or definition. Theories whose empirical testing is foreseeable not possible according to the current state of knowledge, but which would be potentially possible, is referred to as “speculative” and assigned to the parasciences . Theories that say something about the course of the world without offering an observation that confirms or, if necessary, refutes them - that is, do not contain any statements about their decidability - are not part of science from this point of view. They can either be assigned to the pseudosciences or, for example, religion (or esotericism ). Furthermore, theories are to be subdivided into everyday theories and scientific theories, with the latter having a higher degree of awareness, express formulation, greater scope and mostly systematically including observation . From this point of view, the theory is a more or less clearly formulated and well-confirmed hypothesis .

According to the classic view, recommendations for action can in turn be derived from predictions of theories. The theory thus forms the basis for the practice that arises from it .

According to the critical-rational view, everyday theories and scientific theories are epistemologically indistinguishable from one another and all theories are equally speculative. The latter only usually come closer to the truth and hypotheses are less general theories. No recommendations for action can be derived from theories, only recommendations for action can be criticized. From this point of view, theory and practice are opposites.

Quality criteria

The minimum requirements for theoretical models are generally that they comply with the rules of logic and grammar, are free of contradictions (internally consistent) and can be checked . The prerequisite for this is that the terms used

  1. are explicit , that is, there must be agreement on their meaning, and
  2. are empirically anchored, d. In other words, they must be linked to phenomena through operationalizations . Whether a theory "fits" in the world has to be empirically proven . Internally correct and also empirically verifiable theories should also have practical use ( practicability ) and not be unnecessarily complicated ( Ockham's razor ).

A good theory should continue

  • be compatible with already proven older theories or even include them in your own area of ​​explanation;
  • Explanation worth having, so z. B. not be purely descriptive;
  • Enable predictions that will actually come true in practice and thus be falsifiable ;
  • be extensive , so its subject area should not be too specific;
  • fertilize , i.e. inspire other scientists to carry out further research.

Other major demands on theories include the possibility of axioms to specify for a theory, and the "expression" of a theory: Is it possible the theory of finite / countable to describe many axioms, it is finally / countable axiomatisable . A theory is called (negations-) complete if and only if every sentence of its underlying language or its negation are elements of the theory.

Donald Davidson puts it succinctly: A reasonable requirement that one can make of a scientific theory is that it should be possible to define a structure in such a way that it is possible to determine empirically exemplifications of this structure. This requires laws and generalizations that predict what will be observed given the observed input.

Components of theories

In the philosophy of science, it is largely common to distinguish the following possible elements from theories:

  • Basic Assumptions : These are statements about the basic structure of reality and how to examine it. They form the basis of all key messages. These can include metaphysical (such as transcendent statements about the existence and role of God , gods, spirits, etc.), cosmological and biological assumptions (statements about the structure of inanimate and animate nature ), anthropological (statements about what humans are) as well as Epistemological and pragmatic assumptions and specifications (e.g. about how knowledge can be achieved in the respective subject area, how scientists should work) fall. The totality of these basic assumptions makes up an important aspect of what is sometimes called a paradigm in connection with Kuhn , as well as Lakatos' concept of the "research program".
  • Basic terms : These are the “building blocks” of the theory (these can be theoretical terms such as physical quantities and entities).
  • Theory core: This consists of the descriptive and explanatory statements. The explanatory statements are also called hypotheses ; these are often formulated as if-then statements or even more formalized. In addition, prognostic and recommendatory statements can be part of a theory.
  • Measurement concepts: Hypotheses are made measurable ( operationalized ) with indicators in order to be empirically verified, e.g. B. this can be done through a question in a questionnaire.
  • Empirical evidence: observations designed to confirm or disprove a theory.

In scientific practice, theories contain these elements to very different degrees; this depends u. a. from cognitive interest from the respective working scientifically.

  • Descriptive and explanatory statements can be weighted differently: in some theories, the description takes precedence, in others the explanatory attempts, still others strive for a balance. Statements describing excess weight often feature theories that explore a new area of ​​research.
  • Some scientists do not make prognostic and recommendatory statements at all or only make them with extreme caution; others regard these as the main purpose of their work (e.g. the application-oriented natural sciences or social scientists in policy advice).
  • There is a big difference between scientists who base their theories strictly on empirical verification and those who do so less or not. The former strive intensively to find plausible methods to formulate their hypotheses in a verifiable manner, to make them measurable and to verify them empirically. Therefore there are theories with and those (almost) without clear hypotheses, indicators and empirical evidence.

Further examples

  • Physics : The predictions of classical mechanics and the special theory of relativity differ significantly, for example, when the objects under consideration move at speeds close to the speed of light . The differences cannot be determined in everyday life , since classical mechanics is the limiting case of the special theory of relativity, when the speed is significantly lower than the speed of light. Therefore, classical mechanics is the appropriate theory in everyday life.
  • Theoretical astronomy : Your analytical or numerical-physical models (such as the interior of the sun or the galaxy clusters) must match all observation data (radiation, orbital movement, etc.). The models may need to be modified or discarded.
  • Geometry : There is exactly one parallel through this point for a straight line and a point that is not on this straight line. Attempts have long been made to deduce this statement from the other axioms of geometry. By showing that the geometry in which the parallels statement does not apply lead to meaningful models, it was proven that the parallels statement is an axiom that is independent of the other geometry axioms (see non-Euclidean geometry ).
  • Mathematics : The mathematician Georg Cantor had a naive, d. H. informal definition proposed for the term quantity. He recognized the resulting theory as contradicting itself (see Cantor's Antinomy ), but in school mathematics it is sufficient to work with this informal set theory. Mathematicians usually use the formal theory of Zermelo-Fraenkel set theory (whose consistency, however, cannot be proven).
  • In sociology - for the social sciences in general - the concept of medium-range theory was developed.
  • Interdisciplinary evolutionary biology is based on several scientific theories .

A theory can also be a purely algorithmic process, such as the planetary theory for calculating the positions of celestial bodies.

Further aspects of the theory concept

The methodical way in which theories come about, i.e. how the increase in knowledge takes place, is controversial. In the further development of theories, a distinction is occasionally made between induction , deduction and abduction :

When building theories through induction , it is assumed that the scientist uses an empirical process to develop data material in which internal structures and laws become visible. Further positive experiments should confirm the theory and are the building blocks of a verification (review), which should ultimately lead to natural law security (consistency).

When building theories through deduction , it is assumed that the scientist creates meaningful hypotheses through creative acts , and then checks their agreement with the data. Further experiments must be undertaken with the serious aim of falsification (refutation). Only to the extent that theories prove themselves (evade falsification) can relative certainty be gained.

The abduction is based on a given result and a possible or spontaneously formed rule . To make a surprising phenomenon explainable, a rule is hypothetically introduced so that the result can be viewed as a reasonable case of this rule. Knowledge gained by abducting may or may not be correct.

In the practice of science, inductive and deductive elements mix without problems, so that this question has more of an epistemological and ideological significance.

Does science with its theories offer a way to absolute truth or to a step-by-step approach to the truth (which one can never be completely certain of) or is truth not part of the sciences or is there no truth in itself? The second position, which goes back to Karl Popper , is currently preferred by the majority of natural scientists, the first is considered obsolete due to fundamental knowledge about observability.

In colloquial language, the term is usually understood in the sense of “only a theory” and then only refers to particularly uncertain findings. This has little to do with the scientific definition of theory and often leads to misunderstandings. For example, the term “ theory of relativitydoes not mean that the knowledge is not secure. Of course, it is in principle falsifiable, so it could not apply, but the partial word “theory” only identifies it as “coherent” and up to now “not falsified” and separates it from Newton's theory - classical mechanics .

Relationship between theory and question

Without theory there are no methods and measuring instruments, so methods and measuring instruments only exist on the basis of theoretical assumptions, i.e. not independently of them. In turn, one question is at the beginning of the process of choosing a theory, on the basis of which those factors are filtered out that are to be decisive when collecting data. The choice of theory on which it is based and the question at the beginning of a research process are therefore closely related. The choice of topic depends on the theoretical perspective that is taken, as well as on the researching person, the specific interest in knowledge, which method one opts for and the results of the study, according to an assessment from communication sciences.

See also


Philosophy of science
  • Wolfgang Balzer : Science and its methods. Principles of the philosophy of science. A textbook . Alber textbook. Freiburg i.Br./ Munich 1997. (relatively easy to understand introduction to analytical philosophy of science)
  • Wolfgang Balzer, M. Heidelberger (Ed.): On the logic of empirical theories . Berlin / New York 1983.
  • Wolfgang Balzer, C. Ulises Moulines, Joseph D. Sneed : An Architectonic for Science. The Structuralist Program . Reidel, Dordrecht 1987.
  • Michael Gal: What is theory? About the concept, diversity and possible uses of theory in historical studies. In: ders., International Political History. Concept - Basics - Aspects. Norderstedt 2019, ISBN 978-3-7528-2338-7 , pp. 119–157.
  • RN Giere: Theories. In: WH Newton-Smith (Ed.): A Companion to the Philosophy of Science . (= Blackwell Companions to Philosophy. 18). Malden, Mass. 2000, pp. 515-524. (statement view and non-statement view of theories)
  • Thomas S. Kuhn : The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. (= Suhrkamp-Taschenbuch Wissenschaft. 25). 2nd, revised edition. Frankfurt am Main 1976, ISBN 3-518-27625-5 . (classic book on theory dynamics; describes irrational "paradigm shifts", especially in the history of natural sciences)
  • Theo AF Kuipers: Structures in Science. Heuristic Patterns Based on Cognitive Structures. An Advanced Textbook in Neo-Classical Philosophy of Science . (= Synthesis Library. 301). Dordrecht et al. a. 2001. (demanding and rich in content; analytical philosophy of science)
  • Werner J. Patzelt : Forms and tasks of 'theoretical research' in the social sciences. In: Ethics and Social Sciences. Dispute forum for culture of consideration. 1993, 4 (1), pp. 111-123.
  • Hendrikje Schauer, Marcel Lepper : Theory. 100 books after 2001 . Stuttgart / Weimar 2017, ISBN 978-1-4051-7666-8 . (with reading list, translations, chronology, register)
  • Helmut Seiffert , Gerard Radnitzky : Handlexikon der Wissenschaftstheorie . Deutscher Taschenbuch-Verlag, 1992, ISBN 3-423-04586-8 .
  • Wolfgang Stegmüller : Problems and results of the philosophy of science and analytical philosophy . Volumes II / 2–3. Berlin / Heidelberg / New York 1973/1986. (Theory structure and theory dynamics; often quoted)
  • Patrick Suppes : Representation and Invariance of Scientific Structures. Stanford 2002, ISBN 1-57586-333-2 .
  • Christian Thiel : Theory. In: Jürgen Mittelstraß (Hrsg.): Encyclopedia Philosophy and Philosophy of Science. Volume 4, Stuttgart / Weimar 1996, pp. 260-270.
  • Peter V. Zima : What is theory? Theory concept and dialogical theory in the cultural and social sciences . (= UTB. 2589). Tübingen u. a. 2004, ISBN 3-8252-2589-5 . (with a critical focus on ideology)
  • Kurt Lewin : Field theory in the social sciences. Huber, Bern / Stuttgart 1963.
  • R. Westermann: Theory of Science and Experimental Methodology. A textbook on psychological methodology . Göttingen u. a. 2000. (easily understandable application of the analytical philosophy of science to psychology)
  • Stephan chamber, Roger Lüdeke (ed.): Texts on the theory of the text . Reclam, Stuttgart 2005. (Source texts on text theory by Lotman, Barthes, Derrida, Bachtin, Ricoeur and others)
  • Heinrich Schipperges : Theorica medicina. In: Werner E. Gerabek et al. (Ed.): Enzyklopädie Medizingeschichte. de Gruyter, Berlin / New York 2005, ISBN 3-11-015714-4 , pp. 1386-1388.

Web links

Wikiquote: Theory  - Quotes
Wiktionary: Theory  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. Brockhaus in three volumes. 2005, ISBN 3-7653-0093-4 .
  2. Duden | Theory - Spelling and Meaning Website Retrieved June 13, 2017.
  3. ^ J. Asendorpf: Psychology of Personality. 4th edition. Springer-Verlag, 2007.
  4. H. Wottawa: Psychological methodology . Juventa 1993.
  5. Donald Davidson: Conditions for Thought. In: ders: Problems of Rationality. Suhrkamp, ​​2006, p. 250.
  6. Michael Meyen , Maria Löblich, Senta Pfaff-Rüdiger, Claudia Riesmeyer: How to find the "right" bearing and ensure quality: dimensions and quality criteria of qualitative research. In: dies .: Qualitative research in communication science. A practice-oriented introduction. VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, Wiesbaden 2011, ISBN 978-3-531-17380-1 , pp. 29–52, pp. 33 and 35.