What is “theory”?

Recently I attended a one-day conference at Lillehammer University College, arranged to mark the launch of the Film Studies programme’s new centre for audio-visual media research. There were 4 presentations covering different topics, but a common theme for all was the tension sometimes found between theoretical film studies programmes and practical filmmaking programmes.

The final session made this theme explicit, with the title (my translation) “Can theory and practise be reconciled?”. The discussion, between filmmaker/writer Morten Hovland, tv-producer Eda Syvertsen and film studies professor Søren Birkvad was interesting enough, but the whole day left me wondering: what do we mean when we use the word “theory”?

The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (iOS version) defines theory as:

theory [noun(1)]
1. A mental scheme of something to be done, or of a way of doing something; a systematic statement of rules or principles to be followed. l16.

2. Mental view, contemplation. e17–e18.

3. _
a. The knowledge or exposition of the general principles or methods of an art or science, esp. as distinguished from the practice of it; Math. a set of theorems forming a connected system. e17.

b. A system of ideas or statements explaining something, esp. one based on general principles independent of the things to be explained; a hypothesis that has been confirmed or established by observation or experiment and is accepted as accounting for known facts. m17.

4. (The formulation of) abstract knowledge or speculative thought; systematic conception of something. Freq. opposed to practice. e17.
A. Dillard A terrifically abstract book of literary and aesthetic theory. in theory according to theory, theoretically. loosely.

5. An unsubstantiated hypothesis; a speculative (esp. fanciful) view. l18.

In general, I think it would be fair to say (though, of course, an oversimplification) that traditional academic education tends towards definition no. 3 when discussing theory, somtimes including no. 4.

At the Norwegian Film School, however, when we speak of theory, it is almost exclusively in the sense described in definition no. 1. We could possibly be better at flagging this; theory is important for filmmakers, but it is an approach to theory that is distinct and different from the approach to theory favoured by academic programmes. In fact, we have found the term so problematic that we tend to use other terms, preferring instead to talk about constraints, intentions, critical reflection and the like.