We don’t need no (epistemological) education

Abstract : The literature on theory building seeks to help theorists theorise more efficiently. This support often consists of formulating prescriptions relying on various epistemological considerations. These considerations aim to objectify theoretical practices, in order to identify ways to improve them. Drawing on the philosophy of science, and on epistemology, we will show that this procedure is not only superfluous but equally counterproductive: it obstructs the acquisition of real theoretical know-how. We will propose another conception of theory building, inspired by virtue epistemology, which places the subjective feeling whether the job of building the theory is or not well done at the centre of theoretical practice. Under this “sentimental” conception of theory building, the guidance of theorists consists of reminding them of the importance of certain intellectual virtues.

Weick (1989) contends that “theor[ies] cannot be improved upon, until we improve the theorizing process, and we cannot improve the theorizing process until we describe it more explicitly, operate it more self-consciously, and decouple it from validation more deliberately” (Weick, 1989). In the same vein, Sutton and Staw (1995) write that the “lack of consensus on exactly what theory is may explain why it is so difficult to develop strong theory in the behavioural sciences”. In order to better theorise, one would have to better understand what theorisation is about. This is a commonplace in theory building literature (Byron & Thatcher, 2016; Crittenden & Peterson, 2011; Nayak, 2008; Shepherd & Suddaby, 2017; Suddaby, Hardy, & Huy, 2011a).

We shall challenge this commonplace drawing on the philosophy of science and on the epistemological debates concerning the notion of know-how. We will argue that it is not only incorrect but it can also be counterproductive. Our position is close to that of Mintzberg (2005), when he warns that “thinking about [how to do a theory] could be dangerous” (Mintzberg, 2005: 355). We will propose another manner of guiding theory building, whether scientific or more “practical” (Sandberg & Tsoukas, 2011), based on the idea that in order to know how to theorise, one needs to learn how to “sense” emotionally that one’s theoretical work is good or bad. This “sentimental education” should go through the apprenticeship of certain “epistemic virtues” such as curiosity or intellectual honesty.

This proposition comes in reply to what seems to be a concerning evolution of the “burgeoning” literature on theory building (Shepherd & Suddaby, 2017). Theory building has been the subject of increasing attention over the past ten years. A threshold has been reached in 2015 with the publication of an article by Arend et al. (2015). These authors no longer confine themselves to the general formulation of metatheoretical recommendations (“metatheoretical” because they are theorising on how to theorise). They order certain theorists to conform to their prescriptions. The normativity of theory building literature, which is already problematic, slides towards a sort of epistemological policing. We think it is time to address the legitimacy of this literature which acts as an arbitrator of good metatheoretical taste.

In the first part (We don’t need no thought control), we will show that the metatheoretical prescriptions are not necessary. In the second part (No dark sarcasm in the classroom), we will explain why they can be toxic. We will propose an alternative in a third part (Teachers leave [theorists] alone). This alternative does not dictate a manner to theorise nor does it set a prior conception of what a theory should be. It leaves theorists the freedom to theorise.

“We don’t need no thought control”, “No dark sarcasm in the classroom”, “Teachers leave children alone” … In 1979, it is with these words that Pink Floyd rebelled against a particular form of rigid and counterproductive British education. These strong words describe the essence of what we intend to say about the type of education that we are talking about here. An epistemological education which is also rigid and counterproductive. We will undertake reasoned critique of it. However, the verse of this song will accompany us to chant our discussion and to better emphasise the essential aspects of what we mean.

We don’t need no thought control

A few years ago, during a conference, a doctoral student asked a philosopher colleague which epistemological rules she should follow for her thesis. Our colleague who was completely ignorant of the literature on “theory building” replied somewhat perplexed, that there were no specific rules and that she should think for herself. The reaction of the student was to exclaim, shocked and worried with this reply: “but I am not allowed to think!”. She needed a framework to think in her place.

In 2015, Richard J. Arend, Hessam Sarooghi and Andrew Burkemper proposed a new metatheoretical framework, the 3E framework (Arend et al., 2015), to guide “the evaluation and development of other existing and future theories in entrepreneurship and management”, and more generally “[of] all proposed theories that claim to be scientific” (Arend, Sarooghi, & Burkemper, 2016). They apply this framework to effectuation theory (Sarasvathy, 2001) and do not hesitate, on this basis, to blame the theorists who deviate from their prescriptions. This is the type of framework that the student, who could not think for herself, requested from our colleague.

The metatheoretical procedure

The metatheoretical procedure of the 3E framework authors is not new. They continue a project previously developed and claim the legacy of the “superlative works of the past” of the literature on theory-building.

This procedure is broken down to two principle stages.

A first stage of theoretical work objectification. The aim being to specify objectively certain aspects of the theoretical work in order to determine ways to improve it then to formulate instructions to guide theorists.

This is what Sutton and Staw (1995) suggested when they regretted the lack of a consensus on what exactly is a theory. Arend et al. (2015) did the same thing when defining the “natural order of theory building” (to “experience,” to “explain,” and to “establish”). These were explicitly the recommendations of Weick (1989), and what he puts into practice when he discusses the place of “affective judgments” in theory building. He objectifies them by presenting them as “selection criterion” susceptible to be “applied” in another situation, and not as personal feelings determining in an idiosyncratic manner, the acceptation or the rejection of one conjecture or another.

Then comes a second stage of production of the “Objective Metatheoretical Instructions” (OMIs).

Definition 1: OMIs are the instructions that theorists must follow to conform to the objective characteristics of theory building, and as such to “correctly” undertake their theoretical work.

These more or less strict and precise instructions can, for example, take the form of criteria, definitions or procedures. They should not be confused with the methodological instructions about certain research or analytical techniques, as techniques for statistical analysis. Here, it is specifically the question of metatheoretical instructions relying on the theorisation and objectification of theoretical work. Based on this notion of OMIs, we can offer a simple definition of the metatheoretical procedure

Definition 2: The metatheoretical procedure is the procedure which consists in the prescription of OMIs.

The numerous “frameworks” proposed by the literature (of which the 3E framework naturally is a part) are constituted by the OMIs, as well as the “evaluation criteria” (Bacharach, 1989), the “epistemic scripts” (Boxenbaum & Rouleau, 2011), the “exercises”  or the “ways in which theories come to be” (Byron & Thatcher, 2016), etc.

This metatheoretical procedure is often supported by a specific conception of the theoretical work. From this perspective, the theoretical work would be “a technical craft that can be learned and applied” (Shepherd & Suddaby, 2017). It is a “technical” conception of the theoretical work. The OMIs are tools (Shepherd & Suddaby, 2017) that one can take out of the metatheoretical workshop in order to produce a new theory as one would build a new machine. This technical conception of the theoretical work is not generally formulated explicitly; it remains implicit. However, this conception follows the unquestioned adoption of the metatheoretical procedure, as if this adoption seemed self-evident.

Definition 3: the technical conception of theory building is the idea that to help theorists theorise more efficiently, one must naturally prescribe OMIs to them.

All the literature on theory building cannot be summarised by this conception. Much of the work provides prosaic recommendations far removed from all metatheoretical considerations, for example in the manner of writing a theoretical article (Fulmer, 2012; Ragins, 2012; Rindova, 2008). Furthermore, a discordant voice can sometimes be heard (Alvesson & Gabriel, 2013; Alvesson & Sandberg, 2013). Karl Weick himself seems stricken with doubt when he directed theorists to “drop [their] tools” (Weick, 1996). However, the technical conception of the theoretical work remains dominant. Among the 58 works on theory building that Shepherd and Suddaby (2017) identify, only eight are not prescribing OMIs (Alvesson, Hardy, & Harley, 2008; Bechky, 2011; Donaldson, Qiu, & Luo, 2013; Feldman & Orlikowski, 2011; Hallier & Forbes, 2004; Pfeffer & Fong, 2005; Van Maanen, 1995; Weick, 1995). Weick (1996) finished by reaffirming “the importance of relationships, abstract concepts, operational bridging, and criteria”. It is really difficult to renounce this idea of theoretical tools. But one must really give up this arsenal because it is not only superfluous but counterproductive.

A superfluous procedure

The goal of the metatheoretical procedure is analogue to that of a certain philosophy of science very in vogue in the middle of the 20th century. This philosophy hoped to find objective criteria allowing for the distinction between good and bad scientific practices. It is the famous problem of demarcation (Popper, 2005, 1985). The metatheorists equally hope to find objective criteria to distinguish between good and theoretical practices. This search for demarcation is today largely abandoned (Haack, 2011: 18; Hansson, 2015; Laudan, 1983), which should already sound alarm bells for metatheorists. More importantly, this search has never been necessary for scientists to produce science.  Whether it is or not regrettable, it is an observation: the vast majority of scientists are disinterested in the philosophy of science and its potential recommendations (de Haro, 2013; Dummett, 2007; Lipton, 2005). Steven Weinberg, Nobel prize winner in physics, put in Richard Feynman’s mouth, another Nobel prize winner in physics, the following words: “philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds” (Kitcher, 1998: 32). To this de facto uselessness of the philosophers’ methodological recommendations, Lakatos offers an explication that suggests a greater modesty:

Up to the present day it has been the scientific standards, as applied “instinctively” by the scientific elite in particular cases, which has constituted the main – although not the exclusive – yardstick of the philosopher’s universal laws. But if so, methodological progress, at least as the most advanced sciences are concerned, lags behind common scientific wisdom. Is it not […] hubris to demand that if, say, Newtonian or Einsteinian science turns out to have violated Bacon’s, Carnap’s or Popper’s a priori rules of the game, the business of science should start anew? I think it is” (Lakatos, 1980: 137).

This warning given to the philosophers of science should deserve greater reflection by metatheorists, who also believe that theoretical work is conditional to the application of certain metatheoretical “universal laws”, and that they can reform this work when it does not conform to their prescriptions. This is precisely the position adopted by Arend et al. (2015) with regard to effectuation theorists, when they directed them to follow “the natural order of theory building”. Lakatos would without doubt see hubris in this.

Lakatos discusses mostly natural sciences. However, in the field of management sciences, it is not obvious that this metatheoretical procedure is more necessary. The literature on theory building is recent. Forty years ago, theorists did without it. When Mintzberg published his masterpiece on organisational structures (Mintzberg, 1979), he did not bother himself with metatheory. This did not, so it seems, harm the success of his theoretical contributions.

Since, the development of metatheoretical reflections does not seem to have accompanied a particularly marked theoretical development in management sciences. Davis (2010), on the subject of theoretical production in management sciences talks of a “living museum of the 1970s”. Many equally deplore the weakness of theoretical production (Alvesson & Sandberg, 2013; Cornelissen & Durand, 2014; Suddaby, 2014; Suddaby, Hardy, & Huy, 2011b). For some, this would justify the necessity of the metatheoretical procedure (Cornelissen & Durand, 2014; Suddaby et al., 2011b). We will explain in the remainder of this article why this procedure is not the solution but is on the contrary part of the problem. In the following section, we will begin by explaining why it can only be superfluous.

The intellectualist error

The metatheoretical procedure is not necessary and cannot be for one fundamental reason: the metatheoretical work is based on a specific know-how (Byron & Thatcher, 2016; Cornelissen, 2017; Mintzberg, 2005). The reasoning is the following: let us suppose as a premise that it is necessary that one exercises or acquires a certain theoretical know-how in order to read certain OMIs presented in an article or a manual. The reading and the understanding of this article or this manual also requires theoretical know-how (for example the mastery of certain concepts). But if the premise is correct, then the exercise or the acquisition of this other know-how would require itself the reading of other instructions contained in other articles or other manuals. We would then find ourselves having to read an infinite number of instructions before being able to start theorising. The premise is therefore false: it is not necessary to read OMIs in order to theorise (we show here that it is not necessary but not yet that it is futile or toxic which is something different)

This reasoning is based on Gilbert Ryle’s argument against the “intellectualist legend”, that is to say the idea that it is always necessary to rely on explicit instructions to exercise know-how: “The consideration of propositions is itself an operation the execution of which can be more or less intelligent, less or more stupid. But if, for any operation to be intelligently executed, a prior theoretical operation had first to be performed and performed intelligently, it would be a logical impossibility for anyone ever to break into the circle” (Ryle, 2009: 19). By adopting the technical conception of theoretical work and by making the theoretical procedure a necessity, we fall into this intellectualist trap.

Holton et Lowe (2007) perfectly illustrate this potentially endless sequence of instructions driven by this idea that one needs OMIs to theorise. These two authors direct their attention to the work of Dubin (1969) who offers a “widely used methodology for theory building, which describes the components of the theory building process” (Holton & Lowe, 2007: 297).They regret that “while [Dubin] defines the components of theory, he does not fully explain the process a researcher should use to construct those components” (Holton & Lowe, 2007: 298). The theorists would therefore be “left with unanswered questions about the process for creating the components he specifies” (Holton & Lowe, 2007: 298).  To get around this, the authors suggest “a seven-step general research process for implementing Dubin’s theory building model” (Holton & Lowe, 2007: 297). By following this logic one should equally produce a “general research process for implementing” Holton and Lowe’s proposition (2007), and so forth…

The idea that one should necessarily be assisted by OMIs to theorise is therefore incoherent. The metatheoretical procedure is superfluous. However, it is not only superfluous, its prescriptive dimension renders it toxic.

No dark sarcasm in the classroom

“For hundreds of years there has been one core conceptualization of theory […]. Apparently, to some, that all changed with one chapter in one book […]. At the time, this “incredible revelation”…”   (Arend et al., 2016: 553). We will not complete this passage as it is the tone employed that we want to comment on, not the content. This tone is not that of a composed exchange of arguments between peers, rather it is that of professorial sarcasm. This position of a teacher mocking his students is the one that Arend at al. (2016) adopt in reaction to the responses that effectuation theorists produce in relation to their article published the previous year (Arend et al., 2015). It perfectly illustrates this hubris that Lakatos denounced in the field of philosophy of science. Arend et al. (2015, 2016) relying on what they think to be an established epistemological knowledge[1], lecture those who would deviate from their normative framework. This attitude is certainly not exceptional in academic exchanges. However, we will see afterwards why it is particularly unwelcome when used to enforce metatheoretical recommendations.

The prescriptive intent

Of course, Arend et al’s sarcastic authoritarianism (2015, 2016) is unusual. On the contrary, many authors only formulate suggestions and insist on leaving their readers the freedom to make up their own minds. Folger and Turillo (1999: 755) “abjure Procrustean prescriptions about the one best way to theorize ». Byron et Thatcher (2016: 6) explicitly invite their readers to “adapt to [their] own taste” their  recommendations.

However, this takes nothing away from the prescriptive ambition that is the starting position of every metatheoretical recommendation. It would simply not be coherent to produce recommendations and to not want them to be followed. All the precautions that authors can take, can do nothing against this starting ambition. Folger and Turillo’s abjurations (1999: 755) are for instance immediately followed by a “but”: “but clearly not all tactics equally enhance a theorist’s odds”. They suggest therefore “tactics to increase the payoff from theorizing”. And if Byron and Thatcher (2016: 6) insist that their recommendations be adapted, they present them as a “basic recipe for making a theoretical contribution and theory building”. A recipe can of course be adapted and interpreted but its raison d’être is first and foremost to be followed.

Furthermore, this prescriptive force is also passed on by the institutions that organise academic life. Not to follow the prescribed norms is to expose oneself to sanctions. It is to risk not being published, to be badly evaluated or worse still to be ignored. The threat is sometimes explicit, for example when DiMaggio (1995: 396) warned about the recommendations of Sutton and Staw (1995) that “any readers who find in my qualifications warrant to disobey Sutton and Staw’s injunction deserve whatever the reviewers deal them”.

Finally, this prescriptive force does not only depend on institutions or on the authors, it can equally depend on the recipients of the recommendations themselves, researchers or students seeking intellectual compass. It is what Kruglanski and Webster (1996) call in social psychology a  “need for closure” which is “a desire for definite knowledge on some issue”. The student who is “not allowed to think”, mentioned in the first part, perfectly illustrates this need. Therefore, it is not even necessary to prescribe OMIs, they just need to be set up in an academic landscape and to offer themselves in response to a need for closure in order to impose themselves in a conventional manner. [2]

It is these elements (starting ambitions, institutional obligations, need for closure) which confer on the metatheoretical procedure its prescriptive force. It is this prescriptive force that risks being counterproductive if the OMIs are not sufficient to transmit theoretical know-how. In this case the theorists could be pushed to strictly observe instructions that distants them from a real theoretical know-how. This would harm their theoretical work. The question is then the following: Are OMIs enough to transmit theoretical know-how? To answer that question, we must take a step back by asking a more general question: Is following instructions really sufficient to know how to do what they prescribe?

The problem of know-how

This question sounds strange. To better understand it we can borrow an example of everyday life: instruction manuals for simple apparatus. A VCR for example. Is reading the instructions enough to know how to use a VCR?

Prima facie, this obviously seems to be the case. But on reflection, it is maybe more complicate than that. There are for example people who are so unused to this type of apparatus that they fear pressing a button in case they damage it. This seems to show that reading the instruction manual is not sufficient to know how to use a VCR. In the case of the VCR, one needs to have a certain know-how of electronic apparatus. However, when you think about it even further, you realise that it is maybe a question of the shortcomings of the existing manuals, and perhaps nothing fundamental would prevent the writing of a “perfect” manual the reading of which would be enough for anybody to use a VCR. Is such a perfect manual conceivable?

This is the type of question that animates the debate between “intellectualist” and “anti-intellectualist” philosophers (Fantl, 2016). The first ones claim that know-how is nothing more than the knowledge of the relevant instructions, that is to say a particular form of “know-that” (the fact of knowing that a proposition is true or false). Knowing how to do something is just knowing the instructions for doing that thing. For them, in principle, nothing prevents the writing of the “perfect” manual. For the “anti-intellectualists”, know-how is on the contrary not reducible to know-that. According to them, know-how consists of some sort of disposition (Fantl, 2016) to act in a certain way in a given situation. Without the adequate dispositions to use a VCR (for example the disposition to recognise a button and to correctly press it) the reading of the best manual will always be in vein. A “perfect” manual would be impossible; it would always lack something to transmit all the necessary know-how for using the VCR.

In a similar way, if know-how is of another nature than know-that (and anti-intellectualist philosophers are right), then following OMIs would never be sufficient to know how to theorise correctly. OMIs would never be sufficient to transmit the corresponding theoretical know-how, they would always be lacking some important element. In this case the prescriptive force of the metatheoretical procedure would be toxic, for it would lead theorists to neglect this lacking element of OMIs and therefore to deviate from real theoretical know-how.  It seems that this fear is only justified if the intellectualism is incorrect. But is it? The debate continues even today (Stanley, 2011a, 2011b, Stanley & Williamson, 2001, 2016) and does not seem likely to stop.

Thankfully, it is not necessary to wait for the conclusion of this debate to know whether OMIs are sufficient or not. In effect, even intellectualist philosophers admit that know-how has something to do with dispositions. Stanley and Williamson (2001), to whom we owe the most famous recent defence of intellectualism, say that to know how to do something one has just to know the instructions to do that thing. But they add that in order to really have a know-how, one must think of these instructions in a “practical” manner which “entails the possession of certain complex dispositions”.

What this means precisely is not clear (Glick, 2015), but this is of little importance. What really matters is this reference to the notion of disposition. The intellectualists continue to reduce know-how to know-that, but in a manner that implies certain dispositions (which are not constitutive to know-how). To our knowledge, no intellectualists dispense with them completely.

Therefore, the explicit metatheoretical instructions (OMIs) are not sufficient to know how to theorise. One always needs, in one manner or another, certain dispositions. But what type of dispositions are we talking about? To answer this question, one must understand the kind of disposition to which intellectualists are referring. To this effect, we can use the following thought experiment.

Let’s imagine a very experienced theorist (let’s call him Henry-Karl Mintzeick) who knows everything about theory building. Is it through weariness or lack of time? Henry-Karl is no longer disposed to theorise. Let’s compare him to Aidric who knows absolutely all about theory building but has never been able to produce a notable theory (to our knowledge no theory building specialist is called Aidric, and that is just as well). The intellectualists claim that if Henry-Karl, despite his lack of disposition to theorise, has the know-how which is lacking in Aidric (while both know what one has to do to theorise), it is because the former is capable of contemplating metatheoretical instructions in a manner that implies certain dispositions (different from those he lost), a capability which Aidric does not possess. Which dispositions does Henry-Karl demonstrate that Aidric would not be able to? Probably the dispositions to feel certain emotions. When Aidric sees a theory that is not testable he knows that it is incorrect. Henry-Karl knows this as well but whereas Aidric makes the judgment in a cold and objective fashion that the theory is incorrect Henry-Karl, for his part, can feel a certain irritation and different ranges of emotions lead him to consider corrections.

Based on Glick (2015), what this thought experiment suggests, is that the notion of affect can be helpful to understand the dispositions that characterise a theoretical know-how. Having this know-how would imply being capable, for example, of feeling the beauty of an elegant theory, or of feeling irritated by an awkward theoretical construction. A theorist incapable of these feelings would be deprived of veritable know-how, and would be incapable of theorising correctly (we will explain why later). It is now clearer why we can fear that the metatheoretical procedure endangers theory building: it has to do with the consequences of negligence, even of inhibition, of this type of “epistemic” emotions concerning the production of theoretical knowledge.

Epistemic affects

Is it not absurd to talk of affects concerning the process of theory production? Is the scientific or practical rationality (Sandberg & Tsoukas, 2011) of theory building not opposed precisely to emotions? In a word: No. For some decades now, a positive role of emotions in the rationality has been recognised. In the field of neurosciences, it is the works of Damasio (1994) that have largely popularised this idea.

In the field of epistemology, the idea that emotions do not necessarily disturb rationality but can on the contrary support it, is also recognised (Michaelian & Arango-Muñoz, 2014). The philosophers do not only defend the idea that these emotions can contribute to the deployment of rational thinking (by eliciting for example the desire to know something) but that they are perhaps conceptually necessary to rational thinking (Morton, 2010). Ronald de Sousa famously defended this idea as early as 1979, arguing that:

« there is no such thing as fully determinate rationality. [For instance] there are many issues on which logic gives no unique prescription. No logic determines salience: what to attend to, what to inquire about. And no inductive logic can make a strictly rational choice [about], say, the […] problem of the choice of significance level: how probable must it be that your hypothesis is true on the evidence, and how improbable must it be that it should be false on the evidence, before it is rational to accept it? […] the function of emotion is to fill gaps left by (mere wanting plus) “pure reason” in the determination of action and belief. […] Emotions are determinate patterns of salience among objects of attention, lines of inquiry, and inferential strategies » (De Sousa, 1979: 49–50).

These epistemic emotions (we also talk of epistemic affects or epistemic sentiments)[3] notably allow one to make salient what logic or “pure reason” cannot determine. Without these emotions, it would perhaps not even be possible to correctly add two and two.  If we could not feel a particular attachment to this arithmetical truth that two plus two equals four, our mind would see no inconvenience in seriously considering other arithmetical rules as possibilities. This would simply prevent us from undertaking this elementary operation, for we should consider an infinite number of possibilities before choosing a rule. These are epistemic emotions and not logic or “pure reason” which allow us to discard bad inference rules (and therefore to retain the good one). It is this type of epistemic emotions that we will be considering next to understand what is wrong with the metatheoretical procedure.

What is wrong with the metatheoretical procedure

In the case of theoretical work, emotions would prevent the mind from wondering in the thousands of ways of theorising. They would help the mind to recognise the best way of theorising and not to follow the bad ones. Naturally, that supposes that the epistemic sentiments are reliable, bearing in mind that sentiments are particularly known for being misleading. We will return to this point in part three. For the moment, we will accept that the considered sentiments are effectively reliable. Equipped with dispositions to experience these epistemic emotions, one can feel that a way of theorising is correct and that another is not.

The acquisition of these dispositions is hindered by the combination of the prescriptive force of the metatheoretical procedure and the objectivation of theoretical work characteristics. The more one deviates from an OMI, the more “deviant” one becomes and the more one feels the pressure of the prescription. This can take various concrete forms, for instance the requirement of a reviewer to conform to the norm, or the scathing remarks of colleagues surprised by such an extensive heterodoxy. Because OMIs objectively characterise the theoretical work, it is towards this objectivity that the prescriptions draw us. It drives us therefore to depart symmetrically from the subjective world of the affective dispositions. The theorist feels instinctively that the instruction he or she receives is defective? Whatever, he or she must follow the instruction, and the OMI’s objectivity prevails over theorist’s subjectivity. Because the prescriptions direct one to remain within the domain of objectivity, that of the OMIs, they direct one to ignore this subjectivity. This finally blocks the acquisition of the affective dispositions and therefore the acquisition of a veritable theoretical know-how.

However, the inhibition of epistemic emotions does not directly explain why we can expect the metatheoretical procedure to be counterproductive, and what difficulties we can fear. Like Henry-Karl, Aidric knows how to recognise an incorrect theory. The objective metatheoretical instructions (OMIs) can in principle, take the place of epistemic emotions in order to correctly guide the theorist.

There is however, something else. Affective dispositions help one to sense whether a theoretical path is more or less risky and therefore to fearlessly explore the landscape of the different manners of theorising. Equipped with these dispositions one can dare to follow a different path from that which is prescribed. This “exploratory function” is also inhibited by the combination of the prescriptive force of the metatheoretical procedure and of the objective character of OMIs. The theorist is driven to ignore the sentiments that would cause him to deviate from the prescribed OMIs. It is this that can explain the negative consequences of the metatheoretical procedure.

Three negative consequences

The first negative consequence is a form of epistemic blindness which consists of taking the means (the OMI) for the end (the theoretical work) including when the means are not appropriate.

The authors of the literature on theory building are not infallible. An OMI can be incorrect. However, if one’s exploratory function is inhibited, one cannot go out to search for the right OMI. What matters is to follow the prescribed path even if it is incorrect, and no matter whether or not one has the feeling that something is wrong. In the end, the respect of the OMIs becomes the goal to achieve even if OMIs are incorrect and distance you from the initial objective, i.e. to produce good theories. What is dangerous is that this distancing goes unnoticed, precisely because the respect of the OMIs passes, in the eyes of those who ignore their epistemic affects (and are encouraged to ignore them by the very nature of the OMIs that they were prescribed to follow) for theoretical production. It is this that constitutes the epistemic blindness.

The other risk is that of epistemic depletion. If the exploratory function is inhibited, one is not going to envisage alternatives to the prescribed OMIs (whether they are correct or not). One has to remain on the path prescribed by the metatheorists. And the stronger the prescribed intent the less likely the theorist is to explore other avenues. Fearful of the idea of exploring an unknown area, one can make sure to remain on the main path, without ever daring to take an alternative route, at the risk of missing a shortcut and almost certainly some interesting discoveries. The depletion is particularly notable for those who would have the epistemic affects that would allow them to explore other paths but find themselves dissuaded by the prescriptive intent and by the “dark sarcasm” that these deviations could generate. The metatheoretical procedure inhibits theoretical audacity.

Finally, the metatheoretical procedure carries a third more complex type of risk, that of inducing a sort of epistemic maladresse (Byron & Thatcher, 2016: 2). This maladresse has something to do with a phenomenon well known to psychologists the “choking under pressure”(Beilock & Carr, 2001; Beilock, Kulp, Holt, & Carr, 2004). Seen from this perspective, the prescriptive force elicits a “pressure [which] raises self-consciousness and anxiety about performing correctly, which increases the attention paid to skill processes and their step-by-step control. […] Thus, performers may regress to the erratic and inefficient style of execution at the beginner level” (Yu, 2015: 2). Theorists become clumsy by being to attentive to OMIs. They wonder whether they have understood them properly. The exploratory function of emotions being inhibited, they no longer trust their own instinct to respond to their concerns. This generates a perpetual angst of getting lost and therefore leads them to constantly correct their ways of theorising in an erratic fashion, each time a doubt enters their minds. This maladresse of course, spares the most experienced theorists. But these very theorists have precisely the kind of affective dispositions that allow them to correctly interpret the OMIs and that the OMIs themselves do not convey. It is this with which we need to be preoccupied in order to really help theorists.

Teachers leave [theorists] alone

It is not because the metatheorists do not guide the theorists sufficiently that they fail, it is because they guide them too much and suffocate their instincts. It is probably time to try something else, to leave the theorists alone.

What the conception of the theoretical know-how that we have sketched out until now shows, is in fact the necessity of a certain affective autonomy of the theorists. Their epistemic affects must guide them. One can and one must leave theorists their freedom to “feel” the best theoretical practices. This does not imply giving up all metatheoretical recommendations, but they really must not smother the capacity to “feel” the good theoretical practices.

How can this be done? What sorts of recommendations can one formulate to avoid the dangers that we have mentioned in the previous section? How can one produce the metatheoretical recommendations without falling into the metatheoretical procedure?

How to escape the metatheoretical procedure?

The toxicity of the metatheoretical procedure stems from the combination of an objectification of theoretical work and a prescriptive intent, commanding that one follows the instructions formulated on the basis of this objectification. There are at least two ways to resolve this, either avoiding the objectification of the theoretical work or by neutralising the prescriptive intent of the authors.

We propose to follow the first path by continuing to formulate instructions but without making them dependent on the objectification of theoretical work. These instructions, contrary to the OMIs, would respect the subjective dimension of theoretical work. They would be “Subjective Metatheoretical Instructions” or SMIs. We saw that during this discussion, the subjective part of theoretical know-how is presumably constituted of certain dispositions to feel whether one accomplishes well or badly one’s theoretical work. We propose to make these affective dispositions the object of the SMIs.

The SMIs, because they are explicit, are no less insufficient than the OMIs and not anymore necessary. To affirm that one has to have recourse to SMIs to make one’s theoretical work would be to still fall into the intellectualist trap. But contrary to OMIs, the prescriptions ordering theorists to follow such SMIs do not drive them to deviate them from their subjectivity. On the contrary, they command respect for one’s own subjectivity. This therefore encourages the acquisition of affective dispositions and the acquisition of a veritable theoretical know-how. The table below which borrows an example from Weick (1989) puts head to head what could be the equivalent SMI to one of Weick’s proposed OMIs.


Comparison of the objective and subjective approaches

Objective Approach (OMI) Subjective Approach (SMI)
Example of prescription “The generic selection criterion [for retaining conjectures] that seems to operate most often in theorizing […] is the judgment, “that’s plausible”.” (Weick 1989:524) To select a conjecture, one must first of all know whether it is plausible.
The question of the theorist How to know if the criterion of plausibility is respected? How to know whether my conjecture is plausible?
The reply of the prescriber One must use another criterion (for example the approval of an expert…) One must learn to feel it by reading a lot and by discussing with colleagues to “test” this conjecture with them…


The question of the theorist How to know if someone is an expert?
The reply of the prescriber One must use another criterion (for instance the importance of its publications, …)
Conclusion One falls into infinite regress, never acquiring the affects allowing one to acquire theoretical know-how (one can acquire it however but not only from what the OMIs say) One finishes after some trial and error by acquiring the affective dispositions allowing us to recognise a plausible conjecture (at least in one’s domain)

This approach consisting of formulating the SMIs rests on a “sentimental” conception of theoretical work. Under this conception, the epistemic affects come first. It is something similar to what Lakatos underlines on the subject of scientific work: to start with there are instinctive scientific practices which are later formalised by the philosophers. It is also close to Ryle’s criticism of intellectualist legend. The SMIs therefore aim to inform and form the reader of this epistemic sensibility. This is a sort of sentimental education. One does not “receive” an education, one develops one’s own epistemic sensibility while being guided by the teaching.

Sentimental education

The affective sensitivity is not innate or at least not entirely.  It is obvious for example that artistic sensitivity is acquired and is formed through artistic experiences. There are of course some geniuses who, like Mozart, seem born equipped with a prodigious sensitivity. However, for the average person knowing how to appreciate art, music or any other sort of artistic creation is through often laborious education. This is equally true for moral education which consists firstly of an education of the emotions (Williams, 1976: 225). In the same way, epistemic emotions can and must be cultivated (Fricker, 2007; Pouivet, 2008), in order to acquire one “ well-trained sensitivity to [some] epistemically salient features” (Fricker, 2007: 77).

The education to this sensitivity must allow one to produce reliable judgments. We have already mentioned this question: Can emotions be reliable? The correction of the moral and aesthetic sensitivities is always dependent on a system of values. In the framework of these systems, it is possible to develop a sensitivity allowing one to correctly distinguish good from evil or beauty from ugliness. In the same way, we can envisage the formation of an epistemic sensitivity which in the framework of a particular “epistemic system” allows one to correctly tell the difference between true and false. In this sense, at least, epistemic emotions can be reliable. The thorny question of the plurality (and of the equal validity) of epistemic systems and therefore of the epistemic relativism (Boghossian, 2007) does not affect this discussion (each of the authors has a different opinion on this issue).

A more immediate problem threatens the idea of an education on epistemic affects: How to formulate correctly useful recommendations concerning these affects? Sentimental education, whether it is epistemic or not, remains a question of experience (Fricker, 2007: 82). It would without doubt be in vain to ask someone to feel an emotion, even less to order him to.  However sentimental education does not necessarily consist of prescribing the feeling of one’s emotions. It could rather consist of distinguishing the different objects of possible sentimental reactions. The goal of sentimental education is to know “what to fear, what to be angry about, what […] to despise” (Williams, 1976: 225).

In the field of theoretical production one can be worried about one’s own gloom, proud of the rigour of one’s demonstration, offended by the indigence of a reasoning, enchanted by the agility of an argument, annoyed by the superficiality of a remark…These are a few examples of objects of possible affective reactions

The agility and the rigour are two examples of virtue, in this case, epistemic virtues. To be gloomy, to produce indigent reasoning or to be superficial are on the contrary examples of epistemic vice. The nature of the link between emotions and epistemic virtue or vice is discussed by philosophers (Michaelian & Arango-Muñoz, 2014; Morton, 2010, 2014; Pouivet, 2008). However, it is not necessary to enter this debate to understand that this kind of epistemic vice and virtue could be the object of the sentimental education of theorists.

Epistemic vices and virtues

In a very famous speech given in 1974 at the Caltech, Richard Feynman, Nobel prize winner for physics and reputed teacher, explains to students in his audience what constitutes the essential aspects of science.

What is extremely important in the practice of science, according to Feynman, can be expressed by a “first principle”: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.  So you have to be very careful about that” (Feynman, 1974: 12). It is, says Feynman to his students “[a] type of integrity” (Feynman, 1974: 12). This idea is very close to that argued by Popper as one of his student Lakatos recalls: “In his view virtue lies not in caution in avoiding errors but in ruthlessness in eliminating them” (Lakatos, 1968: 150).

Is Feynman a philosopher? He did not however have the reputation of being particularly responsive to philosophical reflections. But what Feynman rejected was perhaps above all the pretention of philosophy to instruct scientists upon the right way to do science. It was a certain propensity, that the philosophy of science previously had, and that the metatheoretical procedure has today, to this hubris that Lakatos diagnosed in some of his colleagues. What he suggests in his speech of 1974 is that there are a lot of more modest and useful ways to be a philosopher. This manner consists of underlining certain intellectual virtues.

This is a comparable position that we are defending here, that there are probably more modest and useful ways to be a metatheorist, by imposing the recommendations not only on certain objective characterisations of theoretical work, but on the sensitisation of certain “epistemic” virtues and vices. The theorists should learn to cultivate these virtues and to fear these vices.

The epistemology of these epistemic virtues appeared in the 1990’s (Sosa, 1991; Zagzebski, 1996) and today constitutes a flourishing  branch of epistemology (Baehr, 2011; Greco & Turri, 2016). It remains largely ignored by management sciences, apart from a small handful of authors (de Bruin, 2013; Intezari & Pauleen, 2014; Rawwas, Arjoon, & Sidani, 2013), but could inspire, in the domain of theory building, the type of sentimental education that we envisage.

It is from the exercise of these virtues and from the correction of the vices that ways to produce theory could ensue. Before giving more details on the manner in which these vices and virtues could guide the action of theorists, one must prevent a possible misunderstanding. There are not unchanging and definitive vices on one side and eternal virtues on the other. This does not mean that vices and virtues are interchangeable depending on contexts and moods. This would be to fall into a form of naïve relativism. This distinction is a lot more subtle (Morton, 2014; Paternotte & Ivanova, 2016). It is a question of situation, a trade-off between groups and individuals (individual vice can well serve the group) and simply a matter of temperance and balance (to be excessively virtuous is a vice). Excessive rigour and honesty would paralyse the production of theoretical knowledge. One must therefore take care before deciding which virtue to observe and to consider, what really constitutes a virtue.

Rules and virtues

Epistemic virtues do not guide theorists in the same way that metatheoretical rules do: “such guidance is not a set of action rules: do this and that, and don’t do that and this” (Roberts & Wood, 2007: 323). To forget this would be to fall back into intellectualism of which one has to escape. These virtues are markers which allow one to form one’s epistemic sensitivity. Am I hard enough on myself? Am I honest enough? Am I curious enough?  These types of question must be asked by theorists.

By way of illustration we will mention below several good practices that should be elicited by the virtue of intellectual integrity. We find in the literature several examples of good practices that seem similar (see for example in Crittenden & Peterson, 2011). However, what is offered here is the opposite of to these lists. These examples of good practices are not the rules to be followed. They are the simple consequence of the sensitisation of intellectual integrity. In other words, if you are sensitive to this virtue of integrity, then nobody will need to tell you:

  • To never hide anything embarrassing from your reader and to be sure that the material used to develop a theory is accessible to everybody.
  • To never quote a theory, a concept or an author without being sure to have a sufficient understanding of it (notably when asking experts), to always make sure to give a faithful summary of the works quoted, to be in some ways as “transparent” as possible to the text that you have quoted (we can talk here of a kind of “intertextual transparency”)
  • To never quote an author or a theory without a good reason and to always make clear the reason for which this author or this theory has been quoted.
  • To never say that an author has “shown” or “proved” something without being sure that it has in fact been proven or shown (particularly be careful of possible critiques) and not only that those things are confirmed or defended by the author in question.

There are all sorts of consequences in this type of epistemic virtue which could be evoked but there is one which merits a longer discussion due to its important role in theory building literature: the “testability” or the “falsifiability” of theories or theoretical propositions. These two notions, often applied indifferently (Arend & al, 2015), sometimes associated with the work of Popper, are almost universally presented as a “criterion” which scientists must respect. Bacharach (1989), for instance, attributes to Popper (2005) the idea that “theories can never be proven, only disproven”, and makes this “falsifiability” one of the two “primary criteria upon which any theory may be evaluated”. First, and for all that matter, Popper never said anything of the sort. On the contrary he explicitly contradicted the idea that Bacharach (1989) attributed to him:  “no conclusive disproof of a theory can ever be produced” (Popper, 2005: 28)[4]. But this is of little importance.

What is more important is to understand that the testability (one is better not to use the term “falsifiability”, a “Popperian” technical notion which isn’t simply testability) is not a criterion which should be applied by theorists or scientists in order to establish whether they have done good work. To make testability a criterion for the practitioner is to confuse the philosophical (or “metatheoretical”) commentary and the scientific or theoretical practice itself. The metatheorist needs criteria or definitions in order to analyse theoretical practices but not the theorist, who only needs a certain know-how. The metatheorist is not going to teach the theorist how to theorise, any more than an ornithologist is going to teach a bird how to fly (or the philosopher to teach a scientist how to practice science). The ornithologist may of course be useful to birds (Bock, 1997) but not in this manner. Analogously, the metatheorist can be useful to the theorist (and the philosopher of science to the scientists), but not by loading him with “criteria” for all the reasons that we have discussed in this article.

“Testability” is and can only be the consequence of the honesty of which Feynman speaks or of this “critical attitude” that Popper “equate[s with] the rational attitude”. He or she who is intellectually honest will avoid formulating propositions which could hide from criticism. He or she will only “avoid” it since there are situations where this virtue of integrity does not always imply producing “testable” statements. It is for example the case for certain specialised doctors in cosmology, it was perhaps also the case of Darwin in his time (today the theory of evolution is testable).  Once again, the epistemic virtues cannot be translated into intangible rules that one would need to learn and to follow.

Individual and collective virtues

Finally, virtues and vices allow one to conceive a way of producing recommendations that preserve the liberty of theorists.

We suggest leaving them alone, but not confused, by explain to them not how to theorize well, but by which epistemic virtues will enable them to do so.

This sort of instruction of virtues, of course, concerns the theorist himself. The ethical recommendations aim to edify the individual. However, still within the framework of a sentimental conception of theoretical work, other recommendations can be envisaged, which are no longer addressed to individuals but to organisations or to institutions. The respect of certain virtues, whether or not epistemic, is not a question of personal ethics. This respect is equally the effect of institutions and the social context at the centre of which these individuals have evolved.

Fundamentally, the development of this sentimental education must therefore be concerned with the following question: Which institutions would promote epistemic virtues supporting the theoretical production of management sciences? One therefore would need to identify the organisations and the institutions that promote virtuous theoretical practices as well as the development of appropriate virtues in theorists.

Hey! Teachers! Leave them [theorists] alone

It is not by chance that the words of this 1970’s protest song are so well suited with the metatheoretical discussion of 2010. In both cases, the purpose is to speak out against the technical conception of human thought. No more than the British students of the last century are theorists of today simple machines. And this article is no more a call to reject metatheoretical and epistemological thought in general, than Pink Floyd’s song is a call to reject education. It is more a question of undoing a formatting enterprise totally alien to the epistemological approach and which impedes theoretical practices in management sciences.

To this enterprise we oppose a certain sentimental conception of theoretical work which implies no longer following objective metatheoretical instructions, but developing a certain sensitivity to these epistemic virtues that must lead one to theorise correctly. Such a sentimental conception is not at all elitist. The intellectual virtues that we suggest developing are accessible to everybody. In fact, they are probably a lot more accessible than the highly abstract and sophisticated metatheoretical developments that we are offering students and young theorists.

This sentimental conception is in no way a rejection of the ideals of truth, of objectivity, of rigour and of rationality. It has absolutely nothing to do with any kind of critique of a so-called “desiccated” reason that one would have to abandon in favour of an intellect that is more in tune with one’s emotions. On the contrary, it is a reminder that true reason is not and cannot be “desiccated”. Certainly, one has to listen to one’s emotions but not just any emotion and not just anyhow. It is therefore not a question of questioning the rationality of theoretical work, but a pseudo rationality carried by a technical conception of theoretical work.

The argument developed in this article goes beyond metatheoretical questions.  We have defended the idea that the independence of the work of theorists can be justified by sentimental considerations.  It is a sentimental theory of epistemic independence, and it is the idea that the notion of epistemic affect justifies and explains that theorists have to be preserved from intellectualist injunctions and particularly on a more general level any intrusion that disturbs the balance of these affects: it is a question of a more general argument defending a certain independence of professional practices, more particularly scientific. We hope that this will be able to support a certain reflexivity in management sciences which often set the goal of codifying and explaining, then theorising the practices, and therefore the know-how which moves organisations forward.


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[1] We are not sure to clearly understand the meaning of “core conceptualisation of theory”. But we suppose that this must at least concern philosophical conceptualisations. In this case the sarcasm of Arend et al. (2016) would be inappropriate since there are at least three ways of conceptualising the notion of theory in philosophy (Winther, 2016). As for the other sorts of conceptualisation that can be envisaged (notably those of the scientists themselves), we do not know on what basis the authors can affirm their unity (which seems in the first place highly questionable).

[2] The success of Dubin’s methodology (1969) is perhaps an illustration of this phenomenon. No prescription imposed it.  On the contrary, the first literature reviews of his work were often very negative (Anderson, 1970; Henry, 1969; Tomberlin, 1970) and at the best mediocre (Mullins, 1970; Reid, 1971; Willer, 1979), the reviewers judging “difficult to see just how [this book] could serve as a reference source for a working researcher” (Anderson, 1970: 1003) or suggesting that “Stinchcombe’s Constructing Social Theory is preferable” (Henry, 1969: 614). Dubin (1969) remains today inexistent in philosophy of science and nothing explains how he became a central reference in management sciences : the articles which established him as one of the “theory-development authorities” (Whetten, 1989: 490) do not give any reason for their choice. It seems that the need for metatheoretical answers whatever they were was powerful enough to hoist his theory to that of Arend et al. (2015: 630) called the “superlative works of the past” of the literature on theory building.

[3] These three notions are distinct (Michaelian & Arango-Muñoz, 2014), but in the case of our discussion this distinction is not crucial, and we will mention indifferently of emotions, affects or sentiments.

[4] In effect, to disprove something is to prove the disproof. The misunderstanding comes perhaps from a confusion between the logical and methodological levels. Popper employing the famous example of white and black swans wrote in effect that “ from a purely logical point of view, the acceptance of one counter instance to ‘All swans are white’ implies the falsity of the law ‘All swans are white’” (Popper, 1985).  It is a logical assertion, however from a methodological point of view, the problem is to show whether the counterinstance is true. Popper has therefore never reduced his philosophy to the kind of idea that Bacharach (1989) has formulated and his “fallibilism” is a much more elaborate theory often misunderstood. Lakatos (1968) thus associates this kind of false idea that Bacharach attributes to Popper (“science cannot prove, it can disprove”) to an “imaginary author of a vulgarised version of Popperian philosophy of science”. Lakatos calls “Popper 0” this vulgarised version of Popper. Popper0 is universally known at the expense of Popper.


Citer ce billet
Erwan Lamy (2018, 14 juillet). We don’t need no (epistemological) education. Carnet de la SPSG. Consulté le 30 mai 2024, à l’adresse https://spsg.hypotheses.org/441

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