Theoretical Unspecifiables (Theory Moves)

Theoretical Unspecifiable: [thee-uh-ret-i-kuhl un-spes-uh-fahy-uh-buhl] Noun Phrase

In a theory or a mode of thought, an unspecified (and unspecifiable) term used to resolve gaps, contradictions, incommensurabilities and paradoxes.  A theoretical unspecifiable is conceptually nearly vacant (and inaccessible to theorization) but at the same time sufficiently important to have the appearance of meaning and content.

Examples:  God, faith, judgment, Moliere’s dormitive principle, the thing in itself.

Antonym: concept

See also:  The concept of theoretical unspecifiable was previously elaborated under the name of “theoretical unmentionable” in Pierre Schlag, Contradiction and Denial 87 Mich L. Rev. 1216, 1222-23  (1989). Professor Val D. Ricks, however, rightly pointed out that theoretical unmentionables are not so much unmentionable as they are indescribable.  Val D. Ricks, Contract Law and Christian Conscience, 2003 B.Y.U. L. Rev. 993 (2003). Below is a slightly revised version.

Any theory or mode of thought has certain flaws, gaps, contradictions, paradoxes and other such intellectual embarasments that, by virtue of the internal constitution of the theory or mode of thought, cannot be resolved in any articulate way.   Articulation would either fail outright or simply re-enact at a different level the very same gaps, contradictions, etc.  What to do?

This is the moment when a theory, a worldview, whatever will invoke a theoretical unspecifiable.  For instance, how does one resolve a manifest paradox (if god is all good and all omnipotent, why is there evil?)   Answer: One invokes faith.  Faith becomes the rhetorical space where the paradox dissipates.   How so?   Well if you have enough faith in God, then all these things (the goodness, the omnipotence and the evil) can co-exist.   Another example: How is it that a judge is supposed to decide between certain manifestly contradictory policies or principles?   Answer: “good judgment.”  The judge must exercise good judgment in deciding.

The key thing about theoretical unspecifiables (faith and good judgment are salient examples here) is that they appear to have meaning, integrity, and substance even though within the theory, worldview, whatever nothing terribly specific can be said about them.  Why the lack of specification?    Because if specification were to occur, the theoretical unspecifiables, could no longer perform their principal rhetorical role–namely, provide a relatively undifferentiated and unstructured conceptual space enabling the claim that the flaws, gaps, contradictions, etc. have been effectively resolved.

Of all theoretical unspecifiables, God is no doubt the all-time champion.  In American law, we have some secular derivatives including pragmatism, good judgment, discretion, and balancing.   In Dworkin’s theory of adjudications, for instance, the term “best” as in “the best theory that best explains….”  often functions as a theoretical unspecifiable.   Theoretical unspecifiables will generally work fine until one of three things happens:

1.  Someone actually has the temerity to ask just what they are.   Or,

2.  Someone actually tries to say something about the structure and content of these theoretical unspecifiables, . . . in which case they become theoretically very specifiable and accordingly, incapable of discharging their original functions.  Indeed, they acquire a positive content, a structural identity, and thus become subject to the very same flaws, gaps, contradictions, etc. that prompted their parent discourse to produce them in the first place. Or,

3. The theoretical unspecifiables are renamed and perhaps even reconceptualized in a way that the original purveyors of the terms do not like. Theoretical unspecifiables are especially vulnerable to this sort of thing because their internal structure and content is, well. . . unspecifiable. Just as an example: “pragmatic craft” can become “good sense” which can become “good judgment,” which can become “great karma.”  The point is that the people who think they have really said something important in the statement, “Justice Brandeis showed great judgment” would be probably be somewhat displeased to hear this translated as “Mr. Justice Brandeis had terrific karma.”  But really: good judgment/great karma—what’s the difference? It’s not that there isn’t any—it’s just that there may be less than might seem.  (Note that it is often thought that religious sects and jurisprudential schools get off the ground and achieve their distinctive identity in precisely in this way.)

Discussion and Caveats

Since theories and modes of thought typically depend upon theoretical unspecifiables, the demonstration of this fact is not always a telling criticism.   (It depends upon the claims of the theory or mode of thought.)  Nonetheless, the identification of theoretical unspecifiables is extremely important for critique (including ideological critique) because the unspecifiables are likely to function as the conceptual spaces where the unseemly, and possibly incoherent, rhetorical/political work is performed.

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