'Theory' is one of the most important words in the lexicon of contemporary sociology. Yet, their ubiquity notwithstanding, it is quite unclear what sociologists mean by the words 'theory,' 'theoretical,' and 'theorize.' I argue that confusions about the meaning of 'theory' have brought about undesirable consequences, including conceptual muddles and even downright miscommunication. In this paper I tackle two questions: (a) what does 'theory' mean in the sociological language?; and (b) what ought 'theory' to mean in the sociological language? I proceed in five stages. First, I explain why one should ask a semantic question about 'theory.' Second, I lexicographically identify seven different senses of the word, which I distinguish by means of subscripts. Third, I show some difficulties that the current lack of semantic clarity has led sociology to. Fourth, I articulate the question, 'what ought "theory" to mean?,' which I dub the 'semantic predicament' (SP), and I consider what one can learn about it from the theory literature. Fifth, I recommend a 'semantic therapy' for sociology, and advance two arguments about SP: (a) the principle of practical reason - SP is to a large extent a political issue, which should be addressed with the help of political mechanisms; and (b) the principle of ontological and epistemological pluralism - the solution to SP should not be too ontologically and epistemologically demanding.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Sociology and Political Science