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The Relations Between Theory and Practice

Theresa Yan

“It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts” (Arthur Conan Doyle). Consider the extent to which this statement may be true in two or more areas of knowledge.

Regardless of the content, any scientific discovery has some general logic of the movement: from the search for and isolation of the facts, and their selection to the processing of the data obtained by observation and experiment. Next, the thought goes to the classification, synthesis and conclusions. On this basis, hypotheses are made, selected and subsequently tested in practice, in experiment. Then a theory is formulated and prediction is done.

However, the necessity to formulate goals and hypothesis of the research before applying actual methodology is a risky way for a researcher to try to see the approval of his/her preliminary ideas, but not disproof. In many cases, practice should go before theory in order to provide representative results, which often happen in historical perspective of science. Further, we will cover the relations between theory and practice, as well as determine their interaction through timeline.

The meaning of the words “theory” and “practice” is generally accepted and clear enough, so we rarely doubt about what a person means using them. But what can be said about the temporal relationship between these two concepts: what came first – theory or practice? Most of us would answer automatically: theory precedes practice and defines it. However, this automatic response may be very far from the truth, pointing to a profound mistake.

Thus, Einstein (1995) believed that any scientific theory must meet the following criteria: a) do not contradict the experimental data, facts, and b) to be tested on the available experimental material. Let us take the following example: a particular wing profile that enables planes to fly was invented at the same time when it was “proved” that machines heavier than air could not fly. Its aerodynamic properties were understood much later, when it had been used in practice for some time already. In fact, the invention and use of the airfoil has made a significant contribution to the development of aerodynamics, not vice versa (Alexander, 1964). Thus, according to Alexander (1964), in this case practice precedes theory.

Here’s another quote, strikingly reminding the case cited by Alexander (1964), taken from the text belonging to D. D. Price’s “Sealing Wax and String: A Philosophy of the Experimenter’s Craft and Its Role in the Genesis of High Technology” Proceedings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science Annual Meeting, 1983: Thermodynamics owes the steam engine to much greater extent than the steam engine owes thermodynamics… If you look at the usual historical course of events, the cases when technology turns out an applied science are very few. Much more often the science turns out an applied technology (Gooding, 1989).

One of contemporary examples is related to the computer and software practice. The emergence of computers is, of course, associated with the first studies conducted in numerous laboratories in North America and Europe. However, in the mid-1950’s, rapid development of computer equipment and programming as professional areas began. Even if at first practice was behind the theory, over time, of course, it ran far ahead. Computer Science as a school subject appeared only in 1960’s. And theories that became the result of these research efforts, appeared probably no earlier than late 1960’s – early 1970’s (Glass & DeMarco, 2006). Naturally, many programs appeared before the books on programming, which later simply codified a positive practical experience. Even today, practice often outruns theory. At the system level simulation is often used to clarify the requirements and design to solve complex problems. However, it rarely becomes a subject of research.

The theory for the actual designing is still poorly developed. Courses on the design often focus on the methodology and presentation, whereas the majority of designers know that it is much more complex area, not confined to the general scheme and the means of fixation. And here the practice is well ahead of theory.
Modern (post-nonclassical) science is characterized by the increasing mathematization of its theories and increasing level of their abstraction and complexity. In modern science, the significance of computational mathematics (which became an independent branch of mathematics) has sharply increased, as the answer to any task is now often required to be given in a numerical form. Therefore, mathematical approaches to the justification of theories have entered all the human sciences: psychology, sociology, pedagogy, political science, ethnography, etc. (Mayo, 1996).

Currently, the most important tool for scientific and technological progress is mathematical modeling. Its essence lies in replacing the original object by the corresponding mathematical model and its further study, experimentation over it on the computer through applying computational algorithms (Glass & DeMarco, 2006).

On the other hand, the rejection of the pure theory is extremely dangerous. As the history of human thought shows – i.e., the most important part of the history of homo sapiens – it is the researches, once fully detached from practice, that eventually played a decisive role in its progressive development. Thus, purely theoretical researches of mathematicians of the past have become the main tool of modern science and the based on it “practical” technology. The same can be said about the logic which for two and a half thousand years in Europe has been, actually, the privilege and sophisticated entertainment of “intellectuals”, except for its use in rhetoric and practice of lawyers. In the 20th century, along with mathematics and natural science it laid foundation for cybernetics (Mayo, 1996; Blakeley & Zinov’ev, 2008). Cybernetics developed into computer science, i.e., new information technology – so “practical” that it will obviously lead to the transformation of our lives. The same can be said about researches on “micro-world” which also used to be “purely theoretical”, and then opened the access to nuclear energy (Blakeley & Zinov’ev, 2008; Gooding, 1989). The actual content of scientific activities and science development shows that when comparing theory and experience, it is not the case when the theory seems to be completely removed from reality and passive in relation to it, whereas experience is directly connected to reality, active and completely independent of the theory (Blakeley & Zinov’ev, 2008).

Still, there are quite a lot of examples of practice preceding theory, though it is a common belief that theory provides a framework through which practice can operate successfully. If this idea is wrong, then perhaps it is necessary to consider the consequences.

Thus, there is a fundamentally important aspect of the relationship between theory and experience – the “aspect of proof” in the terminology of H. Reichenbach (1961). In fact, science as a particular form of mental activity begins when there is a perceived need for comparison of theory and experience in order to verify and substantiate the theory.

Let us consider the procedure of comparison of theory and experience. Only in the first approximation theory and experience directly face each other in the process of testing the theory: from the theory under testing the result available for testing is generated. This result is compared with experience data (experiment, observation, modeling). Depending on positive or negative result of the experience, the theory is assessed respectively as persistent for future use or discarded.

In reality, the picture is more complex. First, the theory does not exist in the isolated state: it is immersed in a certain intertheoretical context. In addition, the content of the verification procedure contains some sets of theoretical provisions – those that formed the basis of the principle of action (method) embedded in the mechanism that was used in obtaining experimental data. In general, the priority of course belongs to empirical testing (Mayo, 1996; Blakeley & Zinov’ev, 2008). However, one should take into account the complexity of comparing theory and experiment. So, there is also no good reason to speak about the absolute sovereignty of the experience before pre-empirical discussion.

Let us depict the relationship between theory and practice assumed by this idea. The essence is that according to our understandings, each discipline is preceded by practice which develops rapidly at the beginning; theory occurs when the practice gives enough material for formalization, and also develops rapidly; later, at a certain point, theory begins to outstrip practice (Fig. 1.) (Glass & DeMarco, 2006). Perhaps, this diagram is too simplistic. In a more accurate representation the development of practice and theory appears as an alternation of steps, each of which is in turns dominated by one or another side. But even in more complex pictures one can find areas (for example, using a magnifying glass), which reflect a more simple graph (Habermas & Viertel, 1988).

Figure 1. Theory plus practice (Glass & DeMarco, 2006).
Let us assume that these relations are shown correctly. What are the consequences? First, this graph suggests that at the early stages of discipline, theory can develop successfully only if it studies the practice. The truth is that the old methods should not bother the theorists to formulate new ideas, and yet much can be learned by studying the practice, especially on the best samples. Also the amount of knowledge accumulated by practice is too big for theory to ignore it.

From this graph, one can also conclude that at some point, practice should start listening to the theory, which has overtaken it. For example, theoretical advances in the sphere of databases and data structures significantly exceed the level of knowledge of the majority of practitioners in these areas. The practice has not gone far here. Like theory is not able to study the practice when necessary, practice does not want to listen to theory at the right time.

In other words, there are fundamental problems of interaction between theory and practice, and the level of mastery of knowledge directly depends on understanding of their meaning. Hence, should the practice indeed precede the theory? At some level, and in some moments in time – yes. It’s time for practice and theory to draw the conclusions from this fact.



Alexander, C.W. (1964). Notes on the Synthesis of Form. Harvard University Press.
Blakeley, J.E., & Zinov’ev, A.A. (2008). Foundations of the Logical Theory of Scientific Knowledge. Springer.
Einstein, A. (1995). Ideas And Opinions. Broadway.
Glass, R.L., & DeMarco, T. (2006). Software Creativity 2.0. Developer*Books.
Gooding, D., Pinch, T., & Schaffer, S. (1989). The Uses of Experiment: Studies in the Natural Sciences. Cambridge University Press.
Habermas, J., & Viertel, J. (1988). Theory and Practice. Beacon Press.
Mayo, D.G. (1996). Error and the Growth of Experimental Knowledge. University Of Chicago Press.
Reichenbach, H. (1961). The Rise of Scientific Philosophy. University of California Press.