This is a rewrite of a paper privately circulated in 1982.

developing a "theory-user-theory"

© 2005 Edward G. Rozycki, Ed. D.

Related Paper: Evaluating Theories


edited 1/6/09


A theory-in-use is constrained by the capacities and situation of its user. A theory-in-use is an amalgam of an object-theory, which is a rather idealized construction of a theorist, and user-theory, which can be defined by identifying the epistemological requirements of any practitioner employing the object theory. The primary use of theory by a practitioner is to rationalize or enhance the outcomes of his undertakings. Certain types of theory can be determined a priori to be practically useless: any object-theory which is non-conformable to user-theory has no primary use. In practice, however, idiosyncratic adjustments are made by the user to the object-theory which make it appear to be usable. But the usability of such an "adjusted" theory does not indicate anything about the object-theory from which it derived.


Users of a theory are constrained by their situation in space and time. Even given an inventive imagination, they are affected by historical residues and the limits of their immediate perceptions. But, how, exactly is a theory "constrained"? And what is it to "use" such a theory? Is every use idiosyncratic? Or can we identify general user constraints?

It is a critical skill to be able to make the pedestrian but useful distinctions between using a specific theory, not using that theory, and being mistaken about both situations. More formally put, we must be able to distinguish between whether:

a. a certain person, call him Peter, is using a theory, call it Theory T, to investigate some phenomena, or to organize data, etc.;

b. Peter is using Theory U, different from Theory T, for some purpose;

c. Peter is using neither Theory T nor Theory U;

d. Peter is mistaken in thinking he is using Theory T;

e. Peter is unknowingly using Theory T (or a Theory T-type theory).

Our primary concern will be to investigate the conditions in terms of which practitioners of certain sorts may be said to be applying or using a theory; not, to be using the theory or or even, misapplying the theory. If we think of a theory as a tool, some insights say be gained that relate to our primary concern. Tools may be used in ways -- often novel -- that do not enter into their common characterizations: one can loosen nuts with a hammer, although it is more easily done with a wrench. We don 't teach, however, that a hammer is something that might be used to loosen nuts with, rather we distinguish among tools practically by considering what they are made for.

Similarly, a theory may be used to illustrate a certain development in the history of thought, or to entertain a class. Such uses, I take it, are not primary. I wish to restrict my considerations to uses of theory to enhance the effects of or otherwise rationalize a practice, a way of working in the world.

Our focus will be on three kinds of theory: roughly characterized, they are causal theories, formal theories and correlational theories. By "causal theory" I mean to loosely capture any theory which promises control, which -- to those who lust to intervene -- insinuates that the results of some practice might be enhanced.[1] A theory which, technically speaking, merely claims a correlation between two variables may become a causal theory in the hands of a practitioner who seeks to manipulate some variables of which others are hoped to be the effects.

A theory is "merely" correlational if the assumed correlation is accepted and attempts by the researcher to control some variables through others is foregone. Any measurement invokes a correlational theory in that differences in measure are assumed to correlate with differences in the thing measured.

A theory is a formal theory if, to put it technically, its variables are not independently definable, that is, if some variables are constituents of others. Examples of formal theories are grammars, certain economic models, certain systems theories.[2] For practical purposes, we may think of causal theories as simple push-pull, input-output theories. Formal theories tend to be "complex interactional" theories.

The distinction between formal and causal theories is important to the practitioner and policy-maker because policies are usually formulated on the basis of some causal theory, "Under conditions C, do X (so as to effect I)". Policies which are adjustable depending upon adjustments made in other policies have the appearance of being "wishy-washy" and are difficult to promote politically. For example, a legislator might recommend a policy of reducing taxes on the grounds that thereby savings would increase. This looks like a simple causal model. However, the theory underlying his argument - assuming he has one - is not likely a causal theory. If, for example, his argument is roughly that "reasonable individuals", i.e. "utility-maximizers," would save marginal funds against the likelihood of future need, then his theory is not causal, or at least, not so directly causal as the policy he is promoting implies.

A theory-in-use is an amalgam of what I will call "user theory" and "object theory": thus, an object theory may be merely correlational; but in use, causal. This is because practitioners have purposes and intentions: a theory is, for them, a kind of tool. (Unless they are just playing with it.) A practitioner may want to do something with the theory, enhance some outcome, or rationalize an intervention: that is what makes the theory-in-use a causal theory.

The problems of establishing a policy may limit the intelligent use of theory. Economic policies invariably fail, I suspect, because politically feasible justifications for their adoption require theoretically oversimple models of their effects. Moral and political considerations, by and large, do not permit carefully controlled research in many areas, say, education -- who would want their child to risk being deprived educationally for the sake of an experiment? This makes not merely for inconvenience to the researcher but renders a wide range of educational theory practically useless.

The main thrust of this essay, however, will not be to consider the interactions of political concerns and theoretical interests, interesting though they may be. We will look, rather, to the way "user-theory" limits the usefulness of "object-theories". Some theories are per se useless except in some theoretically trivial manner -- like loosening nuts with a hammer. Any theory which may be generalized to include the user (or his behavior) will be restricted by user-theory. If this object-theory is non-conformable to user-theory, it is importantly unusable.


We will examine some characteristics of a user, then see how they limit the applicability of object theories.

1. A user is someone with a purpose, One does not merely use something, one uses it do something, for some reason. To deny that one is using something one need only claim to be just playing with it; and theories, as well as physical implements, can be played with.

2. A user is someone with an intention. This is a finer distinction than merely having a purpose. My intent may be to cure you of some ailment and I may knowingly give you a dose of a poison, believing it to have some tonic [3] or antidotal effect. I give you poison but it is not my intent to poison you. Of course, I may accidentally poison you with an overdose or inadvertantly give you the wrong thing -- having been distracted, let us suppose. For the sake of discussion, let us assume the poison to be arsenic. I may use the arsenic to cure you, provided you are cured thereby. If I accidentally or inadvertantly give you salt, I am not using the salt to cure you, even if you are accidentally or inadvertantly cured thereby. (Which means it was not my intent to cure you.)

Another set of examples. I may shoot you accidentally. It is incorrect to describe this as: I used a gun to shoot you accidentally. If, on the other hand, it is true that I used a gun accidentally to shoot you, it must be that I had intended to shoot you, perhaps, with an arrow or a cannon and by accident I fired the gun, say, a pistol, to do the job.

In general, to be a user is to choose a means to a chosen end. The full description of such action requires a full-blown language of intentionality. My reason for belaboring this issue is that many theories offered to account for human behavior dispense with purpose and intention.[4] Thus, one can only use such a theory practically if one excludes oneself, as user, from the range of its variables, or if one uses it trivially, as say, Clarence Darrow used some variety of Determinism to sway jurors in the Leopold-Loeb case.

3. A user can distinguish desired from undesired outcomes. If one wants to achieve something, then, at the very least, one must be able to distinguish the achievement from the failure. This ability to distinguish is the ability theoretically to distinguish desired from undesired outcomes. Thus, if the outcome-variables of a theory do not comprehend the distinction between desired and undesired outcomes, the theory is unusable. For example, peripheralistic psychological theories cannot distinguish intelligent behavior from blind habit.[5]

Thus, anyone interested in that distinction must find those theories unusable. Precisely parallel is the consideration that one would not use a stick of dynamite to kill mosquitoes in one's home. The desired outcome -- dead mosquitoes -- could not be practically disembedded from a host of undesired outcomes.

4. A user can (theoretically) distinguish means to his ends. Any theory whose input variables do not cut between desired and undesired means -- (for a given circumstance) is theoretically unusable. Notice that desirability of means and not effectiveness of means is the distinction the user-theory demands. Certain types of learning may no doubt be secured through the use of torture as well as through less vigorous interventions. No reinforcement theory can, of itself, select among socially desired and undesired means.[6] What practitioners generally do when they claim to be using such a theory is to augment it with other considerations. Reinforcement theory, for example,-- in any of its manifestations -- is unusable unless so augmented.

Unusable Theories

On the basis of the characteristics of a user we can indieate -- with broad strokes, as it were -- theories that have no "pnimary" use: that is, such theories may be used to entertain, inform, disillusion or dismay people, they may influence intellectual development and varieties of academic discourse, but they cannot be used as tools to enhance one's intervention in the world to any extent that that world is independent of modes of human discourse.

A theorist through his theory creates a world -- some might want to say, "analyzes the World" -- : there exist classes of items, variables, and relations among these items. The usability of a theory over the range of phenomena it purports to deal with is nullified if any of the following conditions obtain:

a. the variables of the theory range over the behavior of the user and

1. there is no class of "purpose-variables"; and,

2. there is no class of "intention-variables". [7]

b. the variables of the theory cannot distinguish between

1. desired and undesired outcomes,

2. desired and undesired means.

It is quite clear why Determinism in general and Behaviorism specifically have no primary theoretical import: they are non-conformable to user theory. It is quite ridiculous to hear someone argue that one should opt for a theory according to which noone can opt for anything.[8]

Of course, practical persons use theories in some truncated form, usually, which excludes them, as persons, from the range of the variables. Also, additional considerations are tendered to enable the distinction between desired and undesired inputs and outcomes. A practitioner faced with theoretical difficulty "fudges it", i.e. he invokes some idiosyncratic theory (or "intuition") [9] by which the object theory is truncated or augmented to make it conform to user-theory. Any number of theoretical hedges and qualifications can be made to render a recalcitrant theory useful. Such usefulness, however, is no indication of the adequacy of the original object theory.

The Usefulness of Theory

There are circumstances which render particular theories useless for the purposes of particular users. A user may not have the instruments by which particular outcomes can be discriminated; moral or political consideration may preclude scientifically adequate experimentation or data-gathering. User-theory is not substantially concerned with such accidental impediments to theory use; rather, it is concerned with theoretical impediments, ones which cannot, in theory -- therefore a fortiori in practice -- be overcome. Theories available for primary use are of two types:

a. the variables defined by the theory range over the behavior of the user;

b. the variables do not so apply.

If one demands, for example, that an adequate Individual Psychology apply equally as pertinently to the behavior of the experimenter as experimenter then such a psychology must meet the requirements of user-theory, the most problematic of which are that it contain purpose and intention-variables.

If the experimenter, or practitioner, or policy-maker may consider himself or herself external to those processes which he or she hopes to enhance through intervention (or refraining therefrom), then only the user-theory requirements that the object-theory variables cut along the distinction between desired and undesired outcomes and means are pertinent.

Useless theories can be made to work by informal and often unconscious truncation or augmentation by the would-be user. An intelligent practitioner might spare himself effort wasted by the search for useable object-theories.

He or she might ask instead what one has to do to make a theory work. The explication of the many informal rules and hedges one invokes to maintain practicality is far beyond the scope of this short essay; but, it is certainly an enterprise worth undertaking.


1. See chapters one and two in Mario Bunge, Causality (Cleveland: Meridian, 1963). Also see Barry F. Anderson, The Psychology Experiment (Belmont, Cal.: Brooks Cole, 1971) p. 10, "When different values on variable A are produced, different values on variable B are observed." Production of change on a variable by means of a manipulated variable is an ubiquitous conception of causation. For expansion on the traditional Aristotelian distinctions, see also, "Varieties of Explanation and Cause" at Explanation.html

2. See pages 54 through 57 in Ludwig Von Bertalanffy, General System Theory (New York: Brasilier, 1968) A system is a set of variables changes in any of which is a function of all of the variables in the set. Endogenous variables cannot (theoretically) be identified independently of the system; the system is defined by the variables in it and their interrelation.

3. See J.L. Austin, "A Plea for Excuses" in Donald F. Gustafson (ed.) Essays in Philosophical Psychology (Garden City: Anchor Doubleday, 1964) 1 - 29

4. See Merle B.. Turner, Realism and the Explanation of Behavior (New.York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1971) p. 157, "Were it not for our mentalistic traditions in describing volitional acts, it is doubtful that the idea of intention would ever occur in the context of motivation."

5. This point is developed in Kenneth I. Strike, "On the Expressive Potential of Behaviorist Language", American Educational Research Journal Spring 1974 Vol. 11, No. 2, pp. 103-120

6. Skinner vacillates on this point. In Beyond Freedom and Dignity, B.F.Skinner (New York: Bantam/Vintage, 1972) constructs a peculiar (for a behaviorist) distinction between genuine and apparent (?) reinforcers. See esp. Chapter 2.

7. That the definition of such an "intention-variable" must be inconsistent is argued in Edward G. Rozycki, "The Functional Analysis of Behavior", Educational Theory Volume 25, Number 3 (Summer 1975) pp.278-302. For an updated version of this paper see "The Functional Analysis of Behavior: theoretical and ethical limits" at

8. See Lawrence H. Hinman, "How Not to Naturalize Ethics: the untenability of a Skinnerian naturalistic ethic", Ethics Vol. 89, No-3, April 1979. pp. 292 - 297, for a discussion of the Determinist's epistemological nihilism.

9. Jum C. Nunnaly, Psychometric Theory (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967) p. 88 writes,"No precise method can be stated for properly outlining the domain of variables for a construct. The outline essentially constitutes a theory regarding how variables relate to one another; and though theories themselves should be objectively testable, the theorizing process is necessarily intuitive." (my italics).

Intuition is invoked by those who wish to escape critical analysis.