“It may be Alright in Theory but it doesn’t Work in Practice”

 by Martin Butler

This is what my dad used to say when as an idealistic teenager I would propose various utopian schemes for reforming society. I suspect it encapsulates the response of many who view themselves as grounded in the ‘real world’. We might want to dismiss the saying as crude anti-intellectualism, but it’s worth further examination if only because it’s such a widely held sentiment.[1]

As a teenager my first thought in response to this was that if a theory doesn’t work in practice, it can’t be ‘alright’. The only test of a theory, I thought, is that it should have a viable practical application. This makes sense when we consider scientific theories: it is simply nonsensical to say gravity might be alright in theory but not in practice. It’s only alright in theory because it works in practice. Einstein’s theory of general relativity only became more than ‘just a theory’ when measurements taken during the solar eclipse of 1919 corroborated its predictions. It was clearly alright in practice, therefore also in theory. Of course, there are other ways in which a theory might at least appear to be ‘alright’ – it might, for example, be an elegant theory or possess a satisfying simplicity. Perhaps this is all those who use the saying mean, although I think there are more interesting issues lurking in the background, especially when we come to abstract political, social or moral theories.

Between theory and practice lies a gap in which judgement must be applied before the idea can become reality. A theory cannot apply itself, and the skills of the theoretician are distinct from those who must apply it. In the same way, the skills of the political philosopher are distinct from those of the politician. Kant notes: “no matter how complete the theory may be a middle term is required between theory and practice, proving a link and a transition from one to the other.” This third term, he makes clear, is good judgement. Theoreticians, he notes, “will be found who can never in all their lives become practical, since they lack judgment”.[2] The distinction does not justify the saying as it stands, but is does allow that a theory might be sound in itself but deeply flawed in application or practice because of bad judgment.

History is littered with examples of policies based on theoretical models that have unforeseen consequences when implemented. Whether it is the implementation or the theoretical model itself that is at fault is the question that rarely receives a satisfactory answer. Our theories are composed of abstract generalities that are bound to gloss over the myriad distinctions and details that exist in human life. Burke makes the point that “The nature of man is intricate; the objects of society are of the greatest possible complexity: and therefore, no simple disposition or direction of power can be suitable either to man’s nature or the quality of his affairs. When I hear the simplicity of contrivance aimed at and boasted of in new political constitutions, I am at no loss to decide that the artificers are grossly ignorant of their trade or totally negligent of their duty.”[3] Of course we might suspect that this response is merely a means to justify the status quo whenever change is proposed, but Burke surely has a point. Reality, being too fine-grained, will always escape our crude attempts to pin it down. When it comes to morality or society, no theory can ever be comprehensive enough to fully capture the reality it’s attempting to portray and so will necessarily fall short in practice. However, glossing over detail and complexity, to a degree at least, is the point of these theories, for theories involve principles, and principles generalise. Human understanding is limited in any case, and if we are to have any grasp of moral or political issues we need to boil things down to their essentials, which is a virtue or a vice depending on your perspective. Kant argues that morality is essentially about duty and universal rational principles, while many, from Hegel to Bernard Williams[4], argue that this is at best partial and so gives us a distorted picture. Nevertheless, the appeal of Kant’s argument is its clarity, simplicity and the feeling that it does indeed capture something important, and in these respects at least it does seem alright in theory. Whether in practice it is possible or indeed desirable to live a life based solely on Kantian morality is another question altogether. The saying does have some relevance here.

Of course there are important differences between scientific theories of the sort mentioned earlier and moral, political and economic theories. Although not all scientific theories make predictions, the ‘working in practice’ bit of science is usually about that. Theories that deal with human society, on the other hand, are about understanding and don’t pretend to make predictions. In his Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith insightfully identifies key features of the developing free-market capitalist economy of his time and provides a theoretical account of the economic relations he observed. Can we say that because this was based on an existing society then it must work in practice? The theory was, after all taken from ‘the real world’.  However, for many living in Russia and other eastern European countries in the 1990s, the chaos following the imposition of a ‘free-market’ philosophy provided good reason to claim that free-market capitalism was alright in theory but not in practice. The fact that a theory allows us to understand the mechanisms at work in an existing society does not mean it can successfully be imposed on a quite different society.  A similar point could be made about many post-colonial societies and the imposition of democracy.

This doesn’t mean simply that some theories work in practice while others do not, rather that, in certain circumstances, any theory that deals with human society can be accused of being alright in theory but not in practice. There are many unspoken assumptions, often cultural, that are not, and indeed could not, be captured by a theoretical model. The objects of a society are indeed “of the greatest possible complexity”. There is also the broader point of what we actually mean when we say something works. Societies can work well for some and badly for others, so the very idea of ‘not working in practice’ is a vague criterion. For the Russian oligarchs the imposition of the free market system in the 1990s worked very well indeed.

So where does this leave us with regard to theories of morality and human society? Can we do away with them altogether and become out and out pragmatists?  This has been the line many politicians have taken, and certainly eschewing political or moral theory altogether in favour of ‘what works’ has its attractions. But apart from the vagueness of ‘what works’, we also need to remember Keynes’s point about economic theory. “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.”[5] The skills of the politician may not be the same as those of the theoretician, but the politician cannot do without theory at some level. Human beings are thinking creatures who use their understanding to solve problems, and the problems of complex modern societies more than ever do seem to require some theoretical guide, whether we acknowledge this or not.

Perhaps part of the problem is that we have gained our idea of what a theoretical understanding should look like from science and cleave too closely to the model it appears offer.  Science provides unified theories which are taken to have a wide, if not, universal application.  Newtonian mechanics was superseded by Einsteins’ theory of relativity. Darwin’s theory of evolution applies to all life. Although not complete, these grand visions have wide applications to the physical world. Many political, moral, or economic theories try to do something similar only with regards to the sphere of human activity. Liberalism, socialism, libertarianism, communitarianism and others inspire us because they are grand visions full of impressive abstractions. In some ways they are even more ambitious than theories of science, purporting to identify important truths about the human condition which then form the basis for a model of how things ought to be organised.  But as with the theories of science, they are presented uncoupled from particular societies with particular histories, cultural traditions and ways of life. We have good reason to justify this uncoupling with regard to natural science but it’s not clear we can do so with the human sciences. Perhaps we just need to be more modest and claim that a theory can only be alright in practice for a particular society in a particular historical context. Even then we need to be cautious to say the least.


[1] Kant thought it sufficiently significant write a long essay on the subject entitled, “On the common saying; this may be true in theory but it does not apply in practice”


[2] Kant, I, 1784. On the Common saying: ‘This may be True in Theory, but it does not Apply in Practice’. In H. S. Reiss. Ed. 1991. Kant: Political Writings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p61


[3] Burke, E, (1790). 2016. Reflections on the Revolution in France. Oxford: MDB Oxford editions(Kindle). p68


[4] Williams, B. 1985. Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy. London: Fontana. Chap. 4


[5] Keynes. J.M. (1936) 2019 The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money(Kindle). General Press.  chap. 24 section V