Understanding the Gap between Theory and Practice

22 Pages Posted: 21 Feb 2008 Last revised: 9 Sep 2013

See all articles by Wibren van der Burg

Wibren van der Burg

Erasmus School of Law, Erasmus University Rotterdam


The familiar idea of a gap between theory and practice suggests a fundamental difference. This difference may be explained by an underlying distinction between two incomplete and incompatible models of social phenomena, a doctrine model (in which we construct theories) and a practice model (in which we understand practice). Social phenomena such as morality, law, or medicine can be described in terms of interaction, a practice, and they can be described as a set of precepts, a doctrine. These models embody different types of knowledge (Ryle, Scott). In a practice model understandings are often implicit and tacit rather than explicit as in the doctrine perspective. Professional wisdom or metis is not easy to grasp in general theoretical insights, because it is so particularistic and contextual.

This distinction may explain why there is little progress in methodological discussions on reflective equilibrium. In the doctrine view, reflective equilibrium is an epistemological tool that may be used to reach moral truth. In the practice perspective, it is a hermeneutic or pragmatist process of critical self-reflection aimed at becoming a better person or a better society, or performing a moral action.

It is not possible to bridge the gap by combining both models in one integrated perspective. Theory and practice refer to different ways of looking at social phenomena. The only way of doing optimal justice to both is by a dialectical process in which we switch between the two models.

Keywords: theory and practice, reflective equilibrium, anti-theory, models of morality, knowing-how and knowing-that

Suggested Citation

van der Burg, Wibren, Understanding the Gap between Theory and Practice. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1096108 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1096108

Wibren Van der Burg (Contact Author)

Erasmus School of Law, Erasmus University Rotterdam ( email )

Section Sociology, Theory and Methodology
PO Box 1738
3000 DR Rotterdam

HOME PAGE: http://www.wibrenvanderburg.nl

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