Can theory be healing?

Previously in this series, we have asked ‘Can academic reading be healing?’ and suggested that ‘Writing is not a luxury | Writing is not the opposite of self-care‘. This time, with thanks to Dr Fi Belcher for the tip to return to bell hooks 1991 article ‘Theory as Liberatory Practice‘ (chapter 5 in Teaching to Transgress), we will ask ‘can theory be healing?’

hooks says:

Let me begin by saying that I came to theory because I was hurting—the pain within me was so intense that I could not go on living. I came to theory desperate, wanting to comprehend—to grasp what was happening around and within me. Most importantly, I wanted to make the hurt go away. I saw in theory then a location for healing.

hooks, 1991

I read this opening paragraph with doubt in my heart. I now do quite a lot of theoretical work, but I did not find theory healing as an undergraduate or as a PhD student.

Lots of us have had difficult experiences of theory. Theory is hard, it requires odd locutions (apparently you have to capitalise “Other”?!?). We have all met the ‘theorybro‘ who threw around random Foucault in overconfident French, dominating grad school discussions (even when you had read Foucault and could speak French and were pretty sure he was wrong). Perhaps we were tired of talking about how every building was a prison and were more interested in campaigning for prison abolition, or trying to help people in refugee detention centres. Perhaps we were told, explicitly or implicitly, that theory wasn’t for people like us. Or that the theory for and about people like us wasn’t ‘real’ theory.

All of this, hooks agrees with, writing from her own perspective of being considered too theoretical instead of practical, and at the same time ‘not theoretical enough’. She writes about students hurt by ‘feminist theory that literally beats them down, leaves them stumbling bleary eyed from classroom settings feeling humiliated’. This kind of theory, of course, is not healing.

Theory is not inherently healing, liberatory, or revolutionary. It fulfills this function only when we ask that it do so and direct our theorizing towards this end. 

And yet, hooks names people for whom theory can be healing. Alice Miller (author of Prisoners of Childhood) ‘experienced theory as a healing’.

An unnamed woman

gave thanks that our meeting, our theorizing of race, gender and sexuality that afternoon had eased her pain, testifying that she could feel the hurt going away, that she could feel a healing taking place within. Holding my hands, standing body to body, eye to eye, she allowed me to empathically share the warmth of that healing. She wanted me to bear witness, to hear again both the naming of her pain and the power that emerged when she felt the hurt go away.

She ‘felt the hurt go away’.

hooks is writing of of a particular kind of theory.

Within revolutionary feminist movements, within revolutionary black liberation struggles, we must continually claim theory as necessary practice within a holistic framework of liberatory activism. … To me, this theory emerges from the concrete, from my efforts to make sense of everyday life experiences, from my efforts to critically intervene in my life and the lives of others. This to me is what makes feminist transformation possible. Personal testimony, personal experience, is such fertile ground for the production of liberatory feminist theory because usually it forms the base of our theory- making.

I can easily see how theory that is wrapped up in liberation, that sees and tries to help people in pain, can be understood as ‘healing’. I can see how philosophy that emerges out of the lived experiences of marginalised groups, allowing them to be seen and heard and valued, would be ‘healing’. But what about other kinds of theory? Can Ancient Greek, or German, or French philosophy (‘classical’, ‘Enlightenment’, or ‘Continental’ philosophy) be healing? I would say yes, because in all eras of philosophy the questions have been the big questions of right-living.

What is freedom? How do we live ethically? Why is art beautiful? How do I reflect on my own thoughts and feelings? Can we play? How do we do justice? How shall we love one another?

The thinkers I am reading do not agree on the answers… but I think they agree on the questions. This year, I have been diving deep into theoretical texts. I’ve been reading Foucault’s Care of the Self and then the Greek philosophers behind it. I finally got around to Marcus Aurelius. I’ve been reading Sara Ahmed, and lots of Audre Lorde. I’m reading the Upanishads, and Patañjali’s Sutras. I’m reading the Gay’wu Group of Women. I’ve just read Ricoeur, which is going to send me back to Marx and Freud and Nietzsche. I have asked myself ‘what is justice?’ and ‘what is the good life?’ and ‘what else matters?’.

Theory is not inherently healing, liberatory, or revolutionary. It fulfills this function only when we ask that it do so and direct our theorizing towards this end.

So we could ask theory to be healing. We could direct our theorising towards the end of healing. Because in doing so, I have found much that is joyful, restorative, embodying or freeing. I have found much to think with, to be inspired by. I have found the thinking of others to be generative in my own thinking, and in my teaching and writing, towards ‘a morality of writing well,‘ but also of being well. Thank you for thinking with me.

Photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash


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