Theory Toolbox Semantics

by thierry berlemont


Is theory a tool? Is a collection of different theories a toolbox of theories or is a theory in itself a toolbox containing tools? If a theory is a toolbox, what kind of tools does it contain? Is a tool a part of a theory? How do we recognize or identify the tools in the toolbox? Are the properties of the toolbox representative for the tools in it? Are the tools mingled with other things that don’t fall under the same denominator? What can we do with the tools in the box? Do we have to figure that out or do the tools speak for themselves and their possible usage? Does the manipulation of the tools demand a certain degree of skill and do we have to learn to use them? How do we go about in this process of learning to use theoretical tools (or is it theory tools)? These questions keep puzzling me and I have some difficulty to make sense out of it. It appears to me that the connection of ‘Theory‘ to ‘Toolbox‘ is less straightforward than it appears to be at first sight.

My confusion may have something to do with a personal preconception and the related interpretations about what a tool is, or what I believe(d) it is.
I speculate(d) that a tool is ‘instrumental par nature’, that it is a facilitator, that it allows us to do something that would be more difficult or maybe even impossible to do without. I also reckon(ed) that it is something that lies outside of our body and is an addition, extension, strengthening, magnification or even replacement of it. I don’t believe that it has to be an object, because people and more immaterial things like software can be tools too of course. I understand that in this case ‘Theory Toolbox’ is a metaphor and not a real toolbox, like those we can see in the hands and vans of constructors, plumbers and carpenters. But the metaphor created by juxtaposition constructs a relationship between ‘Theory’ and ‘Toolbox’ that expresses a new significance of both terms together. The meanings of both get mixed and as far as I am concerned they also get muddled, especially for what the term ‘theory’ is concerned.
‘Toolbox’ makes a reference to two things: a ‘container(1)’ – a box, or maybe a bag, a basket or whatever – in which to put things, not just anything, but specific things labeled with the term ‘tools(2)’. A toolbox is a practical device used to store, protect, organize and carry tools and the use of that image as a metaphor will be bound to that meaning, i.e. the practical and instrumental nature, the *usability*. For the term ‘tool’ a similar mechanism applies, as the definition in Wikipedia (accessed 28/03/13) suggests: ‘A tool is any physical item that can be *used to achieve a goal*, especially if the item is not consumed in the process. Informally the word is also used to describe a procedure or process with a specific *purpose*’ . When we combine (1) and (2) the image of *usefulness* and *purposefulness* are added up.
I always thought of ‘Theory’ as being a ‘particular’ way of explaining the world or a part of it. The New Oxford American Dictionary (Version 2.1.3 on Mac) gives the following definition of theory: ‘a supposition or a system of ideas intended to explain something, especially one based on general principles independent of the thing to be explained / a set of principles on which the practice of an activity is based / an idea used to account for a situation or justify a course of action’. These descriptions seem to me to be more about a context or frame of ideas and concepts, their structure and arguments, the discourse. But is this system of ideas per se *useful* and/or *purposeful*? I don’t know the answer to this question, but by connecting theory to toolbox, theory automatically gets connected to those two goal-oriented meanings. Stated in positive terms, we could say that in the metaphor ‘Theory Toolbox’, useful and purposeful action is associated to thinking, the practical to the intellectual and the contemplative, theory to practice.

So far so good, but nevertheless my doubt remains, because in the associative metaphor the connotation of theory being instrumental in achieving goals is made quite explicit and easy. Too easy I believe.

In Eyal Weizman’s Lethal Theory (LT), the story is narrated in such a way that a certain theory of architecture and urbanism is used as a catalyst that generates new strategic concepts and subsequent practice, and it is suggested that the theory was an effective means to an unfortunately ‘lethal’ end.
It seems to be a confirmation of the metaphor and I have no reason, nor information that allows me to question the truth or fact about this version of the story.
However, the story could be told in another way as well. For I am sure that creative (architectural) minds don’t need to know any of the theories the military refer to in order to be able to develop that specific (lethal) spatial strategy. We could as easily state that it is the result of acute spatial imagination and re-interpretation, containing a high degree of creativity and speculation, regardless of theory: ‘This space that you look at, this room that you look at, is nothing but your interpretation of it. Now, you can stretch the boundaries of your interpretation, … the question is, how do you interpret the alley? Do you interpret the alley as a place to walk through or as a place forbidden to walk through? This depends only on interpretation…’ (quotation from LT). A blogpost on the subject bearing the title ‘Alice’s Wonderland Battle Space’ (, viewed on 10/03/2013) even makes an overly explicit reference to those aspects of creativity and interpretation by making a far-fetched connection with Lewis Caroll’s beautiful story, simply by seizure of it’s name.
In this context it seems fair to ask whether theory is a part of a referential context that serves as a justification for completely crazy and amoral, though extremely fascinating spatial ideas? In this B-version of the story, the IDF’s practices can certainly be regarded as an audacious appropriation of architecture’s spatial mechanisms but not necessarily as the use of architectural theories as purposeful and useful tools that enable to construct a strategy. Does the metaphor allow for this B-version to be considered? The relational space that is created in the juxtaposition/combination – or should I use agency? – of words is not neutral, not merely a code or tool for identification, but also a conveyor of meanings and a catalyst for interpretations. I understand the problem as being not merely one of representation, but also one of orientation and maybe even guidance. Metaphors contain assumptions – with varying degrees of visibility – and implicitly privilege certain perspectives over others. In so doing they subtly invite us to orient our view in particular directions. It reminds me of the relevance to take good care of words and their precious relations.