We live in a world that prioritizes practical application over theory. The Greek word praxis, which translates as application, and the word theoria, which translates as contemplation, were not mutually exclusive concepts. The study of theory in a world that measures every activity by results seems to be an archaic pursuit. So why bother to study theory at all?
The past often guides decision making. There is a saying in investment circles that goes something like this: past performance is seldom indicative of future performance. Looking at events from a historical perspective and making assumptions about the future is a dicey proposition. This is where theory comes into play. Theory is how we conceptualize the future. Practical empirical data is historical, and the application of a particular concept may no longer be applicable in the present or future. Things change in politics. Ironically, political change is the only certainty! In theory, all ideas are conceptualized in the future with the present and past as guideposts. But we cannot depend on the past or present, leading to specific outcomes in the future.
One example in political theory and how theory guides future practice (theoria to praxis) is the writing of the United States Constitution. Every word of the Constitution was grounded in the practical realities of creating a government and political system that sharply differed from the existing eighteenth-century models. The founders were keenly aware of the contrast in the proposed political system for America and political systems in Europe. Making the leap from concept to reality could not have happened if the writers had not been thoroughly immersed in philosophy and political theory beginning with Plato and Aristotle.
A short list of political theorists like Locke, Rousseau, Hume, Kant, Montesquieu, and Voltaire all contributed to the framework of the Constitution through their theoretical work, which the framers borrowed from. While practical governing issues and citizen responsibilities are integral parts of the Constitution, the theoretical framework allowed the document to survive innumerable political, societal, and domestic challenges. The United States Constitution is the amalgamation of political theory and political practice.
We study political theory because in many ways, significant historical events are products of the political theory of that day and time. However, the study of political theory is the study of the future as well as the past. While history provides empirical data as to why things are the way they are today, political theory allows us to project what we desire in the future and what the future may look like.