Theory vs practice, a false dichotomy

August 2nd 2023 | ~ 5 minute read


I've long been frustrated by the apparent disregard of, sometimes outright disdain for theoretical knowledge and the, in my opinion, overreliance on practice as the seemingly only method that brings about "real" value. In our day to day lives theory and practice are pitted against each other in a kind of dichotomy, exemplified by practice being described as doing the "real work" while theory is often scoffed at as something purely hypothetical, abstract and out of touch with the needs and wants of ordinary people. My goal in writing this article is to demonstrate this apparent dichotomy as a false one, uniting theoretical and practical knowledge, not as opposites, but as necessary components that complement each other on the path of personal improvement. And yes, the irony that this article attempts to provide a theoretical framework for understanding the practical, lived reality of people does not escape me.

The definition

To even begin our discussion, we need to describe what theoretical and practical knowledge are, what they serve to achieve and how they achieve it.


Theory provides the answers to "why", it provides us with a comprehensive knowledge base, built through centuries by the insight and the trial and error of others, constantly improving along the way. Theory is necessary to understand the inner working of phenomena. Without it one doesn't truly understand why things are the way they are. Most importantly, theoretical knowledge provides a basis and a framework for its practical application in solving real problems. One cannot disregard theory in favor of practice, because theory is a necessary component of practical work.


Practice provides the answers to "how". It is the application of theory that one does by themself, through empirical observations of the world around and inside them. Since it relies upon personal, lived experience, it is much closer to our day to day lives. In this sense it's no wonder why so many people hold it in such high regard. It is undoubtedly useful and necessary to be good at what you're doing. Crucially, practice has the express purpose of empirically putting theoretical knowledge to the test. Yet practice is incomplete by itself. It can only lead you so far. Practice is the solution to a specific problem, not a general class of problems, even similar ones. Without the insight that a theoretical framework provides, it becomes impossible to solve more complex problems.

The why

But why do people seem to disregard theory so much? There is certainly some truth to the notion that most people simply don't know enough about what theory even is, but I think there is more to it than that. There must be a reason why theory eludes so many as to be irrelevant, in their own point of view, to their reality. I'm of the opinion that a lot of jobs, and I use this word, jobs, on purpose, are essentially very practical in nature. A shoemaker doesn't really need to understand the properties of the materials they're using to make shoes, they need to be good at making them, a very practical approach to problem solving, built through personal trial and error and tutelage of more experienced people. I'll also, somewhat controversially, state that a lot of these jobs are characteristic of working-class people. This is not to say these people are uneducated or stupid, but it does imply that their job and life circumstances in general, do demand a very practical mindset. A lot of these jobs are also menial in nature, efficient to the point of repetition, so a single, specific, practical solution is usually all that's required. It is therefore easy to disregard theory as something only nerds need concern themselves with, something intangible and not worthy of their limited time. While this mindset is understandable, it is also rather unfortunate.

The how

As stated above, complex problems require the use of both theoretical and practical knowledge. Theory provides the necessary insight to understand the problem and practice provides the tools to efficiently compartmentalize and solve it. Nowhere is this more apparent than in engineering jobs that essentially exist to apply theoretical knowledge to arrive at practical solutions to real-world problems. It would be unwise for a computer programmer to write software, without really understanding the theoretical framework of why certain practical solutions are useful in the first place. To offer a concrete example, imagine someone who tries to apply SOLID engineering principles to a piece of software without understanding why these principles exist and what they aim to solve. It's true that they can somewhat pick it up along the way from people more experienced than them, but unless they sit down and study the theory of SOLID, the practice will continue to elude them. Conversely, a computer scientist doesn't have a complete grasp of the problem domain unless their idea is tested in practice. Like with practice, theory will only lead you so far. It is their union that ultimately brings us closer to the solution of any complex problem.


In this article I have admittedly argued from a point of view of someone who sees theory being disregarded in favor of practice in his day to day life. However, I must stress that the opposite, the disregard of practice in favor of theory is also, in my opinion, wrong. We should strive to both develop a sound explanatory framework of phenomena and use that framework to arrive at practical solutions to our problems. Both are necessary to make you great in your line of work and both will go a long way to improving your life, no matter what your profession is.