Theory and Practice

I’ve read and written a few blog posts recenty about applied x and theoretical x. People declaring themselves to be theoretical x, practical y, and denying a distinction. Maybe this can help clarify the discussion.

What do we mean?

When I say, “I’m a theoretical mathematician”, what do I mean by that? I mean that I’m interested in understanding “how” and “why” the math works. It’s not that I HAVE to understand how addition works, it’s that, when presented with an explanation, I am genuinely interested – even excited! What if I was a practical mathematician? Not interested: Doesn’t help me add any better. What might I be interested in? Maybe spline algorithms? Those sound useful. I’m not a practical mathematician, so I’m just guessing…

New example: “I’m a practical programmer”. I’m interested in developing applications to streamline workflows (seriously, I love it!). So, when someone comes along and says, “you should be using this new language!”, I think, “hmm… Is it (or is it likely in the near future to be) widely supported? Does it have performance implications? Is it stable? Is it well documented?”[1] Now theoretical programmers? They’re the people who write languages in the first place, who decided closures were a good idea, and who (evil people!) gave us Javascript all those years ago with its protoype based inheritance. See, somebody on the Javascript development team thought it’d be a cool idea to implement, and it probably was. But it’s not practical for me. End rant. Maybe.

So, practical people primarily want to apply their knowledge to something outside the discipline, while theoretical people primarily are interested in the discipline itself, and furthering said discipline. It’s important to realize here that both types of people are valuable. If we didn’t have practical people, nobody would have heard about the field, much less be willing to pay anybody to work in it; and if we didn’t have theoretical people, well… we wouldn’t have a field. Or we’d have some really crappy field thrown together by the practical people.

What if I don’t care?

If you don’t care about x, then of course you don’t have a position. But everyone’s interested in something, and probably more than one thing. Eventually, you become interested enough to become a part of the community of x. Even if you’re just a lurker, you still come to understand if not share the communities values, to know if they’re growing or dying, progressing or regressing. With the internet, it’s easier than ever to become a part of the niche American bread making from scratch scene (yes, as opposed to the European one). By this point, you’re involved enough and informed enough to have opinions, and you also care enough to have chosen a side – you’re either a theoretical x or a practical x. So, for every person p, their exists a subject x such that p is a [theoretical or practical] x. Lovely!

So what’s the point?

Well, nothing really. We’ve defined two categories and declared them both valuable (if not complimentary). Maybe this will help someone understand that “crazy” person who’s always interested in some “worthless” aspect of the project.

Also, describing a person by their practical/theoretical positions seems informative. For example, I’m a practical programmer, theoretical mathematician, and practical chef. Now you know not only what I’m really interested in, but something about where I stand on certain issues. Try posting your positions, and we’ll see how helpful this information actually is…

[1]Sorry Ruby, but you’re slow, aren’t stable enough, and I doubt your documentation is better than PHPs. You are becoming widely supported though…

About Bion

I'm a software developer at Modo Payments, a mobile payment provider. When I'm not hacking away the office, you I'm usually at home hacking on something else. Or practicing Aikido. Anyway, I just post things here that Google couldn't help me with, so maybe it'll help you in the future. Since you're reading this, I guess it worked :)
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