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  • Four Philosophical Models of the Relation Between Theory and Practice
  • Estelle R. Jorgensen

Since music education straddles theory and practice, my purpose is to sketch the strengths and weaknesses of four philosophical models of the relationship between theory and practice. I demonstrate that none of them suffices when taken alone; each has something to offer and its own detractions. And I conclude with four suggested ways in which the analysis can be helpful to music teachers and those interested in their work.

Clarifying what is meant by theory and practice raises a nest of conceptual problems. Concerning theory, it may be tempting to equate the terms "theory" and "philosophy." Among their shared properties, these terms deal with conceptual and abstract entities that, from the Enlightenment at least, have been held to be distinct from the phenomenal world. They also clarify ideas and distinguish one concept from another. Among their different purposes, the object of philosophy is the asking of questions in a search for wisdom or truth whereas theory is formulated for explanatory purposes, especially within the frame of scientific propositions that can be refuted through empirical observations. The tests of philosophy are, therefore, those of symbolic logic evidenced in principles such as [End Page 21] internal consistency, correspondence with evidence (deductive, inductive, or analogical), and coherence within a unity or whole. Although logical criteria may also be important in formulating and testing theory,1 it is tested and refuted primarily through means of qualitative descriptions and quantitative assessments of observable phenomena.

Regarding practice, one is also confronted with an ambiguous construct that may be interpreted descriptively (what is done in the phenomenal world or taken to be the general state of affairs) or normatively (what is desirable or ideal). There is also the distinction between the practice of a seasoned performer and practice in the sense of striving towards the mastery of a competent and expert practice. In this regard, Vernon Howard distinguishes between "practice" (or the skills exemplified by proficient or expert performers) and "practise (or acquiring the level of mastery of proficient or expert performance)."2 For him, the ambiguous and paradoxical nature of artistic practice highlights the complexity of degrees of attaining mastery of skills or exemplary practice and the diverse array of skills ranging from habit to critical thinking involved in the practice of any art. Although each practice is distinguished by its own belief systems, rituals, expectations, and commonsense, boundaries between differing practices are sometimes "soft" or fuzzy, as one seeps into another.3 Consequently, it is often difficult to distinguish one from another at the margins where one practice becomes another.


The notion of theory and practice as independent or a dichotomous relationship between the phenomenal world on the one hand and the mind and spirit on the other has its roots in the ancient world. For Plato, the world of "appearances," referring to the phenomenal world understood by imagination (eikasia) and belief (pistis), should be distinguished from the higher, abstract "intelligible world" grasped through thinking (dianoia), knowledge (episteme), and intelligence (noesis).4 René Descartes' later bifurcation of the inner and outer worlds and inversion of Platonic values and understandings resulted in the ascendancy of careful and deliberate observation of the phenomenal world over philosophical reflection.5 His ideas helped to set the stage for the Enlightenment and the Industrial, Scientific, and Information Revolutions. Empiricism, science, and technology gradually displaced philosophy as primary ways of knowing the phenomenal world and understanding the nature of mind, human cognition, feeling, and being. Making hard-boundaried distinctions between within and without one's self, the phenomenal world and the world of spiritual things, and theory and practice were important insights. These distinctions provided for limits on the sorts of ways in which truth could be known. Reasoned deliberation [End Page 22] and imaginative thought have particular usefulness in the world of theory while sensory perception and careful observation are especially useful in the phenomenal world of practice. So while the scholar might speculate about phenomena, observational tools are also useful in coming to know and understand them. Reason and observation each have particular strengths, and it ought not be assumed that philosophy or scientific observation...


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