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Fr. 671

September 15, 2015

Nuance and the pitfalls thereof are the subject of a recent article making the rounds (via). Indeed, the challenge posed to nuance is of great concern for our project precisely in the measure that we advocate for a more complex, full notion of self. We accomplish this, in particular, by multiplying distinctions or conceptions of self in order to arrive at an understanding of self more in line with its empirical and linguistic realities: self is not merely subject nor individual, not merely element but agent. But do we skirt some theoretical danger in nuancing self?

Sociologist Kieran Healy might see a danger in this call for nuance insofar as, without addendum, ours appears just such another “free-floating demand to make things ‘richer’ or ‘more sophisticated’ by adding complexity, detail, or levels of analysis, in the absence of any real way of disciplining how [one] add[s] them.” To this initial definition, he adds:

People just keep insisting on a more-sophisticated approach and act as though simply listing the many ways something might be more complex is the same as having a better theory of that thing. In such cases, levels and aspects and dimensions may just pile up in a heap. It is especially bad when you habitually make this your first move when deciding whether an idea or theory is any good.

In other words, without any theoretical throughline to pull the new elements together, more detail risks diluting a theory’s takeaway for those who would make use of it in some situation or other.  If the amount of detail overwhelms, then the theory has been undone precisely by that which would have strengthened it.

Hence, there is little purpose in calling for nuance if one does not explain further what specifically that theory lacks and how new elements account for it. On Healy’s view, the problem of nuance, rife in social theory, can be still further specified as:

Instead I have a specific phenomenon in mind: the tendency to demand more detail, insist on a more-sophisticated approach, or assert things are more complex than has been said — without having anything much to say beyond that. In particular, it’s the tendency to think doing so makes you a deep thinker.


Herein lies the heart of the problem: nuance does not in and of itself make one a better thinker, make one’s thought a better thought. Unless this thought passes through nuance to emerge with new tools for future instances, nuance brings little to the matter. More simply, if nuance can help us to reorient thought in relation to some phenomenon, nuance itself requires, in the end, condensation.

This condensation need not issue in overly simplistic tools. Condensation does, however, bring a necessary level of abstraction to the situation, enough to filter out distracting elements which prevent one from proceeding more efficiently. As we found with O’Neill’s Towards justice and virtue, abstraction proves a necessary mental virtue. Healy addresses this after his own fashion:

It’s not that theory should be as simple as possible. But it is true that we can often make a lot more progress than you’d think when we simplify things in slightly absurd ways. This happens over and over and with different kinds of models, not just mathematical ones. You still have to intelligently develop these simple tools. You have to be aware of what they can and can’t do. But your first reaction to them should not be to look for what the tool lacks, and demand it be added in.


The question proves not to be that of the tool’s failings but, rather, of how it might be differently applied and of choosing the right tool for the right situation. Certainly, this requires some understanding of context, but Healy’s aim was never to do away with nuance entirely:

What counts as simple, nuanced, or interesting depends partly on who is talking and whom they are talking to. An elementary or even boring point for area experts might be illuminating (or weird) for people out in the world. There’s no contradiction there. Where you don’t want to end up — either with a lay audience or an expert one — is to find yourself saying nothing more than “It’s more complicated than that” and then giving a list of ways that it is. Like I said, the world’s a messy place — it’s always “more complicated than that.” It is not the job of theory to verbally reproduce the complexity of the world.

If the world is, as Healy says, “messy” and theory is to bear on the world in any practicable manner, then, understandably, theory cannot both reproduce that mess and remain practicable. Theory provides a useful information filter. Were all information to pass through theory’s information filter, then that filter would no longer serve a purpose.

To come back to our starting point: how does our account hold up when faced with charges of nuance for nuance’s sake?

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