I’m always suspicious of theory that doesn’t make use of a rich reservoir of examples; not because this is a mark of good writing in that examples assist readers in understanding the concepts, but because I worry that the theory is unmoored from anything in the world, that it bears no responsibility for explaining anything in the world (which might also function as a ground from which to contest the theory), and that the theory might instead just be a castle in the air. What is an epistemology, for example(!), that gives no concrete examples of knowledge production? We are told all about knowledge without ever being given a single example of what the author sees as an instance of knowledge. How are we to know, in these instances, of whether or not this epistemology maps on to anything that takes place in the world of knowledge production among scientists, doctors, lawyers, craftsmen, psychoanalysts, etc? A theory that sought to conceptualize literature without speaking of any instances of literature would be strange indeed.
An example is not a simple ornament, but is that to which the theorist bears responsibility in their theorizing. In this regard, I think that it’s noteworthy that prior to the twentieth century, so many philosophers were not first and foremost philosophers. Descartes, for example, was a mathematician, scientist, and soldier. Leibniz was a mathematician, diplomat, engineer, and many other things besides. Spinoza was a lens grinder. Locke was a physician. For all of these thinkers there was something else, a sort of “matter”, that introduced a little bit of the real, a little bit of alterity, and which constrained their speculation. Would the postmodern (I hate that term) idea of a universe composed entirely of flowing signifiers that construct reality however one likes have ever been possible prior to the age of the professional theorist, the professional academic, that isn’t attached to any matter like the body as in the case of Locke or the obstinance of the matheme as in the case of Leibniz?
However, the example is also important for another reason. The example says a great deal about just how a theorist thinks about a certain type of thing. Speaking of mathematics, Kant continuously evokes the example of 7 + 5 = 12. Is this a good or representative example of mathematics? I think both Badiou and Deleuze rightfully chastise this choice for the conception of mathematics it reflects. How about Harman? His favorite examples are fire, cotton, and hammers. How might these archetypal examples inform his entire conception of objects? Would that theory be different if one chose a flower or waves or a factory? When a theorist wishes to write about architecture and uses the home as their go to example, how does that example come to inform their entire theory of architecture? Examples express intuitions about the nature of broader categories like “being”, “knowledge”, “truth”, “normativity”, etc. They are not secondary, but are at the core of theoretical work.