What do you call someone who is concerned with / active in practice and application rather than theory? That is, what is the noun opposite of "theoretician"?

I've looked on thesaurus.com, WordHippo.com, PowerThesaurus.com and synonyms.com, but to no avail.


  • Adjectives won't do. So, "practical", "applied", "applicative" are not what I'm after.
  • 2
    The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, fifth edition (2011) has this entry for empiricism: "empiricism 1. The view that experience, especially of the senses, is the only source of knowledge. ... 3. The practice of medicine that disregards scientific theory and relies solely on practical experience." In either of these senses, an empiricist would seem to be the opposite of a theorist.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Nov 3, 2019 at 21:02
  • @SvenYargs: No, an Empiricist is the opposite of an Idealist; those are views regarding what is real, not what you customarily concern yourself with.
    – einpoklum
    Commented Nov 3, 2019 at 21:21
  • Term used in science: experimentalist or experimental physicist or whatever. Also there's a phrase: Those that can, do, those that can't, teach. You could refer to that, saying, "Those that can, do." Also down to earth, go-getter. Commented Nov 4, 2019 at 6:41
  • 1
    'Theoretician' is not particularly 'the way' to say it. Usually it is 'theoretical X', like 'theoretical chemistry' or 'theoretical ethics'. The counterpart then is very commonly 'artificial X'. As in "to deal with thorny medical issues, an applied ethicist is a helpful addition to a hospital's staff."
    – Mitch
    Commented Nov 5, 2019 at 20:38

6 Answers 6


Consider practitioner which is defined here as

A person actively engaged in an art, discipline, or profession, especially medicine.

  • 1
    1. The connotation is that such a person is a practitioner of something, not just "a practitioner" period. 2. This doesn't seem to suggest the person eschews the theoretical aspect of their field.
    – einpoklum
    Commented Nov 3, 2019 at 20:45
  • 1
    @einpoklum-reinstateMonica I take your point but is it a requirement that someone cannot be called a theoretician unless he/she absolutely eschews the practical aspects of the field? Commented Nov 4, 2019 at 2:43

You might consider pragmatist

Defined by Oxford Lexico as:

1 A person who is guided more by practical considerations than by ideals.

And Cambridge defines pragmatism as:

the quality of dealing with a problem in a sensible way that suits the conditions that really exist, rather than following fixed theories, ideas, or rules.

  • Interesting... but is this ever used in the context I described in my question?
    – einpoklum
    Commented Nov 4, 2019 at 7:54
  • @einpoklum-reinstateMonica It is used in a slightly different sense to "practitioner". "Pragmatist" refers more to an attitude of mind to anything (and perhaps everything). The former, however,is usually a practitioner in a certain field e.g. podiatry. The OED for "pragmatist" says A proponent or adherent of pragmatism; a person who adopts a practical and realistic approach to life, or who concentrates on practicalities and facts, rather than theory or ideals.
    – WS2
    Commented Nov 4, 2019 at 8:29

If we conjugate "practice" into a noun like we do "theory", we get a practician - someone who tends to engage in practical work (rather than theoretical work).

So, that kind of fits, but it is a bit obscure on its own, and I doubt it sees a lot of use, so other answers are also welcome.

  • Lexico says it is archaic. Commented Nov 3, 2019 at 20:15
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    I have upvoted this as correct. Practician and practioner are to all intents synonyms, though the former, as attested by the OED is "now rare".
    – WS2
    Commented Nov 3, 2019 at 20:16
  • @WS2: You can be a practitioner of Psychology but you can't be a practician of Psychology. Or so I believe.
    – einpoklum
    Commented Nov 3, 2019 at 20:48
  • @einpoklum-reinstateMonica The OED definition of "practician" is A person who practises a particular art, profession, or occupation (originally medicine); a practitioner. Also: a person with practical knowledge as opposed to a theorist. Now rare. However among the examples given I couldn't find any medical ones that were from more recently than the eighteenth century.
    – WS2
    Commented Nov 4, 2019 at 8:20

In certain situations you may also speak of a

hands-on person

i.e. a person who does something practically (and pro-actively), as opposed to only theorizing about it.

I admit that this is not the best match for what you are looking for. It is rather yet another word from the general semantic field here.

  • While a bit colloquial, "hands-on" it's not so bad. However, a "hands on person" seems to refer to the individual's character in life rather than what they do professionally. Can you put that in a sentence?
    – einpoklum
    Commented Nov 5, 2019 at 20:12

I agree with @SvenYargs in the comments:


Although the definition that better fits this context is probably (via Merriam-Webster):

the practice of relying on observation and experiment especially in the natural sciences

One can distinguish between theoretical and empirical sources for scientific evidence.

In this dichotomy, the theoretician is taking a more rationalist perspective (for an example of a paper taking this persepective see here), but I think it is inappropriate to expect to apply that pure dichotomy from epistemology to a typical practicing scientist. Instead, one should consider these as shared aspects of the philosophy of science rather than the philosophy of epistemology.

Rather, a theoretician is of the type that focuses on the theoretical approach; that doesn't mean they reject empirical evidence, but they may tend to be skeptical of evidence that is not grounded in theory (that is, one needs to be able to develop a predictive theory to interpret evidence in a meaningful way).

Similarly, used in context, an empiricist is not someone who thinks theoretical work is not "real" but rather they focus on empirical evidence in their work (that is, they may use theory to drive an experiment but the deciding factor is supportive experimental evidence).

For another example, Monaghan, F. V., & Corcos, A. F. (1985). Mendel, the empiricist. Journal of Heredity, 76(1), 49-54. use the theoretician/empiricist dichotomy to position the work of Gregor Mendel. Google scholar can suggest several other articles in which to find this dichotomy.

I would consider "experimentalist" to be a synonym, as well, which also fits well with the adjectives used for say, an experimental vs. theoretical physicist.

  • Your quote illustrates how an Empiricist is absolutely not the word I'm looking for. In fact, it could easily be construed as an insult if I call scientists in certain fields by that word.
    – einpoklum
    Commented Nov 5, 2019 at 20:10
  • @einpoklum-reinstateMonica I removed the full quote and replaced it with another definition; I meant to give credit to Sven's comment though I think there is a better, more appropriate definition for empiricism used in a modern context. I was unaware of empiricist as a bit of a slur for a certain type of medicine. The use of the word "empirical" in science is certainly not an insult and does not refer to a narrow view that only the senses are real, only to a broader view that considers experimental evidence to be part of what is "sensed". Commented Nov 5, 2019 at 20:26
  • I'd also say that calling someone a "theoretician" is also an insult in some circles. Commented Nov 5, 2019 at 20:27
  • Calling someone a theoretician does not suggest - at least, not outside of some specific context - that this person discounts practice or experimental work. Anyway, removed the -1 because it's perhaps too harsh.
    – einpoklum
    Commented Nov 5, 2019 at 21:09
  • @einpoklum-reinstateMonica Neither does empiricist or empirical suggest discounting of theoretical work (at least not when considered from the perspective of philosophy of science) - check the link to Google Scholar for such examples of the usage where this is clearly the case. Commented Nov 5, 2019 at 22:38

They are a technician, or someone focused on practice of established methods. The Oxford English Dictionary:

  1. A person qualified in the practical aspects of one of the sciences or mechanical arts; (in later use) esp. a person whose job is to carry out practical work in a laboratory or to give assistance with technical equipment.

Technicians do the front line work. To illustrate with generalization:

  • Automotive technicians don't design cars; they service them.
  • Dental technicians don't research dentistry, but practice it under the guidance of a dentist.
  • Medical technicians don't lead research; they operate equipment.
  • Computer technicians don't build new programs; they service them.
  • Lab technicians don't lead experiments; they run the procedures necessary to complete them.

In other words, a technician is someone whose primary role is to focus on practice; many roles (like the dentist or the programmer) may move freely between theory and practice; a theoretician focuses on developing theories and methods.

  • From the dictionary, I like this answer; in practice, it wouldn't work in the scientific contexts of AmE with which I am familiar. In those contexts, a "technician" is explicitly a lower-level position, however indispensable they may be to good science. They may have technical skills, but their work is typically directed by others (professors, scientists, engineers). Commented Nov 6, 2019 at 3:52

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