On Praxis: The relationship of theory and practice, or how the world learnt to stop theorising, and also how to not get things done.
|This image evokes the concept of praxis, apparently. I can't say I see it myself.|
"The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it."
Marx, 11th Theses on Feuerbach, 1845Theory without practice is intellectual masturbation at best, and a serious obstacle to necessary social change at worst. Practice without theory is ineffectual folk politics at best, barbarism at worst. The 11th Theses on Feuerbach has been read to mean that, to change the world one must prioritise practice over theory - this is not what Marx is saying. A true revolutionary social theory is one that can hold theory and practice together without one diminishing the other, in other words it would be a philosophy of praxis - not an act of poeisis.
Consider one of the more neglected of the Theses on Feuerbach;
"The materialist doctrine concerning the changing of circumstances and upbringing forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that it is essential to educate the educator himself."
Marx, 3rd Theses on Feurbach, 1845Praxis comes from the Greek word. In Aristotles mind there are three basic types of human activity; theoria(theory), poiesis (making) and praxis (doing). I am not a scholar of ancient Greek - so my opinion on the meaning of these words is not based on linguistics, but my inclination as a Philosopher is that given that praxis represents a third category, it is of a different type of thing to poiesis (making). Thus, Feenburg(1) is mistaken when he characterises the embrace of praxis by the Frankfurt School(2) as a turn away from philosophy toward practice - my contention would be that what is taking place is a rebalancing of theoria and poiesis.
But arcane academic disputes to one side, and the pretentious introduction where footnotes longer than the body of the text were necessary over with, let's turn in our discussion to how exactly one might achieve praxis.
A theory of the practice of praxis, if you will(3).
Pt. One - What does practice without theory look like?
In a name: Theresa May, in another - Donald Trump.
Beginning with Theresa May. We may look back and laugh at the premiership of Britains second female Prime Minister, it has certainly been a farce so far (March 21st 2017), prior to anything concrete taking place to facilitate Britain leaving the EU.
What we have is a person who unassured of their own power, being duly unelected only last year, is seeking to embody the notion of getting your hands dirty, getting on with things, real things - ya' know? Getting things done! Doing things! Things are getting done! Lest anyone question her capacity to lead.
The problem is that once you start doing something without any clear understanding of what you are trying to achieve, you're going to start doing things you never wanted to do in the first place.
It's like when you start trying to clean your flat and end up re-organising your books into alphabetical order, whilst the dishes pile up in the sink. It's also bit like when you start trying to negotiate to secure the United Kingdoms trading position following a vote to leave the EU and end up promising to leave the single market. We've all been there.
The reason why May is acting like this is not because she has a favoured version of 'Brexit'. A notion or understanding of parliamentary sovereignty and it's relationship with the de facto sovereign(4) or a view on what the trading position of the United Kingdom should be in future, or really any strong opinions about anything. (Other than how much she hates poor people and foreigners, but especially poor foreigners.) It is because she is seeking to embody practice, or action for the sake of action. So as to maintain power.
As for Donald Trump, I try to avoid giving opinions about American politics for various reasons. One thing I will say however, is that it should be obvious to anyone with access to Twitter that his is not the measured approach. He does seem to operate very much on the level of his base instincts. If one looks at his speech acts they rarely form a coherent whole taken individually, let alone cohering as a totality.
Leading one to suspect that Trump is shooting more in hope than expectation at any target he comes across. Even less out of commitment to anything, other than his own self aggrandisement. Thus, when he acts, it is act without theory. If Trump goes on to do awful things, it will be because he is a fool in love with himself and with power, rather than out of anything we might call malice or measured evil. I feel that at this point however the more likely outcome of his Presidency is that he will be impeached.
Pt. Two - What does theory without practice look like?
It looks a lot like a great deal of what gets churned out of the Philosophy academy as Philosophy of Language. Let me ask you, why is gold called gold? How does the word gold relate to the thing in the world gold? And now let me further ask you; Why should anyone not involved, in what is essentially an intellectual parlour game, give a fuck?
Allow me to clarify a position here lest I am misunderstood. I do not believe that all Philosophy of Language is self-referential nonsense. Nor that the study of language, or even this kind of Philosophy of Language, is not a valid area of human enquiry. What I am saying is that it is often difficult to see the point in a lot of it - and it is often done at the expense of socially useful theory.
There should be a point in the course of an academic debate where we realise that certain questions are intractable, not because they weren't worth asking and the game not worth playing - games are often fun and develop many of our faculties. But because after a certain point you ought to realise that knowledge in a certain area is not possible because the question is not intelligible and the concepts we are using actually prevent, rather than facilitate, true knowledge and our efforts would be better directed toward another object(6). It happened in classical Metaphysics and it ought to happen in contemporary Philosophy of Language - and by extension much of what now passes for cutting edge Philosophy.
I realise that this addresses academic Philosophy to an extent that might be alienating, so as the Blog is called Matt Get's Political not Matt Get's Philosophical (Although I did toy with that name) - I shall attempt to give another example as well.
Folk politics, which I have criticised in another post, is a type of politics which prioritises immediacy at the expense of addressing issues on a systemic or structural level. This is largely due to it rejecting the use of power or practice of authority which it views as inherently abusive. Thus, the folk politicker has a theory of the world and how to make it better. However, as a result of what they judge to be the inappropriate nature of power, or authority, and their prioritisation of the immediate and the local over the mediated and structural, they cannot go beyond their immediate setting. Making the entire enterprise inherently self containing. Essentially making the whole thing an exercise in political masturbation.
Pt. Three - What would praxis look like?
It would look like recognising a political or social problem that society has and then working to solve that problem in a way that is compatible with the theory, in a way that is universalisable. ie. Which is to say in a way that can be scaled up to the level of structure or society taken as a whole and could potentially be global.
Thus, the anarchist who rejects the necessity of the state might organise to fill in pot holes - solving a problem (the pot holes) and doing it in such a way that is wholly consistent with their theory of the world by not appealing to the state for help. The practice of anarchism however is often, although not always, necessarily confined to a locality.
There are cases however, where this is not so. As when groups of people across the United Kingdom organised to have food and equipment sent to the Calais refugee camp, forming a national network in some cases largely outside of the state and charity apparatus.
Thus, they had a theory of the world which said that it is the duty of those who can help, to help refugees. They also found that the state was unable, or more accurately unwilling, to fulfil basic humanitarian duties on behalf of its citizens- meaning that the duties they felt they owed could not, in this case, be mediated through the state. Thus, they combined this view of how the world should be and acted to make the world conform to that view in ways compatible with the view.
*Bare with me the introduction is quite dense. For each term or name of a group of people that appears to be unexplained this is for clarity of style, these will either be dealt with in a footnote indicated by a number between brackets - or an explanation will be forthcoming in the body of the text no more than a paragraph later. As a quick note, despite the fact that a lot of this engages quite heavily with Philosophy, I am doing the written equivalent of spit-balling and might in my role as an academic Philosopher come to different conclusions or argue in slightly different ways. The thrust of the argument however would probably be the same.
(1)Andrew Feenburg, The Philosophy of Praxis - Marx, Lukacs and the Frankfurt School, Verso, London, 2014 (Revised and Edited Edition.) - Ch. 7, pp. 151 - "This turn away from philosophical speculation toward action implies an absolute historicism without which social change would not have significance." Don't worry if you're lost here, critical theorists aren't famed for their clarity or concision. Essentially what he is saying is that philosophy is often argued over in terms of binary opposites ie. fact/value, order/chaos, subject/object, theory/practice - and that what the Frankfurt School theorists did was attempt to reorientate the entire project of philosophy from theory toward practice. What I want to argue is that the idea is not to prioritise one or the other and, in such a way, to carry on speaking and thinking in terms of opposites. Instead we should hold both without diminishing or prioritising either. Like when I'm cooking steak and chips - I am focused on the cooking of both of them. I do not prioritise one or the other but recognise that taken together they form the totality of the meal - the thing I am actually trying to achieve. I'm aware that I am splitting hairs here by preferring re-balancing, over turning away from theory, but being quite into spatial metaphors they bother me more than most when I don't feel they're apt. Don't be put off buying the book though, it's pretty good. Spatial metaphors aside.
(2) Typically taken to include Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse and others - they are a school in the sense of school of thought, although they did at one point all work at the same institution. The Frankfurt School project is essentially to reappraise the philosophy of Marx in such a way as to give greater primacy to freedom - acting against the orthodox Marxism of the time and the USSR in particular.
(3) As noted, I am writing this more as a personal meditation and to get thoughts clear in my own head for myself more than I am out of any desire to provide a survey of the literature or opinion on the matter. There is a rich vein of thought on this issue and I would encourage anyone to read into it if they're interested in the matter.
(4) De facto(As a matter of fact) head of state in the UK - Theresa May, The Prime Minister. De jure (As a matter of law) - Queen Elizabeth II , The Monarch.
(5)I have re-read that sentence and it does sound slightly wishy washy- it's not though, but whatever.
(6)People who aren't academic Philosophers, past or present, won't realise how many toes I just trod on in that. Questioning the centrality of language in contemporary analytic Philosophy is like telling theologians to stop banging on about God. I'm certainly not the first to do it though.