We live in critical times. With the rise of extreme-right populist movements, the impact of neoliberal government policies, and the fallout of the global war on terror, we face today an acute time of crisis. These times urgently call for critical analyses of our contemporary crises and for critical insights into praxis.
We are fortunate to have inherited a rich set of critical theories to help us parse through our contemporary crises and pierce the veils of illusion. But we remain somewhat impoverished today when it comes to critically thinking through critical praxis. We remain disarmed before the most critical question of all: What is to be done?
Our predicament is the product of centuries, no, millennia of privileging philosophical inquiry, contemplation, and reason over what the Greeks referred to as πρᾶξις— praxis, or practice, the ethical and political form of being. The former, theoria, involved predominantly understanding and comprehension—in essence, knowing—and it was oriented towards wisdom. The latter, praxis, revolved around activity, action, performance—in essence, doing—and it was oriented towards proper behavior in ethical and political life.
For the ancients, these were two importantly different modes of engaging the world—two among others, poiesis being another—and these categories shaped human experience ever since. The early Christian writers would draw on them in their struggle to square contemplative faith with actions of charity. Medieval scholastics pushed further toward the idea of the “practical application” of theoretical knowledge. With Enlightenment philosophy, from Descartes through Kant to the German Idealists, the privilege of reason would tilt the field further toward the mind, away from praxis.
Many critical thinkers during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries struggled to correct the imbalance—Marx, the first among them, as so strikingly encapsulated in his posthumously published Theses on Feuerbach. The second: “The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question.” The eighth: “Social life is essentially practical.” And, of course, the eleventh.
And Marx was by no means alone in this project to elevate praxis and infuse it with theoria—many critical thinkers would follow in his footsteps. Hannah Arendt would privilege the vita activa before turning, in her later years, to the contemplative realm in The Life of the Mind. Michel Foucault would extricate critical theory from the dominant Platonic path—gnōthi seauton, “know thyself”—and take the one less travelled: techniques of the self, practices of the self, or what he called “care of self.”
The tension recurred throughout the twentieth century—fueled by the liberal myth of the invisible hand and the centuries-long struggle between the contemplative and active orders. Under different rubrics—dirty hands, applied ethics—the tension persisted. But every time we came even close to praxis—from antiquity to the present—we, critical theorists, we found a way to divert the conversation.
Socrates got close in a few dialogues, in the first Alcibiades or the Statesman: confronting young men who wanted to live the life of praxis, rather than contemplation, Socrates made them realize that they didn’t really know much about justice or about governing, and that they needed first to gain knowledge. So he convinced them to know themselves first—to gain knowledge. He convinced them that doing politics is a skill, requires techne. Like being the captain of a ship, or shepherd of a flock, there is skill and knowledge to be had. So it all requires wisdom first. Knowledge. Contemplation. And that then pushes everything back to philosophy. It pushes us back to the Republic and definitions of justice, and the just person. And one never really got back to the original question: how to act politically.
Foucault got even closer in The Hermeneutics of the Subject and his final volumes of The History of Sexuality. We’ve spent too much time on Socrates’ know-thyself, Foucault argued there, there is a whole other tradition of practice that we’ve ignored. Foucault returned to Plato’s first Alcibiades as a vehicle to discuss those practices. He interpreted the Socratic move as a move toward practices of the self, toward care of the self, rather than simply knowledge of self—but then pivoted to the permanent practices of the self in the Stoics and Epicureans: and from there on in, it was practically exclusively about practices of the self. The dimension of subjectivity dominated the analysis.
Truth-telling, parrhesia, and the courage of truth are of course essential elements to engaging politics. Speaking out and denouncing injustice is central. Emile Zola’s J’accuse is perhaps the most classic example, for which he was convicted of libel and had to flee France. Foucault’s taking of positions in editorials and signed statements, on so many occasions, is another example. But notice the model: the influential intellectual, even as a specific intellectual, taking an individualist stance against the state in a truth-telling way—at personal risk, to be sure, but often alone standing against authority. That may be important, that may be necessary—but surely, it cannot capture praxis. And yet it seems to, practically always.
Somehow, praxis invariably took a second seat to theory. “Practice,” “practical knowledge,” “practical activities” became the handmaid of theoretical knowledge—whether in philosophy, physics, law, engineering, or government. To the point where, today, in our domain, we laud critical theory, but cannot even identify properly critical praxis.
No more. It is time to take stock and begin to chart new directions for critical practice. In times like these, there is a burning need for a new vision and renewed critical practices for the twenty-first century. What does or should political action look like from a critical perspective today, especially when the underlying theoretical structure of the dialectical imagination has become so fractured? This, I would argue, should be the main task of critique for the next decade.
This year’s 13/13 seminar series will take this problem as its task: to buck centuries of contemplative complacency and return praxis to its proper place in the order of things. In doing so, the seminar will strive to address the most critical question today: What is to be done? And what exactly is critical praxis today?
Welcome to Praxis 13/13.
Bernard E. Harcourt, Director of the CCCCT
Welcome to Praxis 13/13
A CCCCT series continuing Foucault 13/13, Nietzsche 13/13, and Uprising 13/13
This series is run in conjunction with Professors Bernard E. Harcourt’s seminar on Contemporary Critical Thought.
The 13/13 seminars will be open to all. If you are interested in attending, please inform us by sending an email to Ghislaine Pages at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Live webcasts will play on the individual 13/13 seminar session pages.
Visit the page for Praxis 13/13 at Total Webcast.