Bernard E. Harcourt | Introduction to 1/13: On Theory and Praxis, and Truth, Politics, and Power

By Bernard E. Harcourt

This first seminar “Praxis & Critique,” and, for that matter, the series itself, Critique & Praxis 13/13, are not named after Marx, or for Marx—although both terms are so closely associated with him. With Marx, that is, and with other critical thinkers he influenced, such as Jean-Paul Sartre, the members of the Praxis School, or the editorial team of the Praxis journal and, later, Praxis International. No, this is not a Marxist project, nor a project about Marxism.

But Sartre, Marx, and those other praxis thinkers manifested in their intellectual engagements, in their lives, in their very being, a distinct attitude or way of doing critical theory that this 13/13 series aspires to. A way of doing critique that is oriented towards both intellectual emancipation and social change. A way of being that Marx captured so brilliantly, as a young man of 27 years, in his now-famous eleventh thesis on Feueurbach: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.”

It is that way of thinking, of being, of living, of doing that I would like to recover in this seminar series—and begin to explore in this first session. It is a way of being and of engaging our political world that the ancients associated with the life of the citizen in the polis. A way of being distinguished from other equally valuable modes of engaging the world—especially the more contemplative mode of philosophy and the more productive mode of poetics. Theoria, what we might think of today as philosophical inquiry, contemplation, or reason, involved predominantly understanding and comprehension—in essence, knowing—and it was oriented towards wisdom; while poiesis, the bringing forth of something that did not exist before, was oriented toward creation and making. By contrast, what the Greeks referred to as πρᾶξις—praxis, or practice, the ethical and political form of being—revolved around activity, action, performance, in essence doing, and it was oriented towards proper behavior in ethical and political life.[i] As both Nicholas Lobkowicz and Richard Bernstein note, for Aristotle, praxis by contrast both to theoria and poiesis, captured the performative dimensions of acting in the political sphere—performative in the sense that poiesis involved making something, whereas praxis entailed doing.[ii]

As Lobkowicz and Bernstein underscore, these three ways of being were intended to be active forms of living. In other words, the contrast was not intended to be between active and inactive ways of living, but between actively different ways of living. Theoria was not intended to be passive reflection, as opposed to the active doing of praxis. For the ancients they were, instead, as Bernstein suggests, “two dimensions of the truly human and free life.”[iii] The categories would deeply influence Western thought through the ages. The early Christian writers drew on the distinction to explore how contemplative faith should interact with acts of charity. Medieval scholars mined the tradition to expound on the relationship between theoretical knowledge and practical application. Renaissance and Enlightenment thinkers continued to debate these ways of living and being.[iv]

For critical theory especially, thought, the categories were central. It may be fair to say that critical theory, as opposed to philosophy or political theory, was born of a desire to push theoretical inquiry in the direction of praxis as a mode of being.

You will recall that Foucault, reading Kant’s essay “An Answer to the Question: ‘What is Enlightenment?’” identified there what he called “the attitude of modernity”: Foucault identified in Kant the beginning of a new way to think critically in relation to the present.[v] It consisted of a new philosophical attitude oriented, genuinely, to the contemporary moment. “By ‘attitude,’” Foucault explained, “I mean a mode of relating to contemporary reality; a voluntary choice made by certain people; in the end, a way of thinking and feeling; a way, too, of acting and behaving that at one and the same time marks a relation of belonging and presents itself as a task.”[vi] According to Foucault, this “attitude of modernity” would bring together philosophical inquiry and critical thought focused on contemporary historical actuality. The contemporary moment—most notably, the French Revolution—became the object of critical thought. Foucault placed Marx in the wake of this new attitude.

In a similar way, I would suggest, Marx inaugurated a “practical attitude,” pivoting the attitude of modernity not just onto the contemporary moment, but from theoretical to practical engagement—from theoria to praxis. Richard Bernstein traces this brilliantly in the writings of the young Marx. Bernstein documents the stages of the turn to praxis: first, in Marx’s early call in 1843 for a new attitude and role for the intellectual to awaken self-consciousness about the need for revolutionary change through the “relentless criticism of all existing conditions, relentless in the sense that criticism is not afraid of its findings and just as little afraid of the conflict with the powers that be.”[vii] The idea being that critique and criticism must serve as the way to awaken a new sense of human dignity and bring about social change. Then, second, when Marx materializes this relentless criticism and actualizes it by tapping into our deepest passions—when Marx explicitly argues that “Material force must be overthrown by material force. But theory also becomes a material force once it has gripped the masses.”[viii] Or more directly, when Marx writes: “Theory is actualized in a people only insofar as it actualizes their needs.”[ix] Finally, in a third moment, when Marx pens the eleventh thesis. As Bernstein writes, “The critique of philosophy had dialectically led Marx to the conclusion that only a correct, detailed understanding of existing social reality could effect such a revolution.”[x] At that point, Marx goes beyond philosophy to the critique of political economy—and, no mere coincidence, the term praxis almost disappears from Marx’s vocabulary.[xi]

My fear is that, today, that practical attitude of modernity, inflected by praxis as a mode of being, has dissipated, such that critical theory now has become too contemplative. One might think of the history of critical theory as punctuated by praxis moments—first by the young left Hegelians and by A. V. Cieszkowski’s call for philosophy to become a practical activity that would directly influence social life; then by Marx himself; later by Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason; and later by Richard Bernstein, Praxis and Action, the Praxis School, etc.[xii] Faced with these critical times today, I would argue, we desperately need a similar corrective.

The ambition here is not to make activists out of critical theorists. It is not to make theorists drop their pens and turn to direct action. I am fond of Daniel Defert telling the story of how, during May ’68, he threw his doctoral thesis to the pavement—“jeté aux pavés,” as he says; but that is certainly not the intention here. It is, instead, to instantiate a corrective moment—and to push us back toward praxis.

In the same way in which Marx’s encounter with Hegel’s philosophy, when he was a young student at the University of Berlin, was a traumatic experience that produced a type of conversion or life change to praxis,[xiii] our political crises today should serve as an alarm bell to us all.[xiv] We face today an unprecedented set of crises: With the rise of extreme-right populist movements, the international impact of neoliberal policies, increased xenophobic sentiment and attacks on minorities, and the fallout of a global war on terror, we are in the midst of a rare historical epoch of worldwide political turbulence. We face today an unparalleled constellation of global crises.

In these times, more than ever, we need not only to diagnoses the crises, but to answer the pressing question of what is to be done. What must we do to avoid descending any further into political chaos? We need to address that question with urgency and a renewed embrace of praxis. I fear that the diagnosis of crises—the moment of crisis and critique—is not sufficient anymore, on its won. It must be supplemented with a more engaged discussion of practice Even if, as Aristotle believed and Bernstein undercores, theoria is active, it alone is not active enough. We need to engage in critique & praxis.

A Preliminary Schemata

As a first cut to understand all this, we might imagine that the relation between theoria and praxis is along a spectrum that goes from contemplation to action, and that there may be certain points of inflection along that spectrum. Perhaps we could identify a few discernible stages along the continuum. Let me propose five such points:

  1. pure contemplation: at one extreme, there might be pure philosophical practice, pure speculation that does not even engage the real world or the present times. We might think of this as abstract theory, or philosophy for its own sake—a form of philosophy that antedates the “modern attitude,” does not concern itself with the present, and does not seek to address social problems.
  2. critical analysis of contemporary crises: further along the spectrum, theory might contemplate the present and diagnose our political crises today. Here, philosophy has entered the modern age and tackles the present. It may lead to critical theory that focuses on crisis and critique: on identifying the political present and understanding the crises that surround us.
  3. figuring out what is to be done: even further, there might be an inflection point where critical theory focuses not only on diagnosing present crises, but also on proposing avenues and actions to address the crises and bring about social change. This might be something of an equilibrium point between theoria and praxis, where we theorize practice and formulate strategies to address current crises.
  4. doing what is to be done: as we go further and tilt toward doing and action, there might be another inflection point where critical theorists begin to do the activities that they have proposed, and are now actualizing their theoretical interventions.
  5. pure political doing: at the other extreme, then, one could imagine pure doing without contemplation. Just as there was pure contemplation as a form of abstract theory, we could locate a space of pure action uninformed by critical ideas—pure political action that operates without even asking the critical question “what is to be done?”

The space of critique and praxis is located somewhere between the second and fourth points of inflection. Along this spectrum, my fear and concern is that contemporary critical theory is now hovering around the second stage, and needs to be pushed to the third, or past it. On this map, the project of Praxis 13/13 is to move critical theory further along so that we no longer simply diagnose crises, but discuss what is to be done.

A hesitant critical theorist might respond that they view their mission to educate and to create a space of critical thinking where students will feel comfortable—which, on my reading, would push critical theory to the second point of inflection. When a critical theorist responds that it is not their task is get their students to stop their studies and become militant activists, I take it that they are refraining from pushing critical theory towards the fourth stage. But that response begs the question whether critical theory should stay at stage 2 or move further.

What makes stage 3 so uncomfortable, for theorists, is that it so often levels the theoretical analysis to discuss “what is to be done.” Without fail, it seems, the theoretical analysis becomes flat-footed. Those final chapters in our books—the ones that address the inevitable question from the audience, “well, what should we do about it?”—they always feel like the shallowest part of the theoretical enterprise. (Though maybe the problem is precisely that we do not have a rich discourse at the third point of inflection, that we do not have as much of a theoretical tradition in this area, in part because we shirk it.)

But maybe this first schemata is too simplistic. On Bernstein’s reading of the ancients, especially Aristotle, the two ways of living are intended to be joined.[xv] The good life is one where there is a harmony. Maybe the spectrum is misleading.

Returning to Marx

The fact is, the concept of praxis in Marx’s early thought had a much thicker or richer nature than just theorizing the question “What is to be done?” in the face of our diagnosed crises today. Human practice and real existence, for Marx, were a source of knowledge. Through human interactions—the same set of human clashes and struggles that Hegel anthropomorphized as spirit (Geist)—we learn about man’s nature. For the young Marx, it was practice that taught him about the feelings of alienation from the products of our labor, or about feelings of recognition, etc. As Bernstein demonstrates in his chapter on Marx in Praxis and Action (1971), Marx operated a transformation of Hegelian thought that inverted the relationship between the consciousness of a world spirit or rationality and the actions of human beings. Rather than spirit and its peripeteia being the motor of history and human progress, it is human action and interaction, as praxis, that constitutes our political condition and our history.[xvi]

What this suggests is that the relationship between theory and practice might not just be the thin application of critical theory to actual circumstances—thin in the way in which we tend to say that our political actions have to be “guided” by political principles or theories or reason, or that we “apply” theory to practice.

It is almost as if, the direction of movement from one pole of the spectrum to the other—theory or practice—would have a significant effect on where we end up: if we start from contemplation, it seems easy to get to a place where we are “applying” our theories, or where it might make sense to speak of “theorizing” what is to be done. But if we start from the other direction, from action and praxis, things look different; and it is possible to imagine, along a Marxian line of analysis, that we could arrive at understanding from praxis in such a way that our political practices would enlighten for us, would éclairer, the crises that surround us. Could it be that taking the standpoint of practice might better help us understand our world?

Might it be possible to develop a space of praxis that does not merely “theorize” practice, but that is genuinely and simultaneously a space of critique & praxis: genuinely a space where doing is critically thinking? So that we do away with notions like “applying” theory, or “drawing implications”… so that we eradicate the theory/practice divide itself?

That divide, that separation, that dichotomy, I believe, may not always be productive. It may lead at times, I believe, to a far too rigid separation—or to other troubling dichotomies, such as the conflict between truth and politics, as evidenced in Hannah Arendt’s essay for today.

Arendt on Theory and Praxis, or Truth and Politics

In Truth and Politics (1967), Arendt traces a genealogy of the modern-day antithesis between truth and politics directly back to the theory-praxis divide. Directly back, that is, to the original contest between those two ways of being, those two ways of living life—the contemplative and the political.

Arendt argues that, in antiquity, the conflict between theory and praxis presented as the conflict between the philosopher seeking to ascertain theoretical truths in mathematics, science, and philosophy, versus those who were “doing,” the men of politics and of the polis. That led, Arendt argues, to the demise of rational truth—but that demise pales in comparison to the modern day conflict between factual truths and politics. Things have gotten much worse today, Arendt contends, because at least back then, the rational truths could reemerge, rise from the ashes, whereas today, the crushing of factual truths leaves truth entirely impotent. As a result, Arendt embraces the figure of the truth-teller who is characterized as being outside politics. The only place for truth-seeking, Arendt argues, is outside politics. By contrast to Foucault, for whom the parrhesiast is steeped in practices of the self, Arendt’s truth-teller is the isolated philosopher: she is the truth-seeking scholar in the Academe, or the judge reaching a decision alone, or possibly the journalist, since Arendt gestures to the press as another bastion of truth. But all of these role models of the truth-seeker come from the space of philosophy and theoria as a way of life. Arendt, in the final paragraph, tries to distinguish between crass politics and the higher ideal of political life—but that is a faint gesture that comes a bit late in the essay. Arendt ends in the realm of truth as opposed to politics.

By bringing truth into the realm of theory and practice, and placing truth on the side of philosophy—or at least, opposing it to politics and practice—Arendt places a heavy weight onto the scale of theoria. Arendt weaponizes truth—which then has significant effects on how we think of praxis. It places truth at the heart of “what is to be done?” This is what sparks Steven Lukes’s argument in his brilliant essay that we will discuss at the seminar—namely, the argument that we need to reconstitute a political space where the norms of political debate are respected, so that truth can prevail. Le me explain, though, how Arendt develops her argument first.

Arendt’s discussion is grounded on a distinction between “rational” and “factual” truths—drawn, as she does, from Leibniz. Rational truths are the axioms, discoveries, and theories of the mathematical, scientific, and philosophical realm. They are theoretical truths. Factual truths, by contrast, are the facts and events of the world—Arendt’s example: the role of Trotsky during the Russian Revolution, “who appears in none of the Soviet Russian history books.” (50) By factual truths, Arendt means to identify hard facts, like the fact that Germany invaded Belgium on the night of August 4, 1914 (52), and to insulate those hard facts from interpretation and opinion. Arendt argues that factual truths are even more fragile than rational truth and theorems—once factual truths disappear or are crushed, they have little hope of returning.

Arendt traces the conflict between these different forms of truth (rational or factual) and the political sphere directly back to the tension between theoria and praxis—in her words, to the “two diametrically opposed ways of life—the life of the philosopher […] and the way of life of the citizen.” (50) It is the precisely contest between theory and praxis that gives birth to the opposition of truth and politics. It traces back, historically, to the contest between the dialogic form of the philosopher and the rhetorical form of the politician. To the contest between philosophical truth and mere opinion—between everlasting truth and illusions, between Socrates and the Sophists and rhetoricians, or later in Thomas Hobbes, between “solid reasoning” and “powerful eloquence.” (50) Today’s conflict between fact and politics started as the conflict between rational truths and opinion—between the philosophers and the statesmen. (50-51)

Arendt argues that the historical clash between rational truths and opinion has eclipsed, and been replaced, in contemporary life, by the clash between factual truth and politics. This is, for Arendt, a far worse condition: “factual truth, if it happens to oppose a given group’s profit or pleasure, is greeted today with greater hostility than ever before.” (51) And what makes it even more precarious is that factual truths are never self-evident, they depend on witnesses, testimony, and documents that are subject to forgery and misrepresentation—or worse, deliberate campaigns of lies. “[F]actual truth is no more self-evident than opinion, and this may be among the reasons that opinion-holders find it relatively easy to discredit factual truth as just another opinion.” (56) Factual truths are just as vulnerable, if not more, than rational truths, especially when opposed and challenged by throngs of biased, opinionated people. (59)

What is crucial for our purposes is that, for Arendt, the heart of the problem of truth and politics stems from our earlier distinction between theoria and praxis. For Arendt, it is precisely praxis as a mode of being that defeats truth. Arendt is stunningly clear about this, for instance on page 60 of the New Yorker article:

To the philosopher—or, rather, to man insofar as he is a thinking being—this ethical proposition about doing and suffering wrong [namely, that “it is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong”] is no less compelling than mathematical truth. But to man insofar as he is a citizen, an acting being concerned with the world and the public welfare rather than with his own well-being—including, for instance, his “immortal soul” whose “health” should have precedence over the needs of a perishable body—the Socratic statement [of the philosophical proposition that “it is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong”] is not true at all. The disastrous consequences for any community that began in all earnest to follow ethical precepts derived from man in the singular—be they Socratic or Platonic or Christian—have been frequently pointed out. Long before Machiavelli […], Aristotle warned against giving philosophers any say in political matters.” (60-62)

It is precisely the tension between theoria and praxis that leads to the problem of untruth in politics. The two ways of being collide—and in that context, Arendt squarely places herself on the side of philosophy and truth.

Hannah Arendt places herself, as truth-teller, outside of politics—necessarily outside of politics. (In part, this is tied to the context of the essay, written in the aftermath of the many factual controversies over the publication if Eichmann in Jerusalem). “To look upon politics from the perspective of truth, as I have done here,” Arendt writes, “means to take one’s stand outside the political realm.” (83) “Outside the political realm” because that political realm, at least in its quotidian politics, is debased by opinion and mass manipulation.

As opposed to that realm of politics and mass opinion, Hannah Arendt seeks refuge in theoria – in the attitude of the philosopher and “the various modes of being alone.” (84) This is a mode of being alone as a way of life that is captured best by the scholar in the Academe or the judge in his chambers. Arendt emphasizes the “anti-political nature of truth.” (84) The bastions of truth are, for Arendt, the judiciary and the Academe. These are what she calls, explicitly, “refuges of truth.” (84) Arendt hopes that the free press is another. (84)

Arendt emphasizes: “There is no doubt that all these politically relevant functions are performed from outside the political realm.” (86) To be sure, in the final paragraph, Arendt gestures to the greatness and dignity of politics—to the nobility of political life, “the joy and gratification that arise out of being in company with our peers, out of acting together and appearing in public, and out of inserting ourselves into the world by word and deed.” (88) Those are the high ideals of the political life in the polis. But those ideals are a weak nod at the end of a long essay that has, fundamentally, drawn a chasm between truth and politics, between theoria and praxis—and has sung the virtues of one at the expense of the other.

Truth, by contrast to politics, is “the ground on which we stand and the sky that stretches above us.” (88) Those are the final words of Arendt’s essay. They call, mostly, for that way of life, that way of being that is captured by the philosopher, the scholar, and the judge. By the independence and being alone of those functions. In the end, truth, the highest value, is tied to the theoretical life.

What of praxis then?

And is our problematic—of critique & praxis—inevitably tied to the question of truth?

How does the call for praxis intersect the question of truth and power?

Let me stop here and invite you to read Steven Lukes’ essay, “Power, Truth, and Epistemic Closure.”


[i]Richard Bernstein analyzed the concept of praxis in a monograph in 1971 that was, for me, formative when I first read it in about 1984. His book, Praxis and Action: Contemporary Philosophies of Human Activity (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1971), should serve as a backdrop to mine. In addition, Bernstein referenced another book by Nicholas Lobkowicz, Theory and Practice: History of a Concept from Aristotle to Marx (University of Notre Dame Press, 1967), that is formative in tracing the history of the concept of praxis. I am indebted to both these books, and would like to think of this book as in continuation with the historical arc presented there.

[ii]Bernstein 1971, x; Lobkowicz 1967, 9.


[iv]See Lobkowicz 1967 for an exhaustive treatment of this history.

[v]Kant is an important figure in the historical trajectory of theory and praxis. In his distinction between the first and second critique—between The Critique of Pure Reason and The Critique of Practical Reason—and, perhaps in a more accessible way, in his short essay “On the Common Saying: ‘This May be True in Theory, but it does not Apply in Practice,’” Kant formulated a highly rationalist position—one that I hope we will be able to come back to. See generally Lobkowicz 1967, 120 et seq.

[vi]Foucault 1997, 309.

[vii]Quoted in Bernstein at 51.

[viii]Quoted in Bernstein at 53.


[x]Ibid., 55.

[xi]Ibid., 56.

[xii]Bernstein traces these praxis moments in his Preface at xi-xii.

[xiii]Bernstein 1971, 34-35.

[xiv]The conversion, then, is not triggered by Hegel’s philosophy, though Hegel might eventually prove useful. See chapter 11 of my manuscript, Critique & Praxis.

[xv]In this regard, I feel a tension between Bernstein and Lobkowicz’s reading of the ancients. For Lobkowicz, I sense that the different modes of life are competing ways of living and that we have to choose between them.

[xvi]This is relevant to my call for a pure theory of illusions. Marx’s and Feuerbach’s critique of Hegel was to expose the myths and illusions in his theory of Geist: the mystification of a spirit that has agency, when it is the agency of men; the mystification of the self-alienation of spirit, when it is human alienation in fact. (Bernstein 1971, 39) It is through a series of unveilings of illusions in Hegel that Marx would march forward—but of course, my point is that this would produce another set of illusions in Marx that we would need to unmask. The transformative method that Feuerbach develops, and Marx appropriates—the method of transforming the putative subject acting (Geist) into the result instead of real active men, and vice versa, is all a practice of demystification. Ibid. The illusion, the myth Marx would enact was the idea of species-being he would take from Feuerbach.