Karuna Mantena | Theory and Practice, Means and Ends

By Karuna Mantena

In the last two decades, contemporary political theory has seen a call for a more “realist” political theory, one that would center on questions of political practice.   I begin with this debate because it seems like a pertinent analogue to the orientation of this seminar – of how we can recenter praxis or critical practice in contemporary theory.  Realism began as the name for a broad-ranging dissatisfaction with the formalist idealism of dominant strands of political philosophy, especially of so-called high liberalism.[i] Realist polemics against ideal theory question what they see as the assimilation of political theory with moral philosophy, and the priority given to generating a general ethical theory from which principles of political obligation or normative foundations of political institutions can be deduced and specified. They argue that the ambition to systematicity and universality promotes abstract or top-down models of reasoning in which theoretical resolutions to politics are sought independently of an analysis of “real politics,” of the motivations and experience of political actors and the existing configurations and dynamics of political life.

But critics of realism contend that the demand to connect political theory to “real politics” would render it incapable in principle of producing a distinct critical or normative theory of its own; for it implies a privileging of the descriptive analysis of political processes, institutions, and action and thereby the reduction of political theory to political sociology or political science. Further, the turn to anti-ideal or inductive theorizing is seen to tether political possibilities too closely to the given constraints of political life and thereby undermining more thoroughgoing critical perspectives. Critics of the realist turn especially worry that it, like its realpolitik precursors, leads to too sharp a dichotomy between morals and politics and its skepticism of idealism threatens an evacuation of normative concerns.

The debate on realism raises some fundamental concerns about what it would mean to “theorize” political practice, analytically and normatively.  I share Geuss’s concern that political theory too often works at a remove from real politics – that it does not do enough to situate itself in terms of actual political dynamics, process, and practices.  This call to attend to politics in its historical and institutional contexts need not eschew the demand or need for critical theory, for forms of normative judgment and evaluation.  (Here I want to unsettle the association of realism with amoral or anti-moral political analysis.)  Rather, by returning questions of political practice and political action to the center of political analysis we can expand the arena whereby critical reasoning comes to bear on political questions.   Normatively driven criticism, analysis, and judgment would not be limited to the examination of the legitimating norms, founding principles, and political ontologies that ought to orient political action and institutions but rather would extend to questions of praxis, to the practical strategies that political actors pursue and critics recommend to intervene in the political world and effect political reform and change.  In other words, realism as conceived here directs the normative, critical, and theoretical lens of political theory to dilemmas of political action and criticism without reducing them to or subsuming them under a philosophic debate on competing political ideals or ends.

This would move critical theory from a focus on critique in relation to the generation of ethical practice and norms to questions of action, practice, and criticism –that is, a reconfiguration of the“is/ought” question as a “means/ends” question, where concerns about the means through which norms are pursued and realized are given priority.  Moving the problem of “means” to the center of political theorizing opens a whole range of other conceptual questions about the relationship of means and ends – but onces I think become crucial if we want to take the challenge of praxis seriously.  A fundamental realist insight is that the relationship of means and ends is far from straightforward.  How moral and political ideals come to motivate political action and how principles and ideals can be instantiated in political life are questions that resist logical or deductive resolutions – and hence can appear atheoretical.   The means-ends question draws attention to those central features and paradoxes of political life – from contestation and resistance, accidental or unintended consequences, to institutional constraints and problems of power, knowledge, and coordination – that interrupt the simple implementation of moral ideals.   The crucial point here is that our models of judgment, criticism, and evaluation to get a theoretical handle on a sphere that is marked by contingency and power has to be grounded careful analysis of these central political dilemmas and predicaments.

These become sites of normative reasoning and theorizing in their own right, both as spaces of political experimentation and prefiguration of norms as well as the conceptual grounds for more pointed analyses of the practical realization of political goals.  Political action is always situated, it begins, and works outward from, the givens – the situated contexts and inherent dangers – of political life.  The work of action may itself serve to generate norms, but to be effective as action, it needs to be attentive to this situatedness within the interactive dynamics through which political relationships are reshaped and transformed and in terms of action’s wider effects and entailments in the political world. Criticism as norm-creation, indeed the practice of radical critique itself, is certain to plan a crucial role in guiding political action through these predicaments, but it cannot on its own terms function as critical action, that is without attending to the internal dynamics of political life that shape the realization of ends.

Finally, in our concern with praxis it is important to raise doubts about theoretical models that view practice as simply the sphere for the application of norms and principles, and theory as the primary site for the generation and clarification of political norms and ideals (independent of action).  Across the 20th century, we can think of numberless instances in which political practice, from revolution to civil disobedience, generated theory through the confrontation with dilemmas in practice – almost always outpacing theory. Martin Luther King in recounting his role in the Montgomery Bus Boycott in Stride towards Freedom noted that “many of the things that I had not cleared up intellectually concerning nonviolence were now solved in the sphere of practical action.”[ii] This reference points to another way critical theory might think of the move to praxis as the space of theoretical innovation and clarification, but one that can only do so once it conceptualizes action on its own terms. Moreover, thinking of King and nonviolence also suggests that like the Marxist debates on revolutionary practice that became central to 20th century critical theory, a focus on other global movements of protest and action like nonviolence will also ground the study of praxis.  For when political practices are adopted and adapted across various global political setting, theory is being continuously generated and tested.


[i] William Galston, “Realism in Political Theory,” European Journal of Political Theory 9 (4): 385–411.  The work of Raymond Geuss and Bernard Williams have been the touchstones of the contemporary debate on realism in political theory.  See especially Guess, Philosophy and Real Politics (Princeton, 2008), and Williams, In the Beginning Was the Deed: Realism and Moralism in Political Argument, ed. Geoffrey Hawthorn (Princeton, 2005).

[ii] Martin Luther King Jr., Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story (Beacon Press), 89.