What is practical and useful? II

In the last post I was writing about the way in which theory and practice are intertwined in a paradoxical relationship. There is no separating them out. We are socialized into a world of practices, but without an ability to abstract from them we would be unable to locate ourselves with others. We would not be able to communicate and make sense of what we were doing.

However, although I am claiming that practice and theory are inextricably linked, I would nonetheless claim that practice is prior. Here I agree with the pragmatic philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce when he says that: ‘We must not begin by talking of pure ideas – vagabond ideas that tramp the public roads without any human habitation, – but must begin with men and their conversation.’ Peirce is asking the question ‘theory on the basis of what?’ In other words he is pointing to our preoccupation, particularly in the West, with dealing in abstract ideas which have become uprooted from what human beings are doing in everyday life. We can produce categorisations, tools, frameworks and abstract ideas which have lost their connection with lived experience, particularly if they are considered to be universally applicable, irrespective of context. We intellectualise and believe in our capacity to think our way through to the end.

Peirce’s fellow pragmatist John Dewey argued that an intellectual framework must never be a substitute for intelligent engagement with a particular context and particular people.We exercise our intelligence, he claimed, not by assuming that our past experience will automatically prepare us for future experience, or that simply repeating patterns of habitual action will get the same results. Our progress, if there is to be any, will arise from our intelligent ability to engage with our practices.

The idea that action must proceed from a secure base is a long preoccupation in Western philosophy and derives in strong form from Descartes who set out his foundational position in The Meditations.  ‘Archimedes, in order that he might draw the terrestrial globe out of its place, and transport it elsewhere, demands only that one point should be fixed and immoveable; in the same way I shall have the right to conceive high hopes if I am happy enough to discover one thing which is certain and indubitable.’

So the proposition is that if we can know one thing for certain, then we can build all other truths upon it in a causal chain. This is how groups of people trying to cooperate get drawn into thinking that they must finalize their thinking in advance of acting: if we are not clear about our ideas, how will we know how to proceed?

For the group I was describing in the last post, it would be nice to know that what we produce will be ‘practical and useful’ to whomsoever encounters it. With this intention there is sometimes a tendency to try to ground what we are doing in some foundation, some fixed and firm starting point that we can all agree upon, from which all other work will proceed. We have to get our theoretical ducks in a row.

However, I am claiming that in the absence of the continuous reflection on experience to test whether our theories are useful or not we are in danger of being in the realm of pure vagabond ideas to which Peirce alludes. If theory and practice are inseparable, then there is no foundation to proceed from. We can theorize from experience in order to intensify our experience and improve our theories. Both theory and practice are experimental in the sense that they are self-referential and inform each other. Everything, including our methods of knowing and choosing, is open to critique and modification.

This is dialectical process that Foucault also reflected on:

What I think is never quite the same, because for me my books are experiences in a sense, that I would like to be as full as possible. If I had to write a book to communicate what I was already thinking before I begin to write, I would never have the courage to begin. I write a book only because I still don’t exactly know what to think about this thing I want so much to think about, so that the book transforms me and transforms what I think. Each book transforms what I was thinking when I was finishing the previous book. I am an experimenter and not a theorist. I call a theorist someone who constructs a general system, either deductive or analytical, and applies it to different fields in a uniform way. This isn’t my case. I’m an experimenter in the sense that I write in order to change myself and in order not to think the same thing as before.’

What I think Foucault does well here is to demonstrate the way in which experience informs thinking, and thinking informs experience. In proceeding experimentally with an idea Foucault finds out what he thinks in the process of writing. The paradoxical relationship between the two is transformative from within the dialectic of theory and practice.


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