Theory and Practice Reconciled

There is a tension between theory and practice, but it is not as insurmountable as the classical philosophers believed.

The tension arises from the original embodiment of right and wrong in social practice. For example, our belief in gravity is not, in the first instance, some kind of mental state containing propositional content. Rather, it’s implicit in our unwillingness to step off the edge of a cliff, or in our daily interactions which take the pull of the earth for granted.

But there’s a twist. As talkative creatures, we have the capacity to reconstruct and articulate our reasons for acting. These speech acts take what was originally tacit or implicit and converts it into something explicit, so it can be shared and transformed. This is the origin of theory, Mankind’s most precious yet volatile invention.

The flexibility of language allows theory to take something immanent in practice and simplify, synthesize, depersonalize, express and extrapolate it; to take pragmatic truths embodied in particular acts and discuss them in relation to far away quantities. Think of the legendary apple that dropped on Newton’s head—inspiring, in an instant, his model of universal gravitation.

The classics recognized this power of theory was not limited to metaphysics. The same discursive filter that caused Newton to extrapolate the forces affecting earth to heavenly bodies, or Democritus to propose the atomic unity of matter, is just as liable to extend and unify the dignity of masters to their slaves, or of the elite to the hoi polloi.

The cognoscenti of every bygone age thus had a personal incentive to treat theory like yellowcake—an ingredient with such transcendental implications that, while indispensable to those with self-control, would be unwise to have proliferate. Hence the double-doctrine—the concealment of radical thought in recapitulated conventional wisdom.

Recall, it was same Democritus who first declared that “equality is everywhere noble,” and yet made (ostensible) exceptions for women and serfs. Evidently, the strength of prevailing social practice made the equal dignity of all people more controversial than his equally egalitarian theory of matter. And so one reads between the lines.

With the Enlightenment this art of esotericism was mostly lost. Scientific and social revolutions occurred in tandem, pointing at a natural harmony between theory and practice. Marx declared that the purpose of philosophy was not to interpret the world, but to change it. The tragedies of mass “social experiments” notwithstanding, this harmony has stood the test of time.

The fears of classical philosophers and other esoteric writers were thus overwrought. Avoiding the persecution of the state, church or media are contingent factors of history, and do not prove their view that theory and practice are inherently irreconcilable. Indeed, the very business of theory is reconciliation. Theory abhors the contradictions and antagonisms of prevailing practices, and therefore generates an imperative within the self-conscious practitioner to squelch her own dissonance, and communicate to others the need to do the same. The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards coherence.

Of course, one may resist these urges given sufficient training in mental compartmentalization. But these days normative and epistemic incoherence, once called out, rarely survives a generation. Indeed, our norms are evolving at an unprecedented pace, leading to a revival of the classical concerns with a slight but important modification.

Rather than view the conflict as one between poet and philosopher, immanent and transcendent, the modern view seems more concerned about the conflict between two broad types of expressive rationality: epistemic and instrumental. In other words, it questions whether our commitment to both truth and happiness is sustainable in the long run. Perhaps all religions are technically false, for example, and yet essential for organizing a robust civilization.

I view this as a mistake, a conflation of assertion with imperative. It is perfectly reasonable, if not inevitable, to adopt categorical imperatives that step outside instrumental calculus. However, in the past these imperatives have been tied together with assertions or truth claims, be it about God or some other property of nature. By diligently (and correctly) separating facts from values, is from ought, the Enlightenment made the first big push to untangle the imperative for solidarity from the epistemic burden of superstition. As Hume wrote, “this small attention [to the fact-value distinction] would subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceived by reason.”

This process is by no means over, as if all the vulgarities of our moral system have been fully excised. Nonetheless, history does have an arrow, a tendency for progress, insofar as language—as the medium for cultural reproduction—imposes a structural and universalizing coherence on our practices over time.

In the past this process took place over centuries, with paradigms shifts achieved through either dialectical unanimity or violent revolution. Today, however, a plurality can and do sink shibboleths before such consensus is achieved, and with enthusiasm. For those left in the lurch, there is a tendency to sense that the rational has become, as it were, far too real. Yet the reconciliation of theory and practice subsists.

In resisting the cultural under-toe, there then arises a temptation to reject, not the direction of the tides (for they cannot be disputed), but instead the pretence of coherence more generally. Thus the reaction to embrace the incoherent, irrational and the obscure; to double down on superstition and occult mysticism; to castigate global theory for local practice—a vain last breathe before the zeitgeist submerges them, too.


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