Further Notes on Theory/Practice (Was Questioning the desire...)

Carrol Cox cbcox at rs6000.cmp.ilstu.edu
Sat Apr 20 09:49:11 MDT 1996


In reply to Jorn Anderson. Sat. 20 Apr. 3:48a

    I suspect there is no real argument between Jorn and me; it is merely
a matter of what, in a specific situation, to emphasize.

    I have been active in politics for 30+ years now, and it sometimes
seems that I have split my time almost evenly between arguing for the
importance of theory with those who are interested only in theory (or at
least want to debate it endlessly) and arguing for the importance of d
theory with those who just want to go out and "practice" (whatever that
means in such a context) and not be bothered with "all that theoretical
stuff."

    It seemed to me in Paul's case (I could be wrong: a person can't
communicate a lot in just a few maill*st postings) he was as it were
standing on the sidelines shopping for ideas, and as I indicated, I don't
think one can get Marxist ideas in that way. If all one has to hang on
to are the words of the great (or less great) Marxists, it becomes too
much like a religion, with THE SCRIPTURES one's relationship to some
awful (awe-full) TRUTH.

    But let us explore the context(s) in which, in a sense, theory is
prior to practice, using some specific but non-political areas of human
activity.

    For 10s of thousands of years when humans ran (for any reason, but
let us think here of races for the fun of it), they simply ran like
hell and that was it. Some ran better than others, and the only explanation
that could be given was a tautological one: X runs better than Y because
X is a better runner than Y.

    Then photography was invented, and by the end of the last century,
even though photography was not very high speed yet, they could line up
a series of cameras which the runner tripped as he dashed by, giving
some "static" picture of the process of running. And then motion pictures
were invented, and techniques of photographing movement got better and
better. It became possible to study what a runner did as he dashed along;
in fact it became possible to study in some detail the difference in the
way in which X and Y ran, and one could, lo and behold, THEORIZE RUNNING.

    Now a runner could *study* his method of running; he could understand
the theory, and he could consciously carry out his running according to
that theory. Runners got faster. Cameras got faster. That faster running
could now be theorized: that is the theory could be refined by raising
the new modes of running to the level of theory. And so on and so on.
I hope this satisfies Jorn, at least provisionally, on the interaction
of theory and practice.

    But let's take another example: baking bread. If members of this list
have never baked their own bread they should try to; it can provide a
valuable experience on the limits of theory in some sorts of activity.
The recipe will tell you the ingredients, and will tell you quite a bit
about how to combine them. But one element in the practice will be di
described very vaguely: How to knead the bread. Really: try it. Even if
you do badly, it will taste better than wonder bread. And you will
discover that there is almost no way to abstract the kneading practice,
that is to raise it to the level of theory that can be exactly followed.
The knowledge has to be in your fingertips, not your head.

    This is an (unfortunate) unity of theory and practice: the theory
is totally unconscious. It has not been abstracted from the practice,
and therefore can not be a guide to improved practice. Now at one time
or another practically all (perhaps one should say all period) human
activities resembled bread-dough kneading rather than modern track and
field events. The knowledge was in the muscles, the eyes, the fingers,
not (abstractly) in the head. Progress, often, consists in raising that
"unconscious" knowledge to the level of theory, so that the practice
may be improved on. And that, I take it, is what one should mean when
one says that practice is prior to theory. It is, as it were, ABSOLUTELY
and always prior to theory, but once it is raised to the level of
theory, the practice can be improved on (and something like Pound's
"ideas into action" then makes sense).

    But it is all to easy to put theory first in an absolute sense. The
specific comrade I had in mind as speaking of not being botherd by "all
that theoretical stuff" was, in fact, putting theory first, a stupid
theory that he had unconsciously abstracted from his own practice, a
theory that in fact did not come close to explaining his actual practice
at his best.

    Well, I've maundered on long enough.

    Carrol






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