Friday, October 12, 2012

Working Theory and Practice Together

First I should start with an apology for the lack of new content in the last month—with the new academic year starting, other projects became urgent, and we at the Centre have been looking for a Junior Member to take over writing some of these posts. I am happy to say that we have found one, and Sarah will begin writing shortly. This will be my last full post for a while at least, but I look forward to introducing Sarah soon. Stay tuned for more conversation!

It seems to me that for those of us for whom scholarship is part of our calling, a re-orientation or renewed return to our context is sometimes needed. We are used to reflecting on texts, on ideas, on concepts, and such reflection is necessary for our work. But we also need to come back to all the messy chaos of practice from time to time, of what is happening in the world around us and what effect, if any, we are having on that world. The question has been raised here in earlier posts of what academics can really do in terms of working for social justice, and to my mind that is a question to which we must keep coming back. If we are going to take seriously the call, as part of scholarly vocation, that our theories and philosophical efforts must work toward engaging and mutually transforming this context in which we find ourselves (in terms of Reformational language, working for Shalom) then that question, what can we do as scholars to work for social flourishing, should be at the forefront of our thought. It should be one we struggle with regularly, one we allow to challenge our research and our writing, our teaching and our learning.  

This does not mean that we all need to become political theorists or philosophers whose sole research concerns are social justice. But it does mean, I believe, that we need to be able to give an articulate answer to the question of how our work contributes to wider social flourishing, and why we chose to do it—and we need to let those more practical questions influence us. I once had a friend, whose candour I appreciated, ask me “yes, your research is very interesting and I enjoy reading it, but how is talking about how narrative is used in philosophy (my research project) going to fill anybody’s belly? How is it going to address any real suffering? Is it really going to have any impact on people’s lives?” Those are important questions to be asked, and though I had already considered them a bit, being confronted by them in a constructively critical way, again and again, forced me to really reflect and articulate how this was so, how my work was working deeply both on a scholarly level and as connected to the real needs of my social context. It also, and just as importantly, forced me to continue going back to that context, to the nitty gritty details of life, to reading the news and knowing what is happening in the world around me and talking to those whose calling is more concerned with practice than with theory.

It’s that seeming divide we keep coming back to—the apparent gap between theory and practice. In the work I have done with this Centre over the last few years, a particular point has been brought home to me again and again: I, as a scholar, cannot leave practice aside. I cannot leave practical matters aside. I need to talk, and listen, to those outside of academia. We need to work together in order to make both our work better and in order to better reach a wider audience to effect greater and more lasting changes.

If I could draw a cheeky analogy with the theatre, what if we imagined a play that was collaboratively written by everyone who was going to be working on it, both onstage and backstage? In terms of such a collaboratively written play, could we think of activists and practitioners as the actors who perform the play and bring it to life, the people whose faces you see, while the theorists are like the backstage techs—people who handle lighting and costumes and set construction, etc? In the (metaphorical) play I’m talking about, both theorists and practitioners had a hand in writing it, and everyone has a hand in making it come together as a finished whole; as a work with hopefully transformative power.

More and more people are trying collaborative work like this. I’m not talking about writing a play together (though that would be interesting!) but rather designing a project, one that looks at a real and pressing social issue through the eyes of both practitioners and theorists together, and depends on everyone working together to carry it out. So, speaking now as scholars, how do we bring our work to bear on all the complexity that pressing social issues entail and with all the depth of engagement that good scholarly work should have? How do we do so in a way isn’t just paying lip service, and that also allows us, as scholars, to stay true to the more abstract work we are engaged in, that truly can be necessary background work without which practice might miss some important possibilities? And how can we work together with those who, from their concrete and day-to-day engagement with people, governments, agencies and issues, know the immediate context “on the ground” better than we do? It strikes me that we can accomplish more together than apart.


  1. Hi Everyone,

    I'm the Sarah that Allyson mentioned and I'm a first-year MA student at ICS. I really am happy to be joining the conversation in a more official manner of speaking and am also really looking forward to hearing from more people and more perspectives, on more subjects! So thank you all for your tacit welcome (I hope I can take the liberty to imagine it, but rest assured, Allyson will be still posting from time to time and her and I will be dialoguing in regards to posts and all that good stuff).

    Wow, you hit the nail on the head with this one, Allyson. This weighted question seems to keep pressing its way to the front of my mind; but sometimes I find myself shoving it to the back shelf. I know there must exist a fuller answer to be arrived at, and it will not suffice to dismiss this matter as inaccessible 'aporia'. But it certainly is a tough one, especially when our minds are used to conceiving of reality in binaries; in this case, 'theory' and/vs. 'praxis'.

    What I do feel it is safe to say is that they are never so easily separable as we might think; the one always informs the other (theory always manifests itself practically and praxis cannot be carried out devoid of all theoretical thinking). In fact, in studying Hannah Arendt and her critique of the mindless actions of Nazi criminals (more specifically, of Adolf Eichmann), it is indeed quite dangerous to imagine a world without space for serious, or at least authentic, thinking. This is not to say that without scholars the world would be a hostile place - not at all. There are plenty of forms authentic and critical thinking can take (comedy, for example). But I know that when Hitler was in power he wanted to get rid of Jewish intellectuals fast. Why? While I believe there is vital power in solidarity, power in speech, and power in a whole lot of other good means to oppose evil, I do also believe there is power in theoretical thinking and study (or at least the potential for power) to stand up against injustice. It has to be well-directed, of course, and used for the sake of others; it has to be applied.

    Cliche, perhaps, but there is truth to the phrase "with knowledge comes responsibility" (I think it is 'with great power comes great responsibility' in Spiderman, but this one is a variation which rings true as well in my opinion). A lot of people just don't want to know about the bad stuff in the world. To me, good scholarship wants to know and wants to do something about it.

  2. As a graduate student in philosophy, I frequently get the question, "So...what will you do with that degree?" A lot of educational paths are more obviously career-driven, and attempts at joking answers like "I'll become a better person...and a lot poorer" barely manage to conceal what a friend of mine calls "the inherent angst" of post-graduate work in the humanities. Sometimes it's hard enough to validate to myself why I am doing what I am doing, let alone trying to explain it to someone else. And while objections that seem to be focused on "how will you make money out of this?" can at least be dismissed (rather superciliously, perhaps) as simply $$$-driven, questions like Allyson's are harder to grapple with and get at the heart of a disjuncture that is often felt, even if it isn't always articulated.

    I appreciate Sarah's observation that while we tend to separate theory and practice, they are perhaps much more intertwined than we think. The practices I engage in daily are inevitably theory-laden, and, similarly, my theories are practice-laden. As both my theories and my practices are put under the microscope through philosophical reflection, I often seem to find myself in a deconstructive/reconstructive process of re-examining and re-formulating my beliefs, ideas, and, therefore, practices. If Socrates is right in saying that "the unexamined life is not worth living," then reflection isn't just a luxury for the scholar, but a basic human need. Perhaps part of our calling as scholars is to allow our theory/practice to be examined not only by critical academic reflection, but also by the theory/practice of those outside the academic sphere, while at the same time offering our theory/practice as an opportunity for the self-examination of others.

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    2. I think your response gets to the heart of the matter, Carolyn. Instead of asking how thought and action might come together, we might, with Arendt, instead wonder why they ever came apart. She tells quite a lengthy historical narrative about that in her book The Human Condition. Arendt there seeks the origin of this scission between the contemplative life and the life of action, which I won't go into. Suffice it to say, for her this fatal split has created the conditions, in our time, for a thought that is rootless and irrelevant to the reality we experience ('abstract' in the bad sense), and an action that is little more than thoughtless busy-ness. She describes the situation in the 'Preface' to her essay collection "Between Past and Future" this way:

      "We are only too familiar with the recurring outbursts of passionate exasperation with reason, thought, and rational discourse which are the natural reactions of men who know from their own experiences that thought and reality have parted company, that reality has become opaque for the light of thought and that thought, no longer bound to incident as the circle remains bound to its focus, is liable either to become altogether meaningless or to rehash old verities which have lost all concrete relevance" (6).

      Arendt's alternative to this situation is to argue for the importance of a form of thinking or reflection that completes action by remaining in touch with the incident out of which it arose and to which it seeks to give meaning. There is an essential moment of reflection, she says, through which our action acquires meaning and therefore a place in the story we tell about ourselves. In the same "Preface," she says that "my assumption is that thought itself arises out of incidents of living experience and must remain bound to them as the only guideposts by which to take its bearings" (14).

      Action and reflection together form a kind of essential 'respiration' in the human condition. A breathing in and a breathing out. They call for each other, and neither can be what it is without the essential role the other plays. 'Unreflective action' would thus be, for Arendt, as much of an oxymoron as 'idle' thinking. The former would not be 'action' in the normative sense she intends, nor would the latter be 'thinking', again in the normative sense she intends. I think she is right.

  3. Sarah, you note that there are plenty of forms authentic and critical thinking can take, and Carolyn, you add that reflection isn't just a luxury reserved for the scholar. I think both these points are spot-on, and can lead us in the direction of an answer: reflective practice can be a form of authentic and critical thinking even while it remains practice--and good practice! The gap between theory and practice does not have to exist, as Sarah also said above. It just often has. More so, I think, from the theorist side, because as a practitioner, you see more clearly and immediately the results of your work, and there is a greater push, therefore, to try and think of ways to make it better.

    I think there's something to be learned here about thinking and reflection, and (those who know me may smile) Luce Irigaray articulates it in one of her more recent writings. There, having said that thinking is not a luxury reserved for a few people but a task for everyone, she says "Thinking is not merely mental undertaking, nor a mere technical process. Thinking is, or ought to be, an activity of the whole being."

    One could take from this quote a call that those involved in practice (and remember, Irigaray is a psychoanalyst as well as a philosopher) are called to reflective thinking as well. And of course that is true. But I think the greater weight of this quote is that it calls everyone, us "professional thinkers" too, to involve our whole being in our thinking. I see it as a call toward practice as much as a call toward thinking. Our whole being involves our natural needs (food, air, water, heat, and the like), our social and emotional needs, our culture-building, our faith or belief practices, our physical bodies, and all that practice concerns itself with. Thinking that consistently ignores aspects of our being ultimately impoverishes itself, and the more we put theory and practice in participatory engagement with each other, where each learns from the other and builds on the insight of each other, the more fruitfully intertwined they will become... or so I think! (What about you?)

  4. Sarah, thank you for inviting me to this discussion. Although, admittedly, I have lost my desire for apologetics and "christian academia" I will try and contribute as best as possible here.

    I put Christian Academia in quotations as I have found it such a bizzare construct to assume that we can take what is in the Bible and make it intellectually smart to the general public. Paul, in the book of Corinthians argues, "God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong" (1 Cor. 1:27) and thus if I assume academical insight on faith-constructed literature then am I not trying to change the intent of the original author?

    Therefore I hold that to theorize finite understanding of the infinite is not only impossible but insane.

    Kierkegaard explains this well when he states, 'The matter is quite simple. The bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world? Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church's prodigious invention to defend itself against the bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament'

    What was the difference between the Pharisees and the disciples? It is clear from scripture that it was their faith put into action. The Pharisees were condemned by Jesus because they had all form of knowledge and did nothing with it. On the contrary, the disciples, when put on trial before the Sanhedrin, were given credit as being wise for they had no schooling but lived according to their faith and allowed the Holy Spirit to work in their broken and contrite heart.

    James says, "But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves" (James 1:22). This is practice over theory. Theory allows us to know God's characteristics but practice allows us to believe Him. It is no wonder James continues to say, "You say you have faith, for you believe that there is one God. Good for you! Even the demons believe this, and they tremble in terror" (James 2:19).

    And yet I digress.

    Does theory enable us to neglect practice? What significance is their to theory is our understanding is limited but our potential for doing is unlimited as Paul states, "I can do all things through him who strengthens me." (Phil. 4:13)?

    1. Bringing Kierkegaard into the conversation is a good call, since he likes to remind us that no one can claim to know or understand the truth unless he or she subjectively appropriates it. The relation between theory/praxis is therefore indissoluble - unless I'm living it, I can't really say that I know it.

      I think Kierkegaard identifies a real potential danger for scholars (whether Christian or not) - the possibility of hiding behind our work instead of allowing what we are learning to change us. I'd be wary of taking this as a basis for an anti-intellectual position, though. While Kierkegaard has plenty of scathing words for the "assistant professor" who is so busy working on his system that he absentmindedly forgets himself, he is equally critical of people who are willing to thoughtlessly subsume their individual personhood to that of "the crowd." Scholarship and thoughtlessness pose equal dangers to my relationship with the truth.

  5. Thanks for joining the conversation, Streetconnect.

    You ask a broad range of large questions here, but it seems they arise out of two basic understandings: 1) a fundamental questioning of the possibility of authentic Christian scholarship and 2) a belief that practice trumps theory. Have I read what you've said here correctly? Assuming I’m on track, I'll wager a response to both those points, though the first point in particular is much larger than could be adequately handled in a blog comment!

    You quote Kierkegaard as writing, "Christian scholarship is the Church's prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close." Certainly there is work that could be accurately described that way, but to characterize all Christian scholarship that way is making, I think, far too polemically exaggerated a statement--as Kierkegaard is well known to have enjoyed doing. (And I say this as someone who loves and has read a good deal of Kierkegaard's work). There are the dogmatic hucksters who care more for doctrine than for authentic faith, but there are also many who genuinely work to live their lives and do their research out of a deep and honest struggle with faith arising from the Biblical tradition. You or I may disagree with the specifics of how they work that out in their lives and research (just as they can disagree with how you or I work it out in ours), but it seems to me that it would be an injustice to accuse the entirety of Christian academia of being inauthentic charlatans, intent on propping up the Church instead of living out faith. Of course one of the beauties of Kierkegaard’s polemical writing is that in overstating the case so starkly, it can cause those who read it to more deeply reflect on their own lives, asking the question—does this really describe me? As someone who did what could be considered Christian scholarship himself Kierkegaard is, consciously I believe, posing that same over-stated question to himself, as a challenge to his own practice.

    [On a side note, “Working Theory and Practice Together,” was meant pose its questions to scholars of all faiths as well as those of no faith. The question of how to work practice and theory together is not a specifically Christian academic question.]

    In your second point on practice, you say “our understanding is limited but our potential for doing is unlimited.” I think I get what you’re trying to say here, and you’re right to emphasize that we are finite creatures with finite ability to understand. But I think that our ability for doing is finite as well—and I think that’s consistent with Paul’s words. Paul is thanking the Philippians for their gift to him in prison: it seems clear they have either sent him funds or food. If we read the verses before and after your citation, we see he says, “Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. In any case, it was kind of you to share my distress.” The “all things” Paul is referring to here seem to be continuing his ministry despite hunger, imprisonment and need. But it seems to me that the emphasis is on continuing to do and think despite any circumstances, calling on the strength he receives. In the paragraph just preceding, he has even exhorted the congregation to “think about” whatever is true, honourable, commendable, etc. Actions speak louder than words, but well thought-out actions have a better chance at hitting the mark that needs to be addressed. Certainly theory that does not take practice into account is impoverished, but I wonder whether *doing* can do its best without having significant reflection as part of it. Thanks for raising these points!

  6. Just wanna say I'm really enjoying this conversation so far. I would also welcome viewpoints of any other religion or the a-religious, as yes, 'theory' and 'practice' as concepts are not confined to the Christian worldview. Although, so far it seems all participants are coming from that tradition, wherein the question exists in large measure.

    For me, if I have not already said it, it is just so crucial that the two are not weighed over and against each other as they BOTH merit attention, especially by those who focus on the one more than the other and vice versa in dialoguing with one another. From reading James, I think Paul is overemphasizing action because of the community he is addressing (just as Kierkegaard was addressing a universal tendency in mankind by addressing a particular social public sphere in time). But Paul already presupposed faith ("faith without works is dead"). They are married. So, I'm sure, it can also be said that "deeds without faith are dead."