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Re: [xmca] By Way of Continuing on Instruction/Assessment

mike cole wrote:
I did not understand the exchange on this issue of practice as the criterion
of theory. So more on this would be helpful.
Mike, I did not want to press this issue beyond a certain point, but since you ask... It does seem to be splitting hairs to deny that for Marx "practice is the criterion of truth" since Marx says "The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a *practical* question. Man must prove the truth, /i.e./, the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking, in practice. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking which is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question." But this is not the same thing, and in the context of the other 10 theses can be seen to be making a different point.

1. When examining a claim, we always have to ask what the claim is /against/, what does it negates; that is its context. In 1845, Marx was writing (1) Against Feuerbach's rejection of Hegel, and (2) Against the Young-Hegelians. Without going into what this implies, let us just say that it is a totally different context than the pages of MCA in 2010. Absolutely no-one amongst the readers of MCA would deny that "the proof of the pudding is in the eating," and actually /nor would Feuerbach or Hegel/! Probably only the Catholic Church would deny this aphorism. This raises the question of (a) why Marx bothered to say what was obvious, and (b) what it means when someone not only says it but repeartedly says it in 2010 to an audience of cultural psychologists.

In my expereience over 45 years arguing things with fellow-Marxists, I find that anyone who insists upon "practice is criterion of truth," this is to belittle philosophy in favour of activism. In the context of science, maybe the meaning is a little different. But in politics, it says "Bugger theory! This is what happened!" So of course I react against it, even if I don't exactly know why it is being insisted upon in the given case. After "practice is criterion of truth" what will the writer go on to say? I don't know, but am concerned. Truth is its own criterion, so why is it being measured against something else?

2. So what is in thesis 2 which is more than "proof of the pudding is in the eating"? Well, Marx explains this in the other theses. For example, contra Feuerbach, it is not enough to show that a religious person is deluded; on the contrary, the society which needs religion must be revolutionised. Not because "the proof of the pudding is in the eating," but rather theory reflects the needs of practice. Tracing the social roots of religious consciousness is of course a complex theoretical task which remains before us today. Christopher Hitchins, the modern-day Feuerbach, might well reflect on this! Theses 1 and 3 for example are directed squarely against philosophical materialism, notably taking education as the example. The thing is, I think, that for Marx, with his proto-Activity Theory presented in the Theses, the truth is itself /in/ Activity. That is not the same as activity /proves/ the truth, as if you can have a theory, and then wait to see how things turn out, and be proved wrong or right. Marx waited till the Paris Commune before he clarified a number of questions which were left open in the Communist Manifesto. Marx did not try to reason this out in his head. He did not make a proposal and see if it worked, but rather followed the movement of the working class and tried to give voice to it. The section of "Method of Political Economy" in the /Grundrisse/ most clearly explains this difficult point contra Hegel.

3. BTW, in the tradition of Marxism that I come from,"practice" is used with a dialectical meaning, and I therefore do not use the word "praxis." For me, "practice" in its common-or-garden, non-dialectical meaning, is one aspect of activity. Activity is purposive action, or a /unity of theory and practice/, which are /inseparable/. To separate them and pose one against the other, externally, confuses the matter. So the concept of "practice" as something isolated from "theory" or vice versa - theory as something isolated from practice, is an undialectical concept. This is just to head off misunderstandings involved in making a contrast between "praxis" and "practice" which belong to a different tradition. It is just words and is not the issue here at all in my view.

4. For Marx, then, practice is the /substance/. As he says shortly after, in /German Ideology/, "The premises from which we begin are ... the real individuals, their activity and the material conditions under which they live." This is in contrast to other philosophical currents which take as their substances "clear ideas" or "matter" or "the I," or whatever. To claim that "practice is the criterion of truth" begs the question of the substance of truth itself. Practice is the *substance* of truth, so how can truth be tested against a /criterion/ of practice? This implies that something else is meant by "practice". [For the concept of "substance" see my book "An Interdisciplinary Theory of Activity" or the /Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy/]

5. The whole content of the problem of truth is just what exactly is understood by "practice" and "truth," their content, not whether one is the criterion of the other. I suspect when this is done, the real meaning of "practice is criterion of truth" will be shown to be "*experience is the criterion of practice*."

6. A number of Marxists have pointed out that while "practice is criterion of truth" has value, practice can never *completely* determine the truth of a claim. This relates to the concept of /verifiability/. If you stick dogmatically to the claim that "practice is criterion of truth" then all of Marx's life was wasted. Socialism was not achieved and no-one observed his "perihelion of mercury." This is a complex question. How do we know "truth"? Is it really just a question of the eating? What if by the nature of the question, we don't have the opportunity to taste the pie? And so we have the practice, but how do we evaluate the practice, what theory do we use to evaluate practice? It leads to an infinite regress if you separate theory and practice and make one the criterion of the other.

7. A maxim which is worth paying heed to: "/Always observe moderation in philosophy/," especially if you have extreme claims to make of a political or practical nature. "Practice is criterion of truth" is OK - /up to a point,/ but when absolutely insisted upon, as a one-sided assertion, it becomes a falsehood. For example, "applied psychology /is/ psychology." And what of the work of others, not engaged in what you call "applied psychology"??

We listen to what people say (eg right-wing politicians) and we presume that their theory reflects, not so much their future action, but more importantly their /past/ actions. Why? Because theory reflects practice, or if you like "theory is the criterion of practice". Isn't that the whole point of /Capital/? A certain way of life manifests in a certain way of thinking and by studying political economy Marx could reveal the practice of bourgeois society. But a right-wing politician can say "people from poor families have a lower IQ" and say that "practice is the criterion of truth" and do a survey and prove it. So what!

8. True, "some Marxists" say "practice is criterion of truth." But "some Marxists" say all sorts of things, and even then, if not insisted upon or if qualified, it is not such a bad thing to say. But Marx did not say it and if insisted upon or carried too far, it becomes wrong.

9. Mike: I am not at all sure that the "two psychologies" is the same question. I think that what he meant by that needs separate attention.

10. Apologies to the long post. I always try to avoid typing more than one screenful, but Mike insisted upon this point being clarified.

11. Feel free to consult the Encyclopedia of Marxism entry: http://www.marxists.org/glossary/terms/t/r.htm#truth
I will try to write this up a bit better and post it on my home page.


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