Theory and Practice

Theory and Practice

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Theory and Practice is a series of nine lectures that Jacques Derrida delivered at the École Normale Supérieure in 1976 and 1977. The topic of “theory and practice” was associated above all with Marxist discourse and particularly the influential interpretation of Marx by Louis Althusser. Derrida’s many questions to Althusser and other thinkers aim at unsettling the distinction between thinking and acting.
Derrida’s investigations set out from Marx’s “Theses on Feuerbach,” in particular the eleventh thesis, which has often been taken as a mantra for the “end of philosophy,” to be brought about by Marxist practice. Derrida argues, however, that Althusser has no such end in view and that his discourse remains resolutely philosophical, even as it promotes the theory/practice pair as primary values. This seminar also draws fascinating connections between Marxist thought and Heidegger and features Derrida’s signature reconsideration of the dichotomy between doing and thinking. This text, available for the first time in English, shows that Derrida was doing important work on Marx long before Specters of Marx. As with the other volumes in this series, it gives readers an unparalleled glimpse into Derrida’s thinking at its best—spontaneous, unpredictable, and groundbreaking.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226572482
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 01/31/2019
Series: The Seminars of Jacques Derrida
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 144
File size: 255 KB

About the Author

Jacques Derrida (1930–2004) was director of studies at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris, and professor of humanities at the University of California, Irvine. He is the author of many books published by the University of Chicago Press. David Wills is professor of French and comparative literature at Brown University.

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Theory and practice, then.

(It) must be done [Faut le faire].

When I say faut le faire, what am I doing?

Of course, or so it would seem, I am heaving a sigh of discouragement, discouragement tinged with ironic protest at the curriculum that requires us to deal, in one year and in the form of a seminar, with such a question, if that is what it is. As I do each year — but rest assured I won't take it beyond this year — I'll start by critically analyzing the situation that is imposed on us by inviting you not to be satisfied with critiquing it, in theory, but to try to transform this situation effectively, practically. No further in that direction.

But if you analyze the sigh that I let slip in a little more rigorously, if you analyze it beyond the sense of disappointed fatigue on my part that it may convey, beyond my admission of impotence and my refusal to deal with such a subject in these forms, if you consider the ready-made expression faut le faire, I say if you consider it, whereas you precisely cannot consider it, you can only understand it in a given situation, that is to say determined as an event, in a context. And according to the context, a context of a particular type, for there are types of context, and contextual variability is not absolutely empirical and atypical, it includes possibilities for regulation on the basis of type, if then you understand it in a context of a particular type there are at least two senses to the locution faut le faire in our language. It either means:

First emphasis; it will keep us here for quite some time.

1. It is not enough to talk about it, or to promise, or consider, look at, hear, or receive it passively, to talk about it, or think of it, it must be done, in other words there "must be practice." Theory is not enough, there must be practice. But you can already see the difficulty of doing — a difficulty connoted by the expression faut le faire, which always means "it's not easy" because it isn't enough to consider, look, hear, wait for, receive passively, be content to talk about it or think of it or intend it — it still must be done and that's more difficult, that's what is difficult. But this difficulty, though, is not only what is directly uttered by what I say when I say faut le faire, it is already within the difficulty of understanding (thinking, understanding, determining, considering) what I mean when I say faut le faire. You have seen — or heard — that even before knowing what doing [faire] means one knew that its sense, its meaning-to-say would be determined only in the context of an opposition: doing as opposed here to thinking, representing, there to looking, considering, or again to speaking, saying, and even in opposition to several sorts of saying, of language, language uttering what is or language uttering what will be, and what will be in the form of theoretical expectation or else in the form of a commitment or promise. "I am going to do it": it isn't enough to say I am going to do it, it must be done; but I am going to do it can itself be an expectation or a commitment; in saying I am going to do it, this seminar, I may be announcing that doing it is within what I can foresee, that it is merely to come, but I may also be announcing that I commit to doing it, by means of a promise and a contract. And even, added complication, saying that I intend to do it does not signify that I promise to do it; it's not the same thing, the same sense, the same intention, such that the utterance "I am going" to do it can signify a theoretical expectation, either an intention without commitment or promise, or else a promise. And one could still refine things much more, as we will no doubt do later. For the moment I am content to register that the "doing" of "must be done" includes, in addition to the difficulty that it states ("must be done"), the difficulty of understanding what it does in saying "must be done," doing being determined solely within an opposition; and to be opposite to thinking is not to be opposite to representing, or to looking, or speaking or saying, or expecting or promising, or being passive. Each time, in each instance of the opposition, doing signifies something else, and sometimes something else entirely. Not only does it signify something else according to whether it is opposed to thinking, or knowing, speaking, expecting, promising, etc., but it can on occasion signify one of those opposites opposed to another one. It is not enough to think it, it must be said, where saying comes down to doing, it is not enough to intend to promise, it must be promised where promising consists in doing, acting, producing, transforming, therefore, wherever there was only mute thinking or interior discourse or discourse that was theoretical, constative, , etc. That is in order to announce, in a somewhat jumbled way, the immense difficulty that lies before us, as a theoretical problem and/or practical task. For if one must know what is meant by thinking, representing, speaking, saying, intending, theorizing, speculating, promising, etc., in order to know what doing means, then we won't be able to avoid dealing with an enormous history that cannot be only a history of meaning or a semantico-philosophical one.

When I said that "must be done" determines its doing only by reference to an opposite, in the oppositional situation that places it in respect of X Y Z (thinking, saying, wanting to, intending, claiming, expecting, promising), I myself seemed to imply, given our context, itself determined by the program "theory-practice," not only that the word "theory" can, in decisive contexts, cover this or that point along the chain "think, say, want to, intend, speculate, promise," but more precipitately still I seemed to presume that doing<=>practice. Yet nothing is less simple and less evident. The semantic value of what is practical [du pratique] or of practice, indeed of praxis, supposing — this is purely hypothetical for the moment — it to be unifiable, such a semantic value cannot be accounted for simply by what one calls doing, even supposing that value of doing to be itself unifiable. Just as what is theoretical about theory can play along a scale [clavier] that goes from theorein as gazing, or (not the same thing) contemplating (privileging, as is all too easy today to state, or make of an affair of state [d'en faire état, ou affaire d'état], the metaphor of the gaze), well then, just as the theoretical can play along a scale going from the powerful optical or eidetic metaphor all the way to thinking, cognizance, knowledge, , discourse, language, science as opposed to action, intention as opposed to action, etc., so practice can play along a semantic scale going from the very rich semantic hub of the Greek praxis, already very enigmatic (as we'll see), all the way to values such as act, action, gesture (gaze?), transformation, operation, effectuation, execution, labor, production, technique (techne no doubt playing a very important role in this semantic history), etc. If one takes into account the fact that these two — what I have just more or less blithely called "these two" — scales combine their oppositions, one finds oneself dealing with a very complex oppositional machine and semantic network [combinatoire]. Confronted with such a machine, within it rather, since we have no absolute remove from this semantico-linguistic element within which, in any case, we are, what must we do [que devons-nous faire]?

I note to begin that "what must we do" already presents itself as a task and duty, as the question deliberating over a task or duty that one would have to fulfill. The question I posed was not "are we going to do something?" since it is understood that it must be done, but what to do, what are we going to do? What is the content of what must be done, confronted with this machine, within it rather? I'll come back to this "must [il faut]."

There are two types of possibility here, of possible responses among which, it seems, we would have to choose. Before defining summarily these two types, I'll first put aside, I'll distance myself from a path that could be legitimate but along which I'd surely get bored myself and probably you also: this is the path that we took last year regarding life death, a path that led us to call into question in general terms, and through several problematic corpora or fields, the oppositional logic (dialectical or not) that, by means of the and, related death and life one to the other. Deconstructing the oppositional (that is to say philosophical) logic in the case of "theory and practice" would also be possible and necessary, as in the case of this rule concerning philosophy curricula that always proposes an opposition, a position or apposition, to be thought through. But the principle of this deconstruction having been already set out and exemplified, we are not going to start again with another example.

I was saying, then: two possibilities: the first, more genealogical in appearance, would consist essentially in a semantic, indeed etymological exploration. What does "theoretical" mean? what does "practical" mean? and how is their oppositional relation established? One might consult dictionaries, everyday language, a family of everyday languages, the family of everyday languages, natural languages within which philosophical and scientific discourse coheres and is determined, that is Greek in the first instance (since theory and practice are Greek words, of Greek origin, as one says, in spite of what may have happened to them subsequently), then Latin (contemplatio/actio, etc.), then German (betrachten/wirken for example, to isolate these elements within their arborescence), French, Franco-Latin (contempler, spéculer/agir, effectuer, etc.).

This arborescent genealogy is of course very complex. It seems to pass through reference points of a textual type, in the classic sense of the word "text," and even to privilege philosophical textual references, references internal or presumed to be internal to the philosophical tradition, to what one presumes to be the unity or systemic immanence of something like the history of philosophy, to which one can if one wishes add "Western."

I am going to give some examples; very quickly, very summarily, on an indicative basis only, and we will need to take up this task again later in a more patient manner. If we were to look today for the specifically philosophical field in which the theory/practice opposition remains active, invested, deemed useful, pertinent, it would indeed seem to be within a philosophical discourse of the Marxian or Marxist tradition, or in any case marked by that tradition, reckoning with it, importing what, in such a tradition, has imbued the theory/practice pair with conceptual determinations. I won't say that that opposition is invested only in this Marxist place, or in contact with Marxism, but that it is only in such a place that it takes a philosophical form — at first sight at least — which is given to it in a regulated and systematic way by dialectical materialism. We would therefore start out from that place, here, today, with the aim of developing a semantico-philosophical genealogy, and leave aside either as irrelevant from this point of view, or as secondary, recourse that might be had to the theory/practice pair in everyday language, in empirico-approximate language, which fails to think rigorously, that is to say conceptually (theoretically?), what it says, or the recourse that might be had to it in domains such as those of science, I mean of a determinate science, regional sciences, where the theory/practice opposition is able to intervene in frequent and necessary ways, not only in all the classic problems of theory and experiment, all the epistemological problems concerning experimentation, or induction, or technical equipment, etc., but also in the problems that arise between the body of scientific research determined as theoretico-technical and the field of political practice, politico-economic practice (questions concerning the directions taken by research, concerning funding, equipment, ministries of science, international collaboration, the utilization of scientific research for peaceful or non-peaceful ends, in short the whole enormous and fundamental problem of the "politics of science" and of the political status of scientific theory). All of that would be left aside as not specifically philosophical or in any case as derivative, dependent vis-à-vis a philosophical determination of the theory/practice problem. In the same way, for example, the problematic topos of psychoanalysis would also be left aside: what is a theory for psychoanalysis, what is psychoanalytic theory, what specific relations exist between practice and theory in psychoanalysis? What is specific to psychoanalytic practice? And within the treatment, what is it that gets called "acting out," etc.? In the same way we would leave aside as something regional, concerning ordinary linguistic usage, the whole problematic — let's call it Anglo-Saxon — of the performative and of speech acts, that is to say not the practical consequences of every sort that a theoretical language can have (this already constitutes an enormous and complex problematic field: what are the effects, psychic, political, pedagogical, etc., etc., of a discourse that in itself gives the appearance of being theoretical, that says what is), not only, therefore, the problem of the consequences or else of the practical causes that a theoretical discourse can have, but also, in a more acute manner, what a discourse of this or that type does (for example the type that Austin has in mind when he uses the name "performative") when it consists in doing, when it is in itself an act, such as when I say — these are now routine examples — "I open this session," "I name you knight of the Legion of Honor," "I commit to doing this or that," utterances that don't describe anything, that provide nothing that can be stated or known but do something and constitute events. According to the hypothesis of a rigorously philosophical genealogy that I am provisionally advancing for the moment, the problematic of the performative and of speech acts (to which we will naturally have to return) would be kept aside and considered derivative. Naturally these three examples (the epistemological, let's say, psychoanalytic, and logico-analytical) could be multiplied, almost without limit. Each time that a domain, a region, a place gets determined (pedagogy, medicine, sport, etc.), a theory/practice question gets determined, and the philosopher, whatever interest or importance he gives to it, considers it derivative, regional, dependent, and he basically reasons in the following way: one must first appeal to the most general, the most fundamental conceptual determination of the theory/practice pair, and know first how things stand with theory/practice in general in order to know next how things stand in these particular areas. Basically it is fundamental as such for the philosopher to know (and eventually to teach specialists) what "theory-and-practice" means in general, the sense of that opposition in general such as it is consistently presupposed in the regional fields that I just mentioned. Whatever the specificity of those usages, as much in epistemology as in psychoanalysis or in the problematic of speech acts and of the performative, they must all gesture toward a common and minimal semantic kernel, toward an implicit philosopheme that the philosopher himself, or philosophical discourse treats as such. Now, I was saying, therefore, that from that point of view, today, in "modern times," the philosophical discourse that takes under its aegis in an invested way the theory/practice pair, making it a major motif of its discursivity, is the discourse of a Marxist tradition, more precisely dialectical materialist philosophy. That is hard to dispute, I think, whatever the complexity, indeed novelty (we'll have to come back to all of this, of course) of the treatment of this pair in Marxist discourse, or rather Marxist discourses. Given that fact, the semantico-philosophical genealogy that we are talking about could, for example, go back from a certain current state of Marxist discourse on theory/practice to an "event" (I'll keep this word very indeterminate for the moment), a theoretical or practical event — whether it is theoretical or practical can be said only on the basis of the (theoretical or practical, etc.) interpretation of the relations between theory and practice — an event to be conceived either as crux, or as displacement, or as break, an event within which there is constituted something like Marxist discourse or rather, shall we say, theory/practice, Marxist theory/practice qua philosophy, as the philosophical system otherwise called dialectical materialism. All the important questions of this type: is Marxism or dialectical materialism a philosophy? is there or must there be a Marxist philosophy (and in that case what does philosophy mean?), or, adopting the formula that was recently proposed, is there merely a "Marxist status" of philosophy? does Marxism gain or lose by being presented, or by still presenting itself as a philosophy, and in what sense? All these important and difficult questions clearly lie on the horizon of this seminar. But for the moment, in this barely preliminary introduction, I'll be satisfied with marking some points of reference to justify finding my point of departure in current Marxist discourse or in the present state of "dialectical materialism" qua philosophy, as philosophical movement having as its indispensable basis the theory/practice pair and putting into perspective from its own philosophical position the whole history of philosophy and the whole history of the theory/practice pair. The two reference points that I would choose (but there could probably be others: whether they would be more pertinent or not, whether they would contribute something essentially new or different to thedemonstration, I don't think so and that's why I limit myself to these ones, but I am ready to examine any other proposition, of course), the two reference points that I would choose belong to two discourses that have at least this much in common, failing all else, and have it in common with every Marxist discourse, namely that they always refer — as the historical, theoretical and practical reference — to this event, which I won't be able to qualify differently (what must it be called, what qualifier should it be given: theoretical, practical, philosophical or more than philosophical, etc.), this event, then, called "Theses on Feuerbach," and notably the 11th Thesis: Die Philosophen haben die Welt nur verschieden interpretiert, es kommt darauf an, sie zu verändern, which is generally translated as "Philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; what is important is to transform it [verändern: to change, to make other, rather than transform, presuming one wants to keep for the concept of transformation — change in form, or change of the form, with all that that implies — a relevance that is more rigorous]."


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Table of Contents

Foreword to the English Edition
General Introduction to the French Edition
Translator’s Preface

First Session

Second Session

Third Session

Fourth Session

Fifth Session

Sixth Session

Seventh Session

Eighth Session

Ninth Session

Index of Names

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