Outline of a Theory of Practice

by Pierre Bourdieu

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Pierre Bourdieu's Outline of a Theory of Practice begins by positing that:

The practical privilege in which all scientific activity arises never more subtly governs that activity (insofar as science presupposes not only an epistemological break but also a social separation) than when, unrecognised as privilege, it leads to an implicit theory of practice which is the corollary of neglect of the social conditions in which science is possible.

What this means in plainer English is that, first, the pursuit of knowledge is constrained by historical conditions, and secondly, since the seventeenth century, the natural sciences (and by extension, the social sciences which mimic them) have pretended that the practices of science (experimentation, intellectual exchange, and even scientific writing) are governed not by historical social conditions but by ahistorical norms of objectivity.

Bourdieu, in this statement, is saying that science is never quite so dominated by social and historical conditions as when it pretends that it is immune to such conditions. He argues that claims to scientific objectivity themselves arise in historical context; early modern natural scientists had to carve out "objectivity" to differentiate themselves from non-scientists.

Bourdieu further claims that:

The slow evolution "from religion to philosophy", as Cornford and the Cambridge school put it, that is, from analogy as a practical scheme of ritual action to analogy as an object of reflection and a rational method of thought, is correlative with a transformation of the function which the groups concerned confer on myth and rite in their practice.

This means, for instance, that the analogy between heaven and earth posited in scriptural contexts and embodied in church architecture became, over the course of intellectual evolution from the seventeenth to eighteenth centuries, an object of thought and analysis rather than an unquestioned tenet of faith, as it was for the Protestants.

Bourdieu's objective in this work is to contrive a theory of practice that holds onto Marx and transcends Kant and Aristotle. He depends upon a notion of social construction derived from Rousseau to help him in this attempt. He claims:

With the Marx of the Theses on Feuerbach, the theory of practice as practice insists, against positivist materialism, that the objects of knowledge are constructed, and against intellectual idealism, that the principle of this construction is practical activity oriented towards practical functions.

To say that something is "constructed" (but with a view towards the demands of practice), is to attempt to carve out a halfway house between idealism and materialism. One may ask whether "constructed" in this context is perhaps another way of saying "poetic."

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