The betrayal of thought

1. Theory and practice. We have no intelligent model of the relation of theory and practice insofar as our currently available models are designed to foreclose any such relation. The problem is always to justify theory against practice: we must go “beyond the classroom” or have “street smarts”, “that may be true in theory …” – Yet what this expression overlooks is the fact that anything that may be “true in theory” but that does not reflect the existing state of affairs is a false theory. We lack an intelligent model for theory because our operative presumption is that theory is prior to practice: we learn “principles” and then seek their “application”, for example. But what every enemy of theory fails to notice is that theory is the result of practice. The relationship of theory to practice is understanding or, more precisely, understanding is nothing other than the unity of theory and practice. Theory without practice is not understood and conversely for practice without theory. The musician does not begin with an abstract “theoretical” knowledge of harmony and then proceed to compose; but the musician who attempts to compose without theory will either have to reinvent the scale with every tune or will simply be banal and poor in her work. There is, quite simply, a dialectic of theory and practice: each implies the other and the failure of this dialectic results either in extreme academism or extreme stupidity.

2. Blaming the victim. Yet despite the usual demand for practice we have seen a curious double criticism of OWS in that the movement offers neither theory nor practice. Occupiers, so the charge goes, neither understand what they are protesting nor offer any “real solutions”. Of course, this criticism is either itself guilty of the same fault—e.g., in itself doing nothing productive in offering the desired “solution”—or fails to understand the significance of the protest. On the one hand, the message is right on the surface: those who are tasked with finding solutions are themselves part of the problem and have effectively debarred other possibilities from entering the discussion. But, more fundamentally, the refusal to articulate a “party platform” has inverted the disastrous model of theory and practice that has currently paralyzed our federal government. The right’s ideological commitments (theory) unilaterally trump the necessities of action in the face of competing interests. OWS has given us the opposite: practice without theory for the purpose of asking us to think. OWS’ silence has forced upon us, through its refusal to think for us, the recognition that we have all failed to think—and that this failure has permitted the continuing devastation of livelihoods and households under the name of a supposedly free economy. OWS has asked us to wonder how it is possible and necessary for these protests to exist. The exhortation, then, for them to re-enter the economic system that ejected them in the first place misses the point in a particularly pernicious way, i.e., by refusing to recognize the manifest injustice of the status quo that has produced the victims who are now being asked to shoulder the blame.

3. The body of the soul. “Only philosophy can be an antidote for all the evil into which philosophical curiosity has plunged us,” Herder said. This idle curiosity is the decadent form of the theological “wonder” of the Theaetetus. The philosopher, Socrates says, is like the goddess who passes between heaven and earth and that philosophical questions are those that the soul considers “alone and through itself” (185e). Aristotle respects this call to philosophy when he too says that the knowledge of the wise is “most universal” which is “farthest from the senses” (Metaphysics 982a25) that aspires toward the starry heavens above. Such knowledge, Aristotle says, would make us free, yet the human condition is necessarily one of bondage. Our freedom consists, then, in understanding the necessity of that which compels us to wonder, such as the incommensurability of the diagonal, “for there is nothing which would surprise a geometer so much as if the diagonal turned out to be commensurable”.

It is precisely this complicity that criticism refuses. Philosophy shall complete its task precisely when there is no further need for it. “Happy if philosophy showed him the path on which he teaches the people to act without thinking, to be virtuous without knowing it, to be citizens without pondering about the fundamental principles of the state …” (Herder) or, as Adorno would say to Horkheimer, “true thought is thought that has no wish to insist on being in the right”. Philosophy ends not in the satisfaction of wonder but the rejection of necessity and in the truth of the given, not in understanding but disbelief, and not in happiness but in the suffering of a body rebelling against the ascent of the soul.