Although the term praxis is probably first used by Karl Marx, it is usually attributed to Pierre Bourdieu who made a formal theorizing of the concept. Marshall Sahlins also made some interesting comments about praxis and social change. In this essay I will try to demonstrate how these three social scientists theorize practical action with its relation to consciousness and social change. In order to do this, I am making a distinction between practice (in daily life) and praxis (practice and theory as united) and try to demonstrate how each theorist distinguishes between the two.
“In his consciousness of species man confirms his real social life and simply repeats his real existence in thought, just as conversely the being if the species confirms itself in species-consciousness and is for itself in its generality as a thinking being” (Marx 1844, 86)
This notion of praxis is what Bourdieu and Sahlins later wrote on, but unfortunately he did not make a lot of discussion on this definition. However, Marx introduces the term practice in a more texturized way (which is probably better than the above definition), and defines it in relation to human consciousness. Although he does not make an explicit distinction, between practice and praxis, his notion of practice could be interpreted in two ways: practice as a part of social reality and praxis as practice united with theory. The first one is the belief that all social life is practical (or we should say has a purpose) regardless of it is conscious or unconscious, Marx states this idea in Thesis on Feuerbach no: VII (Marx 1845).
However, there is one other level of practice, a higher level one, one that is stemming from consciousness, one could change the world, one is revolutionary. In this conception of practice, there is a direct relationship between knowing and doing, and hence “thinking and being are thus no doubt distinct but at the same time they are in unity with each other” (Marx 1844, 86). However there is not always a clear link between thinking and being; for example when people are alienated from what they are doing, they lose this connection and hence their control over the change. Whenever human mind has a control over what s/he does, then s/he will escape from estrangement and become a human being, rather than an object (Marx 1844, 116).
This dual notion of practice is highly visible when he talks about classes. At one level, there is “class in itself” which is a group of people holding the social class status in an unconscious level; the practice being within a social class without knowing it. And at another level, there is “class for itself”, in which classes act performatively.
Although it is unconscious, still we can say that alienation, or in Marxist terms “thinghood” of the proleteriat (Marx 1884, 114) is also a cultural practice that is exercised on the labor by the political economist. Marx says (1844, 78) “the medium through in which the estrangement takes place is practical”. In a way, it is Bourgeois’s way of reproducing the social life by disconnecting the labor from the means of production. However such a practice does not lead to a real change, thus it is a practice of life but not praxis, which is the only way to make the revolutionary change according to Marx.
For Bourdieu, praxis is not much different than what did Marx propose initially, but since he has reconstituted it as a solid theory of it, he gets majority of the credit. According to him, the Anthropologist should “introduce into the object the principles of his relation to the object” (Bourdieu 1977, 2) and thus bring practice into theory. However he does not pack any revolutionary meanings to praxis but he rather sees it as the fundamental reality of life: thus the distinction between practice of life and praxis is merely epistemological.
For him, it is objectivism that “constructs a theory of practice, but only as a negative byproduct, or one might say waste product, immediately discarded, of the construction of the systems of objective relations” (Bourdieu 1977, 24). This theory of practice is a one in which doing and knowing are detached from each other. Consequently, objectivism constructs a picture of the practice, but not in relation to the “natural world” not a case of “doxa”. (Bourdieu 1977, 166-168). For him, the uniting of theory and practice is what he calls doxa, which he defines as “a quasi perfect correspondence between the objective order and subjective principles of organization… the natural and social worlds appear as self evident” (Bourdieu 1977, 164). I propose that this is praxis, what I assume differ from daily practice. Praxis could be conscious or unconscious according to Bourdieu since “each agent, wittingly or unwittingly, willy nilly, is a producer and reproducer of objective meaning.” This is somewhat different than the notion of practice that I attributed to Marx, because according to him, unconscious actions cannot change the structure. However, I should also point that his notion of consciousness is much different than Marxist version: according to Bourdieu, there is not a solid state of consciousness but rather a sense of reason. As he says “the habitus is the universalizing mediation which causes an individual agent’s practices, without either explicit reason or signifying intent, to be none the less sensible and reasonable”. (Bourdieu 1977, 79)
Probably because of that, for Bourdieu, unlike Marx, the change is somewhat not revolutionary, but rather in progressive. There is not much a sense of awakening but a continuous sense of reason and cause: “habitus, the durably installed generative principle of regulated improvisations, produces practices which tend to reproduce the regularities immanent in the objective conditions of the production of their generative principle”. (Bourdieu 1977, 78). In other words we, the individuals, are never “objects” (maybe only in the eyes of the objective scientist) and we never have a “thing” like status compared to the Marxist definition of estranged labor. So in a way, there is no such thing as transformation from thinghood to humanhood.
In summary, the unity of theory and practice is vital for Bourdieu not because it is necessary to perform action, but because it is fundamental to understanding the social reality. There is only a split between the theory and practice in the scientists mind, not in the actual reality. According to him, regardless of the level of our consciousness (which always exist even at some minimum), we are already changing something, because we already know what we are doing, and there is no such concept of estranged individual. Since Bourdieu did not write much about his views on working class, I just can assume that he does not believe that any change is revolutionary like labor action; even if workers change something they will change it progressively by iterating between their habitus and structure and slightly changing it while reproducing it.
Sahlins believes that “every practical change is a cultural reproduction… but every reproduction of culture is an alteration” (Sahlins 1985, 144). This is very close to Bourdieu’ notion of change, probably a better and clearer definition of it. According to Sahlins (1985, 28), people are “making relationships out of practice, especially out of sexual practice”.
However this is not a single way of seeing cultural reproduction, for Sahlins, we also see “prescriptive structures” in which there are bounded groups with compelling rules to prescribe people how to act (Sahlins 1985, 28). In a way, such societies are bound to change drastically and revolutionary because members do not have the power to change it by single individual actions. This is probably not a matter of being unconscious about one’s own actions; but rather being unconscious about the fact that individual actions can make a change. On the other hand, Sahlins proposes another ideal type “performative structures” in which “relationships are constituted by choice, desire, and interest.” (Sahlins 1985, xii). Nevertheless this freedom of choice does not mean that the society is unstructured, according to Sahlins, but it is rather a form of living culture in practice (or “habitus”) (Sahlins 1985, 51-53). In other words, for Sahlins it is another type of relation between theory and practice.
At that point, though I am not quite certain that it is a perfect correspondence, but Marxist notion of “class in itself” highly resembles a prescriptive structure, where individuals are bounded by rules and predefined ways of relating to each other (like only socializing in workspace) and as a consequence lose control over the theory. On the other hand, “class for itself” is highly performative, in which class members start taking initiative and act through consciousness. In this perspective, I would like to say that prescriptive structures are structures in which theory and action are rather separated; knowing and doing are different and detached things. But I am afraid that Sahlins will reject this.
Practice, as used by different social scientists could be perceived as a rediscovery of Marx ; but matured by Bourdieu. And Sahlins has a couple of interesting things to say about it. Marx saw praxis as an ideal state when people become conscious of their own actions, while Bourdieu and Sahlins believed that it is always present and it is processual (Sahlins 1985, 77). While Marx believed in revolutionary changes in social structure, Bourdieu and Sahlins envisioned that all change is gradual, reflexive and comparably small. As Sahlins says “Every actual use of cultural ideas is some reproduction of them, but every such reference is also a difference”; or if we want to quote Bourdieu “In short, habitus, the product of history, produces individual and collective practices, and hence history, in accordance with the schemes engendered by history”.
Bourdieu, Pierre (1977). Outline of a Theory of Practice
Marx, Karl (1844). Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844
Marx, Karl (1845). Thesis on Feuerbach
Sahlins, Marshall (1985). Islands of History
(This text is modified from a paper I wrote for one of my classes)