My 30 minute talk about liberal democracy and the ethos of comedy, followed by a 30 minute discussion, was last night (February 17th). You can view the talk on YouTube by clicking on this link.
Category: John Dewey
It’s been a long hiatus. But I want to pick up where I left off. I have three issues on the table:
1. Cognitive versus non-cognitive theories of art.
2. The very distinction between cognitive and non-cognitive appears to motivate a fact/value divide—as shown most dramatically in the emotivist, non-cognitive theories of ethics/morals developed by the logical positivists in the mid-20th century.
3. I am still angling to get eventually to a consideration of the connection of art to meaning—with the corollary of considering if meaning differs substantially from information and/or causal explanation. On this last point, I am courting, it would seem, my own dichotomy. I, for the most part, have no commitment to proving the arts “distinctive” in some absolute way. I don’t feel a need to show that the arts do something that other activities we would not consider artistic do not. But I do suspect that a focus on or concern with meaning leads in different directions than a focus on explanation. To explain how hydrogen and oxygen combine to create water says little to nothing about the “meaning” that interaction might have. At least, that’s my intuition.
But today’s post focuses in on #2, the fact/value divide. I think I am stealing my basic insight here from my friend Allen Dunn, but will follow a path derived from Wittgenstein and Dewey to make my case.
Consider the following sentences, all of which (except the last two) use some form of the verb “to be,” and take the form of assertions.
1. There is a red house. [The speaker points at a yellow house.]
2. There is a dog. [The speaker points at a cat.}
3. Henry is taller than John.
4. Abraham Lincoln was the 16th president of the United States.
5. Abraham Lincoln was the greatest president in American history.
6. Incest is wrong.
7. “All men are created equal.”
8. Hitting your child is wrong.
9. Moby Dick is the greatest American novel.
10. Moby Dick is a chaotic mess.
11. Moby Dick is about a milkman who loses his job.
12. James has Parkinson’s Disease.
13. William has prostrate cancer.
The usual, intuitive, reasons for believing in a fact/value distinction are 1. The belief that values are human and are added on top of natural facts and 2. The notion that facts, generally, are verifiable and thus non-controversial, while disagreements over values are rife and irresolvable. It is easy to agree that this copy of Moby Dick has a red cover, but it is harder to reach agreement over the artistic value of Moby Dick.
On number one: my inclination would be to say facts are as human as values—insofar as facts are fabricated (in the ways Bruno Latour’s work has made familiar to us) and that the mobilization of facts, their use in rhetorics of persuasion that aim to achieve agreement, is a human enterprise. (Let’s leave speculation about the consciousness of animals and plants to one side for the moment. I am a complete agnostic on this topic. We learn more and more every year about animal and plant consciousness. So I do not deny out of hand that these non-human creatures might have their ways of ascertaining facts and, crucially, bringing apprehended facts to bear in subsequent behavior, and communicating with others.) For humans, the key for me is that facts are understood as pieces of information that have been produced, and then mobilized in processes of deliberation and the formation of individual and collective intentions.
In other words, once a fact has been fabricated in the Latourian fashion, it then becomes something that is used in making plans and in trying to persuade others to assist with those plans. Thus, a hurricane is not a fact until it has been made into one by an assemblage of the symptoms and consequences and causes gathered under the name “hurricane” by meteorologists—and then that name (with all that is associated with it) is used (for example) to justify an evacuation order. In short, on this account, there is no reason to think the creation of values differs significantly from the creation of facts. Both facts and values are assemblages that bring together various factors to designate something as the case (i.e. hurricanes cause damage; incest is wrong).
What I take from Allen refers to number two, the idea that facts are non-controversial while values generate endless disagreements. Allen’s point was that we have many value statements that are almost universally accepted. Very few people insist that incest is just fine. Far fewer people call incest OK than believe that alien abduction happens. We cannot sort things into the fact bin and the value bin on the basis of agreement over the truth of fact assertions as contrasted to value assertions. The American experience of the past four years has merely brought the idea that facts are incontrovertible to its knees.
At this point, the temptation is to throw up one’s hands and say “anything goes.” This is where Wittgenstein and Dewey can prove helpful—even though they will not “solve” the problem of disagreement. But they can help us think about it more clearly.
The sentences I offer at the top of this post are Wittgenstein-like. For sentence one, where a speaker calls a yellow house red, we would first ask him to look again. If he repeated his assertion, we could only conclude that he is color-blind (and would arrange for him to be tested for that condition), or that he doesn’t understand how the word “red” is applied in English (and would proceed to try to teach him the color terms and their application in English.)
For sentence two, where the speaker calls a dog a cat, we don’t even have known medical condition to appeal to. Now it is simply telling him that “we” (the speakers of English) call that animal a “dog” not a “cat.” This looks like sheer compulsion. There is no underlying reason or fact that justifies using the word “dog” instead of the word “cat.” It is just the way we do things in English. The agreement is motivated (perhaps) by its usefulness in facilitating communication, but nothing else underwrites the convention. For Wittgenstein, reasons stop at a certain point. This is where my spade turns, he writes. Reasons come to an end, and there is just the bald statement: this is what we do, this is how we think and act, this is what we believe.
What Dewey adds to this Wittgensteinian picture is the notion of “warrants.” Where there are disagreements over an assertion, there are reasons I mobilize in an effort to convince another that my assertion should be credited. It is important to recognize that the warrants vary widely depending on the nature of the assertion. The warrants for sentences one and two are, from a positivist point of view, pretty feeble. The only “verification” is to show that this use of the words “red” and “dog” is actually what English speakers do. There is no connection to natural facts involved.
When we get to sentence three, Henry is taller than John, we can stand the two boys next to each other. Here there appears to be a fact of the matter that can be “shown.” Agreement still depends on both parties understanding the term “taller” in the same way, but there is also (as the positivist sees it) “direct’ evidence for the assertion.
Sentence four shows how quickly the positivists’ view of facts falls apart. There is no “direct” proof that Lincoln was the 16th president. In a very real way, we must take that fact on faith, placing credence in various documents. We in 2020 can have no first-hand knowledge of Lincoln having been president. In part, we take that fact on authority. But we also believe that fact because questioning it would undermine all kinds of other beliefs we have. Our beliefs “hang together” to establish a holistic picture of our world and our place in it. To discredit a single assertion can, in many cases, threaten to unravel a whole web of beliefs. We are, for this reason, “conservatives” in the matter of beliefs, William James says. We want to conserve, to not upset the apple cart. We have to have very strong reasons (of interest, or argument) to give up a settled belief. Saying this, however, indicates the extent to which we believe what it is “comfortable” to believe—and thus points to the ways we can believe things that, to others, seem to patently disregard compelling evidence to the contrary. On the other hand, “confirmation bias” points to the ways we credit anything that seems to shore up our current beliefs. We humans can be remarkably resistant to what others will claim are “the plain facts of the matter.”
Dewey’s notion of “warrants” tells us that what will “count” as evidence will vary from case to case. The evidence brought to back up the assertion that Lincoln was the 16th president is different from the evidence called up to claim he was the greatest American president. Of the asking for and giving of reasons there is no end. But the kinds of reasons offered must be deemed pertinent to the matter at hand.
Thus, when we get to the statements “incest is wrong,” or “all men are created equal,” we might be tempted to argue in terms of consequences. There are harmful biological consequences for inbreeding, and there might be harmful social consequences (violence, resentment, various other forms of conflict) from treating some as inferior to others. But incest was considered wrong long before there was any understanding of genetics, and the harmful consequences of inequality are uncertain. In the case of incest, there is not much (if any) disagreement. Certain persons might violate the injunction against it, but they recognize the force of the assertion in their keeping its violations secret. I am tempted to say that the assertion “incest is wrong” is akin to saying “that animal is a dog.” It is just the way this community does things. It is foundational to our being a community (we share a language; we share a belief than incest is wrong and that it should be forbidden). Our spade turns there.
The equality assertion is more debatable (as is the assertion that hitting a child is wrong). Arguments (reasons) are offered for both sides. Disagreements over consequences (installing equality breeds mediocrity; sparing the rod spoils the child) will be rife. Kant, of course, offers a different argumentative strategy, one that depends on seeing the contradiction in making an exception of oneself. You, Kant says, don’t want to be treated as an inferior. So why should you think that it is right for another to be so treated? Kantian arguments have proven no more decisive than consequential ones. But the point is that these two kinds of reasons are typical of the “warrants” offered in cases of moral assertions. Where they fail, we can only say “I have nothing more to offer. Here my spade turns.” The kinds of evidence/reasons offered are different than the kinds I offer against claims of alien abduction or that Donald Trump really won the 2020 election, but there comes a point where what I deem more than sufficient reason to believe something does not work for others. At that point, there is nothing further to be done.
The Moby Dick sentences make the point that in debates over aesthetic values different kinds of assertions will call for different “warrants.” The assertion that the novel is about a milkman is akin to someone calling a dog a cat. There is no place to go with such a disagreement; the parties to it are literally not speaking the same language. Wittgenstein’s point is that only where there is a fundamental agreement—we can call it the minimum required to be part of a community—can a disagreement then unfold. I can’t play a game of tennis if my opponent says balls that go into the net are do-overs. Unless we both stand within the constitutive rules of the game, the competition of an actual match cannot unfold. I can’t have a conversation about Moby Dick with someone who thinks it is the story of a milkman.
But the other two sentences about the novel require different warrants. To talk about it being the greatest American novel (just as any talk of Lincoln as the greatest American president) requires some kind of articulation of what makes a novel great and some attempt at comparison with other American novels my interlocutor might consider great. To say Moby Dick is a chaotic mess need not involve any comparison to other novels, while the criteria for “chaotic mess” will be different from the criteria for “greatness.” In both cases, I will presumably appeal to features of the novel, perhaps quoting from the text. In the Latour vision, these appeals to the text are acts of assemblage, of putting together my case, calling into presence various available sources—features of the text, the opinions of prior readers and critics, my own responses to the novel’s shifts of tone and topic etc.—to make my assertion credible.
I have included the last two sentences, which provide a diagnosis of Parkinson’s and prostrate cancer, to indicate how warrants in medical science also differ from one case to another. In prostrate cancer, we have blood tests and various forms of imaging that establish the “fact of the matter.” In Parkinson’s there are no such definitive tests. A patient is judged to have Parkinson’s on the basis of a bundle of symptoms (not all of which will be present in the majority of cases) and on the basis of how they respond to certain drugs or other treatments.
There are two conclusions to draw, I think. The first is pluralism. Our reasons for believing assertions vary; we offer to ourselves and others different arguments/reasons/evidence to undergird (or justify) what we do assert, what we do hold to be true or to be good to believe. (I recognize that I am going to have to think about the word “true” and the work it does when I take up the questions of meaning.)
The second is that the kind of reasons offered in different cases do not separate out along lines that coincide with the traditional way of understanding the fact/value divide. A consequential argument about the damage hurricanes produce takes a similar form to a consequential argument about the damage done by physically punishing a child. In both cases, we might very well point to previous instances to show what those consequences might be—or we may point to larger-scale studies of multiple instances to show the odds of bad consequences, even while admitting that in some cases not much harm ensues. And if, in the two cases of the hurricane and of child-rearing, we argue that humans should do all they can to mitigate the possible damage, we are asserting that suffering is a bad thing and to be averted wherever possible—an argument that can probably only be underwritten by some kind of Kantian reasoning about the good (the right) of all beings to avoid unnecessary pain.
Various writers—of the ones I know, Kenneth Burke and Hilary Putnam prominent among them—argue that fact and value are inextricably intertwined. That the two comes packaged together in our apprehension of the world. In Burke’s account, we have an “attitude” toward things and situations embedded within our apprehension of them. But this Burke position still accepts the analytic distinction between fact and value, even if that “analysis” comes after the moment of their combination in actual experience. The pluralism that Dewey points us toward suggests the distinction between fact and value misleads us altogether by suggesting that some things (Facts) are given and incontrovertible while others (Values) are human contrivances. Better to look at how both facts and values are “made” (just as William James asks us to consider how “truths” are made), while paying attention to the plurality of ways of making humans (and other creatures) deploy.
I won’t dwell as long on Nelson Goodman and Brian Massumi as I did on Susanne Langer because I want to move on to the larger stakes of trying to link art to cognition. But a quick look at what the two male theorists have to say will help me to clarify those stakes.
Goodman wants to overcome the traditional gap between reason and emotion, arguing (as Martha Nussbaum will do some thirty years later) that “the emotions function cognitively” (Languages of Art, 248, Goodman’s emphasis). “Also, emotions function cognitively not as separate items but in combination with one another and with other means of knowing. Perception, conception, and feeling intermingle and interact; and an alloy often resists analysis into emotive and nonemotive components. . . . I am not resting anything on the distinction between emotions and other elements in knowing, but rather insisting that emotion belongs with them. What does matter is that the comparisons, contrasts, and organization involved in the cognitive process often affect the participating emotions. Some may be intensified as colors are against a complimentary ground, or pointed up by subtle rhyming; other may be softened, as are sounds in a louder context. And some emotions may emerge as properties of the orchestrated whole. . . . In daily life, classification of things by feeling is often more vital than classification by other properties; we are likely to be better off if we are skilled in fearing, wanting, braving, or distrusting the right things, animate or inanimate, than if we perceive only their shapes, sizes, weights etc.” (249-51).
Notice how “classification” sneaks in. Talk of “cognition” seems to slide easily and almost inevitably into “recognizing” what sort of thing something presented to me in the here and now is. In other words, Kant’s determinative judgment. I cognize a thing by placing it in the right class: as a thing to be feared, as an example of the larger type of which I already have an image, a word, or a remembered encounter (Dewey’s “funded experience”). To know something is to know what it is, which is to know what I can expect of it, what consequences follow from its appearance in these circumstances (the pragmatic maxim).
Judgment entails getting that designation of what it is right. Bad judgments lead us to mistake what are the possible outcomes of this encounter, lead us to interact with this thing, this situation, in ways that do not produce expected or desired results. Cognition thus introduces the possibility of getting it right or wrong. Truth, in the pragmatist account, is demonstrated by the arrival of the expected, desired, results. Truth is what is good in the way of belief; truth is what happens to an idea—the idea being the initial judgment and the happening being what unfolds when that judgment is acted upon.
Goodman, no less than Langer, is thus brought to wonder what distinguishes the aesthetic from the non-aesthetic since he has made a general case for the entanglement of emotion with cognition, just as she has made a general case for the existence of “presentational, non-discursive symbols.” At the end of his defense of the centrality of emotion to cognition, Goodman writes: “Although many puzzles are thus resolved and the role of emotion in aesthetic experience clarified, we are still left without a way of distinguishing aesthetic experience from all other experience. Cognitive employment of the emotions in neither present in every aesthetic experience nor absent from every nonaesthetic experience” (251).
Goodman does not claim to provide a firm distinction between aesthetic and nonaesthetic experience. Instead, he offers some “symptoms” of the aesthetic (that I will not go into) and then considers non-utilitarian uses of symbols. Such uses exemplify cognitive processes as such—abstracted away from any attempt or desire to put the cognitive insight to use as a basis for action. We can see here the fairly traditional effort to disconnect the arts from “interest,” as well as the abstraction away from “content” toward a focus on “form.” In Goodman’s case, it is the “form” of cognition itself that becomes the focus, as contrasted to anything cognition might be about. He doesn’t in fact deploy the term “form” at all; instead the point is connected to what is done for its own sake, not for some other end. Here’s the relevant passage:
“Use of symbols beyond immediate need is for the sake of understanding, not practice; what compels is the urge to know, what delights is discovery, and communication is secondary to the apprehension and formulation of what is to be communicated. The primary purpose is cognition in and for itself” (258). In certain cases (which can be aesthetic or non-aesthetic for Goodman) we just cognize for the pleasure of cognizing. Exercising our cognitive capacities can be delightful.
The oddity of this retreat to a “pure” cognition is that it undermines Goodman’s ambitious desire to celebrate the “world-making” powers of imaginative, feeling-tinged cognition. His larger philosophical project is all about plural worlds, about the ways that possibilities are opened up by creative thought. His description of the ways aesthetic practices open up such possibilities is inspiring. “Establishment and modification of motifs, abstraction and elaboration of patterns, differentiation and interrelation of modes of transformation, all are processes of constructive search; and the measures applicable are not those of passive enjoyment but those of cognitive efficacy; delicacy of discrimination, power of integration, and justice of proportion between recognition and discovery” (261).
Certain uses of symbol, certain aesthetic constructions, allow us to “discover” new things about the world. “The peak of interest in a symbol tends to occur at the time of revelation, somewhere midway in the passage from the obscure to the obvious. But there is endurance and renewal too. Discoveries become available knowledge only when preserved in accessible form; the trenchant and laden symbol does not become worthless when it becomes familiar, but is incorporated in the base of further exploration. And where there is density in the symbol system, familiarity is never complete and final; another look many always disclose significant new subtleties” (260).
Here we have the lineaments of a very robust cognitive theory of symbols—one that sees their elaboration as tied to the opening up, the illumination of, the revelation of the world. There is no way to confine this way of deploying symbols exclusively to “the aesthetic,” but the suggestion is that elaboration, density, and the self-conscious use of symbols as agents of exploration is a predominant feature of at least some aesthetic work and practices. And it certainly seems like the pay-off is more than just a delight in exercising our cognitive powers.
One final note on Goodman. He offers his own version of Wordsworth’s “half-perceive, half-create” (from the Tintern Abbey powem), combined with William James’ understanding of how our beliefs must cohere. Goodman works to decenter “truth.” “Despite rife doctrine truth matters very little in science,” he insists (262). Rather, our truths or our beliefs are judged according to their “compatibility with our other interests” (263). We move back and forth between the novelties that imagination or a new experience introduce and our settled beliefs about the way the world is. And we work to make these two sources “fit” (264) one another. (Thus “fit” is not exclusively, or even primarily, about “correspondence” with the world.) The decentering of truth is tied to the pluralist insistence that the world is not simply and unalterably one way. The world is neither static nor non-malleable; our actions upon it (prompted by our beliefs and our imaginings) can create novelties. Thus Goodman’s last words in his book extol the “creation and comprehension of our worlds” (265), the Wordsworthian move of seeing both human imagination and natural fact as co-equals in the constitution of “the world.”
Very briefly on Massumi, who explicitly says he is against cognitive theories of art. (When I get to discussing non-cognitive theories, I will return to his work). But despite that claim, he adopts a version of Langer’s position that art reveals the “form” of basic mental processes. And like Langer, Massumi builds “formulation” (Langer’s term, not his) into the act of perception. The fundamental mental function is called “thinking-feeling” in Massumi’s work, so he is aligned with Langer and Goodman in the insistence that feelings are essential to cognition. And then he argues that the visual arts deliver “a feeling of seeing sight caught in its own intensive act” (Semblance and Event,[MIT Press, 200] 70). Such art stages “the thinking-feeling of vision as it happens”(70).
What Massumi does not address is what effect this staging has. He avoids (not surprisingly given his post-structuralist leanings) any notion that the staging makes us “conscious” or “self-conscious” about perceptual processes that usually unfold without being recognized or analyzed. And there is, of course, the question of how he comes by his own access to the way perception works. What are the sources of his insight—and what are the processes by which that insight is articulated?
In short, like Langer, Massumi is making a second-order claim about art’s “content.” Art does not primarily provide us with a perceptual experience; rather, it presents the deep structure or the enabling conditions of perceptual experience. In the same vein, Langer has argued that art does not provide emotional experience, but reveals the “form” that emotions take.
Thus, Langer and Massumi (we might say) save art for philosophy; art does transcendental work of a Kantian kind, uncovering the necessary conditions of perception, thought, and emotion. Even putting my hostility to transcendental thinking to one side, the intellectualism of their account of the arts renders it pretty implausible. Is that really what an audience takes away from a performance of a Beethoven quartet or viewing a Francis Bacon painting? Do these second-order considerations really overwhelm first-order responses? Langer, of course, would argue that it is sign of “good art” to subordinate the first-order responses to the second-order apprehension of “form.” Massumi (again, not surprisingly given postmodern diffidence about distinctions between “good” and meretricious art) doesn’t go there, but surely he would have to admit that many art works don’t push us toward second-order reflections or revelations. We need a fuller account of just how it works in the cases where it does work.
But that still leaves the question of “so what”? What is the pay-off, the Jamesian “cash value?” Massumi makes fairly extravagant claims for the political importance of his views, but the concrete connection between a theoretical account (a cognition) of how thinking-feeling perception works and the consequences for action (political or otherwise) is never made. One problem is the generality of the account. If that is how thinking-feeling works, then there are no alternatives, nothing to do. You simply now understand a process that is going to happen, willy-nilly, whether you understand it or not. There is no politics without alternatives that can be acted upon. Philosophical generalizations, especially when they identify “necessary” conditions, are the death knell of politics.
Let me end with a quick statement about stakes that leads into my next post. Cognitive theories of art are attempts to make art intellectually respectable in the face of empiricism, logical positivism, and utilitarianism. Which of these three is seen as the threat to art’s dignity and importance will influence how the theory is presented. The most global approach (seen in Langer, Goodman, and Massumi, as well as in Dewey, Nussbaum, and others) is to insist on the cognitive relevance of emotion—and to see the aesthetic as one set of practices very attuned to the emotions within a culture prone to disparage them (and their cognitive import).
More specifically, cognitive theories strive to elaborate how the arts provide us with valuable information about the world and the possibilities it affords. Such theories often stress an interventionist model of knowledge (akin to Dewey’s understanding of the processes of inquiry that yield knowledge). That is, the acts associated with producing knowledge transform the world rather than simply reflecting it. Knowledge is gathered not through passive reception but through motivated interaction. Aesthetic practice is involved in that kind of active manipulation of materials offered by the world, thus exploring the world’s affordances. Discursive aesthetic objects (literature, jokes, myths) manipulate symbols in ways that alter our understandings of situations, events, people, and values. Such understandings can be parsed as “cognitive” when they underwrite actions that prove efficacious in moving from the present into a future that has been pre-figured as possible on the basis of those understandings.
I think it fair to say that the rejection of the term “experience” in favor of talking about “practices” is motivated by the worry that “experience” does not take the social dimensions of human being-in-the-world adequately into account.
A preference for the term “practices” can often be traced back to the influence of Wittgenstein. Certainly, many of the puzzles surrounding practices were enunciated by Wittgenstein and still trouble those who want to use that concept.
I don’t think Wittgenstein uses the term “practices” himself. He talks of “forms of life” and “language games” in ways that would align with some understandings of “practices.” I don’t know where the current use of the term “practices” comes from. Kant wrote about the difference between “theory and practice” and Marx used the term “praxis,” but those usages are not quite the same as the full-blown “social theory of practices” (the title of a useful book by Stephen Turner (University of Chicago Press, 1994).
Important for me is that a reliance on the concept of practice goes hand-in-hand with pluralism. There are multiple practices—and that would be one objection to the Deweyean concept of “experience.” Dewey seems to insist that all experiences have the same basic traits, which is why (for instance) he tries to make the “esthetic” (in Art As Experience) continuous with experience tout court instead of deeming the aesthetic a distinctive kind of experience with its own features.
My understanding of practice is derived from Wittgenstein, Bourdieu (key texts: Outline of a Theory of Practice [Cambridge UP, 1977] and The Logic of Practice [Stanford UP, 1990]), John Searle, The Construction of Social Reality [Simon and Shuster, 1995], Andrew Pickering, The Mangle of Practice [University of Chicago Press, 1995], and Bruno Latour, Science in Action [Harvard UP, 1987]. I also learned a lot from a collection of essays gathered together under the title of The Practice Turn in Contemporary Theory, ed. by Theordore Schatzki et. al. [Routledge, 2001]. As you can tell from the dates on these sources, I was working on this topic in the 1990s—and taught a grad seminar on theories of action in 2002. That work culminated in my essay “Action as Meaningful Behavior” (which can be accessed through the “Public Essays” tab on the front page of this blog)—an essay that does not use the term “practice” but which does touch on some of themes I will consider in this post.
Enough throat clearing. What is a “practice”? Not an easy question to answer since there are some very different things that can be collected under the term. Let’s start with a fairly straight-forward example: playing the piano. This is an activity that takes place within a structured field. The “social” element of the practice, then, is the existence of that field. There has to be the edifice of Western music, with the way it organizes sound into notes and also motivates the production of the instrument, the piano, that produces the appropriate notes. (Chinese music is differently structured and the piano is an instrument that is irrelevant to, useless for playing, Chinese music.)
There also has to be a practitioner—the one who plays the piano. Crucially, there also has to be a process of education. You can’t just sit down to a piano and play it. It takes years of training—and of practice. You can’t learn to play the piano by reading a book. You need to actually physically do it, moving from a starting point of almost complete ineptitude toward dizzying heights of proficiency on the part of those who become virtuosos.
The practice of piano playing spawns various social formations. There will be professional organizations of practitioners; there will be institutions like conservatories; there will be networks of managers, agents, impressarios, philanthropists, and others who arrange for and publicize performances. There will be concert halls. There will be critics who evaluate performances, scholars who study the history of the practice, and theorists who try to determine its enabling and generating conditions. This is Latour territory, thinking about the multiple agents, with varying roles, required to maintain a practice—where “maintain” also entails a certain kind of communal policing of “what counts” as a valid example of the practice, what innovations are accepted, which ones rejected, and which enactments are deemed “better” or “worse.”
Dewey’s notion of “experience” fails to take into account what we might call the inevitable human audience for our actions, for our ways of interacting with the environment. We are judged constantly by others—and the standards for that judgment are relative to the practice we are seen as participating in. A good parent is distinct from a good piano player. It is within the understood parameters of the relevant practice that a performance is understood (i.e. the very meaning of the performed action only makes sense in relation to the practice) and judged. In other words, we have to name what the action is in general terms—parenting, playing the piano—before we have any way of assessing it, or even comprehending it. What is she doing?, we might ask in puzzlement. The answer to that question will (in most cases) gives us the name of a practice.
For Bourdieu (and many others, going back to Wittgenstein’s interest in games), the best way to think about practices is through the example of games. A game is an activity that is structured by rules, but (crucially) not governed by rules. The rule in baseball is that three strikes and you are out. But the rules say nothing about the strategies, the techniques, a pitcher might employ in the effort to achieve a strike-out. And the rules are not the source of the motivation. The players play to win—and there are various socially provided rewards for winning—but the degree of compulsion leveraged to make someone play a game and care about its outcomes differs from one social setting to another. Students are often forced to engage in athletic games they would rather give a miss. More broadly, the structured field of economic competition for incomes within a capitalist society is a game few can avoid playing.
To think of the market economy as a game brings up many of the complications of “practices.” Yes, there are identifiable rules in such a society—starting with the legal definition of and protection of “property.” There is also the social institution of money itself. Searle, in a formula I adapt in my essay on action, says that fields are structured in the following way: A counts as B under conditions C. Searle mostly applies this formula to the establishment of social institutions, but I use it somewhat differently. Money is a key example for Searle. This piece of paper only counts (only functions) as legal tender under very elaborate conditions. There is a kind of magic about the social transformation that turns something into something else. Games make this magic very obvious. I step across a line carrying an oblong ball. A perfectly ordinary action. But under a set of very elaborate conditions that action “counts” as a touchdown. The conditions? I have to be playing a game of American football; time must be “in,”; the “play” has to have been “run” within the rules (no penalty flags), etc. etc. Football, like money, is socially instituted.
Practices, then, are actions taken within conditioned circumstances, where the conditions are socially generated. Searle focuses on the structure of that conditioning. Latour focuses on the multiple agents and their ongoing actions required to keep the conditioned field operating. Bourdieu focuses on two things: the strategies employed by agents to gain prominence, acclaim, financial rewards and the like within the game, and the ways agents are habituated to the games they play, taking them mostly for granted. He adapts from Aristotle the term habitus, which he defines as a primarily unconscious “disposition” carried in our very bodies. Thus, the trained pianist doesn’t think about her performance. In fact, thinking most likely would only lead to mucking things up. She has to let her body take over.
More generally, within a society’s field of social interactions there are unwritten rules, but they are clearly perceptible to one who looks, rules about tone of voice, how close to stand to some one else, how loud to talk etc. The discomfort generated by some one who breaks that rules—or the embarrassment felt if one breaks them one self—are instances of the body’s having acquired the habits, or dispositions, appropriate to a set of social norms. Thus, our interactions with the environment are mediated through socially generated notions of decorum, just as the scientist’s interaction with nature is mediated through her long training in the protocols of her disciplinary practice. The internalization of those protocols is what Bourdieu calls “habitus.” They become “second nature,” barely registered, taken for granted.
Several problems arise at this point. For starters, few practices have a clear initiating moment when the rule book, the foundational conditions C, are enunciated. Basketball is the exception, not the rule. (Basketball was invented out of whole cloth by a man named Naimsmith—although the game he devised has been fairly radically altered over the years.) The US Constitution is a similar exception—and runs alongside common case law in its setting of legal/political conditions. Much more frequent is an activity taking and changing shape through the course of actual interactions. The game of baseball existed long before its rules were codified and formalized. But if that is the case, then how can we say the practice is dependent on the structuring conditions—since the practice seems to predate the structure?
This puzzle also afflicts the use of language. A child certainly has to learn how to speak. But that learning does not appear dependent on knowing the structures of language or the rules for correct usage. The child “norms” herself—in terms of pronunciation, and using words the ways others use them—through various feedback received from other users, not through being versed in the “rules.” In fact, a good case can be made that there are no rules of grammar. The so-called rules of grammar are just reports on the regularities that have emerged through speakers of a language “norming” themselves to one another in order to facilitate communication. And that absence of rules explains why languages are constantly changing even if the pace of change is slowed down by the contrary pressures of conformity in order to enhance mutual comprehension.
In short, there is no instituting moment for a language, in which it was laid down that the pronounced sound “dog” (A) would count as referring to a particular sort of animal (B) under the condition that we were speaking English (C). The same applies to syntactical rules. In this vision of language, it is all pragmatics—with “rules” (regularities plus all those troublesome “irregular” verbs and other forms) generated by usage, not the other way around (i.e. usage enabled and generated by the structuring rules). Hence Wittgenstein’s emphasis on “use” and his general skepticism about “following a rule” as any kind of explanation for how one proceeds, how one “goes on.” (I am pushing here a contested reading of Wittgenstein since various commentators read him in exactly the opposite way, seeing him as determined to identify the rules underlying practices such as language use. I think those commentators are hostages to the tradition’s search for certainty and transcendental conditions—exactly the parts of the tradition that I think Wittgenstein [like Dewey] was trying to overcome. I take it as ironic—and evidence of the tradition’s mesmeric powers—that Wittgenstein’s critique of it is read as yet another engagement with its obsessive concerns.)
Wittgenstein thus leads us to the idea that we are making up our practices as we go along. The image he uses is the repair of a ship even as it is sailing. There is no rule book for courtship, for economic activities (capitalist or otherwise), or for speaking a language the way that there are rule books for games. Games, it turns out, are a bad analogy for practices because practices are more chaotic, more free-form, more open, and more dynamic than structured fields. Better to talk of a continuum here—and to locate the continual efforts (some more successful than others) to police practices, to gain some handle over their chaotic potential. Thus, a “discipline” can be understood as a way of deploying authority (and/or power) to designate which activities “count” as legitimate within the relevant practice. “Outlaw” or heterodox practitioners find it difficult to make headway against the organized forces of orthodoxy—and we can recognize the stratagems (from drastic to petty, yet cruel) used to stifle heretics (the inquisition, the denial of tenure, the cutting off of funding and access to jobs within the practice, the mocking of those who don’t exhibit good breeding or good usage). Of course, the heretics are often later hailed as “innovators,” as those who introduced needed reforms and novelties.
Thus, even in the absence of formalized and structuring rules, the notion of practice seems useful because it points us toward the organizations of practitioners (sometimes with credentialing powers and almost always with the power of accepting or rejecting someone as a fellow practitioner) and institutions that enable the practice to continue (by arranging for its public performances and garnering the financial and other resources –including physical spaces—for its enactments). In short, unlike the term “experience,” practices points us toward all the social pieces that need to be in place for many (I don’t think all) interactions.
I will end with one recurring puzzle. If, as I am inclined to believe, practices are not very rule bound, how does one learn them? How does one acquire “a feel” for the game? This brings us back to my quarrel with Joseph North. There is no “method” for learning how to produce a compelling “close reading.” You don’t learn to play baseball by reading the rule book. And you certainly don’t find happiness in love or discover the secret to being a great writer by reading the manual. (The wild success of self-help books attests to the unkillable wish that how-to guides could do the trick.)
There are techniques, tricks of the trade, that have emerged out of the ways previous practitioners have performed that activity. It helps to have a teacher who knows those techniques. But the only way to learn is to wade in oneself and have a go. And then your performance will receive the feedback from others that leads you to do it somewhat differently next time around. That’s how the child learns to speak. By doing it—and by being corrected in some instances, understood in others, and even applauded in some. Trial by doing—within a field with no set determinants, but with both centrifugal and centripetal forces influencing its present day norms and regularities. That’s the field that Latour wants to describe in his work—taking into account what motivates scientists, the kinds of feedback they receive from both human and non-human interlocutors, the institutions within which the work takes place, the credentialing and other ways of distinguishing legitimate from unacknowledged work, the instruments that mediate the interactions with the non-human, and the uses to which what scientists produce are put.