“Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” -Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach, #11
Theodor Adorno in “Marginalia to Theory and Praxis” examines the historical exaggerations of theory over praxis and praxis over theory in order to show why a clear favoritism of one over the other can be a detriment to both. He heavily invokes Marx’s eleventh thesis on Feuerbach in order to explain how a theoretical analysis of the world works with any attempt to alter it in practice. He has two primary fronts: the modern desire to place praxis above all and render theory meaningless, and the historic instances of philosophers like Kant hindering praxis through heavy theorizing. And in arguing for the interconnectivity of theory and praxis, he is also careful not to collapse the two into the same thing, thereby rendering a distinction meaningless. Simultaneously, he’s able to create a space for critical theory as opposed to traditional theory, which is a fundamental concern for the sake of his established Critical Theory. Adorno’s main thesis can be summarized as: “A consciousness of theory and praxis must be produced that neither divides the two such that theory becomes powerless and praxis becomes arbitrary, nor refracts theory through the archbourgeois primacy of practical reason proclaimed by Kant and Fichte.” (p.2)
For his first part, Adorno introduces the distinction between praxis and theory as it relates to the distinction between object and subject. “A simple consideration of history demonstrates just how much the question of theory and praxis depends upon the question of subject and object.” (p.1) With this, Adorno asserts that the separation between praxis and theory has been canonized through the history of philosophy, much like the subject-object distinction. This has its roots in Descartes who opened the flood gates to traditional philosophical distinctions like the subject-object. And because of this, rejection of Cartesian dualism results in problems with the established ridged divide between praxis and theory. In Cartesian dualism, the emphasis of the mind over the body creates a bias that undermines the body’s importance. Similarly, accusing one of thinking too much and needing to act more undermines the mind’s relationship to the body. While there is a difference between mind and body, or theory and praxis, that can be studied, the relationship is often undermined since we no longer think of one term implying the other, like in the work of Kant and later American Pragmatism.
American pragmatists who consecrated “…the existing conditions by making the practical applicability of knowledge its criterion for knowledge…” (p.1) allowed for a clear bias in favor of praxis over theory. Similarly, the Kantian formulation resulted in the “…inhibition of praxis.” (p.3) In both cases, the two concepts are undermined which can be seen in Adorno’s reference to Hamlet: “Hamlet is as much the protohistory of the individual in its subjective reflection as it is the drama of the individual paralyzed into inaction by that reflection.” Hamlet can be read both as an argument against heavy introspection over physical interaction (argued by Kant and Descartes) or as an argument against the pressure put on one to act rather than think (argued by pragmatists). In the favoritism towards praxis, one misunderstands what praxis is and where it comes from. In the favoritism towards theory, theory becomes a roadblock to action.
Moving forward from his critique, Adorno now discusses his position on theory and Praxis. Praxis, as Adorno states, arises from labor “It attained its concept when labor no longer wanted to merely reproduce life directly but to produce its conditions: and this clashed with the already existing conditions.” (p.3) Here, “concept” is the theory that is born from the praxis which is born from labor. Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach states:
“…men are products of circumstances and upbringing, and that, therefore, changed men are products of changed circumstances and changed upbringing, forgets that it is men who change circumstances and that the educator must himself be educated.” (Marx, Thesis #3)
Praxis and theory come from this response to a condition that seeks change, whereas Praxis placed over theory is merely the constant reproduction of ideology. “The requirement that theory should kowtow to praxis dissolves theory’s truth content and condemns praxis to delusion…” (p.6) Adorno compares praxis without theory to beavers building dams or “…the industriousness of ants and bees…” (p.3) Praxis that is merely reproduction of the system creates the very danger that it seeks to abolish, namely: inaction. If we ignore or weaken theory, then praxis is now harmed in two senses. The first sense being that praxis’ natural inclination to produce theory is hindered. In the second sense, praxis becomes a mechanical routine, or animalistic production, that never results in any social change, the irony being that the exaggeration of praxis over theory is done because it wants to create more social change. This complex nature of theory and praxis is for Adorno what makes the concepts work at all. In his critique of favoring one or the other, Adorno attempts to argue that the power of either is in their combined use.
If we want to return praxis to labor and production rather than mere reproduction, theory must be re-appropriated. And in so doing, theory gains a sort of autonomy.
“Whereas theory cannot be extracted from the entire societal process, it also maintains an independence within this process; it is not only a means of the totality but also a moment of it; otherwise it could not resist to any degree the captivating spell of that totality.” (p.15)
Theory, in this sense, becomes critical because it is able to separate itself from the perpetuating factors that relegate praxis to reproduction. Praxis becomes “unfreedom” (p.3) when the denial of theory forces it into industrious, animalistic labor. (p.3) Critical theory is then theory that “…steals itself back…” (p.1) from these ideologies and reconfigures labor to be against the “narrow minded,” “self-deprecating,” theory-hostile (p.4) systems that exploit praxis. This also helps to clarify the difference between theory and praxis despite their intimate relationship. Theory is in response to, rather than born in isolation. Critical theory has a degree of independence that comes from a relationship to the system it is critical of. In this sense, thinking is doing because its independence is a form of resistant against a specific system, as well as a mode of action. Praxis can exist as labor without theory but praxis serves no purpose without theory because it bridges the circumstances the labor was born into with the new circumstances the theory wishes to create through praxis.
These types of exaggerations in favor of praxis over theory, or vice versa, are seen regularly. For example, we see cases where philosophy is forced to justify itself as a field of study. A common criticism being that philosophy is not action and theorizing about a situation is very different from being an actor in said situation. This assumes a relationship between praxis and theory that is in favor of praxis and discourages the pursuit of theory. The request to “apply” philosophy assumes that it is not already being applied or that it is not the end result of some application. In Adorno’s argument, we see that the application of philosophy comes from some praxis. The theorizing of a situation is acting in some way. And while action, like protest, has a different impact, it still comes from a relationship between theory and praxis. If it did not, then we would simply have cases of reproduction, not calls for change.