Maurice A. Finocchiaro

On the criticism of theory & practice

To begin with, the synthesis of theory and practice cannot mean a conceptual identification of theory and practice, for such an identification would involve the failure to distinguish them, and there can be no synthesis unless there is a distinction. To be sure, the distinction ought not to be an abstract separation, but the synthesis cannot be a conceptual confusion either. Nor can the distinction by an empirical one in that certain activities such as eating, factory work, and political involvement can be classified as constituting practice once and for all, while certain others, such as thinking and philosophizing, are classified as being always theory. One could say that the distinction must be conceived as a "dialectical" one, were it not that the term is already so abused; moreover, the description could be easily criticized as mere name-dropping by a sympathetic audience, and as adding further confusion and obscurity to the problem by an unsympathetic one. I believe it is helpful to compare the theory-practice distinction to the conclusion-premise distinction in logic: Just as a proposition cannot be a conclusion except relative to some premise(s), and vice versa, so theory and practice are mutually interdefinable and simultaneously co-existing; and just as the conclusion of one argument can become a premise in another argument, and a premise in one the conclusion of another, so what is theory with respect to one activity, may become practice with respect to another. For example, thinking about social phenomena is obviously theory relative to a social action, but it may acquire the character of practice relative to a piece of philosophizing.
Applying these ideas to critical practice, we get that when we criticize a given work we ought to distinguish the theory from the practice within that work; to check the extent to which they are synthesized and not assume uncritically that they necessarily correspond; to be clear which of our criticisms refers to the theory, which to the practice, and which to the synthesis; to be careful not to ground our criticism of the theory (per se) on evidence from the practice, and criticism of the practice (per se) on evidence from the theory.

SOURCE: Finocchiaro, Maurice A. Gramsci and the History of Dialectical Thought (Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988), pp. 97-98.

Note: This extract is taken from chapter 4—Bukharin and the Theory and Practice of Science—criticizing Gramsci’s and Lukács’ critique of Bukharin’s Historical Materialism. Finocchiaro challenges the assumption that Bukharin’s (philosophical) theory of science is consistent with his actual practice of sociological analysis, whereas Bukharin’s sociological analysis in practice can be shown to be more methodologically sound than the theoretical foundation he proclaims.

From this chapter’s analysis, a general principle is extrapolated:

Sound negative criticism is harder than sound positive criticism because the supporting arguments for negative criticism are subject to stricter standards than those supporting positive criticism. [p. 121]

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