Andy Blunden December 2010

Contribution to discussion on XMCA on the question of “Practice is the Criterion of Truth”

It does seem to be splitting hairs to deny that for Marx “practice is the criterion of truth” since Marx says “The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. Man must prove the truth, i.e., the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking, in practice. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking which is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question” [Thesis 2]. But this is not the same thing, and in the context of the other 10 theses can be seen to be making a different point.

1. When examining a claim, we always have to ask what the claim is against, what does it negate; that is its context. In 1845, Marx was writing (1) Against Feuerbach’s rejection of Hegel, and (2) Against the Young-Hegelians. In 2010, few educated people would deny that “the proof of the pudding is in the eating,” and actually nor would Feuerbach or Hegel! Probably only the Catholic Church would deny this aphorism. This raises the question of (a) why Marx bothered to say what was obvious, and (b) what it means when someone not only says it but says it repeatedly in 2010, in the absence of a claim to the contrary.

In my experience of philosophical disputes over many years, I find that anyone who insists upon “practice is criterion of truth,” this is to belittle philosophy in favour of activism. In the context of science, maybe the meaning is a little different. But in politics, it says “Bugger theory! This is what happened!” So of course I react against it, even if I don’t exactly know why it is being insisted upon in the given case. After “practice is criterion of truth” what will the writer go on to say? I don’t know, but am concerned. Truth is its own criterion, so why is it being measured against something else?

2. So what is in thesis 2 which is more than “proof of the pudding is in the eating"? Well, Marx explains this in the other theses. For example, contra Feuerbach, it is not enough to show that a religious person is deluded, and that religious illusions are projections of Earthly ideals; on the contrary, the society which needs religion must be revolutionised, and proving the falsity of religious ideas according to this or any other “criterion of truth” is worthless. Not because “the proof of the pudding is in the eating,” but rather (religious) theory reflects the needs of practice (of the oppressed). Tracing the social roots of religious consciousness is a complex theoretical task which remains before us today. Christopher Hitchins, the modern-day Feuerbach, might well reflect on this! Theses 1 and 3 for example are directed squarely against philosophical materialism, Thesis 3 notably taking education as the example. The thing is, I think, that for Marx, with his proto-Activity Theory presented in the Theses, the truth is itself a property of Activity. That is not the same as saying that activity proves the truth of a proposition, as if you can have a theory, and then try it out, and be proved wrong or right. Marx waited till the Paris Commune before he clarified a number of questions which were left open in the Communist Manifesto. Marx did not try to reason this out in his head. He did not make a proposal and see if it worked, but rather followed the movement of the working class and tried to give voice to it. The section of “Method of Political Economy” in the Grundrisse most clearly explains this difficult point contra Hegel.

3. In the tradition of Marxism that I come from,"practice” is used with a dialectical meaning, and I therefore have no need of the word “praxis.” For me, “practice” in its common-or-garden, non-dialectical meaning, is one aspect of activity (or practice). Activity is purposive action, or a unity of theory and practice, which are inseparable. To separate them and pose one against the other, externally, confuses the matter. So the concept of “practice” as something isolated from “theory” or vice versa – theory as something isolated from practice, is an undialectical concept. This is just to head off misunderstandings involved in making a contrast between “praxis” and “practice” which belong to a different tradition. It is just words and is not the issue here at all in my view.

4. For Marx, then, practice is the substance. As he says shortly after, in German Ideology, “The premises from which we begin are ... the real individuals, their activity and the material conditions under which they live.” This is in contrast to other philosophical currents which take as their substances “clear ideas” or “matter” or “the I,” or whatever. To claim that “practice is the criterion of truth” begs the question of the substance of truth itself. Practice is the substance of truth, so how can truth be tested against a criterion of practice? This implies that something else is meant by “practice.” [For the concept of “substance” see my book “An Interdisciplinary Theory of Activity” or the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy]

5. The whole content of the problem of truth is just what exactly is understood by “practice” and “truth,” their content, not whether one is the criterion of the other, or of giving priority to practice over theory. I suspect when we examine what is meant by the insistence on “practice is the criterion of truth,” its real meaning will be shown to be “experience is the criterion of practice.”

6. A number of Marxists have pointed out that while “practice is criterion of truth” has value, practice can never completely determine the truth of a claim. This relates to the concept of verifiability. If you stick dogmatically to the claim that “practice is criterion of truth” then all of Marx’s life was wasted. Socialism has not been achieved and no-one observed his “perihelion of Mercury.” This is a complex question. How do we know “truth"? Is it really just a question of the eating? What if by the nature of the question, we don’t have the opportunity to taste the pudding? How do we evaluate the practice, what theory do we use to evaluate practice? What is it about practice that constitutes a “proof”? In fact, it must lead to an infinite regress if you separate theory and practice and make one the criterion of the other.

7. A maxim which is worth paying heed to is: “Always observe moderation in philosophy,” especially if you have extreme claims to make of a political nature. “Practice is criterion of truth” is OK – up to a point, but when absolutely insisted upon, as a one-sided assertion, it becomes a falsehood. As, for example, if we were to go on to concluse that “applied psychology is psychology,” and dismiss those who do not work in laboratory conditions.

We listen to what people say (eg right-wing politicians) and we presume that their theory reflects, not so much their future action, but more importantly their past actions. Why? Because theory grows out of practice, or if you like “theory is the criterion of practice.” Isn’t that the whole point of Capital? A certain way of life manifests in a certain way of thinking and by studying political economy Marx could reveal the practice of bourgeois society. But a right-wing politician can say “people from poor families have a lower IQ” and say that “practice is the criterion of truth” and do a survey and prove it. So what!

The point is that an claim has to assessed in the context of the whole system of ideas of which it is a part. Any such ideology or theory has its own criteria for determining the truth of finite claims. Where more fundamental questions are entailed in assessing the truth of a claim, a claim which goes to the fundamentals of a system of theory and practice - and these are the cases which are of real interest - then the truth of the whole social formation has to be assessed according to its own claims. This is the only way of finding a “criterion of truth.”

Ilyenkov shows that Hegel in fact, by insisting on the real, sensuously objective activity of man, solely as a criterion of truth, solely as the verifying authority for thought, betrayed his idealism. Lenin explained that while practice should be first and fundamental in the theory of knowledge, “the criterion of practice can never, in the nature of things, either confirm or refute any human idea completely.”

See Encyclopedia of Marxism.