Praxis and Thought

As a blogging site, I often wonder how much good we here at Teen Skepchick are doing. Is our readership up? How many people are starting conversations based on our posts? Are we posting about important things? But there is also a more fundamental question that’s been plaguing lately about both my work here, and about the things I focus on in my personal life: do thoughts and ideas really make a difference? What is the place for practice in making changes? Even if we do get thousands of people thinking and talking about our ideas, will we have made a difference or done something worthwhile?

I recently got to read a rather fantastic exchange between Judith Butler and Martha Nussbaum (featured in the picture above) in which Nussbaum accused Butler of theories with no practical application (primarily aimed towards Gender Trouble). Butler’s suggestions of parodying genders in order to introduce more space for difference gender identities, seemed useless to Nussbaum. As she criticizes: “For women who are hungry, illiterate, disenfranchised, beaten, raped, it is not sexy or liberating to reenact, however parodically, the conditions of hunger, illiteracy, disenfranchisement, beating, and rape. Such women prefer food, schools, votes, and the integrity of their bodies.” We see that Nussbaum is calling for theories and works that give concrete practical avenues of change for those who are in difficult situations. Butler would have her own response to Nussbaum’s proposition, but here I’d like to say that yes, it is important for academics or for those with some measure of privilege to try to create intellectual propositions that link to actual change. But is there also a place for the more nuanced approach, for changes to thought and paradigms?

There is another layer to this question as well. John McGowan chimes in on the debate by pointing out that even Nussbaum’s very practical approach is not itself practice: “If our criteria for true or real politics is that the formerly hungry now get fed, what academic work will meet the test?…Thinking is not politics.” While Butler’s style of thinking about gender may be less practical than literal suggestions of how to feed the hungry, even suggestions of how to feed the hungry do not themselves feed anyone. So what good are any of us doing by thinking? Do any changes come about through thinking or should we abandon all academic attempts to understand gender and social structures and simply work to create job opportunities for women?

McGowan gives a proposal for how to judge thoughts:

My proposal, then, is straight-forward.  1) Thinking in ways to help the material conditions of others may prove useful indirectly.  But there are crucial and complicated intermediary steps between the thinking and the helping.  Someone who just thinks a lot about the hunger of others is not morally superior to or more politically involved than someone who thinks a lot about his red car.  2) Therefore, any thinking that is going to qualify as even potentially political needs to articulate its political implications clearly and suggest some ways to act upon those implications in the world.  3) But political action per se only begins when one leaves the library or the study.  Even the rhetorical urging of others to embrace this or that political cause is preliminary to political action itself.

At first glance this seems like an entirely reasonable proposal. However I’d like to suggest that there’s far more to the thought changing approach than McGowan allows for. The idea that in order to spread change we must physically leave our homes and change situations seems ludicrous to me. There is great evidence that combined thought can create social change: signing petitions, blog writing, and online activism have created change in the modern world. I do not believe these things are entirely thought or entirely action. They blur the lines between distinct practice and simple thought. For this reason, I think that the sharp distinction McGowan draws between thought and praxis is untenable: often simply by thinking something new and sharing that thought with another person we are acting.

McGowan does acknowledge that thoughts have their role and they can be beneficial, but when he points to Butler as evidence of this he says “Can her thinking aid in that political work of alleviation?  Yes, insofar as it alerts people to the existence of a problem, gives them a vocabulary and concepts for the articulation of the problem, and suggests some forms of action that would remedy the problem.” This seems off-base to me. Butler is addressing the problem that individuals feel pain because of restrictive gender roles. The way to change this is to open up the possibility of new gender roles. Since gender is constructed, it is possible that simply through thinking in a new way, people can create a new gender role for themselves. This then has to be put into practice, and there are practical problems that need to be dealt with, but the internal mental struggle of understanding oneself is alleviated through new thought patterns. In reading her thought, readers are instantly opened to new gender possibilities: these possibilities are entirely internal and in thought. Butler’s thoughts can literally change lives, and those changed thought patterns for individuals then lead to new actions which can lead to larger social change.

I’d certainly like to believe that the hope someone can find through new thoughts is itself a change and a practical effect that comes from the thinking that academics, bloggers and others do. Therefore, I suggest that while there are definitely instances of complete thought or complete praxis and we can do with both of those for difference reasons, there are also instances in which thought is praxis, and those are often the most subversive and change-oriented. Changing thoughts creates different people, different paradigms and allows us to imagine the options in new ways. These reimaginings are the first step to deep change. This belief is what keeps me blogging and talking and thinking.

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Olivia is a giant pile of nerd who tends to freak out about linguistic prescriptivism, gender roles, and discrimination against the mentally ill. By day she writes things for the Autism Society of Minnesota, and by night she writes things everywhere else. Check out her ongoing screeds against jerkbrains at

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