Practice Then and Now

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practice, practice theory, social theory, cognitive science, ethics

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“Practice theory” has a long history in philosophy, under various names, but current practice theory is a response to failures of projects of modernity or enlightenment which attempt to reduce science or politics to formulae. Heidegger, Oakeshott, and MacIntyre are each examples of philosophers who turned to practice conceptions. Foucault and Bourdieu made similar turns. Practice accounts come in different forms: some emphasize skill-like individual accomplishments, others emphasize the social character or presupposition-like character of the tacit conditions of activities. The Social Theory of Practices problematized the idea of sameness, the idea that participants in an activity had the same tacit possessions, which undermined the idea that practices were collective objects in which individuals participated. Later critics, such as Schatzki and Rouse, emphasized the normative coherence and character of practice, which has a collective aspect. Pickering and others suggested a notion of practices that was de-mentalized and focused on the objects that were part of the practical activity, which provided for the continuity and sociality of practice without collectivizing its mental content. The discovery of mirror neurons suggested a non-collective mode of transmission of practices. The implications of these developments can be seen in connection with ethics, where the conflict between the ethical and the practical can be understood in terms of the intrinsic conflict between the need to behave successfully and our learned ethical intuitions.

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Human Affairs, v. 17, issue 2, p. 111-125