On practices

Todd May, in his book ‘Our practices, our selves – or, what it means to be human’ (OPOS), argues that this question is best understood through the concept of practices and as such one of the first things he does is provide us with a definition of what a practice is. His definition goes as follows:

“a regularity (or regularities) of behavior, usually goal-directed, that is socially normatively governed.” (OPOS: 8).

May then cashes out this definition by discussing the three elements of the definition, viz. goal-directedness, socially normative governance and regularities of behaviour. The first of these is discussed briefly and is a vague criteria since it is not a universal but is presented as important nonetheless. May phrases the discussion in terms of ‘most practices’ but allows that some practices will be exceptions to this rule, using Zen meditation as an example since it rests on the paradoxical ‘goal of goal-lessness’. The second aspect of the definition, that of socially normative governance, is distinguished from ‘rule-following’ again through a criteria of vagueness, with the argument that the type of norms involved are not known through explicit thematisation into propositions but rather are known through the mode of skill, or ‘know-how’. This is articulated in the form of the argument that those involved in a practice might not be able to articulate the norms of the practice but they know it when they see it – a practice has ‘norms’ in the form of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ ways of being done and those who can most clearly distinguish these and show others how to distinguish these are classed as experts. In addition to being normative a practice is also social in that there are roles within a practice, what May describes as “normatively governed places in which people engage in the practice” (OPOS: 10).

Is this normative nature of a practice so obvious? May says at one point that “it would seem that one could learn to distinguish correct and incorrect ways of doing things, just as one learns to distinguish right and wrong ways of bicycle riding, dancing, and the martial arts” (ibid). What would be a ‘wrong’ way of riding a bike? Surely it would be simply not being able to ride a bike? One might ride well or ride badly, but one cannot ‘ride wrong’. The same for dancing, the same for martial arts – in fact, is it not the same for any practice? If they are normative then the normativity is not ‘right and wrong normativity’ but ‘better or worse normativity’, the former a matter of bi-valent judgements, the latter a matter of pure or affirmative valence. The latter, of course, foregrounds the judgemental nature of normative criteria and that these criteria are dependent on the practice rather than capable of being constitutive of the practice. Since they are dependent, they cannot define.

This problem of the constitutivity of norms is clearly important for May goes on to discuss the example of diary writing. He is making the point that even though a practice has to be normatively and socially constituted this does not mean it has to be a social practice, it can still be a solitary one, which is where the example of diary writing comes up. He claims that “There are ways in which one writes diaries: types of topics that are considered, potential readers (if even only oneself ) that are kept in mind, and the like. These norms are socially recognized as constitutive of the practice of diary writing. If one does not conform to them, one cannot be said to be engaged in an instance of the practice of diary writing” (OPOS: 11 – emphasis added). Again, my intuition is that this is simply wrong, that a diary is such a vague concept that to even try and ‘constitute’ a definition is going to be a considerable feat but more importantly that the category is not a description. The category is a tool – it enables us to distinguish between writing that is intended as a record and one that is not. A diary tends towards the factual rather than the fictional, though this may itself be difficult to accurately discern in reality. In fact it might be that a diary is dependent on an intention to the factual rather than the fictional, which is perhaps why the reality of a diary is as difficult to discern as intentions themselves.

What I am not objecting to here is that the emphasis on the social denies the importance of the individual and May himself discusses the individualist objection to social constitution, arguing that practices lie at the intersection of the social and the individual1 (OPOS: 12). Rather I am objecting to the genesis of a practice being thought in terms of its constitution. What is of far more interest than the constitution of a practice is its institution.

If we think the practice of practices through a model of constitutive factors, what is it that makes up a practice, then we will go wrong since we will always be thinking after the fact. Instead we need to try and think the way in which practices arise, what is it that produces a practice, how does a practice come to be and how did the practice of practices come to be? This, quite rightly, is a strange thing to try and do, not least because one might object that we can have no knowledge of such activities because they are always going to be before the facts. After all, we cannot ask about the genesis or production of practices until there are practices, until there are some facts of the matter that there are practices which we can investigate. If we are always, of necessity, after the fact that the practice exists, how might we ever engage with the time before the practice? This is, however, precisely the difference between description and explanation. To offer a description of the genesis of a practice is plainly going to fall foul of the problem of never being able to empirically encounter the genesis of the practice. To offer an explanation, however, is to describe those factors which must have been central to the genesis of the practice. It is to offer a compelling account of believable processes that combined in a particular way capable of producing a particular practice, the evidence for which is found in the practice itself through examining it for symptoms of its genesis2. Of these factors, however, there is something that is always worth identifying and that is the moment of institution, when a practice moves from being ‘something that is done’ to being a particular ‘something that is done’ that now is formed as a practice. This moment is a moment of constitution par excellence, I would argue, since it constitutes a new power relation in the constitution of a particularity. There is a close connection between this moment of constitutivity and that of naming and I think the concept of ‘seigneurial privilege’ (Nietzsche: GOM) is unavoidable at that moment.



1In fact May claims that the concept of a practice lies at the intersection of the social and the individual – this distinction my be important…

2examples? Stretchmarks produced through a rapid period of growth that went to the limits of skins plasticity? Geological features and methodologies? ‘hangovers’? Rituals? Linguistic elements and conjunctions?

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philosopher and filmmaker from brighton, currently teaching philosophy at the Free University of Brighton

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