Bernard Harcourt

Bernard Harcourt on Critique and Praxis

To those who are familiar with Marx’s thought or ever visited his grave in London, they should have heard of Marx’s infamous motto, “the philosophers have only interpreted the world in many ways, the point, however, is to change it.” For the past two centuries, theory and practice, vita contemplative and vita activa, form the two main pillars of critical theory and left-wing philosophy. The duty of implementing Marxist, socialist or anarchist’s political agenda bestow to all thinkers and political leaders alike. Nonetheless, after the 70s, the epoch of neoliberalism commences, and critical theory seems to retreat to the ivory tower and stay away from the social movement.  Parallel to the defeat of the left-wing in the West, some scholars in Hong Kong were aware of the disappearance of the left perspective in the recent political movements in Hong Kong. Overwhelmingly dominated by liberal concerns and banners in the movements, local left-wing activists or thinkers either chose to be critical at the expense of losing much social mobilisation capacity or collaborate with the liberal ideologies that make their stance and view obscure.

Needless to say, we witness a painful dissociation between theory and practice that leads not to a better world. Hence, the age-old question is how to reconceive the relationship between theory and practice. Bernard Harcourt, the Isidor and Seville Sulzbacher Professor of Law at Columbia University, published a book last year entitled Critique and Praxis. In this magnum opus, Harcourt shares his deep thought and inspiring ideas about how critical theory tradition has gone astray and what is to be done to correct it.  I am so thrilled to interview Harcourt and find out how he sets out on this journey from the very early stage of his life. 

Positive law or critical legal theory?

Without a doubt, Harcourt is the best interviewee for the issue of praxis, given that his whole admirable life is devoted to the praxis of critical legal theory in many ways. He is unquestionably a reputational and influential scholar who published many original works and studies as an academic. And he is also the founding director of the Columbia Center for Contemporary Critical Thought at Columbia University. The centre acts as a great hub to organise and initiate many academic workshops, conferences, academic journals, and inter-university or inter-disciplinary cooperative projects that ceaselessly renew the prospect of critical theory in the long run. As a well-trained attorney at law, Harcourt’s litigation and organising on behalf of men and women on death row for decades help countless accused who the death penalty may have wrongfully executed without a fair trial. Alongside his ongoing death penalty litigation, he also challenged Trump’s Muslim ban and counselled protestors at Occupy Wall Street or in Garland Hall at Johns Hopkins and so on. I am pretty curious why he was motivated to devote himself to these noble acts and political actions in the first place? Does it have anything to do with the ideas of critical legal thought that the professors indoctrinate with a critical mindset?

“No doubt that my legal training in Harvard is inflected by critical theory, specifically critical legal studies, but in a very profound way. So, it wasn’t as if I study critical legal studies. But it was rather my professors who were critical theorists of law. And the way we studied and thought about law shifted by that.” He answered. “So, it was the way that I was doing critical legal theory without knowing it in a way. I would soon learn about critical legal theory. One of my professors at law school was denied tenure because she was a critical legal theorist. That was a whole Harvard law real kind of confrontation over critical legal theory in the late 1980s. My professor was sacrificed to the altar of positive law. So, I think it was formulative and make me, in part more receptive to hearing about and thinking about praxis. But I came to law school with the aim of being a civil rights lawyer. So I have gone there with this purpose. But you have to understand that is problematic from the critical theory perspective. Because a lot of the civil rights lawyers at the time, and still today, is the model of legal liberalism that leads to the rule of law. They believe that that is such a thing as due process. And from a critical theory perspective, at least my critical theory perspective, that is always my object of critique.”

At this point, I can’t help but tell Harcourt about the debate over the rule of law in Hong Kong. Many legal elitists like lawyers or legal professors who were trained in the common law system defend the value of the rule of law at all costs, regardless of the colonial context or the power struggle in the name of the law. On the other hand, the minority endowed with the critical head would challenge the dogmatic belief of the rule of law, particularly under the authoritarian regime.  “I would say that this is exactly the struggle that motivates the book, that has motivated my works. From the very beginning, that is the clash, the contradiction between how to engage and changing the world in a practical way in light of critical theory insights which I think are dominantly correct. The conflict you are talking about in Hong Kong is exactly the same conflict that we have in terms of critical praxis here in this country on issues ranging from the death penalty to police defunding.” That’s why he attempts to draw attention back to the notion of praxis.

Epistemological turn

Besides reconstructing the notion of praxis, Harcourt also examines the critical theory tradition and figures out why it eventually abandons the concern of praxis. Critical theory stays a safe distance from political actions and merely endeavours to clarify the conceptual questions and ideas intellectually. Harcourt names this shift as “the epistemological turn”, and it happens since the early generation of the Frankfurt School. Since the 1930s, Max Horkheimer took the directorship of the Institute for Social Research. His well-known article entitled “Traditional and Critical Theory” distinguishes two kinds of knowledge, with which the object of the latter is not simply the theory of emancipation, but also the practice of it as well. Hence, prior to the war, Horkheimer explicitly embraced the unity of theory and practice. As he wrote, “the idea of a theory which becomes a genuine force, consisting in the self-awareness of the subjects of a great historical revolution.” Harcourt realises that the distinctive early way that critical theory advocates is to rebel against the deep-rooted framework of Cartesian dualism that prevents traditional philosophy from thinking out of the box about the role of ideas in practice.

Contrary to the pre-war Horkheimer, who advocates the real function of critical theory in terms of facilitating proletarian emancipation, he changes his mind dramatically after the war. In his later work, Eclipse of Reason, he emphasises the difference between theory and practice and tries not to suggest anything like a program of action. “Actions for action’s sake is in no way superior to thought for thought’s sake and is perhaps even inferior to it.” So what critical theory does is to resist the temptation of turning into political propaganda, even with a good intention or for the best possible purpose. This anti-praxis position of the Frankfurt School last till this moment. One of the widely recognised disciples of the Frankfurt School and my beloved teacher in New York, Axel Honneth, wrote in his book, The Idea of Socialism, that “I make no attempt to draw connection to current political constellations and possibilities of action. I will not be dealing with the strategic question of how socialism could influence current political events, but solely how the original intention of socialism could be reformulated so as to make once again a source of political ethical orientations.”

But as far as I know, Harcourt does not account for the epistemological turn in details in his work. Thus, I attempt to dig deep into the causes that lead to the epistemological turn and form today’s critical theory horizon. “One, many political projects with critical ambitions, by which I generally mean kind of solidaristic ambitions, backfire horribly and led to forms of authoritarianism like Stalinism, or possibly in China. It frightens and chastens a lot of critical theorists. So, I think that’s a historical dimension to that.” Harcourt answers. “When you have something like Stalinism that is born out of ambition of solidarity, then you would have to wonder how to be more careful.” “Second, embedded in the critical theory, there is a critique that is self-criticism that you are often questioning your own actions and ambitions. That is almost like a genetic defect of itself in a way. Hopefully, we can turn it into a strength. Theoretically, there is a hesitancy built into the theory itself. Third, I think that insofar as the critical theory retreats to the academy from the public space and to the particular departments like philosophy department, Politics department, English department, it just becomes in a way more comfortable for people who are in the academy focusing on a theoretical issue and theory. It was intended to be thrust into a public sphere, and it retreats to the academy that the discipline is hyper-contemplative. For many critical theorists, we are most comfortable reading and writing and reflecting and thinking hard and rethinking hard. That’s what we do as an academic. We are not activists or organisers, or militants. We are academics because we like the library. So, there are three dimensions that are going to push critical theory away from the idea of praxis.”

Critical Praxis Theory

Eventually, the purpose of Harcourt’s thought-provoking work is to develop the approach of critical praxis theory. Unlike the traditional understanding of praxis, critical praxis theory refuses to focus on a particular way of actions and negate all other possibilities. In order words, Harcourt emphasises inclusive generosity. “We have to be in that way generous to the multiplicity with praxis. Although we need to stay focus on what’s the most important for each and ourselves. The idea is not spending your time trying to take down necessary… We need to be humble in knowing that whenever we’re doing, in a year maybe, or less or more and we will be looking back and think, “no, there was a problem.” And that’s okay.” To be precise, critical praxis theory has three different dimensions.

“First, it depends on a proper understanding of epistemology and illusions. The important point which our worldviews are shaped by illusions that we can critique but then don’t end up revealing what we can be called truth but probably creating another form of illusion. An example is Beauvoir’s The Second Sex really critiques masculinity, patriarchy, and gender inequality of the sexists. But at the end, it re-intensifies binary gender difference and then it requires Judith Butler’s work, Gender Trouble to critique the re-intensification of gender that produced in part by Beauvoir’s critique. It always appears in stages. You have to understand that. You have to figure out what are the illusions that are the most problematic for us now.”“The second part of the critical praxis theory is a theory of values, which I find in the tradition of the critical theory that are political values, not moral values. That’s Nietzsche’s critique of the value of value. The value of value is the political direction. The third is to stay focus on action and praxis, orienting our critiques to questions of practice. I think the book is motivated by the thing that critical theory spent too much time diagnosing and critiquing but not taking praxis. We don’t have enough of that conversation.”

Before the interview ends, I take my chance to ask the final question about how Harcourt defines himself after everything he achieved. Does he think of himself as a philosopher or a critical theorist who can also manage to engage in the public? Or does he identify himself as an activist who happened to have a critical thinking head? This is the first time he pauses so long after I raise my question. “I feel I’m haunted by an ambition to bring together critical thought and praxis. And by this ambition to change the world and bring just and solidarity. And I don’t think myself as successful, but I always try to achieve this ambition, and I think that ambition is situated between a philosopher’s space and an activist, organiser’s space.” Still, for me, Harcourt sets a role model of being a genuine and honest critical theorist that facilitates world transformation.

Written by Samuel Lee

Publication Date: 8/18/2021

Article originally published in Ming Pao Daily News:

Original source of the image:


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