Jan 022014

In discussions of the relation between thought and action, much confusion comes about by trying to fit the two terms into endless theoretical configurations. Some say that thought must come before action, others that thought without action is meaningless. Or perhaps correct thought leads to correct action. But action, as experience, is necessary for thought, so thought is in some way dependent on action. Yet for action to occur, doesn’t there need to be a decision to act, and for a decision to occur doesn’t there first have to be a thought?

These are some of the ways in which we try to fit thought and action into a causal hierarchy in order to… well, in order to what? Is it at all certain that solving the puzzle in this way will lead to any practical benefit? Other than being able to state a theoretical maxim, “thought precedes action”, “action is the goal of thought”, or some other, what do we achieve? Nothing, it seems.

An interesting example is Slavoj Žižek, who has said that we need more thinking and less pseudo-action.1 He suggests that the politics of the 20th century have not produced beneficial results, and that rather than acting for the sake of acting, we need to stop acting in order to think. Žižek’s idea complicates the issue because he posits a third term, pseudo-action, as an interruption to the traditional relation of thought and action. In this way, he wants to go beyond what he apparently sees as the Hegelian and Marxist extremes. In the end, though, his message still presupposes a theoretical tension between thought and action and propels us to stop in our tracks, put a halt to our actions, and think about things.

The problem is the same with all attempts to organize thought and action in such a way. Except for extreme cases of illness or debilitation, humans don’t just stop acting. Common sense and the sciences of cognition prevent us from making physicality the absolute difference between thought and action, to say generally that action is the physical expression of thought, because ‘physicality’ itself presupposes a theoretical opposition of physical and mental things, categories that are still not satisfactorily defined. Whether we say in any given case that a person is acting or not comes down to epistemological boundaries (the limits of our knowledge of that person in that state). But isn’t this exactly the sense in which we generally use the words: action is the physical movement, and thought is the somehow non-physical “movement”?

This makes Žižek’s statement tricky. Our colloquial use of the words “action” and “thought” divides them based on physicality, but to understand them in this way in certain contexts can cause problems. In fact, Žižek doesn’t want to say that someone should actually stop acting altogether, or that someone actually stops thinking in order to take action. He shouldn’t at least, because that would be absurd–imagine for a moment what would happen (or not happen) if everyone just stopped acting in any way. He means that a certain type of acting is undesirable and that another type of acting is needed to remedy the problem. This first type he calls pseudo-action and the second type thought, but what he really has in mind is an idea of authentic thinking that emerges with authentic acting, both of which are opposed to a kind of inauthentic acting called pseudo-action. So why doesn’t he come out and say what this authentic thinking and authentic acting are, so that everyone could start doing it? This is the problem. The question of what this thinking (the “desirable” type of thinking) is and how it is different from other thinking needs to be made more explicit.

Žižek leaves a clue–unknowingly, I believe–as to what this non-theoretical thought might be when he reverses Marx’s eleventh thesis on Feuerbach.2 Instead of trying to change the world so quickly, he says, “the time is to interpret it again, to start thinking.” As we’ve said, “to start thinking” is not the claim that we aren’t thinking at all, because we are clearly all in some way thinking about things always, even as the world around us stands still. This “to start thinking” evokes thinking as a kind of perennial founding act, thinking that continually begins anew, and thinking that returns to the beginning not to stay in some ideal isolation, but to break open new paths forward. Connecting this thinking to interpretation is interesting because interpretation goes beyond, in a way, the opposition of thought and action. Interpretation doesn’t refer to cognition or thought in general. There is a component of action. In interpreting a text or an event, we recreate it in our own image. The object of interpretation comes to us just as we go to it, until the interpreting subject itself changes. Interpretation is at once thought and action. At this level of animated thinking, thought and action are not related in a hierarchy but are co-existing in a pre-theoretical synthesis. The time is to interpret again and start thinking, which is to say that interpretation is thinking anew based on the passage of time.

Interpretation is the reading that doesn’t dictate but makes the text one’s own through translation. In the moment of interpretation the division between reader and text dissolves. At the same time, the text always transcends a given interpretation, so the interpreter continually returns to the text. In interpretation, we can imagine a thinking that doesn’t merely know but transforms and propels us forward. Action is always action on or with an object, but with interpretation we can talk about the pre-objective action. We can talk about thought being an action and action being thought. We can say: thought is action becoming thoughtful and action is thought becoming active.

Isn’t it true that in everyday experience, as we go about our lives acting and thinking, drawing knowledge from experience and putting our thoughts into action, as it were, that it never occurs to us that any hierarchy exists, much less a theoretical relationship? Applying the dilemma of causation and all its associated questions to the relation of thought and action as we find it in experience misses the point. Ultimately, these questions have as their goal to seek an absolute beginning for life, from which thought, action, and the whole pantheon of beings come forth in their proper arrangement, but in order to ask such questions, we must already have taken on a perspective outside life, dividing thought from action in such way as to conform to the theoretical problem. On the other hand, we are looking for the thinking that actually acts because it arises in life. So our inquiry focuses on the thinking that ‘begins anew’ and ‘interprets again’, which isn’t absolute or theoretical, but thinking which is practical, grounded in the ebb-and-flow of life in the passage of time.

It now seems obvious that the relation of thought and action must be non-hierarchical and non-theoretical, and by making the question explicit–what type of thinking is needed?–we work toward the practical understanding of this relation in the realm of politics. From Žižek’s reversal of Marx we get interpretation as the thinking that can remedy the epidemic of pseudo-action by showing us the way out of the theoretical opposition of thought and action. Yet the concept of interpretation only gets us so far, because this concept itself, like ‘thought’ and ‘action’, is too general. We still must go further and ask again, what type of interpretation? How is it different from academic translation? Is it literal or idiomatic? And we could go in circles thus renaming the phenomenon we seek, only to find the name to be insufficient to capture the meaning of this thinking that begins anew.

Clearly we should stop trading concepts and shifting positions, and instead dig a little deeper into one. So let’s return to the phenomenon at stake, ‘thought’, and examine it vis-a-vis our main question. What type of thought finds itself in a non-theoretical relation with action and in this way solves the political problem of pseudo-action? What are some types of thought we can think of? First of all, thought can mean perception, the brute mental input we are constantly receiving from the world through our senses. This immediately seems too passive to have anything to do with the thought we’re talking about. From perception we get representation, the first rudimentary mental activity, making the information given through perception at home in the subject. Yet all representation and perception have managed to do is bring the outside in. We still lack a component that is both transformative and communal such that it applies to politics. Going deeper, thought can also mean reflection, which is thought’s self-doubling in order to see its own ideas. Thought is self-aware and begins to become an object of its own thought. From reflection we get another important meaning of thought, which is knowing or cognition in general. We know something once thought has taken hold of it and given it a place in the mind. Alongside knowledge, in the ground of thought, is reason, which is the language by which thinking organizes and communicates itself to others. And reason seems promising: it is communal and thus provides the basis for the political nature of the thought we’re after. But there is still something missing. Knowledge, even accompanied by reason’s skill, is stationary and passive, doesn’t require any change of the knower, and thus doesn’t transform. So we continue deeper into thought, past the surface, into the ground where the roots of thinking lie. Here knowing and reflection become the possibility for contemplation. In contemplation, thought fixes itself to a known object and delves deep into its meaning, so deep that we seem to touch bottom.

With contemplation we go deep below the surface of ideas and touch bottom. Here in the root of thinking we find a wealth of meaning. And so the temptation is often to stay. This temptation to stay in the depth of meaning of the object of contemplation is similar to the religious experience of meditation and devotion. It is a temptation because we know that in the depth of thought we have abandoned our proper home in the world for an other-worldly kingdom. Here, deep in thought, in the temptation of contemplation, there comes a turning point where a decision is made. Marx describes this decisive point in his early critique of German idealism3:

The profane existence of error is compromised as soon as its heavenly oratio pro aris et focis [prayer for hearth and home] is refuted. Man has found in the imaginary reality of heaven where he looked for a superman only the reflection of his own self. He will therefore no longer be inclined to find only the appearance of himself, the non-man, where he seeks and must seek his true reality.

In the depths of thought there comes a point where we are faced with the realization that the object of contemplation has been, all along, ourselves and the world in which we live–not an idea, not any transcendental form, but the ebb-and-flow of life itself in the passage of time. In the root of the activity of thinking is the possibility of self-examination and critical thought, which brings us closer to the thinking which destroys pseudo-action and creates something new, because here thinking is revealed to be conditioned by the person him/herself. And this conditionedness of thinking is the possibility for critical thought that transforms. The thinker is no longer content with mere semblances nor with pure thought separated from action, as Marx explains:

Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers from the chains not so that man may bear chains without any imagination or discomfort, but so that he may throw away the chains and pluck living flowers.4

In other words, the goal of this thinking which goes to the root of thought and returns in critical self-reflection, isn’t merely knowledge as correct correspondence to reality. The point is the transformation of reality. For Marx, criticism is not “to give a criticism” or “to criticize somebody”, as we commonly think of it. It is transformative thought that goes to the root of something in order to turn it over, discover its latent possibilities, and bring back something new. It is not until thought is radicalized in this way that it can free itself from its own self-imposed limitations, avoid resigning in mere knowledge, and resist the temptation of isolated contemplation, becoming both transformative (through critical thought) and communal (through the language of reason in politics). This is what I have called radical thought: the thinking which goes to the root of a problem, below knowledge, theory, and mere repetition of concepts, in such a way as to transform the problem, the thinker, and the thinker’s world.5 Radical thought is the thinking which creates real political action because it is both transformative and communal.

Thought goes past perception and knowledge, below the surface of ideas, into the roots. But this thought is of no use if it remains in contemplation and gives in to speculation or religious meditation. This is where the radicalization happens and thought turns critical, rejecting other-worldly sovereignty and returning to the surface where it shares ground with others. Reason, which works at this level of ground, now becomes employed by thinking in order to reach out and share discoveries of self-examination to others by working from a shared ground. This whole process which we have no better way to describe than by a sequence of events and stations of thought as it goes about thinking, this is radical thought.

It is interesting that through Žižek’s reversal of Marx we were led to a type of transformative thinking that ends up being at the core of Marx’s critique of idealism. Has Žižek misread the eleventh thesis? Or is there an ambiguity in Marx’s thought that causes him to shift between theoretical and material critiques? In fact the eleventh thesis itself could be seen as a theoretical division of thought and action into separate projects. What did Marx mean by “interpret” and “change”? Clearly, if we take the main threads of thought throughout the whole of his work into consideration, “change” for Marx can’t merely be the rote material change, disconnected from critical thought, that comes after the revolution. Change for Marx is revolution, revolution is radical, and radicalization, in going to the root, finds thought and action in their pre-theoretical synthesis as critique that acts. Whatever he may mean by his rejection of “interpretation”, it obviously isn’t a rejection of radical thought or thinking that transforms.

It’s entirely possible that Žižek doesn’t agree with Marx that through radicalization real political action can replace the idea. And perhaps he wouldn’t agree with me that radical thought disproves the theoretical relation of thought and action. If so, then his reversal of Marx’s eleventh thesis is another rearrangement of the old dialectic, and it’s not clear how such a return to interpretation avoids the temptation of isolated contemplation. This may be his goal: the return to a German idealism utopia or a Platonic kingdom where, for lack of a more creative solution, the philosopher resigns to pure thought in order to avoid–by ignoring–the problem of pseudo-action. I’d like to believe, however, that he sees in his call “to start thinking” the indication of a thinking that continually begins anew by descending to the root, which is life, and that this radical thinking is not the idea of interpretation in itself but the ground of action. 

  1. See the interview titled Don’t Act. Just Thinkhttp://bigthink.com/videos/dont-act-just-think []
  2. Of course, the eleventh thesis says famously, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” []
  3. “Towards a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction,” Karl Marx: Selected Writings. Ed. David McLellan. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. 71-72. []
  4. Ibid. []
  5. See What is Radical? (Part I)http://notphilosophy.com/what-is-radical-part-i/ []

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