Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Daniele Lorenzini reviews Critique and Praxis

Bernard E. Harcourt. Critique and Praxis: A Radical Critical Philosophy of Illusions, Values, and Actions. New York: Columbia University Press. 696 pp.

Review by Daniele Lorenzini

16 December 2020

If there is one dogma that most political philosophers and critical thinkers alike have shared in the past two centuries, it is the idea that we need a road map if we want to understand how to change the world and make it a better, more just place to live. This road map need not take the form of a perfectly worked-out theory relying on unshakable normative foundations—we could also figure it out “as we go along.”[1] But this is only possible, we are told, once critique has successfully liberated us from our cognitive dependence on a given (misguided and/or oppressive) representation of the world. Thus, critical theory—broadly construed to encompass ideology and genealogy critique as well as discourse ethics—invariably falls prey to the idea that theory must precede practice, either because one needs to know what exactly to change before beginning to change it, or because one cannot possibly transform the world into a better place without first emancipating oneself from a certain (false or restricted) representation of it.

By calling this long-standing dogma of critical theory into question, Bernard Harcourt does not only endorse Marx’s plea that philosophers should start changing the world instead of merely interpreting it. He also reshapes it in light of the current geopolitical context characterized by the rise of new forms of neoliberalism, biopolitics, and fascism, by growing economic inequalities and a deep social unrest, as well as by a planetary environmental crisis. This calls for a reflexive or ethical turn in critical theory: the central critical question, Harcourt argues, should no longer be “What is to be done?” but “What more shall I do?”—because, ultimately, I am the only person who can impose on herself the “risk of praxis” (p. 15). I have no right to tell others what they should do; I can only invite them to join me in intellectual conversation and political action. Critique and Praxis can be read as a relentless exploration of this demanding question, and as a patient meditation on the author’s own experiences as a critical theorist, justice advocate, and political activist. As he writes on p. 466: “This book was born of my own struggles—born from years, or rather decades, of torment, conflict, and contradiction between my political engagements and my critical theorizing.”

The crucial takeaway is that theory and practice should inform one another uninterruptedly, and that neither should get definitive priority over the other. Harcourt’s book is a timely invitation to conceive of critical theory first and foremost as a personal praxis, that is, as an ēthos—both moral and political—which constantly strives to achieve intellectual emancipation and social change. Therefore, instead of applying theory to actual circumstances, or merely theorizing practice, the “conditional imperative”[2] of critique would be to incessantly confront one’s ongoing practice with theory and vice versa, thus creating a space that is simultaneously of critique and praxis—what Harcourt calls a “critical praxis theory” (p. 23). This conditional imperative is very close to the one Foucault was struggling to elaborate at the end of his life, in his analysis of parrēsia as a historical form taken by the “critical attitude” as well as when claiming that he was interested in “politics as an ethics,” that is, in “a demanding, prudent, ‘experimental’ attitude” which “at every moment, step by step,” confronts “what one is thinking and saying with what one is doing, with what one is.”[3] Harcourt’s book effectively (albeit somewhat implicitly) embodies this Foucauldian intuition—one that has gone largely unnoticed, buried in what has been relentlessly criticized as Foucault’s turn to ethics and away from politics. This is far from being the case, as Harcourt convincingly shows by defending the inextricable link of ethics and politics (p. 278) while resolutely putting a form of personal, ethical engagement at the very core of critical theory and practice.

This ēthos, characterized by a fundamental reflexivity and a constant confrontation between theory and praxis, seemingly puts the whole burden of critique on the shoulders of the critical thinker and practitioner. It takes, in Harcourt’s view, the form of a radical critical philosophy with a threefold (Nietzschean) aim: to ceaselessly unmask illusions, because everything is interpretation and there is no final truth to be discovered; to relentlessly question the value of values, in order to reject simplistic utopias and philosophies of history once and for all; to patiently elaborate a contextual and situated strategic approach that seeks to push existing socio-political arrangements in an egalitarian and socially just direction (thus eschewing ready-made modes of critical practice). The overarching goal of such a radical critical philosophy of illusions, values, and actions is to make oneself as ungovernable as possible (p. 487).

Harcourt, however, who not only consistently takes on the responsibility of critique and praxis in his public interventions, litigations, and political struggles, but who also deploys here his enormous erudition by offering an impressive mapping of critical philosophy from Kant to #BlackLivesMatter, does not actually want to suggest that the burden should be carried by each critical thinker and practitioner alone. He is well aware that his final invitation to continue the conversation, confrontation, reproblematization, as well as the permanent struggle against the intolerable around us (p. 536) needs to find concrete instantiations—one of which is no doubt provided by the Columbia Center for Contemporary Critical Thought, a collective space where critique and praxis do strive to form a unified field. This ambitious, thoughtful, and provocative book could not be fully understood and put to use in isolation from that kind of critical space, and vice versa.


[1] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (Oxford, 1958), I, §83, p. 39.

[2] Michel Foucault, Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1977-1978 (Basingstoke, 2009), p. 3.

[3] Foucault, “Politics and Ethics: An Interview,” in The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York, 1984), pp. 374–75.