On Practice

Review

 

Rating: 5/5

Time to read: a few hours

Level: advanced

“On Practice” is often read alongside “On Contradiction,” as two of Mao’s most famous essays. As the latter of the two serves to provide a brief outline of dialectical materialism, “On Practice” applies this philosophy to the process of cognition, or the way we think and formulate new ideas.

This essay is fundamental in understanding the means by which we take in sensory experiences and develop it into theories. It provides a basic outline of how you can formulate revolutionary theories based on your own situation. This is extremely relevant today in that, in order to develop the revolutionary struggle, you must be able to fully understand your conditions and theorize what will happen next/what will bring about the best circumstances for the revolutionary forces. So, in learning about the process of cognition, you can develop class struggle (that is, advance the cause of the workers towards socialism) to a new and higher stage. The only drawback I saw in this essay was that it was a bit difficult to read and grasp the concepts presented. However, this is a natural result of Mao’s deep and artistic writing style–and also possibly a result of it being translated to English.

All in all, I found few flaws–if any–with this essay, and highly recommend it to anyone interested in developing revolutionary theories and furthering class struggle.


Glossary

 

Practice: any action that someone takes, either to gain knowledge or test a theory.

Contradiction: a unity of opposites as outlined by dialectical materialism; this is just an interactive relationship between two entities in which one wouldn’t exist without the other (e.g. light and dark, proletarian and bourgeoisie). For a more in-depth understanding, see the link below under dialectical materialism.

Dialectical materialism: the philosophical foundation of Marxism; dialectical refers to the relationship and interaction between two entities (see contradiction) which guides movement forward. Materialism refers to a materialist philosophy in which the objective world exists independently of humans and human consciousness (meaning that humans are just another evolution and the objective world would exist regardless if we perceived it or not) as opposed to the world being the product or reflection of ideas. You can get a more in-depth understanding of this here

Opportunism: an incorrect application of Marxist theory in which the long-term interests of the proletarian are substituted for their short-term goals.


Overview

 

Although theory is important, it is useless if it cannot be applied or put into practice. For this reason, practice is higher than theory, and knowledge is a direct result of practice (your actions). The information that you take in using your senses (perceptual knowledge) changes into your ability to make logical conclusions and decisions regarding it (logical knowledge). So for example, if you see a bee and a flower–perceptual knowledge–you can make the deduction that the bee pollinates the flower–an example of logical knowledge. As we can see, perceptual knowledge alone isn’t very useful. It wouldn’t do you much good to simply see a bee and a flower, but it would be useful to know their relationship. For this reason, the leap from perceptual knowledge to logical knowledge is a necessity in understanding the world. Logical knowledge gives you the ability to theorize about the world by drawing conclusions based on your perceptual knowledge.

It is important to note the dialectical relationship between theory and practice–that is, the process of going from practice (perceptual knowledge) to theory (logical knowledge) and putting the theory back into practice (testing the theory in the real world) and seeing if this results in what you expected the theory to be. If the result of the theory does not match up with reality, then you must revise your theory until it does in order for it to be correct. Once you truly grasps enough information regarding a certain process–for example, bees pollinating flowers–you will change your perception regarding the process. If your perception of the process matches the objective conditions of the process (i.e., the reality of the situation and not a stereotype or false generalization of it), then you can make real changes to the to the process. For example, if you understand that bees pollinate flowers, then you can bring more bees to an apple orchard to produce more flowers and thus apples.

Understanding this relationship between theory and practice is helpful in being able to formulate your own theories regarding the world and putting them into practice in order to make changes in the world. Marxism is an example of this, in which Marx and Engels researched the process of societal change, and formulated the theory of Marxism based on an understanding of the objective conditions of capitalism and how this will eventually lead to socialism.


Notes

 

Practice and Experience

  • “All genuine knowledge originates from direct experience.”
  • The rational is only reliable because of its source is from our perceptions
  • A person’s knowledge comes from two parts: indirect experience and direct experience
    • Direct experience is your own action, while indirect experience is learning from others’ action (such as from reading a book)
  • There can be no knowledge apart from practice
  • Practice and actuality are the primary base of dialectical materialism

The Process of Cognition

  • Perceptual knowledge pertains to the separate and external aspects of things, while logical knowledge is the understanding of the contradictions and totality of an entity and its relations with other entities
    • Logical knowledge allows you to be capable of grasping the development of the surrounding world in its totality and internal relations of all its aspects
  • The first step in the process of cognition is coming into direct contact with aspects of the external world–this is the stage of perception
  • The second step in the process of cognition is synthesizing the data from perception and rearranging and reconstructing it to produce concepts, judgments, and theories–this is the stage of logical knowledge
  • It is necessary to make the leap from perceptual knowledge to logical knowledge in order to make sense of the real world
  • Rational (logical) knowledge relies on perceptual knowledge, and perceptual knowledge turns into rational knowledge
  • Quantitative perceptual knowledge changes to qualitative logical knowledge
  • Start from perceptual knowledge and actively develop it to rational (logical) knowledge. From rational knowledge, theorize objective reality with revolutionary practice to change both the subjective and objective worlds
    • “Practice, knowledge, again practice, and again knowledge.”
      • This repeats itself in endless cycles, increasing the content of practice and knowledge to higher levels each time
  • This is the dialectical-materialist theory of knowledge: the unity of knowing and doing

Theory and Practice

  • Marxist philosophy holds that the most important problem isn’t understanding the laws of the objective world, but applying it to guide action
  • “Discover the truth through practice, and again through practice verify and develop the truth.”
    • Theoretical knowledge begins with practice, and it must return to practice
  • The active function of knowledge is not only to make the leap from perceptual to rational knowledge, but mainly from rational knowledge to revolutionary practice
    • Thus, rational knowledge must be converted and adapted to the use of revolutionary class struggle
      • This is the process of developing and testing theories, continuing the whole cycle of cognition
  • To test a theory, you must put it to practice–dialectical materialism was not proven correct as soon it was theorized, but rather it was put to the practice of the objective world and reconfigured until it properly adapted
    • Put theory to social practice and see if the outcome is what you envisioned it to be
    • Through the test of practice, theories are corrected
    • Theories are purposeless without the test of practice, and practice is pointless if it is not guided by revolutionary theory
  • People’s original ideas rarely succeed without any altercations. Thus, when you go through the process of theorizing objective experience with subjective thought–perceptual understanding, to rational understanding, to the formulation of theory–you often must repeatedly alter your theory in order for it to be operable
  • The movement of human knowledge may be considered complete when perceptual knowledge successfully becomes applicable theory.
    • However, things progress overtime–whether they be natural or social. Thus, the movement of human knowledge is never complete, as new theories must be developed to match new and changing circumstances
      • In revolutionary circumstances, social conditions change very rapidly, and thus revolutionary leaders must be prepared to change their actions and theories accordingly rather than lag behind

Application to Marxism

  • Marxism-Leninism is the historical unity of subjective and objective, theory and practice, knowing and doing, while opportunism is the divorce of social theory and knowledge from practice
  • Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin could only make sense of the contradictions in class society through practice by participating in class struggle
  • In order to go about solving a problem, you must understand the totality of the problem, and all of its sides and aspects
    • Only through personal contact and personally participating in class struggle can you understand it; thus, through practice you can change the world
  • The task of the proletariat is to change the objective world as well as their own subjective understanding and cognition–to change the relation between their objective and subjective worlds

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