Ability Theories of Practice and Turner’s Criticism of Bourdieu

Abstract

The aim of this paper is to provide a characterization of ability theories of practice and, in this process, to defend Pierre Bourdieu’s ability theory against Stephen Turner’s objections. In part I, I outline ability theorists’ conception of practices together with their objections to claims about rule following and rule explanations. In part II, I turn to the question of what ability theorists take to be the alternative to rule following and rule explanations. Ability theorists have offered, and been ascribed, somewhat different answers to this question, just as their replies, or positive accounts, have been heavily criticized by Turner. Due to this state of the debate, I focus on the positive account advanced by a single—and highly famous—ability theorist of practice, Pierre Bourdieu. Moreover, I show that despite Turner’s claims to the contrary, his arguments do not refute Bourdieu’s positive account.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Notes

  1. 1.

    Examples of theorists who emphasize the role of abilities, skills, know-how or practical knowledge when individuals participate in practices will be provided below. Theorists who are specifically concerned with scientific practices include Callon, Knorr Cetina, Latour, Law, and Pickering. See, e.g., Callon and Latour (1992), Knorr Cetina (2001), Latour (1994), Law and Hassard (eds.) (1999), and Pickering (1995, 2001). Finally, theorists who stress the role of power relations among participants in practices are exemplified by Bourdieu, Giddens, Ortner, and Rouse. See, e.g., Bourdieu (1990a, 1993), Giddens (1979, 1984), Ortner (1984), and Rouse (1996).

  2. 2.

    See Heidegger (1962), Polanyi (1966), Ryle (1983), and Wittgenstein (1997).

  3. 3.

    For alternative overviews of theories of practice, see, in particular, Rechwitz (2002), Rouse (2007), Schatzki (2001), and Stern (2003). For alternative responses to Turner’s criticism that are somewhat similar in spirit to the one I present below, see, in particular, Bohman (1997) and Ylikoski (2003).

  4. 4.

    Barnes’ formulation nicely expresses this important feature of ability theories of practice. It should be noticed, though, that his theory does not possess all the main characteristics of ability theories.

  5. 5.

    Here and in the following, I use quotation marks to indicate that no conscious choosing necessarily takes places.

  6. 6.

    For the present purposes, there is no need to go into the complicated issue of the extent to which, or sense in which, other individuals are necessary for the institution of norms or rules of appropriateness. The issue has particularly been discussed within philosophy of language and, not surprisingly, the focus has here been on the norms or rules relating to the application of concepts and/or words. Important contributions to this debate include Brandom (2001), Hale (1999), Haugeland (1998), Kripke (2000), McDowell (1998a, 1998b), Pettit (1996), Sellars (1991), and Wright (1981). For an overview of the discussion, see, e.g. Boghossian (1989) and Kusch (2002).

  7. 7.

    A practice theorist like Giddens refines this claim by holding that individuals are able to put their conceptually represented knowledge into words unless they repress this knowledge in the Freudian sense (Giddens 1984, 4ff). In the following exposition, I shall disregard this possible refinement of the notion of conceptually represented knowledge.

  8. 8.

    Here and in the following I am adapting all arguments to the present discussion of rules that state how it is appropriate and/or effective to act or execute actions in some circumstance.

  9. 9.

    Harry Collins further details the idea of tacit knowledge in his (2001)—a project he continues in his (2010). Typically, ability theorists confine themselves to the general definition provided above.

  10. 10.

    Turner’s (1994) and subsequent papers do not only deal with ability theories or skills theories, as he mostly calls them. They also contain a critical discussion of another family of theories of practice that he refers to as presupposition theories of practice. For ease of exposition, I formulate Turner’s critical account of ability theories in a way that brings it in line with the preceding discussion.

  11. 11.

    Note that Turner is not opposed to ability theories as such. Rather, his criticism is directed towards certain—dominant—varieties of ability theories. As Turner also points out, he is a sort of ability theorist himself (see Turner 2014c, 103). Here I shall not go into a discussion of Turner’s own position and how it compares to Bourdieu’s account to be described below.

  12. 12.

    Bourdieu stresses that individuals’ having a habitus, a system of dispositions, should not be taken to imply that they respond mechanically to the various circumstances in which they find themselves (Bourdieu 1990a, 55). For the present purposes, there is no need to go further into this aspect of Bourdieu’s theory. More generally, it may be noted that Bourdieu does not explicitly discuss what he understands by the notion of dispositions.

  13. 13.

    Due to the limited space, I focus here on individuals’ dispositions to act in certain ways under certain circumstances. However, it should be noted that Bourdieu discusses other kinds of dispositions, too. In particular, he emphasizes dispositions to perceive and evaluate “things” in certain ways. Likewise, he discusses bodily dispositions or “motor schemes and body automatisms,” as he calls them (see Bourdieu 1990a, 95 and 69ff).

  14. 14.

    Turner does not, to repeat, in any systematic fashion discuss how Bourdieu’s account fits his characterization of social* ability theories. His main focus is how Bourdieu’s account runs into the problem of transmission (see Turner 2014c).

  15. 15.

    Bourdieu explains that social scientists apprehend these structures “in the form of probabilities of access to goods, services and powers” (Bourdieu 1990a, 60).

  16. 16.

    It is the fact that individuals’ dispositions are in sync with the circumstances in which they act that accounts for the appearance of practices as being somehow teleological. Thus, pace Turner, there is nothing spooky going on here (see Turner 2014c, 103).

References

  1. Barnes, B. (2001). Practice as collective action. In T. R. Schatzki, K. Knorr Cetina, & E. von Savigny (Eds.), The practice turn in contemporary theory (pp. 17–28). London: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  2. Boghossian, P. A. (1989). The rule-following considerations. Mind, 98, 507–549.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Bohman, J. (1997). Do practices explain anything? Turner’s critique of the theory of social practices. History and Theory, 36(1), 93–107.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Bourdieu, P. (1990a). The logic of practice. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  5. Bourdieu, P. (1990b). In other words. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  6. Bourdieu, P. (1993). Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  7. Brandom, R. (2001). Making it explicit. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  8. Brandom, R. B. (2002). Tales of the mighty dead. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  9. Callon, M., & Latour, B. (1992). Don’t throw the baby out with the bath school! In A. Pickering (Ed.), Science as practice and culture (pp. 343–368). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  10. Collins, H. M. (2001). What is tacit knowledge? In T. R. Schatzki, K. Knorr Cetina, & E. von Savigny (Eds.), The practice turn in contemporary theory (pp. 107–119). London: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  11. Collins, H. (2010). Tacit and explicit knowledge. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  12. Garfinkel, H. (1967). Studies in ethnomethodology. Cambridge: Polity Press.

    Google Scholar 

  13. Giddens, A. (1979). Central problems in social theory. Berkeley: University of California Press.

    Google Scholar 

  14. Giddens, A. (1984). The constitution of society. Berkeley: University of California Press.

    Google Scholar 

  15. Hale, B. (1999). Rule-following, objectivity, and meaning. In C. Wright & B. Hale (Eds.), A companion to the philosophy of language (pp. 369–397). Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

    Google Scholar 

  16. Haugeland, J. (1998). Truth and rule-following. In J. Haugeland (Ed.), Having thought: Essays in the metaphysics of mind (pp. 305–361). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  17. Heidegger, M. (1962). Being and time. New York: Harper & Row.

    Google Scholar 

  18. Knorr Cetina, K. (2001). Objectual practice. In T. R. Schatzki, K. Cetina, & E. von Savigny (Eds.), The practice turn in contemporary theory (pp. 175–188). London: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  19. Kripke, S. (2000). Wittgenstein on rules and private language. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  20. Kusch, M. (2002). Knowledge by agreement. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

    Google Scholar 

  21. Latour, B. (1994). Pragmatogonies. American Behavioral Scientist, 37(6), 791–808.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Law, J., & Hassard, J. (Eds.). (1999). Actor network theory and after. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

    Google Scholar 

  23. Lynch, M. (2001). Ethnomethodology and the logic of practice. In T. R. Schatzki, K. Knorr Cetina, & E. von Savigny (Eds.), The practice turn in contemporary theory (pp. 131–148). London: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  24. McDowell, J. (1998a). Wittgenstein on following a rule. In J. McDowell (Ed.), Mind, value, and reality (pp. 263–278). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  25. McDowell, J. (1998b). Meaning and intentionality in Wittgenstein’s later philosophy. In J. McDowell (Ed.), Mind, value, and reality (pp. 221–262). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  26. Ortner, S. B. (1984). Theory in anthropology since the sixties. Comparative Studies in Society and History, 26(1), 126–166.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Pettit, P. (1996). The common mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  28. Pickering, A. (1995). The mangle of practice. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  29. Pickering, A. (2001). Practice and posthumanism: Social theory and a history of agency. In T. R. Schatzki, K. Cetina, & E. von Savigny (Eds.), The practice turn in contemporary theory (pp. 163–174). Routledge: London.

    Google Scholar 

  30. Polanyi, M. (1966). The tacit dimension. New York: Doubleday.

    Google Scholar 

  31. Rechwitz, A. (2002). Toward a theory of social practices: A development in culturalist theorizing. European Journal of Social Theory, 5(2), 243–263.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Rouse, J. (1996). Engaging science. How to understand its practices philosophically. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  33. Rouse, J. (2007). Practice theory. In S. P. Turner & M. W. Risjord (Eds.), Philosophy of anthropology and sociology (pp. 639–683). Amsterdam: Elsevier.

    Google Scholar 

  34. Ryle, G. (1983). The concept of mind. London: Penguin.

    Google Scholar 

  35. Schatzki, T. R. (1996). Social practices. A Wittgensteinian approach to human activity and the social. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  36. Schatzki, T. R. (2001). Introduction: Practice theory. In Th Schatzki, K. Knorr Cetina, & E. von Savigny (Eds.), The practice turn in contemporary theory (pp. 1–14). London: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  37. Sellars, W. (1991). Some reflections on language games. In W. Sellars (Ed.), Science, perception and reality (pp. 321–359). London: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  38. Stern, D. G. (2003). The practical turn. In S. P. Turner & P. A. Roth (Eds.), The Blackwell guide to the philosophy of the social sciences (pp. 185–206). Oxford: Blackwell.

    Google Scholar 

  39. Swidler, A. (2001). What anchors cultural practices. In T. R. Schatzki, K. Knorr Cetina, & E. von Savigny (Eds.), The practice turn in contemporary theory (pp. 74–92). London: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  40. Turner, S. (1994). The Social Theory of Practices: Tradition, Tacit Knowledge, and Presuppositions. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  41. Turner, S. P. (Ed.) (2002a). Brains/Practices/Relativism. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

  42. Turner, S. P. (2002b). Introduction. Social theory after cognitive science. In S. P. Turner (Ed.), Brains/practices/relativism (pp. 1–22). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  43. Turner, S. P. (2014a). Understanding the tacit. New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  44. Turner, S. P. (2014b). Tacitness in practice theory: Practices then and now. In S. P. Turner (Ed.), Understanding the tacit (pp. 66–81). New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  45. Turner, S. P. (2014c). Naturalizing the Habitus: Mirror neurons and practices. In S. P. Turner (Ed.), Understanding the tacit (pp. 101–119). New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  46. Wittgenstein, L. (1997). Philosophical investigations. Oxford: Blackwell.

    Google Scholar 

  47. Wright, C. (1981). Rule-following, objectivity and the theory of meaning. In S. H. Holtzman & C. M. Leich (Eds.), Wittgenstein: To follow a rule (pp. 99–118). London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

    Google Scholar 

  48. Ylikoski, P. (2003). Explaining practices. Proto Sociology, 18–19, 317–332.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgments

I would like to thank Stephen Turner for inspiring discussions and very helpful comments. Also, thanks to Alban Bouvier and Finn Collin for their useful suggestions. Finally, thanks to Robert Brandom and Peter Machamer for their inputs to much earlier versions of this paper.

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Julie Zahle.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Zahle, J. Ability Theories of Practice and Turner’s Criticism of Bourdieu. J Gen Philos Sci 48, 553–567 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10838-016-9355-7

Download citation

Keywords

  • Abilities
  • Bourdieu
  • Rules
  • Tacit knowledge
  • Theories of practice
  • Turner