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.
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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).
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).
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.
Here and in the following, I use quotation marks to indicate that no conscious choosing necessarily takes places.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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).
Bourdieu explains that social scientists apprehend these structures “in the form of probabilities of access to goods, services and powers” (Bourdieu 1990a, 60).
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).
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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.
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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
- Tacit knowledge
- Theories of practice