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Critical Exercises and the Philosophical Life

Lecture by Ruth Sonderegger ( Academy of Fine Arts Vienna ), organized by the Department of Ethics, Social and Political Philosophy

In his Theory of Practice Pierre Bourdieu famously argued that habitual everyday practices are blind, irreflexive and, therefore, without critical force. If anything, they reinforce the status quo. This is exactly why Bourdieu believes that critical theories should focus on practices as opposed to phenomena of false consciousness that were the focus of Marxist critical theories. In order to criticize and possibly change habitual practices and, likewise, the power structures accumulated in them, which undoubtedly was Bourdieu’s aim, habitual practices need to be analyzed and reflected from a (sociological) distance.

Michel de Certeau, on the other hand, argued, most notably in his The Practice of Everyday Life, that everyday practices are rife with critique and invention. Whereas de Certeau’s critique is leveled equally against Bourdieu and Foucault I wish to show that Foucault’s late writings (that had not yet been written when de Certeau published his book on everyday practices) argue along the lines of de Certeau. Foucault not only acknowledges the power of resistance in habitual practices. Moreover, he focuses on the possibility of changing naturalized habits by practical exercises of undoing them.

In my view, Foucault’s insights are seminal in at least two respects: They challenge the opposition between blind habits and (possibly critical) reflection. Moreover, Foucault discusses (ancient) practices of critical exercises in light of the imminent danger that exercises easily become and indeed oftentimes are tools of disciplining and thus the opposite of critique. Far from romanticizing and overestimating the critical power of everyday practices, Foucault provides ample material to discuss the fine line between disciplining and emancipatory exercises and experiments with habitual practices. In addition, he argues that critical exercises are constitutive of a philosophical life.

Ruth Sonderegger

Ruth Sonderegger is Professor of Philosophy and Aesthetic Theory at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna. She was previously Professor of Metaphysics and its History at the University of Amsterdam.

When & where?

Thursday 17 December 2015, 3.15 - 5 pm
Faculty of Philosophy, room Omega

Last modified:17 September 2020 5.26 p.m.