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the material, sensuous, objective, purposeful activity of human beings, which includes the mastery and transformation of natural and social objects and is the universal basis and driving force in the development of human society and knowledge. Practice, which is multifaceted, operates on different levels. In a broad sense, practice consists of all types of human sensuous objective activity, including teaching, the arts, and administration. The main forms of human practical activity are the production of material values, labor, and the revolutionary activity of the masses, which is aimed at changing social relations. In addition the practical activity of human beings includes participation in public and political life, the class struggle, and social revolutions. Sensuous objective scientific activity, involving the use of instruments and equipment in observation and experimentation, is also a form of practice.
The term “practice” refers primarily not to the sensuous objective activity of the individual but to the activity and the total experience of mankind in the course of historical development. In content and performance, practical activity is social. The result of all of world history, contemporary practice expresses people’s infinitely varied relations with nature and with each other in material and cultural production.
As the basic mode of human social existence and as a form of human self-assertion in the world, practice is an integrated system of actions. The structure of practice includes a number of aspects, such as needs, goals, motivation, purposeful activity in the form of particular actions, the objects toward which this activity is directed, the means through which goals are accomplished, and the results of activity.
Social practice is united with human cognitive activity and with theory. It is the source of scientific knowledge and the motive force behind it, and it provides cognition with the necessary factual material for generalization and theoretical elaboration. As Marx pointed out, people do not begin with a theoretical attitude toward objects in the outside world. They begin by actively doing things and by mastering the objects in the outside world through practical actions, thus satisfying their needs. In so doing they discover, establish, and consequently, acquire knowledge of the properties and relations of objects that are meaningful for human beings (K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 19, p. 377).
Practice molds the subject of cognitive activity and determines the structure, content, and direction of his thinking. “It is precisely the alteration of nature by men, not solely nature as such, which is the most essential and immediate basis of human thought, and it is in the measure that man has learned to change nature that his intelligence has increased” (F. Engels, ibid., vol. 20, p. 545). In the early stages of human development the process of cognition directly reproduced the techniques of practical action, which served as the basis for the rise of logical operations. V. I. Lenin wrote: “Man’s practice, repeating itself a thousand million times, becomes consolidated in man’s consciousness by figures of logic” (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 29, p. 198).
Cognition emerged and developed because it served the vital activities of society and because it was a social value of practical significance. Human productive practice laid the foundation for the sciences that study nature. Thus, practical need in navigation gave rise to astronomy, and the needs of agriculture, to geometry.
Practice provides the foundation for objectivity in the content of knowledge and serves as a criterion or measure in verifying the truth of the results of cognition. “The standpoint of life, of practice, should be first and fundamental in the theory of knowledge” (ibid., vol. 18, p. 145). Only the results of cognition that are verified in practice can claim to have objective meaning. Practice can serve as the criterion of truth because, as the material activity of human beings, it has the merit of immediate reality. Practice unites and correlates the object with the action that is taken in accordance with thought about the object. The truth of ideas is revealed in precisely this kind of action. At the same time, Lenin pointed out that although the success of human practice demonstrates the agreement between ideas and the objective character of things, “we must not forget that the criterion of practice can never, in the nature of things, either confirm or refute any human idea completely. This criterion too is sufficiently ‘indefinite’ not to allow human knowledge to become ‘absolute,’ but at the same time it is sufficiently definite to wage a ruthless fight on all varieties of idealism and agnosticism” (ibid, vol. 18, pp. 145–16).
Scientific knowledge has vital meaning only if it is put into practice. The ultimate aim of cognition is not knowledge in itself but the practical transformation of reality to satisfy the material and cultural needs of society and the individual. Objectification is the practical embodiment of ideas, or the transformation of ideas into the world of objects (seeOBJECTIFICATION AND DISOBJECTIFICATION). Knowledge is objectified not only in language but also in the creations of material culture. Lenin wrote: “The process of… cognition and action converts abstract concepts into perfected objectivity” (ibid., vol. 29, p. 177). Knowledge and ideas make it possible to reorganize production, harness nature, develop culture, and carry out social transformations.
Human practical activity and its relation to knowledge have been treated in various ways throughout the history of philosophy. In pre-Marxist philosophy, when a contemplative attitude toward the world was characteristic of materialism, the active principle in cognition was elaborated primarily by idealist thinkers. However, the idealists confined activity and creativity to the spirit (K. Marx, in Marx and Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 3, p. 1). According to Hegel, for example, practice is the “volitional activity of the idea.” The subjective idealists regarded practice as activity conditioned only by will, intuition, or a subconscious element. Thus, the American pragmatist W. James classified “religious experience”—that is, purely spiritual activity—as a form of practice. Following the idealists, some revisionists reduce practice to free, creative, self-conscious activity, which is treated as the sole form of reality.
The right-wing revisionists give a one-sided interpretation of the relationship between nature and society, regarding nature solely as the embodiment of the needs, aspirations, and values of man. This leads to a subjectivist understanding of practice.
In reality, although people change nature, that does not mean that nature becomes dependent on the mind or that the element of the subjective is the active principle in being. Marx emphasized that regardless of the level of activity in the relation of man to nature, in the products of human labor “a material substratum is always left… which is furnished by nature without the help of man” (K. Marx in Marx and Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 23, p. 51). Both nonhumanized nature and humanized nature (social existence) develop according to objective laws that are not dependent on the subjective element.
The “left-wing” revisionists restrict the sphere of social practice and interpret it in a utilitarian way as merely the immediate, physical participation of the individual in productive or political activity.
The fundamental flaw in the idealist understanding of practice is its metaphysical absolutization of the ideal, spiritual aspect of sensuous practical activity. Marxism made a great contribution in introducing the concept of practice into the theory of knowledge for the first time. The spiritual or intellectual principle is a necessary aspect of practical activity, insofar as that activity has a conscious quality. The idea of separating the material and practical aspect of activity from its intellectual, theoretical aspect is alien to dialectical materialism. These two aspects of activity are indissolubly united. However, this does not imply that intellectual activity is a form of practice. The idea of “the mystical identity of practice and theory” (Marx and Engels, ibid., vol. 2, p. 211) is also alien to Marxism. Practical activity is carried out through material means and results in the production of material objects. Intellectual activity uses images and concepts to produce thoughts and ideas.
Theory and practice constitute a unity of opposites in which practice plays the decisive role. The dialectical interconnection of Marxist-Leninist theory and practice is one of the most important principles in building socialism and communism.
REFERENCESOsnovy marksistsko-leninskoi filosofii, 3rd ed. Moscow, 1974.
Praktika i poznanie. Moscow, 1973.
A. G. SPIRKIN