There is theory and there is reality. Theory is made up of thoughts and words, while reality is made of places and things. Some claim that theory is a part of reality; others, on the contrary, feel that reality is little more than a theoretical construct. But no matter what we think, one thing is clear: between theory and reality, there is a huge contradiction. This contradiction reveals itself in the alarm we feel for good reason (or for no reason at all), wanting to invent a theory that would put all things in their proper place.

But things will trick you; they don’t listen to words, and that makes us suspicious. On the brink of the gulf between words and things, thought lingers like a specter that knows no rest. Suspecting words of falsehood or things of subterfuge, the course of thought sometimes takes on the respectable form of criticism, whose very idea arises from the obvious contradiction between theory and reality.

Intellectual history has known many different forms of suspicion. The period that scholars of metaphysical theory arrogantly call “pre-critical” is no exception. Obviously, there was no such thing as critique in its classical Kantian sense. But still, the logos of the Greeks was deeply concerned with the gulf between itself and the world in its actuality, an actuality that never made much of an effort to remain true to ideas.

The changing nature of things led Plato to the conclusion that there is yet another more truthful reality beyond our own reality (actually an illusion), and that this true reality could only be discovered by those who gave themselves over to philosophical contemplation completely. Yet obviously, no one was actually ever able to reach the truth through contemplation alone, and those who have tried have been founding themselves dangling somewhere between the “world of ideas” and the “world of shadows” like orphans.

The present text cannot see and tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth as to what really transpired between theory and reality. We can only narrate the history of their dramatic relationship insofar as its individual episodes have a genealogical connection to what we are dealing with today, and, more importantly, when we ask what is to be done with this legacy.

So, if we are talking about so-called pre-critical thought, its main agenda was dictated by reality itself, in correspondence to which philosophers tried to form their theory. The hope was that this theory that would finally correspond to reality, passing a truth test, and the rest would then be discarded as falsehood. Even friendship could not save one philosopher from the temptation to accuse another of spreading lies. Plato is my friend, but the truth is dearer to me, said Aristotle.

Then again, the task of attaining knowledge of the truth was still more important than the task of exposing knowledge as falsehood. This is probably why this type of thought, which tried to catch reality by its tail through all kinds of tricks, was called “pre-critical.” It did not have any doubts as to the fact that philosophy was the path to truth, and was even less familiar with the feeling that philosophy might be taking us in exactly the opposite direction.

Once the number of people claiming to have developed true theories about reality had reached a critical mass, it became necessary to deal with all these theories before dealing with reality itself, in the hope of reaching full agreement or at least partial correspondence between all the different approaches. But this proved impossible.

There seemed no escaping the conclusion: something was seriously wrong with the theory itself. The problem was not so much that a theory drew the wrong conclusions, but that its theorizing of existent and non-existent realities rested upon unclear preconditions and premises.

This is when Kant suggested a critique of the cognitive apparatus that thinkers had been using for centuries to construct metaphysical barricades between themselves and reality, producing little more than falsehood.

Then again, the critique of theory’s false foundations contained an immanent desire, or to be more precise, an implicit demand for true knowledge. And this true knowledge would take only shape if all the lies it had to offer would supplement and negate one another. In the end, theory itself gave up on the idea of corresponding to reality. Remembering its tendency to move astray on its account, it began to look at itself to find the truth.

Enough is enough, decided Hegel: why should we adjust our theories to so many facts of life, if life has given us the notion, a weapon so powerful that it could grasp all these divergent facts. Why listen to things as if they could tell us the truth about themselves in a whisper: “Instead, we must first to give universal definitions, and to then compare natural formations to them… and if reality does not correspond to them, this is its deficiency.” [1]

Tired of trying to catch reality by the tail, theory declared its pre-eminence and its autonomy. The contradiction was no longer a problem of a theory that did not correspond to reality, but the problem of a reality that did not correspond to theory, the problem of an empirical reality that did not correspond to its notion.

Nevertheless, the lack of any desire to shorten the gulf between theory and reality does not bear witness to whether the rules of general definition are true or false as much that reality, as it is, has serious flaws, and as true as notions might be, these deficiencies keep history and life from moving on far enough to catch up to its “notions,” as Hegel would have wanted.

Yet since reality itself is flawed, and presents a problem, it urges the idealist critique to move toward a materialist critique of reality. Think about it: our reality, the one we deal with day in, day out, is neither an illusion nor the truth.

This reality is real, but it is no less full of falsehoods. This is a world that is quickly adjusted to fit universal definitions, and it forces us to live according to notion whose truth arises as a sum of lies. For a critique to find its truth, theory needs to get out from under the warm and cozy bed covers of its own autonomy, turning into practice. But the critique of theory should not only move on to the critique of reality, but to the practice of struggle: for the truth and against lies. “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” This phrase by Marx is still an unfulfilled commandment that anyone who calls him- or herself a critic should constantly keep in mind.

Oxana Timofeeva, philosoph, lives in Moscow, member of Chto Delat?


1. G.W.F. Hegel. The Encyclopaedia of Philosophical Science, Vol. 2. Moscow: Mysl, 1975. p. 543. Translation: DR