Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Theory and Practice: An Interpretation of Kant

            Hans J. Morgenthau defines realism in terms of principles. Those principles are the framework through which he attempts to makes sense of international relations. They are his theory. Theory, he says, “must be judged…by its purpose: to bring order and meaning to a mass of phenomena that without it would remain disconnected and unintelligible.”[1] In that sense, theory is a framework with which to examine the unknown with the known.[2] One might wonder if theory informs practice. Kant suggests it does.[3] The following three examples, a practical, a particular, and a philosophical, demonstrate how theory does influence practice. Edgar Schein’s change model shows how organizations progress. A particular illustration demonstrates how the lack of a theory prevents progress when uncertainty strikes. Machiavelli shows how, philosophically, uncertainty necessitates practical theoretical principles.

Kant’s Theory and Practice

            Kant contrasts Mendelssohn’s views on theory with his own. Mendelssohn does not see theory, or hypotheses, as practical. Instead, Kant claims Mendelssohn believes man should just live in a present condition because that is what humankind has always done.[4] In Mendelssohn’s view, man continually oscillates back and forth between “’fixed boundaries, maintaining in all time periods…more or less the same level of morality, the same measure of religion and irreligiosity [sic], of virtue and vice, of happiness and misery.’”[5] In other words, man is an end unto himself. Thus, no amount of theorizing will necessarily propel man toward a greater understanding of himself or anything.
            Kant disagrees with Mendelssohn because under Mendelssohn’s model, man never progresses. He would forever be in a state of present conditions. Kant considers this monotony, and he does not think that man would foolishly allow himself to live monotonously because man has the ability to reason.[6] Since man reasons, he is capable of interpreting his present condition and compare it with conditions in history. Kant, allegedly, did some empirical analysis concluding that throughout the course of human history man did not exist in a steady state. Instead, man has in fact progressed. Moreover, Kant argues that man has progressed morally and will continue to progress toward an ultimate condition. In order to continue progressing, therefore, man needs to extrapolate lessons of the past and apply them to the present in hope of a future better than the past and present.[7] Under Mendelssohn’s logic, man could never attain something he does not already know because reasoning of the future cannot be proven in the present. Kant finds this kind of reasoning flawed and says “the argument that what has not yet succeeded will therefore never succeed does not even justify giving up on a pragmatic or technical aim (as, for example, flights with aerostatic balls).”[8] Through practice, man evaluates and even modifies his theoretical assumptions.

Practical Example

            One cannot know that a theory will ever work until it is practiced. A concrete example of the relationship between theory and practice comes from Edgar Schein and his model for making cultural change in an organization. Any organization evolves over time. That evolution affects the organization’s culture. At times, a leader might recognize that an organization is out of balance and needs a cultural shift to rebalance it.[9] Either something is not working the way it should, or the organization just needs to do better. The question is how does a leader guide that organization through change? An organizational leader cannot simply ask or even tell the organization to change. They should follow a thought-out plan. Kant likens the abstract concept of theory to a plan.[10] Schein offers a plan, which he calls “A Conceptual Model for Managed Culture Change.”[11]
            It consists of three stages. First, the organizational leader must create the motivation for changing by either causing or pointing out the level of disequilibrium in the organization.[12] This stage should stimulate the need to “unlearn” old or bad habits.[13] Schein warns this might cause anxiety in the organization, so he offers yet another theoretical model to deal with an organization’s anxiety.[14] Once the first stage is set, the organization is ready to learn new ideas, which is the second stage. Either the organization experiences those ideas through trial and error, or the organization imitates cultural habits of other organizations.[15] In this stage, the organization can go in any number of directions in pursuit of new ideas. Finally, the organization must internalize the new ideas by validating their effectiveness with proof.[16] The interesting thing about Schein’s theory is that it accounts for when the process fails to work. He notes, “If it turns out that the new behavior does not produce better results this information…will launch a new change process.”[17] What Schein demonstrates is that his theory is intentionally cyclical to adjust to new discoveries. In theory, those discoveries reveal themselves when the organization applies the model in practice.
            Schein’s model is purely theoretical as the name suggests (Conceptual). Not only is it theoretical, it requires the direct application of it in practice in order to discover its efficacy. Schein himself acknowledges he does not know if the model will work by disclaiming “[It is] a general change model that acknowledges from the outset the difficulty of launching any transformative change.”[18] In other words, the actual validation of the theory is not in the theory itself. The validation comes from practice. One must therefore try the model to find out if it does in fact work.
            This might seem to counter Kant’s argument that “Whatever reason shows is valid in theory, also holds true for practice.”[19] A cursory reading of this particular statement might incline one to think that a theory must prove true in practice. However, arguably Kant does not intend for one to interpret his essay that way because he recognizes that human reasoning will inevitably lead to incorrect conclusions based on presumptions in theory.[20] Kant might argue that Mendelssohn would conclude that a theory must prove true therefore rendering that theory useless in a practical sense. To subscribe to the absoluteness of a theory misses the point altogether of theory and practice. The point is not that theory in practice produces absolute results.
            Rather, in the absence of a theory one will absolutely wander toward no progressive end. Knowing the end-state and knowing the direction toward that end-state are two different things. The path that leads to an end is the path of a theory that one follows hoping to find their end. If one follows no path, then they have no more an end than a flower or a bird. The purpose of a flower or a bird is to be a flower or a bird. Kant argues that the purpose of man is entirely different; man is not intended to be in a state of perpetual end having already achieved his purpose by simply being. Kant believes there is an ultimate purpose for man when he says “The end of humanity as an entire species, that is, the attainment of its ultimate destiny through the free use of its powers, as far as they extend, will be brought by providence to an outcome which the ends of human beings, considered separately, work against.”[21] This would suggest that man’s practices serve a purpose, which is to fulfill his ideations about his own future – in essence, man’s theory that his present state is not as perfect as it could be.
            Whether Schein’s model will or will not work is somewhat irrelevant. What his model does is propel the organization in new directions. The process of propelling along a new path (following the theory) leads to the discovery of new ideas. Those ideas are discovered as the theory is tried (in practice). The implication of Kant’s notion of theory is that man is progressively moving forward within the framework of his theories to attain a better position than his present one. The lack of motion forward, i.e. the lack of a theoretical plan to guide man’s actions is stagnation.

Particular Example

            An example of stagnation occurred during a particularly fierce battle in Afghanistan in 2006.[22] A Special Forces patrol maneuvered along a river nestled between cornfields and rocky hills. As the patrol turned around a narrow bend in the river, Taliban fighters, hidden in the rocky hills, ambushed the lead elements of the patrol. They blocked the patrol from moving forward, and the terrain prevented it from maneuvering in any direction around the ambush. As the team fought, they pushed the Taliban far enough off the hills to let the remainder of the patrol advance beyond the ambush site. However, as soon as the patrol started advancing, Taliban fighters hidden in the cornfields, ambushed the middle portion of the patrol. Again, the team could not move. It faced fighters on one side in the hills and on the other side in the cornfields. Finally, the trail element of the patrol tried to break through the lead and middle elements to clear a path forward, but they too came under attack from Taliban fighters dug into positions in front of the patrol. The team was stuck fighting Taliban fighters in all directions. At that moment of chaos, there was no instruction, no guidance, and no ideas about how to escape the predicament. The team leader relied on no other framework or model or theory to deal with the problem other than to react based on survival.
            Consequently, the situation grew worse as bullets struck vehicles. The team began to run out of ammunition. Weapon systems failed; some were damaged. Casualties mounted. Then the Taliban began closing in on the patrol. Since the leader relied on no conception of a plan to escape, the team remained mired in their demise. The team leader faced two choices. Either he could remain in place in hopes of the team’s accuracy prevailing against the Taliban, or he could do something – anything. Had he chosen to “merely look around at what is really happening” forming no hypothesis or plan, he would have assumed the situation was just something that “has always happened.”[23] He might have concluded his best hope was to do nothing more and remain in place.
            Fortunately, he decided to do something. He realized his team’s position placed them at a disadvantage. They were in a low spot, and the Taliban either were in higher positions or buried in the cornfields. In addition, the team fought from their vehicles and the Taliban fought on foot. The team leader thought his team could match the Taliban man for man on foot, and he thought seizing a piece of high ground would regain the team’s momentum. Therefore, he directed one element to dismount from their vehicles and pursue the Taliban on foot, while he led another element to seize a particular hill. His theory had not been tried in that location before, but he understood similar theories of pursuit and maneuver had been tried in previous wars. Now, in the absence of a plan, this theory was the only conceptual way out of the team’s situation.
            They tried the plan, and within minutes, the team overwhelmed the Taliban on foot. This created a gap that the team leader used to guide his element to the top of a hill. When they reached the top of the hill, the battle came to an abrupt end. The plan worked. Moreover, the theory of chasing Taliban fighters on foot rather than fighting them from the vehicles proved to be the most effective tactic in later battles. In addition, the theory of controlling high ground became a critical tactical move as the team successively seized all remaining high points in the team’s operational area. The application of these two theories alone led to drastic improvements in the security of the region. This particular example illustrates how practice without a theory can lead to the type of “eternal monotony” that is potentially deadly. Moreover, it illustrates how theory can guide one through uncertainty by providing some basis of a plan.

Philosophical Example

            Managing uncertainty is one of the qualities Machiavelli believes separates the powerful, successful prince (leader or state) from the unsuccessful. When Machiavelli was writing, thinkers in his time attributed the randomness of fortune and misfortune to chance.[24] He acknowledges this to a certain extent when he says, “that fortune and the military were causes of the Roman Empire.”[25] However, Machiavelli improves on the notion of chance saying, “I judge that it might be true that fortune is arbiter of half of our actions, but also that she leaves the other half, or close to it, for us to govern.”[26] The Prince is a guidebook on how to deal with chance. Machiavelli offers a way to manage uncertainty.
            When a ruler adapts to prevailing conditions, he puts himself in a better position to rule than one who does not. Furthermore, his chance of success is better. It is better not because his experience with chance (uncertainty) is necessarily luckier. It is better because he manages the half of his actions that he can control with a better mode. Machiavelli suggests that the ruler’s application of a more useful theory affords the better ruler with greater odds given that chance is constant. In other words, the ruler who applies a theory effectively is more likely to achieve happiness, i.e. success. He says, “I believe, further, that he is happy who adapts his mode of proceeding to the qualities of the times; and similarly, he is unhappy whose procedure is in disaccord with the times.”[27]
            He goes on to say that, circumstances affect the outcome in spite of the modes. For instance, he says that two persons may operate differently but arrive at the same conclusion.[28] Yet, two persons doing exactly the same thing may arrive at entirely different conclusions.[29] The constant factor these persons face is chance. This might seem to confuse the notion of theory informing practice, but Machiavelli cleverly explains how one can actually take hold of chance. Machiavelli compares two rulers who proceed with different modes. One is impetuous, and the other is cautious. Both may reach their ends under perfect conditions that match their modes. When conditions change, though (uncertainty), the one who adapts more likely succeeds while the one who does not adapt, more likely fails.[30] The reason the one fails is because his mode (his theoretical framework) fails to account for uncertain conditions. Machiavelli warns that those uncertain conditions, which account for half of man’s actions, require attention. The cautious man wants to proceed knowing everything with certainty. He does not want to account for the uncertain because he expects matters to remain unchanged. Machiavelli says that is impossible. That is why the cautious men who “remain obstinate in their modes” lose against the uncertainty of chance.[31] 
            By controlling, to a certain extent, chance, one proceeds along a path more likely to create happiness. Machiavelli argues that the impetuous one manages chance better than the cautious. His theory, therefore, is to rule impetuously because the impetuous ruler is more likely to confront chance without fear and take advantage of uncertainties. Theory acts like impetuosity by allowing one to enter the unknown with some “mode of proceeding.” One who proceeds cautiously into unknown areas does so without a mode, per se, and foregoes the half of his actions he can control. In practice, Machiavelli argues that the ruler who bases his theoretical assumptions on the virtues of impetuosity, such as strength, courage, vigor, and power, will likely prevail against uncertain conditions.


            Any theory exists with a measure of uncertainty. A theory attempts to bridge the gap between the known and the unknown. When the known and unknown are connected to time, then things known exist in the present moment, and things unknown exist outside the present moment, either in the past or in the future. This is in part why Kant criticizes Mendelssohn because Mendelssohn’s proclamation makes no sense if man lives in perpetuity uncertain about each new day. How then could one live unknowing the next day were it not for some concept that the next day will contain elements similar to the present one but with new exceptions? Those new exceptions do not yet exist, but man can be certain that they will. Therefore, he must prepare for those exceptions in so much as he understands the present ones, which are no longer exceptions but rules. Applying the rule one understands today in the context of tomorrow means one must have some faith that the rule will still work tomorrow. Understanding that tomorrow will not be precisely like today based on present knowledge that today is not precisely like yesterday, ought to guide one’s thoughts toward a framework to deal with the unknown. That framework is the rule by which man presently lives, hopeful of its usefulness in the future. Yet that usefulness will never come to fruition until it is tried. Therefore, the hope we have for tomorrow exists within a framework of tried rules we know today. In that sense, theory matters because it forms the basis for how to deal with uncertainty in practice. 

Kant, Immanuel. Toward Perpetual Peace and Other Writings on Politics, Peace, and History. Edited by Pauline Kleingeld. Translated by David L. Colclasure. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006.
Machiavelli, Niccolo. Discourses on Livy. Translated by Harvey C. Mansfield. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996.
—. The Prince. 2nd. Translated by Harvey C. Mansfield. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998.
Morgenthau, Hans J. Politics Among Nations. 7th Edition. Edited by Kenneth W. Thompson, & W. David Clinton. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2006.
Schein, Edgar H. Organizational Culture and Leadership. Fourth Edition. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010.

[1] See Morgenthau, p. 3.
[2] This is the author’s interpretation of a theory, which will underscore the basis of arguments in this essay.
[3] See Kant, 8:313, p. 66.
[4] See Kant, 8:308, p. 61.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] See Kant, 8:309, p. 62.
[8] See Kant, 8:310, p. 62.
[9] See Schein, p. 300.
[10] See Kant, 8:310, p. 63.
[11] See Schein, p. 299.
[12] See Schein, pp. 300-301. Schein calls this the “unfreezing” stage, a term he borrows from research conducted by Kurt Lewin.
[13] Ibid.
[14] See Schein, pp. 305-307. The process to build “psychological safety” is an eight-step process, which is itself a model.
[15] See Schein, pp. 309-310.
[16] See Schein, p. 311.
[17] Ibid.
[18] See Schein, p. 313. Emphasis added.
[19] See Kant, 8:313, p. 66.
[20] Ibid. Before concluding that what is “valid in theory, also holds true for practice” he clarifies that he does not want regard moral reason as failed even after “many unsuccessful attempts.”
[21] See Kant, 8:312, p. 64.
[22] The following case example occurred in central Afghanistan in 2006. It is based on real events with some modifications to highlight the relationship of theory and practice. Specific details of the battle are omitted for security reasons. The intent is to show the scope of how theory and practice cooperate.
[23] See Kant, 8:308, p. 61. Kant cites Mendelssohn’s reasoning for not constructing hypotheses, which Mendelssohn argues, is pointless because he believes nothing really changes throughout the course of human history and man can therefore not affect any change.
[24] See Machiavelli, Prince, XXV, p. 98.
[25] See Machiavelli, Discourses, I.4.1, p. 16.
[26] Ibid.
[27] See Machiavelli, Prince, XXV, p. 99.
[28] Ibid.
[29] Ibid.
[30] See Machiavelli, Prince, XXV, pp. 100-101.
[31] See Machiavelli, Prince, XXV, p. 101. 


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