Navigating the eternally unfolding present: Toward an epistemology of practice

S. D.Noam Cook, Hendrik Wagenaar

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

120 Citations (Scopus)


The topic of the article is practice theory. Using a detailed example from public administration, we first discus the shortcomings of the model of practice as applied knowledge that we have dubbed the Received View. The first half of the article is a chronology of successive adaptations of the Received View. These adaptations have gradually brought the Received View more in accordance with the practice-oriented critique in social theory and research of recent years. These adaptations fall short, however, of offering a theoretical account that explains the relationships among practice, knowledge, and context. These adaptations do not enable us to show, as we wish to do, how knowledge and context can be explained in terms of-and are evoked within-practice, and not the other way round-and that this transpires within real worlds each of which has its own unique constraints and affordances, histories and futures. In the second half of the article, we pick up on a relational conception of practice, knowledge, and context in which practice is distinct and primary. To develop this aspect of practice theory, we make use of some key concepts from modern Japanese philosophy. The nondualist posture of Japanese philosophy gives rise to a useful conceptualization of the dynamic and fluid relationships among practice, the characteristics of the situation at hand, and the epistemic elements of practice itself. In this final section, we introduce three concepts that help capture this dynamic, relational understanding of practice: "actionable understanding," "ongoing business," and "the eternally unfolding present."

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3-38
Number of pages36
JournalAmerican Review of Public Administration
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2012
Externally publishedYes


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