edited by O Society July 12, 2019
Praxis (from Ancient Greek: πρᾶξις) is the process by which a theory, lesson, or skill is enacted, embodied, or realized. “Praxis” also may refer to the act of engaging, applying, exercising, realizing, or practicing ideas. This is a recurrent topic in the field of philosophy, discussed in the writings of Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, Francis Bacon, Immanuel Kant, Søren Kierkegaard, Karl Marx, Antonio Gramsci, Martin Heidegger, Hannah Arendt, Paulo Freire, Ludwig von Mises, and many others. This is meaningful in the political, educational, spiritual, and medical realms.
“So, I tried to do a kind of semantic clarification in which praxis—if not on the thither side of this divide—was perhaps somehow between the theoretical and the practical as they are generally understood, and particularly as they are understood in modern philosophy. Praxis as the manner in which we are engaged in the world and with others has its own insight or understanding prior to any explicit formulation of that understanding… Of course, it must be understood that praxis, as I understand it, is always entwined with communication.”
In Ancient Greece, the word praxis (πρᾶξις) referred to activity engaged in by free people. The philosopher Aristotle holds there are three basic activities of humans: theoria (thinking), poiesis (making), and praxis (doing). Corresponding to these activities are three types of knowledge: theoretical, the end goal being truth; poietical, the end goal being production; and practical, the end goal being action. Aristotle further divided the knowledge derived from praxis into ethics, economics, and politics. He also distinguished between eupraxia (εὐπραξία, “good praxis”) and dyspraxia (δυσπραξία, “bad praxis, misfortune”).
Young Hegelian philosopher August Cieszkowski is one of the earliest philosophers to use the term praxis as meaning “action oriented towards changing society” in his 1838 work Prolegomena zur Historiosophie (Prolegomena to a Historiosophy). The 19th century socialist Antonio Labriola calles Marxism the “philosophy of praxis.” This description of Marxism appears again in Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks and the writings of the members of the Frankfurt School.
In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt argues Western philosophy too often has focused on the contemplative life (vita contemplativa) and has neglected the active life (vita activa). This has led humanity to frequently miss much of the everyday relevance of philosophical ideas to real life. For Arendt, praxis is the highest and most important level of the active life. Thus, she argues that more philosophers need to engage in everyday political action or praxis, which she sees as the true realization of human freedom. According to Arendt, our capacity to analyze ideas, wrestle with them, and engage in active praxis is what makes us uniquely human.
In Maurizio Passerin d’Etreves’ estimation, “Arendt’s theory of action and her revival of the ancient notion of praxis represent one of the most original contributions to twentieth century political thought. … Moreover, by viewing action as a mode of human togetherness, Arendt is able to develop a conception of participatory democracy which stands in direct contrast to the bureaucratized and elitist forms of politics so characteristic of the modern epoch.”
Paulo Freire defines praxis in Pedagogy of the Oppressed as “reflection and action directed at the structures to be transformed.” Through praxis, oppressed people can acquire a critical awareness of their own condition, and, with teacher-students and students-teachers, struggle for liberation.
Praxis may be described as a form of critical thinking and comprises the combination of reflection and action. Praxis can be viewed as a progression of cognitive and physical actions:
- Taking the action
- Considering the impacts of the action
- Analysing the results of the action by reflecting upon it
- Altering and revising conceptions and planning following reflection
- Implementing these plans in further actions
This creates a cycle which can be viewed in terms of educational settings, learners and educational facilitators.
Scott and Marshall (2009) refer to praxis as “a philosophical term referring to human action on the natural and social world”. Furthermore, Gramsci (1999) emphasises the power of praxis in Selections from the Prison Notebooks by stating that “The philosophy of praxis does not tend to leave the simple in their primitive philosophy of common sense but rather to lead them to a higher conception of life”. To reveal the inadequacies of religion, folklore, intellectualism and other such ‘one-sided’ forms of reasoning, Gramsci appeals directly in his later work to Marx’s ‘philosophy of praxis’, describing it as a ‘concrete’ mode of reasoning. This principally involves the juxtaposition of a dialectical and scientific audit of reality; against all existing normative, ideological, and therefore counterfeit accounts. Essentially a ‘philosophy’ based on ‘a practise’, Marx’s philosophy, is described correspondingly in this manner, as a ‘philosophy’ that is at the same time a ‘history in action’ or a ‘life’ itself (Gramsci, Hoare and Nowell-Smith, 1972, p. 332).
Praxis is the ability to perform voluntary skilled movements. The partial or complete inability to do so in the absence of primary sensory or motor impairments is known as apraxia.
Praxis is also key in meditation and spirituality, where emphasis is placed on gaining first-hand experience of concepts and certain areas, such as union with the Divine, which only can be explored through praxis due to the inability of the finite mind (and its tool, language) to comprehend or express the infinite.
In an interview for YES! Magazine, Matthew Fox explains it this way:
“Wisdom is always taste—in both Latin and Hebrew, the word for wisdom comes from the word for taste—so it’s something to taste, not something to theorize about. “Taste and see that God is good”, the psalm says; and that’s wisdom: tasting life. No one can do it for us. The mystical tradition is very much a Sophia tradition. It is about tasting and trusting experience, before institution or dogma.”
According to Strong’s Hebrew dictionary, the Hebrew word, ta‛am, is; properly a taste, that is, (figuratively) perception; by implication intelligence; transitively a mandate: advice, behaviour, decree, discretion, judgment, reason, taste, understanding.
It is true Reverend Matthew Fox has personal reasons for being angry. Pope Benedict XVI, when he was Cardinal Ratzinger, was among those responsible for Fox’s departure from the Catholic Church—he is now an Episcopalian.
Ratzinger used the power of the Vatican to silence and dismiss those whose views did not fit those of Pope John Paul II, according to Fox, including theologians of Latin America’s liberation theology movement. Fox himself came under criticism for his views on the role of the feminine in church teachings and creation spirituality.
Fox’s concerns go beyond the internal workings of the Catholic Church; the ex-priest is worried about the state of Creation itself. He points to the largest wave of extinctions since the disappearance of the dinosaurs; the growing divide between rich and poor; widespread violence; and the mistreatment of millions because of their race, sexuality, gender, or nationality. Fox believes that at a time when the church should be part of the solution, it is instead mired in its own corruption and ineffectiveness.
Sarah Ruth van Gelder interviews Matthew Fox shortly after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast.
SARAH: What impact do you think Katrina has on our national consciousness?
MATTHEW: The Katrina experience at last put the faces and lives of the poor on television, into our living rooms, and this was a breakthrough. I think the press did a magnificent job in this crisis. Remember that the whole enterprise of advertising in America is about putting into our living rooms a thirst for more goods; it’s not about revelation of the poor—it’s revelations about how to spend more money.
I think we’ve had a revelation about the growing gap between the haves and the have-nots, and it’s time that we wake up. What is injustice is not sustainable, and what is unjust will eventually break open. In the Bible there is talk about the widow and the orphan—if they are treated unjustly, the whole Earth is off-kilter. I think people are beginning to sense that something is off-kilter here.
SARAH: Have you found concern for those left behind to be universal among spiritual traditions?
MATTHEW: Absolutely. Buddhism is explicit about compassion, for example, although I think that the Jewish and therefore Christian traditions are more explicit about justice—but justice is a part of compassion. The Western prophets bring a kind of moral outrage, what I call a holy impatience, whereas the East brings serenity and an emphasis on patience. I think there’s a time for both, but I think we are in a time now of holy impatience.
SARAH: Given the awakening of a lot of people across the political spectrum, what possibilities do you see for some kind of a spiritual uprising?
MATTHEW: Well, nothing motivates people like bottoming out. I think what is happening now is a dark night of the soul and a dark night of our species. The question is, can we tap into that moral outrage? Can we channel it in a positive direction?
I think we are in for some shifts; I just hope that those opposing current policies have some positive directions to offer. I’m not sure they do; I’m not sure they’re really talking about reform at the level needed—about literally creating new forms of religion, politics, economics, and education.
SARAH: Let’s talk about the changes happening in the realm of religion. You recently went to Wittenberg, Germany to pound 95 theses into the door of the Castle Church, just as Luther did some 500 years ago. What were you protesting?
MATTHEW: The first question I was asked when the TV cameras arrived and I finished pounding the theses was: Is this about the corruption in the Catholic Church? Or is it also about the Protestant Church?
It’s about both, but there are different kinds of problems. The Catholic Church is embroiled in its all-male, hierarchical privilege, and the pedophile situation. And the Protestants are stuck in apathy—the American Protestants especially—allowing the fundamentalist wackos to roll over them and not standing up in their moral outrage.
The progressive wing of the church, like the progressive political wing, has been taken for a ride by the fact that fundamentalists have bought thousands of radio stations and TV stations, and they are out stirring up a lot of hatred and a lot of anti-intellectualism and anti-science, and distorting the real political discourse around the most important issues, such as ecological issues, what kind of economics we are going to have, and how we treat the poor. These are real values as distinct from profit.
SARAH: You talk about the difference between eros—the love of life, and sloth or couch-potatoitis. Is the deeper condition of the Protestant church the sin of sloth?
MATTHEW: Well, actually, the word sloth is a narrow translation of acedia, and what acedia meant in medieval understanding according to Thomas Aquinas was a lack of energy to begin new things. It would include cynicism, despair, depression, couch-potatoitis, and so forth.
Zeal, he said, is the opposite of that. Zeal comes from an intense experience of the beauty of things. Rediscovering the beauty of existence, and of our planet, and of our own species—I think this is where we get the energy back.
SARAH: What are some of the practices you recommend for recapturing that energy?
MATTHEW: Meditation. We all have to deal with our reptilian brain, and meditation calms the reptilian brain. But it doesn’t strike out to kill the reptilian brain, which is what some of the religious myths of the West—like St. George killing the dragon—are all about.
I think we need to learn how to honor chaos. I think the fear of chaos is what really inspires the right wing and fundamentalism. And what is chaos? Well, chaos is nature’s goddess, and in the goddess time she was honored and integrated, and she wasn’t something you went around killing. We still have remnants of that with, for example, the dragon dances of Asia.
With patriarchy, religion took it upon itself to control chaos, and it offers many images of killing it, as in Saint Michael and Saint George.
Then science took over in the modern era, and scientists became the controllers of chaos. But in the 1960s, science discovered chaos and realized that it is integral to nature after all. Lo and behold, chaos is not something we kill, it’s something we respect.
Because chaos is feminine, you’ll notice all fundamentalists—the Taliban, the Vatican, Falwell— have a compulsion to control, and especially to control the feminine.
Of course, in the spiritual tradition, the psychic dimension of chaos is the dark night of the soul, and we’re not dealing well with that. After 9/11, we lashed out, went to war in Iraq.
The deeper response to chaos comes out of the mystical tradition for dealing with the dark night of the soul. First you do purification, and then you find out what it is you really cherish and what you are really longing for.
SARAH: You’ve described two different views of God. Could you talk about what those are and also how people come to have one or another view of God?
MATTHEW: The punitive father-God—who has been named by George Lakoff, too—is the God of patriarchy and fundamentalists. It’s afraid of chaos, of eros, and the lower chakras. And it’s the God of original sin and empire. You build empires by getting people to shape up out of fear, guilt, and shame. There is a lot of that in religion, especially Western religion.
But the other face of divinity, or tradition, is a God that’s both mother and father. And like any loving parents, love comes into the picture. It’s interesting that the first name for God in the Hebrew Bible is Emmanuel. Emmanuel means “God with us,” not “God over us,” not “God judging us,” not “God condemning us,” but “God with us.”
The Christian tradition picked up on that very early with the name Emmanuel applied to stories of the birth of Jesus, a God with us. That kind of God is a God of justice and compassion, not a God of vengeance and exclusivity.
There’s a wisdom tradition of Israel in the Hebrew Bible—which Jesus himself picks up in the Christ Jesus movement—and that is God as wisdom and wisdom as feminine. The first name given Jesus in the New Testament is that of Sophia, or Lady Wisdom. That was a shocker for first century Israel, as well as for the first century Roman Empire. It was such a shocker that the church put a lid on it as fast as they could and talked about Logos instead of Sophia—Logos being the masculine principle of order, instead of Sophia, which is the principle of creativity and eros.
Organized religion needs to get its act together and bring in the feminine—the wisdom of Sophia; some churches are doing a far better job of that than others.
I think also that one attraction that the East has to Westerners is that Buddhist meditation has an experiential quality and does not dwell on deity—masculine or feminine. It takes people to new experiences and the tasting of wisdom. Wisdom is always taste—in both Latin and Hebrew, the word for wisdom comes from the word for taste—so it’s something to taste, not something to theorize about. “Taste and see that God is good,” the psalm says; and that’s wisdom: tasting life. No one can do it for us. The mystical tradition is very much a Sophia tradition. It is about tasting and trusting experience, before institution or dogma.
SARAH: You said something else I find very intriguing, which is fundamentalists often have “father wounds.”
MATTHEW: Oh, it’s true. I know very few men who have really good, comfortable, open relationships with their fathers. A few, but a small minority. One reason is the generation ahead of me was the war generation and the Depression generation. So our fathers went through a lot of insecurity.
And the other thing is the modern era shut the sky down, because we were told the sky was a place of empty metal parts, or dead parts, all inert. The whole tradition of Father Sky was muffled and turned inward. I think, frankly, the main reason so many men of our time have so much violence inside of them is that they are unable to express their deepest feelings, including feelings of hurt and anger, in a healthy way—not being able to return it to the sky.
Now that the new physics is explaining how alive the sky is, however, it opens up the heavens again to the fact of a Father Sky.