Praxis, in its simplest construal, means “theory plus action.” It indicates life practice formed from both reflection and action. The self, striving to transform the world creatively according to an emerging vision based on its own values, actualizes itself as it actualizes its vision. Because individuals’ actions always affect other people, praxis is inherently political.
Aristotle was the first to conceptualize praxis. He drew distinctions among three types of knowledge: theoria, from which the word theory is derived, which meant speculation, contemplation; techne, meaning craft, skill, or art; and phronesis, the knowledge born of a combination of theoria and techne, which is most commonly translated into English as practical wisdom. Praxis, which derives from the practical wisdom of phronesis, is concerned with making the best life choices. It assumes not only intellectual insight, but in-depth acquaintance with the practical considerations needed to intervene skillfully, creatively, and in a timely manner in practical problems.
Karl Marx also used the term praxis, but with a decidedly different emphasis. Against the prevailing Hegelian thought of the time, Marx argued that it is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but their social being that determines their consciousness. He argued that industrial capitalism alienated workers because factories severed them from the creation, design, and use of the products of their labor. Instead, he envisioned laborers not as cogs in a machine, but as artists shaping integral, holistic products that emerged as expressions of their visions. In the Marxist sense, then, praxis is both practical and revolutionary as oppressed groups critically assess the world and change society based on their own class’s interests, rather than uncritically absorbing the ideology of the oppressor class.
Because Marxist praxis depends upon educating those people who need liberation, it demanded new, creative educational approaches, an emancipatory pedagogy that would critically appraise dominant ideology and that could be widely available to the working class. Emancipatory pedagogy never became as important in the United States as in many parts of Europe, South America, and Africa, but the work of influential Brazilian educator Paulo Freire has been studied by North American educators since the early 1970s. Freire, whose perspective derived from both Marxist and existentialist thought, maintained that for the oppressed to become authentic selves they must fight not only for freedom from hunger, but for freedom to create and construct, wonder, and venture. True knowledge, Freire contended, emerges only through restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful, critical inquiry with other people about their relations to the world. Therefore, he advocated that instead of learners receiving, filing, and storing deposits made by educators, learners should be allowed to develop praxis, an inventive and interventive way of life that encourages free, creative reflection and thoughtful action in order to change the world, even as the learners are transformed in the process.
- (1980). The Nicomachean ethics (D. Ross, Trans.). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
- Freire, P. (1993). Pedagogy of the oppressed (M. B. Ramos, Trans.). New York: Continuum. (Original work published 1970)
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