The term praxis is rarely used today, but it was commonplace in ancient Greece. According to Aristotle, there are three basic activities of humans: theoria, poiesis and praxis.
Theoria meant activities that had an end goal of discovering truth. Theoria actions increase one’s knowledge.
Poiesis are activities that have an end goal of production. The activity aims to produce an end that is different from the activity itself.
Praxis are activities whose ends are the actions themselves – there is no other reason in which we engage in these actions (e.g., for greater knowledge or to produce something).1
According to Aristotle, praxis activities are activities which most demonstrate humanity’s freedom. Theoria and poiesis are often undertaken because we feel as though we ‘have’ to. For example, while in school, we might read a book about behavioral science because we are in a behavioral science class. While no one is physically forcing us to read the book, we are not really reading it at our own will. We are reading at the will of the end goals which we hope to achieve: greater knowledge on the subject matter and a good grade in the course. That is why praxis belongs to a philosophical movement of liberation.
Another way that Aristotle differentiated between poiesis and praxis is through the distinction between ‘doing’ and ‘making’. In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle wrote that “doing and making are generically different … since making aims at an end distinct from the act of making, whereas in doing, the end cannot be other than the act itself” (163).3
Centuries later, another philosopher took up Aristotle’s idea of praxis. Hannah Arendt, an influential political philosopher, came up with a theory of action that incorporated a distinction between praxis and poiesis. In one of her best known books, The Human Condition, published in 1958, Arendt studied some fundamental categories of the ‘vita activa’ (active life), which opposed a ‘vita cotemplativa’ (contemplative life). Vita activa’s categories included labor, work and action.4
According to Arendt, action in a praxis sense is the highest realization of vita activa. That is because it demonstrates both the freedom and plurality of humans. She writes in The Human Condition, “men, not Man, live on the earth and inhabit the world”.5 Part of the condition of being human is to exist in a world of humans that are free. Praxis, she theorized, helps affirm our reality and to actualize our capacity for freedom.4 Freedom is something that is innate in all of humans, she claimed, and she defined it as the capacity to begin something anew – the capacity to, at our own will, begin an action.
She writes, “the fact that man is capable of action means that the unexpected can be expected from him, that he is able to perform what is infinitely improbable. And this again is possible only because each man is unique, so that with each birth something uniquely comes into the world.” 4
Arendt linked her ideas surrounding praxis to the political agent. She suggested that political revolutions confront people with the problem of beginning, the problem with finding a new political space. According to Arendt, praxis is vital for political revolutions.4