The Basic Idea
Do we pursue our goals because they are intrinsically valuable or because they help us to achieve something we want down the line?
Your answers to this question will determine what kind of activity you are undertaking: praxis or poiesis. These are ancient philosophy terms, first introduced by Aristotle. Praxis describes a kind of activity that is done in and for itself: the action itself is the goal. For example, if you are completing a presentation for the sake of enjoying the work, or if you are going to the gym because you enjoy exercise, you are adhering to praxis. The end goal of these tasks is the actions themselves. However, if you are completing these tasks for a different end goal (e.g., in order to lose weight), then you are performing poiesis. These activities have an end goal of production.1
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
Although the discussion of praxis is quite technical, it can inform us a little bit about the motivation that is behind our actions. It can help us become more aware of why it is that we do certain activities, whether that be for the sake of doing the action itself, or because we are trying to reach another end goal. As praxis is also linked to our capacity for freedom, it can also help teach us how to realize self-actualization.
Aristotle and Arendt would likely agree that what motivates praxis is the best or most virtuous form of motivation because it allows people to enact their freedom and begin anew. When we partake in an action simply because we want to partake in that action, we are likely to feel more fulfilled by it. According to the overjustification effect, when we are offered an external reward (e.g., money or candy) for completing a task, we are less likely to find intrinsic motivation to complete the task. For example, imagine that you used to enjoy painting (which allows you to be creative and to begin something new) for the enjoyment of the activity itself. At this point, the activity belongs to the category of praxis. Then, someone offers you money to paint and sell your paintings. Now, you are engaging in poiesis; you paint to produce something which you can sell. The fact that the activity belongs to the category of poiesis now makes you less motivated to partake in it.
Thinking about praxis can also enable us to reflect on why it is that we actually behave the way we do. Do we perform actions because they are habitual? Habits are unconscious actions we perform, often without a thought as to why we are performing them. It can be argued that habits actually enable us to perform praxis: I have a coffee every morning because I enjoy having a coffee every morning. They differ from goal-oriented behaviors that perform an action in order to achieve a particular goal. Yet, habits are behaviors that feel less intentional, so it might be debated if habits adhere to free will.
According to Arendt, praxis is a path towards actualization. According to Maslow’s Pyramid, self-actualization – the ability to achieve our full potential and find happiness in life – is at the top of our hierarchy of needs. Since praxis enables us to enact what it means to be human (plurality and freedom), it is a tool through which people can work towards self-actualization.
While Aristotle made it clear that he believed there was a strong distinction between poiesis and praxis, other people have argued that no such binary exists. Can we really say that any actions are really undertaken in and for themselves? Or is there always an underlying reason – a hope that our actions will lead to something else – present in our behavior?
For example, it is often debated whether altruistic behavior is performed for the sake of being a good person (which might belong in the praxis category), or whether there are selfish reasons behind the actions that are intended to help others. Do we volunteer for the sake of volunteering, or do we volunteer to feel like a good person? Is it possible for us to ever really know?
In addition, the behavioral perspective suggests that all behavior is acquired through conditioning. That means people perform actions because they have learned to associate behaviors with either rewards or punishments. Strong believers in this school of thought might argue that we lack free will and that true praxis is not possible.
Some of the hesitation to accept the distinction comes from the fact that Aristotle did not clearly explicate what he meant by the two terms. That means that the way they have been inferred is inconsistent. If the distinction is between ‘making’ and ‘doing’, where making transforms something into a product through action,6 then one can argue that if praxis leads to actualization, then perhaps praxis is also ‘making’. Praxis can be inferred to be about ‘making’ or transforming the self. Perhaps even ‘praxis’ therefore is about reaching a different goal, that of self-actualization.
Related TDL Content
Praxis and poiesis are distinctions made in part because of what motivates us to perform particular actions. In this article, our writer Karine Lacroix distinguishes three different stages that people go through in order to effect change, which suggests that perhaps, praxis and poiesis might be different stages of actions rather than categories which encapsulate different activities. The three stages are motivation, facilitation and reinforcement.
The difference between praxis and poiesis is that praxis actions are performed because of intrinsic motivation (doing the action in and for itself), whereas poiesis actions are performed because of extrinsic motivation (motivation outside the activity). To get people to avoid acting in corrupt ways, such as the parents involved in the college admissions scandal, there are both intrinsic and extrinsic motivators. Our writer, Tony Jiang, examines how effective these different kinds of motivators are.
- Hopkins, M. (2012, May 22). Sometimes, working hard is not enough – Poiesis and Praxis. Matt Hopkins. https://matthopkins.com/business/sometimes-working-hard-is-not-enough-poiesis-and-praxis/
- Praxis Quotes. (n.d.). A-Z Quotes. Retrieved March 24, 2021, from https://www.azquotes.com/quotes/topics/praxis.html
- Aristotle’s Theory of πρᾶξις. Oded Balaban. (1986). Hermes, 163-172. https://www.jstor.org/stable/4476492
- Hannah Arendt. (2006, July 27). Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/arendt/
- Hannah Arendt: Challenges of plurality. (n.d.). History of Women Philosophers. Retrieved March 24, 2021, from https://historyofwomenphilosophers.org/event/hannah-arendt-challenges-of-plurality/
- Aristotle – Praxis and Poiesis. (n.d.). Google Sites. Retrieved March 24, 2021, from https://sites.google.com/site/praxisandtechne/Home/architecture/knowledge/episteme