It surprised me when I looked back that I have not written a blog on praxis before. I was first introduced to it when I studied TU812 – the module that also led me to start blogging – so it is interesting that I haven’t ever used the blog to articulate my understanding of it.
I’ve arrived at that point now because I am currently doing a lot of reading on practice – or more precisely theories of practice. You don’t go very far in that literature without starting to come across the word praxis. Sometimes practice and praxis are used a little interchangeably, sometimes they are referred to as ‘practice/praxis’, but there are places where praxis and its distinctive meaning are explored in more detail.
Today I was reading an article (Kemmis, 2010) which teased apart some of the confusions that I was experiencing about praxis, but also resonated really strongly with the content of the main course text I studied in TU812 (Ison, 2010, now 2017).
The article clearly states that praxis can be understood in two different ways.
The first is in the Aristotelian sense. I’ve read about Aristotle’s use of the word praxis before. Aristotle drew a distinction between praxis “as a form of conscious, self-aware action” (Kemmis, 2020, p.10) and two other forms of human activity which are theoria (“the contemplation of that which is eternal and unchanging” source: https://ndpr.nd.edu/news/aristotelian-philosophy-ethics-and-politics-from-aristotle-to-macintyre/) and poiesis (activity involved in producing something). As you can see from this excellent article (http://infed.org/mobi/aristotle-on-knowledge/), Aristotle associated these three forms of human activity with different forms of knowledge.
Kemmis (2010) cites previous work that he authored with Smith (Kemmis and Smith, 2008) to define praxis as “action that is morally-committed, and oriented and informed by traditions in a field” (p.9). This has synergies with Ison (2017)’s work – systems praxis is informed by various traditions of understanding associated with the intellectual discipline of Systems. Systems practice is also concerned with ethical and moral action.
According to Kemmis (2010), the second meaning of praxis derives from the work of Marx. There seem to be two key messages here – that praxis is a human activity and that it makes history. Now when I first encounter this sort of ‘make history’ idea I think of history books and big social events, but Kemmis (2010) emphasises how these ideas – and particularly Marx’s notion of revolutionary practice – can be understood at a small scale – at the level of an individual or a small group of individuals acting together.
The phrase ‘revolutionary practice’ can be understood on a smaller scale, namely action aimed at self-conscious change of people’s circumstances and of themselves (self-change) (Kemmis, 2010, p.11)
Again there seem to be resonances here with Ison (2017)’s emphasis on reflective – and reflexive – practice and the way that that can result in self-change. Acknowledging that your praxis is history-making also seems to be a part of the design turn (blogged about that so many times before I am going to avoid going into it here).
Whilst Kemmis (2010) draws out these two meanings, it really isn’t a binary choice. Both perspectives add to how we understand praxis. The primary topic of Kemmis (2010) is educational action – in other words how teaching and learning is done (and researched). He highlights that:
Educational action is a species of praxis in both these senses because, on the one side, it involves the morally informed and committed action of those who practise education, and, on the other, it helps to shape social formations and conditions as well as people and their ideas, their commitments and their consciousness (Kemmis, 2010, p.10)
This sentence stands out for me for two different reasons. Firstly, I read it as someone involved in educational action (associate lecturer in higher education) and it made me realise the significance that my actions and interactions can have on other’s ideas, commitments and trajectories. Secondly, as I read it, I felt that the same could be said for systems practice (another practice I am involved in, and, the subject that I teach). To paraphrase Kemmis (2010), systems praxis involves the morally informed and committed action of systems practitioners and it helps to shape social formations and conditions as well as people and their ideas, their commitments and their consciousness. Putting these two insights together – educating systems practitioners opens up the opportunities for others’ morally informed and committed action and for them to ‘make history’ through their actions and interactions. What an honour it is to be engaged in that action.
Ison, R. (2017), Systems practice: how to act Second Edition., Milton Keynes/London: The Open University/Springer Publications.
Kemmis, S. (2010), Research for praxis: knowing doing. Pedagogy, Culture & Society, 18(1), pp.9–27.