A transliteration of the Greek word, praxis is a noun of action that implies doing, acting, and practice. According to Aristotle there are three ways of knowing that he designates as theoria, praxis, and poiesis, roughly corresponding to three kinds of living that we might call the contemplative (philosophical) life, the practical (public) life, and the productive (creative) life. In the Aristotelian framework, praxis is directed to the right ordering of human behavior in the sociopolitical world. The term appears in medieval Latin (Albertus Magnus, Meta. 5.5.2; and John Duns Scotus, Ord., prologus, 5.6), but it is only in the 19th century with G. W. F. Hegel and Karl Marx that the technical concept of praxis returns to the center of the philosophical debate and begins to influence theology.
The term has become commonplace and, according to many, the issue of praxis is the key question in contemporary theology. In spite of widespread use, however, it is not always clear what authors intend when they use the term "praxis." The reason for this lack of clarity is that a plurality of philosophical backgrounds has been brought to bear on the theological usage of this term: aristotle, marx, the frankfurt school of Critical Theory, Paolo Freire, and Habermas. The purpose of this article is to shed some light on the different theological usages of this term and to indicate briefly the challenge they pose for the future of theology.
Liberation Theology. By far the most common use of the term "praxis" is to be found in Latin American liberation theology. In this regard it should be remembered that what is truly significant about liberation theology is not so much its content as its method. Within the method of liberation theology praxis plays a central role.
According to G. Gutierrez, theology is "a critical reflection on Christian praxis in the light of the word." As such, theology is "a second step" coming after the praxis of involvement with the liberation of those who are oppressed in the world. The point of departure, therefore, for liberation theology is the existence of a prior commitment to the cause of the poor in the world today. The source of this commitment is humanity's intuitive awareness that there is something intrinsically wrong with "the myth of things as they are." There is an instinctive consciousness abroad that the existence of so much poverty in the world is contrary to the fundamental solidarity of the human race; and that the dangerous divisions throughout the globe go against the grain of creation and human nature. Liberation theology reflects critically on this underlying commitment to liberation, seeking to make it more complete, and highlighting its connection with the gospel of Christ. In particular, liberation theology shows how liberation is an important step on the way to the gift of salvation.
A number of points should be noted here concerning the use of the word "praxis" in liberation theology. First of all, praxis is about that particular human activity that is directed toward the transformation of the conditions and causes of poverty. Further, this activity, once initiated, is guided and governed by a process of critical interaction with the gospel of Christ. Thirdly, the relationship between action and reflection, between theory and practice, is dialectical in liberation theology. Lastly, the experience of actually changing structures in the world is regarded as an important source of new knowledge that enables liberation to talk about the existence of an "epistemological break" within its praxis method. In brief, the praxis of liberation theology is intuitive and reflective, transformative, dialectical, and epistemologically significant.
While it is true that the importance of praxis in liberation theology has been the subject of much discussion, by and large it has won overall acceptance by the theological community. One example of this discussion can be found in the 1984 Instruction on Certain Aspects of the "Theology of Liberation" issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which has both negative and positive comments to make about the place of praxis in theology. In that document the association of praxis with "the class struggle" and its identification with "partisan praxis" is seriously called into question (8.25). While this particular understanding of praxis may belong to some isolated instances of liberation theology, it can hardly be said to represent the mainstream of liberation theologies.
The praxis of liberation theology is not intended to promote the class struggle as an end in itself nor is it solely a partisan praxis. Instead the praxis of liberation theology is ultimately inspired by a radical commitment to justice for all animated by the great commandment of love and its gospel imperatives. Having criticized that form of praxis which promotes the class struggle, the 1984 Instruction went on to make two positive observations on praxis. It pointed out that a "healthy theological method no doubt will always take the praxis of the Church into account and will find there one of its foundations" (8.3). Further, the 1984 Instruction suggests "it is necessary to affirm that one becomes more aware of certain aspects of faith by starting with praxis, if by that one means pastoral praxis and social work which keeps its evangelical inspiration" (11.13).
Primacy of Method. The philosophical background to the primacy of praxis within liberation theology is, loosely speaking, Marx and Freire. This does not mean that liberation theology takes its primary inspiration from Marx or indeed that it identifies with his basic philosophy. Rather, liberation theology is only partially influenced by Marx. One area of this partial influence is Marx's Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach: "Philosophers have only interpreted the world; the point is to change it." Equally, liberation theology is partially influenced by Freire who brings out the importance of reflective action for the conscientization of people to the possibility of determining their own destiny, of changing the given structures of oppression within society, and of moving beyond an understanding of knowledge as merely the transfer of information.
A similar emphasis on the place of praxis can be found in the political theology of Johann B. Metz. According to Metz, contemporary theology is undergoing a transition from a transcendentalist-idealist paradigm to (rahner and lonergan) a postidealist paradigm. Within this new postmodern situation the primary focus of attention is given to the dialectical relationship that can and should exist between theory and practice within Christianity. What is ultimately important for Metz is a practical discipleship of Christ. Within this paradigm shift, Metz acknowledges the power and influence of liberation theology on the rest of theology.
Likewise, much of feminist theology today shares with liberation theology a similar emphasis on the centrality of praxis. Feminist theology operates out of a prior commitment to the liberation of women from the constraints of patriarchy. The experience of women, like the experience of the poor in liberation theology, is a crucial category within the construction of feminist theology. The methodology of feminist theology is very close to the methodology of liberation theology—both emphasize praxis as the basic point of departure for the interpretation of the gospel.
What is common to liberation theology, political theology, and feminist theology is the presence of a strong emphasis on the primacy of praxis in the method of theology. This unified focus on praxis is inspired by a common reaction against a purely theoretical, essentialist, and universalist understanding of Christian faith. In particular, there is an emerging consensus within these three theologies that something is intrinsically wrong with the way society is structured and that the world as we experience it today is amenable to a radical process of making, unmaking, and remaking. The key to bringing about change in the world from the way it is to the way it might be is this new focus on the primacy of praxis within theory.
This does not mean that these three theologies naively think that there is ready to hand some social and political blueprint for the resolution of the problems facing humanity today. This charge, often made against these theologies, misreads the meaning of the primacy of praxis within theory. Instead, these theologies consistently emphasize the importance of social and cultural analysis of the circumstances surrounding the existing praxis as well as the need for a critical reflection on this praxis in the light of faith before any movement toward a new and liberating praxis can be effected.
Hermeneutical Theology. Alongside these developments there has also been the rung to hermeneutics within European and North American theology. First World theology has witnessed a recovery of theology as a complex exercise embracing understanding, interpretation, and application—not as separate and independent activities but as internally related moments. Hermeneutical theology is not simply about putting forward new, theoretical interpretations of Christianity derived from interplay between the text and the interpreter, or human experience and the Christian tradition. Instead, hermeneutical theology also includes a critical reference to the praxis of the faith and as such intends to influence that praxis. To this extent hermeneutical theology also claims to embrace a turn to praxis within the process of interpretation.
The philosophical impulses behind this recovery of hermeneutics within theology are manifold. They include in a particular way the influences of Martin heidegger and gadamer. For Heidegger the act of human under-standing is not simply about the discovery of knowledge pure and simple; rather, human understanding is a self-involving existential act that affects the individual's mode of being and becoming in the world. In a similar but by no means identical way, the human act of understanding for Gadamer (who was influenced by Aristotle), involves practical reason in its application to particular social and political issues.
These philosophical influences can be found in the pioneering hermeneutical theology of David Tracy and Claude Geffré. Both of these theologians and others bring together hermeneutics and praxis in their understanding of the task of theology. Both claim that a Christian interpretation of text must also include reference to the contemporary praxis of the faith. As Tracy puts it, "without some applicatio, there is no real hermeneutical intelligentia or explicatio. In that sense the contemporary hermeneutical concern with praxis is entirely correct" (Plurality, 101). Going a step further, Geffré claims that Christian praxis is "both a place of production of the meaning of Christianity and the place of the verification of that message" (The Risk, 19).
Hermeneutics and Liberation. At this stage it should be quite clear that the word "praxis" is prominent in all the above forms of theology and that the language of praxis is by no means alien or unacceptable to the language of the magisterium of the Church as expressed through the teaching of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. What is not quite so clear is the particular meaning and direction of this common usage of the word "praxis" in First World and Third World theologies. This ambiguity derives ultimately from a difference of political ideology and social location concerning the context within which these theologies take place.
For one thing, the point of departure of hermeneutical theology and liberation theology seems to be quite distinct. Hermeneutical theology is primarily concerned with the interpretation of the text and the effect that this can have on the consciousness of the interpreter. This kind of praxis might be called individual noetic praxis. Liberation theology on the other hand is primarily concerned with the praxis taking place on the ground and the effect this has on the historical lives of people. This latter type of praxis can be described strictly speaking as social praxis. To this extent the impression is given that hermeneutical theology sets out to provide "a theory for practice" while liberation theology operates out of "a theory of praxis" i.e., the recognition of praxis as an important source of human understanding. Thus hermeneutical theology accords primacy to theory whereas liberation theology gives primacy to praxis insofar as theory follows praxis and reflects upon praxis. In other words, hermeneutical theology tends to relate theory to praxis via the principle of application. Within application to the relationship of theory to praxis, however unintentionally, tends to be extrinsic. On the other hand liberation theology sees that relationship between praxis and theory as one in which these two dimensions are constitutive of each other. According to the principle of constitution, the relationship between theory and praxis is intrinsic.
A second difference between hermeneutical theology and liberation theology concerns the particular preunderstanding out of which each operates. The preunderstanding of hermeneutical theology appears by and large to belong to that of the liberal human autonomy. On the other hand, the pre-understanding of liberation theology goes beyond liberalism to focus on the individual as bound to the community, highlighting the importance of social responsibility and structural change. Consequently, while hermeneutical theology calls for the fusion of horizons between text and interpreter and the transformation of the understanding of the interpreter, liberation theology demands a transformation of structures as a matter of justice.
Lying behind these two different emphases in hermeneutical theology and liberation theology is the presence of two distinct perceptions of society: a functionalist versus a dialectical understanding of society. By and large, hermeneutical theology sees society in functional and organic terms. Within the functionalist approach to society the principal emphasis is placed on maintaining order and harmony; changes are effected from within the given structures of society. On the other hand, according to liberation theology, society is seen as conflictual and dialectical. Within this dialectical understanding of society attention is placed on the importance of struggling against the social contradictions and injustices of the world; changes require a transformation of given structures; what is needed is a new recipe for the structuring of society and not simply an alteration of the ingredients.
A third difference between hermeneutical theology and liberation theology concerns the complex area of human understanding. For hermeneutical theology the risk of interpretation vis-à-vis the text is the source of human understanding generating new theory, whereas in liberation theology the risk of interpretation vis-à-vis praxis is the source of human understanding, generating new praxis. In both instances theory, however explicit or implicit, plays an important role. In hermeneutical theology theory animates new theory, initially inchoate and subsequently explicit, animates new praxis.
It would be a serious misrepresentation of both hermeneutical theology and liberation theology to reduce their differences simply to that of the former being concerned with the purely theoretical and the latter being concerned with the purely practical. This, not uncommon, misrepresentation is based on the illusion that there is such a thing as pure, nonhistorical theory and pure transhistorical praxis. The theoretical self-understanding of hermeneutical theology is colored by personal experience and social location. Likewise, the self-understanding of the praxis of liberation theology is influenced by some form of background interpretation and understanding, no matter how implicit or explicit this may be. Given this view of things it would be a great mistake to polarize the contributions of hermeneutical theology and liberation theology.
Hermeneutics and Praxis in Dialogue. Instead, the challenge facing theology today is to allow the developments of hermeneutical theology and liberation theology to critically complement each other. There is no reason why the interplay between text and interpretation cannot be brought to bear more explicitly on the interpretation of the contemporary praxis of faith. The dialogue between the present and the past in hermeneutics must begin to include explicit reference to the contemporary praxis of faith. Equally there is no reason why the contemporary praxis of faith cannot be allowed to interrupt constructively the conversation between the text and the interpreter. Is not this exactly what the praxis of the poor and the praxis of women has done with extraordinary result in liberation theology and feminist theology? If this interaction between hermeneutics and praxis could begin to take place, then the way might be opened for tackling one of the most intractable problems facing Christianity today, namely the existence of so much theory without praxis and of so much praxis without theory.
A second area within this conversation between hermeneutics and praxis that might be addressed concerns the mediation of the universal and the particular. Critical attention to the particular questions of praxis discloses the hazardous and ambiguous character of universalist Christian answers. In so many instances, especially relating to questions of justice, universal answers simply are not available or do not work on the basis of the application simply of theory to praxis. An explicit recognition of this limitation of the universal message of Christianity was made by Pope Paul VI in his Apostolic letter, Octegesima adveniens, where he points out: "In the face of such widely varying situations it is difficult for us to utter a unified message and to put forward a solution which has universal validity. Such is not our ambition, nor is it our mission" (a. 4). Similar recognition of the limitations of universal Christian claims was made by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in its 1986 Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation (see a. 2 and a. 72). Once this is admitted then it becomes clear, as the 1986 Instruction points out, that the teaching of the Church and the gospel message is far from being a closed system but is rather open to new questions that continually arise requiring the contributions of all charisms, experiences, and skills (1.72). An acknowledgment of this situation challenges theology to look in places other than texts and traditions for new light on the particularity of questions relating to justice. One such place must surely be praxis of liberation and its ability to shape new theory in and through the fragile experience of transforming structures.
A third area of mutual concern to hermeneutics and praxis is the whole concept of Christian truth. Both hermeneutics and praxis are agreed on the need to go beyond a classical understanding of truth as some kind of correspondence or conformity between the mind and reality. Christian truth is more than an adequatio intellectus et rei. In this regard liberation theology is quick to point toward the contradictions and distortions that exist within social and political reality. For liberation theology truth is to be found not by conforming to the distorted social structures of reality but by engaging in the praxis of transforming these structures. According to liberation theology the individual as knower must be complemented by the individual and the community as agent of a transformative praxis. It is this focus on the importance of "knowing by doing" that prompts liberation theology to talk about an epistemological break.
This epistemological break, however, must be tempered by the call of hermeneutical theology to dialogue with the existing tradition. In making a case for dialogue with the past, hermeneutical theology warns against reifying the tradition, setting it up as something that simply exists in an nonhistorical vacuum. Tradition must always be interpreted in the context of the interpreter's historicity. The dynamics of dialogue with tradition in hermeneutical theology and the praxis of a solidarity with and for the poor in liberation theology provide complementary approaches to the question of truth. The truth that Christian theology seeks is something that is both revealed and concealed, both historically given within the tradition and eschatologically promised in the future.
A final area in which hermeneutics and praxis might enrich each other concerns the dialectical relationship that exists between praxis and theory. Accepting that there is a dialectical relationship between praxis and theory, and that praxis has an important epistemological contribution to make to theory, the question arises: what particular norms and criteria should guide this dialectical relationship must be guided by the basic principles of hermeneutics and praxis as outlined above, namely that of a dialogue between the particular praxis of Christian faith and horizons of contemporary understanding as retrieved from within the Christian tradition (theory) as well as the existence of a fundamental solidarity with and for those who are the weakest members of society.
These principles of hermeneutics and praxis in turn must continually be informed by explicit reference to the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus. In the life of Jesus there is a dialectical relationship between praxis and theory, between words and deeds, between action and reflection. The vision of Jesus that dialectically embraces a radical praxis is contained in His parables about the coming Reign of God, in His teaching on the Beatitudes and the great commandment of love, and in the story about the final judgment scene in Matthew 25. Equally the praxis of Jesus that dialectically inspired this vision is illustrated in terms of healings, exorcisms, forgiveness, table fellowship and the presence of love in action unto the end. As Dei Verbum points out, "Jesus perfected revelation by fulfilling it through His whole work of making Himself present and manifesting himself: through His words and deeds. His signs and wonders, but especially through His death and glorious Resurrection form the dead and final sending of the Spirit of truth. Moreover, He confirmed with the divine testimony what revelation proclaimed: that God is with us to free us from the darkness of sin and death, and to raise us up to eternal life"(a. 4). In the end a Christian theology of hermeneutics and praxis must be guided and controlled by the vision and praxis of Jesus and the ongoing presence of His Spirit among us today.
Bibliography: m. lamb, Solidarity with Victims (New York 1982). d. lane, Foundations for a Social Theology: Praxis, Process and Salvation (New York 1984). c. boff, Theology and Praxis: Epistemological Foundations (New York 1987); Theology and Praxis (New York 1987) 57. g. gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation (New York 1975) 13; "Liberation Praxis and Christian Faith," The Power of the Poor in History (New York 1983). n. lobkowicz, Theory and Practice: History of a Concept from Aristotle to Marx (Notre Dame, Ind. 1967). j. sobrino, The True Church and the Poor (New York 1984). j. b. metz, "Political Theology: A New Paradigm of Theology," Civil Religion and Political Theology, ed. l. s. rounder (Indiana 1986). d. tracy, The Analogical Imagination (New York 1981); Plurality and Ambiguity (New York 1987). c. geffrÉ, The Risk of Interpretation (New York 1987). w. jeanrod, "Hermeneutics and Christian Praxis, Literature and Theology," v. 2 (1988).
[d. a. lane]
“Praxis,” from the Latin, is the opposite of “theory.” The Greek praxis and its related stem, “prassein,” means “to do.” It is commonly defined as “action” or “practice.” Traditionally, there has been a perceived dichotomy between theory (speculation, thinking) and praxis (action, doing). However, contemporary notions of praxis, especially as the Marxists see it, reject this distinction.
There are two prevalent meanings of praxis in the modern day: one in religion and ethics, and one in social theory and political philosophy. In Catholicism, praxis refers to applying the principles and ethics drawn from religion to everyday life. It is, in a sense, applied belief. The idea is that the practice of one’s religious beliefs enables one to live a just life. Hence, belief (theory) leads to a just society.
In Phenomenology of Spirit, German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) argued for the interrelationship of thought and action, linking theory and praxis. Karl Marx (1818–1883), in a movement against idealism and metaphysics, proposed a “practical-critical” activity that combines theory with practice, where no thinking can be isolated from social practice (Marx 1845). This linkage of thinking with action marks the most sustained examination of the question of praxis in contemporary critical theory (CT).
Praxis is given a specific agenda and political program in the Frankfurt School’s CT. CT erases the distinction between theory and praxis by showing how one leads to and informs the other. Praxis is theory that serves the purpose of social transformation. The social transformation sought by praxis is not only informed by critical reflection (“theory”) but also by questions of justice and emancipation (social or collective action). It corresponds therefore to Marx’s “practical-critical” thought.
“Theory” in CT is essentially a question about reflection as related to knowledge. As philosopher Max Horkheimer (1895–1973) understood it, CT is a form of knowledge distinguished not just by its specific object of knowledge but also by its special relation to this object. Knowledge or theory is directed at society and social relations (its object). The relation is not one of mere “interpretation” or “analysis” of this object-society. The relation to this object of study (society) is informed by the aim of emancipation. Theory is thus directed at a goal: a just society. Knowledge leads to, or at least aims for, social justice. In this sense CT is not independent of political action or program. This Marxist line, as Horkheimer elaborated, sees theory as “an element in action leading to new social forms” (Critical Theory 1972, p. 216). This emphasis on action and superior knowledge distinguishes it from traditional theory where the object of knowledge and the subject are in a passive relation. In CT, reflective theory engages with the object in such a way as to transform both itself and the object.
CT is here a program of social research, investigating social conditions of facts as well as of theory. It resists the institutional demarcation of theory and application. The philosophical (theory) and the social (praxis) come together in this formulation. It applies thought to the entirety of human existence.
CT’s mode of engagement with the social can be described as “knowledge as action.” It calls for active thought that continually challenges the existing state of affairs in society. The praxis of CT is in its thinking differently about the social world, where a different thinking will lead to changes in the way life is lived. CT does not offer a program of change in material experience; it offers a mode of understanding that can transform how material experience in modernity is interpreted. In CT a critique of culture may bring about changes in society because it develops new frames for interpretation, knowledge, and action.
Feminist exponents of critical ethnography express these elements most strongly in making praxis the defining moment of all investigative methodology. Such an ethnography focuses on political practice and breaks down the gap between researcher and object of research. Others, such as the education and cultural studies scholar Handel Kashope Wright, see the discipline of cultural studies as “social justice praxis work” where interpretation, or theory, must be informed by a commitment to social justice. Thus, praxis is political action informed by knowledge, where knowledge itself is driven by self-reflection and the need to engage with goals of justice and emancipation.
SEE ALSO Activism; Critical Theory; Cultural Studies; Feminism; Justice; Marx, Karl; Marxism; Science
Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. 1979. Phenomenology of Spirit. Trans. A. V. Miller. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Horkheimer, Max. 1972. Critical Theory: Selected Essays. Trans. Matthew J. O’Connell. New York: Herder and Herder.
Lather, Patti. 1991. Getting Smart: Feminist Research and Pedagogy With/In the Postmodern. London: Routledge.
Marx, Karl. 1977. Theses of Feuerbach. In Karl Marx and Frederich Engels, Selected Works, vol. 1, 13–15. Moscow: Progress Publishers.
Wright, Handel Kashope. 2003. Cultural Studies as Praxis: (Making) an Autobiographical Case. Cultural Studies 17 (6): 805–822.
Pramod K. Nayar