Praxis Research Paper

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“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 “practicalcritical” 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.

Bibliograhy:

  1. Hegel, Georg Wilhelm F 1979. Phenomenology of Spirit. Trans. A. V. Miller. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  2. Horkheimer, M 1972. Critical Theory:  Selected Essays. Trans. Matthew J. O’Connell. New York: Herder and Herder.
  3. Lather, P 1991. Getting Smart: Feminist Research and Pedagogy With/In the Postmodern. London: Routledge.
  4. Marx, 1977. Theses of Feuerbach. In Karl Marx and Frederich Engels, Selected Works, vol. 1, 13–15. Moscow: Progress Publishers.
  5. Wright, Handel 2003. Cultural Studies as Praxis: (Making) an Autobiographical Case. Cultural Studies 17 (6): 805–822.

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