Notes on Praxis, Dialectics, and Aporia


Praxis is the process by which a theory, lesson, or skill is enacted or practiced, embodied and/or realized. It is a practical and applied knowledge to one’s actions. It has meaning in political, educational, and spiritual realms.


In Ancient Greek the word praxis (πρᾱξις) referred to activity engaged in by free men. Aristotle held that there were three basic activities of man: theoria, poiesis and praxis. There corresponded to these kinds of activity three types of knowledge: theoretical, to which the end goal was truth; poietical, to which the end goal was production; and practical, to which the end goal was action. Aristotle further divided practical knowledge into ethics, economics and politics. He also distinguished between eupraxia (good praxis) and dyspraxia (bad praxis, misfortune).

Praxis is used by educators to describe a recurring passage through a cyclical process of experiential learning, such as the cycle described and popularised by David A. Kolb.[1]

Paulo Freire defines praxis in Pedagogy of the Oppressed as “reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it.” Through praxis, oppressed people can acquire a critical awareness of their own condition, and, with their allies, struggle for liberation.[2]

Praxis is also key in meditation and spirituality, where emphasis is placed on gaining first-hand experience of concepts and certain areas, such as union with the Divine, which can only be explored through praxis due to the inability of the finite mind (and its tool, language) to comprehend or express the infinite. In an interview for YES! Magazine, Matthew Fox explained it this way:

Wisdom is always taste — in both Latin and Hebrew, the word for wisdom comes from the word for taste — so it’s something to taste, not something to theorize about. “Taste and see that God is good,” the psalm says; and that’s wisdom: tasting life. No one can do it for us. The mystical tradition is very much a Sophia tradition. It is about tasting and trusting experience, before institution or dogma.[3]

According to Strong’s Hebrew dictionary, the Hebrew word, ta‛am, is; properly a taste, that is, (figuratively) perception; by implication intelligence; transitively a mandate: – advice, behaviour, decree, discretion, judgment, reason, taste, understanding.


While praxis usually refers to the process of putting theoretical knowledge into practice, the strategic and organizational usage of the word emphasizes the need for a constant cycle of conceptualizing the meanings of what can be learned from experience in order to reframe strategic and operational models.

Social work

In social work theory, praxis is the reflexive relationship between theories and action. It describes a cyclical process of social work interactions developing new theories and refining old ones, as well as theories directing the delivery of social work interactions.

Notice the constant reference to a cyclical process. This cyclical process is called the Dialectic.

The Dialectic in Classic Philosophy

Dialectic (also called dialectics or the dialectical method) is a method of argument, which has been central to both Eastern and Western philosophy since ancient times. The word “dialectic” originates in Ancient Greece, and was made popular by Plato’s Socratic dialogues.

Dialectic is based on a dialogue between two or more people who hold different ideas and wish to persuade each other.

This is in contrast to rhetoric, which is a relatively long oration conducted by a single person, a method favored by the Sophists.[1]

Different forms of dialectical reason have emerged in the East and in the West, as well as during different eras of history (see below). Among the major forms of dialectic reason are Socratic, Hindu, Buddhist, Medieval, Hegelian, Marxist, and Talmudic.

Dialectic is also known as Logic

It is also defined as “The practice of arriving at a conclusion by the exchange of logical arguments, usually in the form of questions and answers.” –

From the Greek, “reason”


* “But of all the arts the first and most general is logic, next grammar, and finally rhetoric, since there can be much use of reason without speech, but no use of speech without reason. We gave the second place to grammar because correct speech can be unadorned; but it can hardly be adorned before it is correct.”
(John Milton, The Art of Logic, 1672)

* “Logic is the armory of reason, furnished with all defensive and offensive weapons. There are syllogisms, long swords; enthymemes, short daggers; dilemmas, two-edged swords that cut on both sides; sorites, chain-shot.”
(Thomas Fuller, “The General Artist,” 1661)

* “Some logicians study only formal logic; that is, they work only with abstract models that have purely logical substance and content. . . .

“Relating the abstract systems of formal logic to ‘real’ statements and arguments is not part of formal logic itself; it requires the consideration of many issues and factors beyond the basic logical forms of the statements and arguments. The study of the factors other than logical form relevant to the analysis and evaluation of statements and arguments of the kind that occur in everyday situations is known as informal logic. This study includes considerations of such things as: identification and clarification of vague or ambiguous statements; identification of unstated assumptions, presuppositions or biases and making them explicit; recognition of frequently used but highly questionable premises; and assessment of the strength of analogies between more or less similar cases.”
(Robert Baum, Logic, 4th edition, Harcourt Brace, 1996)

# “In the simplest form of Socratic dialectic, the questioner and respondent begin with a proposition or a ‘stock question,’ such as What is courage? Then, through the process of dialectical interrogation, the questioner attempts to lead the respondent into contradiction. The Greek term for the contradiction that generally signals the end of a round of dialectic is aporia.”
(Janet M. Atwell, Rhetoric Reclaimed: Aristotle and the Liberal Arts Tradition. Cornell Univ. Press, 1998)

# “Aristotle took a different view of the relationship between rhetoric and dialectic from what Plato had taken. Both, for Aristotle, are universal verbal arts, not limited to any specific subject matter, by which one could generate discourse and demonstrations on any question that might arise. The demonstrations, or arguments, of dialectic differ from those of rhetoric in that dialectic derives its arguments from premises (protaseis) founded on universal opinion and rhetoric from particular opinions.
(Thomas M. Conley, Rhetoric in the European Tradition. Longman, 1990)

The Dialectic Method

The aim of the dialectical method is resolution of the disagreement through rational discussion,[6][7] and ultimately the search for truth. One way to proceed — the Socratic method — is to show that a given hypothesis (with other admissions) leads to a contradiction; thus, forcing the withdrawal of the hypothesis as a candidate for truth (see also reductio ad absurdum). Another way of trying to resolve a disagreement is by denying some presupposition of both the contending thesis and antithesis; thereby moving to a third (syn)thesis or “sublation”. However, the rejection of the participants’ presuppositions can be resisted, which might generate a second-order controversy.[8]

Classical philosophy

The term “dialectic” owes much of its prestige to its role in the philosophy of Socrates and Plato. According to Aristotle,[9] it was Zeno of Elea who ‘invented’ dialectic. Plato’s dialogues are the best ancient written examples that show the Socratic dialectic method in great detail.

In classical philosophy, dialectic (Greek: διαλεκτική) is a form of reasoning based on the exchange of arguments and counter-arguments, advocating propositions (theses) and counter-propositions (antitheses). The outcome of such an exchange might be the refutation of one of the relevant points of view, or a synthesis or combination of the opposing assertions, or at least a qualitative transformation in the direction of the dialogue.[10][11]

Socratic dialogue

In Plato’s dialogues and other Socratic dialogues, Socrates attempts to examine someone’s beliefs, at times even first principles or premises by which we all reason and argue. Socrates typically argues by cross-examining his interlocutor’s claims and premises in order to draw out a contradiction or inconsistency among them. According to Plato, the rational detection of error amounts to finding the proof of the antithesis.[12] However, important as this objective is, the principal aim of Socratic activity seems to be to improve the soul of his interlocutors, by freeing them from unrecognized errors.

For example, in the Euthyphro, Socrates asks Euthyphro to provide a definition of piety. Euthyphro replies that the pious is that which is loved by the gods. But, Socrates also has Euthyphro agreeing that the gods are quarrelsome and their quarrels, like human quarrels, concern objects of love or hatred. Therefore, Socrates reasons, at least one thing exists which certain gods love but other gods hate. Again, Euthyphro agrees. Socrates concludes that if Euthyphro’s definition of piety is acceptable, then there must exist at least one thing which is both pious and impious (as it is both loved and hated by the gods) — which Euthyphro admits is absurd. Thus, Euthyphro is brought to a realization by this dialectical method that his definition of piety is not sufficiently meaningful.

Modern Non-Hegelian Dialectics

In the Soviet Union dialectics of Marx developed in two directions – the ideological propaganda and research methodology. Some research scientists have used the dialectic of Hegel and Marx to interpret the results of natural sciences – physics, etc. One of them was Yuri Rothenfelde (born in 1940). At the same time he created the non-classical dialectic (Not-Hegelian dialectic).

Doctoral dissertation, consultant V.S. Gott – “Becoming a non-classical dialectics” (1991). In 1991 Ph.D. Rothenfelde Y. has published a monography dedicated to the nonclassical dialectic – Rothenfelde Y.A. Non-classical dialectic. – M: Ray, 1991.

Leading the research theme was the problem of differentiating the concept of “specific identity”. It lies between the abstract identity and absolute difference. He managed to differentiate an infinite number of specific differences.

The scheme of Hegel:  Abstract identity – Specific identity (or identity of opposites) – Absolute difference.

Yuri Rothenfelde divided “specific identity” to the specific differences. And express them in a series of philosophical categories. These categories became the basis of non-classical dialectic. Rothenfelde Y. called them “the comparative category”.

The scheme of Rothenfelde:

The first series:  Abstract identity < – Meaning Assigned (less relatively more) – …etc….< Absolute difference

Second series:  Abstract identity <- Opposite (the middle between the smaller and more) -…etc…. < Absolute difference

These categories describe the types of symmetry, antisymmetry and asymmetry. Abstract identity – the mirror symmetry, the Absolute difference – asymmetry. Meaning assigned – translational symmetry, the Opposite – the mirror antisymmetry, etc. That philosophy is connected with physics. For example. The right and left hand – Abstract identity – Mirror symmetry.
(Thomas M. Conley, Rhetoric in the European Tradition. Longman, 1990)

Dialectics In Daily Life


What the Heck is Dialectics?

Dialectics is a tool to understand the way things are and the way things change. Understanding dialectics is as easy as 1 – 2 – 3.

One–Every thing (every object and every process) is made of opposing forces/opposing sides.

Two–Gradual changes lead to turning points, where one opposite overcomes the other.

Three–Change moves in spirals, not circles.

These are the three laws of dialectics according to Frederick Engels, in his book Dialectics of Nature. Engels believed that dialectics was “A very simple process which is taking place everywhere and every day, which any child can understand”.

Here’s how it works –

1) Everything is made of opposites.

No object could hold together without an opposing force to keep it from flying apart. The earth tries to fly away from the sun, but gravity holds it in orbit. Electrons try to fly away from the nucleus of an atom, but electromagnetism holds the atom together. Ligaments and tendons provide the ties that hold bones together and muscles to bones.

Like material objects, the process of change needs opposing forces. Change needs a driving force to push it ahead, otherwise everything stays put. A billiard ball only moves when hit with a pool cue or another ball. We eat when our hunger tells us to. A car won’t move if it’s engine won’t start. To win in fair elections candidates need more votes than their opponents.

Engels, drawing from the philosopher, Hegel, called this law the “interpenetration of opposites”; Hegel often referred to the “unity of opposites.” This may sound contradictory, but it is easy to understand. It’s like the saying, “It takes two to tango.” There is no game if one side quits. There is no atom if the electrons fly away. The whole needs all of its parts to be a whole.

Here’s a challenge–Can you think of anything that isn’t made of opposites? Send your suggestions to   To read some challenges and responses click here.

2) Gradual changes lead to turning points.

The ABC’s of Change give 26 examples of this, one for each letter of the alphabet. What happens is that the two opposing forces in a process of change push against each other. As long as one side is stronger than the other side, change is gradual. But when the other side becomes stronger, there is a turning point–an avalanche, a birth, a collapse, a discovery, . . .

Physicist Michio Kaku gives a detailed example of this process in his book Hyperspace. He follows the turning points or stages in the heating of an ice cube. Click here to see how he describes it: The Dialectics of Water

Engels called this the law of the transformation of quantity into quality. Quantitative change is the gradual build-up of one opposing force. Qualitative change takes place when that opposite becomes dominant.

This law is powerful in describing the stages of development of anything. A person’s life follows these quantitative/qualitative changes. Likewise human history, or the history of a particular place, has gone through many stages. The tool of dialectics is so powerful that Michio Kaku describes the history of the universe for its first 10 billion years by a series of dialectical stages, using only 250 words. Click here for Kaku’s stages in the evolution of the universe:   The Dialectics of the Universe

Using the same approach it is possible to trace the history of the universe right up to the present by identifying the key turning points. Try it by clicking on The Top Ten Stories of All Time

3) Change moves in spirals, not circles.

Many changes are cyclical–first one side dominates, then the other–as in day/night, breathing in/breathing out, one opposite then another. Dialectics argues that these cycles do not come back exactly to where they started; they don’t make a perfect circle. Instead, change is evolutionary, moving in a spiral.

Maybe the changes are tiny, so we think nothing is really different–it’s true that we hardly change in a measurable way with every breath. But we can see that many cycles do come around to a different place –children are not the same as their parents, even if they are a lot alike. People go to school and learn; when they return home, they are no longer the same. And, like it or not, you are a bit older with every breath. For more examples, see Spirals A – Z or Popcorn, Earthquakes, and Other Changes.

Engels, again following Hegel, called this law “negation of negation”. This sounds complicated, but, as Engels said, it is going on all the time. What happens is that first one side overcomes its opposite–this is the first negation. This marks a turning point as in Engels’ 2nd law. Next, the new side is once again overcome by the first side. This is negation of negation.

Here are a couple more examples, one cosmic and two common:

The earliest stars were made of hydrogen and helium that were produced in the big bang. Those first generation stars fused these elements into heavier elements such as carbon, oxygen, and iron. When those stars died,(i.e.were negated) they pushed those elements into space. If the first generation star died in a supernova, even heavier elements such as silver and gold were hurled into space. When second or third generation stars form, like our sun, they have these heavier elements, thereby allowing planets and life to form. This evolution is negation of negation.

A normal conversation requires negation of negation to move ahead. First one person talks, then the other; the second negates the first. Pretty soon, however, the first person begins talking again. The conversation makes no sense if the first person simply repeats what they said the first time. Instead, the first person now has listened to the second person talk, so the negation of negation returns to a different place (hopefully one of more understanding.)

Unfortunately spirals can go down as well as up. For example, if a person is feeling depressed, they may take drugs or alcohol to feel better. This may negate their bad feelings for a while, but when the drug wears off, the person often feels worse than when they started.

Of course we want our spirals to go upward. When they do, we live healthier and happier lives, full of learning, growing, and reaching our full potential.


The ABCs of Change

Some things change slowly, like a mountain being washed to the sea. Other things change fast, like a light bulb going on. Whether fast or slow, every change comes to a turning point, where all at once, you have something new.

A – Snow builds up and up and up on a mountain . . . until there’s an

B – A baby grows inside its mother, day by day . . . until the day of

C – You pile up blocks, higher and higher . . . until they

D – A miner looks for gold for many days . . . until at last he makes a

E – Deep in the earth, pressure builds up for many years . . . suddenly there comes an
Click here for some animated drawings of earthquake faults (for older kids)
Then click on “Back” to come back to “Dialectics for Kids.”

F – Your baby tooth gets looser and looser. . . then one day, it
Falls out

G – On your marks, get set, . . .

H – Your hair gets longer and longer . . . until you decide to get a

I – You wait in line at the movies . . . until at last you get

J – You think someone is serious when they tell you a story . . . until you laugh when you find out it’s just a

K – The football teams line up, the whistle blows, the players run . . .
it’s the

L – Your shoes are tied in a knot. You work and work . . . until the knot is

M – Snow stays on the ground all winter . . . until a warm day comes along and it all

N – The sky turns rosy, the sun sinks in the west . . . then it sets, and it’s the start of
Click here for some neat sunset pictures

O – You’re warm and snug, and still a bit sleepy . . . but you know it’s time to get
Out of Bed

P – The kernels are getting hotter . . . until the popcorn

Q – You’re hot and dry, you get a drink . . . and you
Quench your thirst

R – The clouds turn dark, a cool wind stirs, . . . and it starts to

S – Traffic moves along the street . . . until the light turns red and the traffic

T – The cowgirl rides the wild horse . . . until at last it is

U – You study and think . . .until you finally

V – The mountain is quiet for many years . . . until it erupts as a
Volcano   Click here for a picture of a Volcano
(then click on “Back” to come back to Dialectics for Kids)

W – You sleep all night . . . until you

X – A fire burns . . . until it is

Y – You are getting sleepy. . . You try not to, but you have to

Z – Five – Four – Three – Two – One . . .
Zero. Blast off!


<b>Question: What Is Aporia?

As defined in our glossary, aporia is a figure of speech in which the speaker expresses real or simulated doubt or perplexity.

In classical rhetoric, aporia means placing a claim in doubt by developing arguments on both sides of an issue. In the terminology of deconstruction, aporia is a final impasse or paradox–the site at which the text most obviously undermines its own rhetorical structure, dismantles, or deconstructs itself.

Let’s look at three examples of aporia–from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Samuel Beckett’s novel The Unnamable, and our favorite animated father, Homer Simpson.

Hamlet’s Aporia – The most famous example of aporia in English literature is Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy in Shakespeare’s great tragedy. The opening question introduces the fundamental uncertainty that characterizes the passage as a whole:

To be, or not to be: that is the question.
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover’d country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.
(William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act III, scene 1)

Aporia in Beckett’s The Unnamable – A more contemporary author whose entire body of work is characterized by aporia is the 20th-century Irish playwright and novelist Samuel Beckett. Consider the opening paragraph of his novel The Unnamable (1959):

Where now? Who now? When now? Unquestioning. I, say I. Unbelieving. Questions, hypotheses, call them that. Keep going, going on, call that going, call that on. Can it be that one day, off it goes on, that one day I simply stayed in, in where, instead of going out, in the old way, out to spend day and night as far away as possible, it wasn’t far. Perhaps that is how it began. You think you are simply resting, the better to act when the time comes, or for no reason, and you soon find yourself powerless ever to do anything again. No matter how it happened. It, say it, not knowing what. Perhaps I simply assented at last to an old thing. But I did nothing. I seem to speak, it is not I, about me, it is not about me. These few general remarks to begin with. What am I to do, what shall I do, what should I do, in my situation, how proceed? By aporia pure and simple? Or by affirmations and negations invalidated as uttered, or sooner or later? Generally speaking. There must be other shifts. Otherwise it would be quite hopeless. But it is quite hopeless. I should mention before going any further, any further on, that I say aporia without knowing what it means.

Who and where is the narrator? Is he alive or dead? Such fundamental questions are never answered in Beckett’s challenging comic text. As David Lodge has written in The Art of Fiction (1993), “Aporia is a favorite trope of deconstructionist critics, because it epitomizes the way in which all texts undermine their own claims to a determinate meaning.”

Homer Simpson’s Aporia – Aporia is just one of the terms that might be used to describe Homer Simpson’s typically baffled state of mind. Here’s an example from around the Simpsons’ breakfast table:

Homer: Marge? Since I’m not talking to Lisa, would you please ask her to pass me the syrup?
Marge: Dear, please pass your father the syrup, Lisa.
Lisa: Bart, tell Dad I will only pass the syrup if it won’t be used on any meat product.
Bart: You dunkin’ your sausages in that syrup homeboy?
Homer: Marge, tell Bart I just want to drink a nice glass of syrup like I do every morning.
Marge: Tell him yourself, you’re ignoring Lisa, not Bart.
Homer: Bart, thank your mother for pointing that out.
Marge: Homer, you’re not not-talking to me and secondly I heard what you said.
Homer: Lisa, tell your mother to get off my case.
Bart: Uhhh, dad, Lisa’s the one you’re not talking to.
Homer: Bart, go to your room.

In classical rhetoric, aporia is usually a deliberate strategy that serves a useful purpose. In Plato’s dialogues, for instance, Socrates often uses ignorance or uncertainty as a mask. His expressions of doubt fool opponents into thinking, at least momentarily, that they have the upper-hand.

In Homer Simpson’s case, however, expressions of doubt or uncertainty usually reveal just one thing: Homer is genuinely perplexed.

Undergo praxis, understand the dialectics of the situation and the topics at hand – deliver aporia with relish to eliminate distractions and arrive at a resolution.


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