In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is. – Yogi Berra
I learned a new word today – praxis.
It has a long history – back to Aristotle, it seems.
Aristotle said the work we do results in theory, produces something or is practical.
The reason they are different has to do with the why question – why do we do each type of work?
What’s the purpose behind each one?
If you study maths, say something like number theory, you do it for the sake of the knowledge itself.
For example, the mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan once explained that the number 1,729 was a very interesting one.
It’s the smallest number you can get to by adding two cubes in two different ways.
Now – you’d want to know that really only for the sake of knowing it.
Although, number theory turned out to have quite a few applications later on – at the time mathematicians like Ramanujan were interested in it really because it was interesting to them – and that was all there was to it.
They’re the folk, I suppose, that contemplate on top of a mountain, and think their way to truth.
At the foothills, you find another sort of folk – productive ones.
People who work close to the earth – making things.
They use techniques – methods that result in something predictable.
Like pots, or washing machines or asphalt.
But then there’s another sort of person – the type Aristotle calls practical, which sounds quite similar to productive but is not the same thing.
The productive person knows what the end goal is.
The practical person doesn’t.
Instead, they face situations – situations where there is no clear answer, no one true way.
They have to use judgement and thought and feel and the kinds of things that aren’t easily expressed clearly as a theory or as a technique.
One way to think of it is as an oscillation, or more visually, a route march from theory to practice and back again.
For example, you might start a new job in a fast growing company.
Experience the joys and stresses of the early days.
And the predictability, higher income and maddening bureaucracy in later years.
All these are experiences that you get while doing productive work.
But do you know why you feel good or bad?
Why you like your job or hate it?
There are simplistic explanations – like most poople leave bosses, not jobs.
And that what’s going on is institutional discrimination.
But then if you get a chance to actually study the theory – you might be introduced to the concept of modern and post-modern organisations – and that gives you a way to understand your experience and perhaps look at it differently.
Something new happens when you use theory to understand what you’ve experienced.
Or when you try and apply theory to improve the situation you are in.
And in turn, use the experience you get by applying theory to look back and improve the theory itself.
That kind of activity is praxis – the journey between theory and practice – the mixing of the two until there is no start or end, just the journey.
And if you want to make a real difference – especially when it comes to important situations – for you personally or for society as a whole – praxis is the way to go.
There’s a reason why theory for theory’s sake is confined in ivory towers.
And a reason why just focusing on the bottom line or the method or the engineering is not enough to solve complex societal issues.
What we need is practical action informed by theory.