Friday, June 8, 2012

The Garden of Praxis: a children's story to explain sociological theory

The following was developed for an honours theory paper.  It is a children's story about praxis.  The italicised sections of text are told in more of a fairy tale narrative using the first names of the philosopher characters: Georges Hegel, Karl Marx and Paulo Freire.  The non-italicised text uses their last names and gives more description.

The Story of Praxis

This is the story of Praxis, a mythology of sorts, stemming from the human tradition of fairy tales and Pakiwaitara observable all over the world in every corner of history.  It is an example of the praxis of story telling, and a reminder that this is all we ever do as we weave the fragile webs of academia. 

“The Garden of Praxis”

In the city of logic, in the land of modernism, everything was black and white lived a man named Georg.  Georg was bored of the city and its limits, he longed for something different, something bigger and more wonderful. 

Praxis grew out of an age of modernism, where logic was the primary dogma.  It all started with Hegel, for it was his idea of synthesis, of incorporating frameworks rather than excluding those that aren't 'right', that made it possible for Praxis to exist at all.  Or we could go back further and claim that for ideas to be synthesized they must have been separated in the first place, and we could accredit this to Descartes work, a century or two before, because he is well known for severing the body from the mind.  Or we could go back further to the Greeks or to the pre-literate societies we know so little about, because as Hegel himself points out, we are repeating this cycle throughout history.  But for now we will begin with Hegel, the mender of the schism was mended by Hegel, a pioneer of holism and the open mind.


One day a beautiful thing fluttered past.  It was a bright colour Georg had never seen before.  He told the people of the town, but they didn't believe him. “There is only black and white.” They said
Georg went to school and studied all the knowledge he could find.  All the modern books were black and white, but some of the oldest, dustiest books seemed to be different, they spoke of colours and plants and creatures, their pictures were strange and beautiful,  and there was a chance, Georg imagined, that they might once have been colourful. But there was nothing quite like the beautiful thing in the bright new colour he had seen flutter past.

So he went exploring. Outside the city limits he found a whole new world with a bright blue sky, filled with creatures and plants Georg had never seen before and each one seemed to have more amazing colours than the last.

Hegel, as a child in the 1700s was curious about the world, he wanted to understand it, not just in the objective way that scientists do.  He wanted to understand how his internal experiences related to what was happening in the world around him.  He read books and poetry, he studied the ancient philosophers and the contemporary, he watched the French revolution unfold and the siege of Napoleon and he sought to understand the intricate patterns of humanity, of mind and nature, the subject and object, of psychology, the state, history, art, religion, and philosophy. 


Georg went back to the city.  He tried to tell the people about the amazing world, but they did not believe him. “There is only black and white” They said.  “If there was colour, then our city could not possibly exist.”  That did not make sense to Georg.  He knew that it was possible for black and white and colour to exist all at the same time.  So he went back outside the city limits and he asked the creatures there.  The creatures said nothing, so Georg watched and observed.  He saw how the rain seemed to make the plants glow, he saw how the smaller plants must grow into large trees, he saw the seedlings and he thought “If I could bring this into the city, then they would understand.”

So Georg went about collecting the seeds of all of the magnificent plants, the trees and flowers and the sweet fruits.  He gathered them together and brought them back to the city of Logic.  He found some bare ground that no one was using and he dug it up, mixing the black and white, turning it to grey.  He planted the seeds in the ground and watered them, like the rain.  And he waited.
The people stood around and they said “This will not work.”

Georg waited and waited, white the people called him names, convinced that he was a fool.  They forgot about Georg and his astounding ideas that must be crazy and they went back to their lives and their jobs, meanwhile Georg waited, and waited and waited.  Nothing happened.  He went back to the amazing world outside the city and he watched and observed more.  He saw how the leaves would fall from the plants and turn brown on the ground, he wondered if this ground was different to the ground in the city because of the leaves falling for so long.  He put mounds of leaves into a bag and brought them back to the city of Logic.  He sprinkled them onto the earth he had dug up and he watered them again.  The earth turned brown and still he waited...
One morning Georg noticed he was not the only one watching and waiting, a group of children gathered round, they pointed at the ground and smiled, and talked to eachother in hushed voices.
Georg looked closely at the earth he had so lovingly prepared and saw, to his utter joy and amazement, a tiny shoot emerging from beneath the dirt and leaves in a bright, beautiful colour.
The people gathered round again.  Some still said he was crazy, some moved quickly along and went back to their jobs, some were interested and they stood with Georg and watched the miraculous garden grow.  Some people became angry and yelled at Georg, “it is all an illusion, an illusion.” they said “This is a waste of time, we all know what is really real and it is black and white.”
But Georg didn't listen to them.  He said “look, we have room enough in this city for the black and white and for the colours.  We don't just have to have one or the other.” And he watched and waited, as more and more shoots began to grow and more and more colours emerged.

Hegel became a professor at various universities and wrote books about his ideas.  Throughout his life he had witnessed much conflict between people, countries and ideas and he discovered a solution; very different ideas could be incorporated together in philosophy, contradictions could co-exist, and indeed, all sides of a story would be necessary for absolute knowledge to exist.


Many years later Karl came along and saw the beautiful garden that Georg had created.  It had grown wild and some people liked it, others said it was a mess and that the city should go back to being black and white. 
Karl sat in the garden and he thought and thought.  He thought about all the good work Georg had done in creating the garden and bringing colour and new life into the city of logic and he came up with a name for the garden.  “This is the garden of Praxis!” He said, “Because this garden was created through the great ideas of Georg, combined with his real work.” He thought of all the scholars sitting up in the black towers of logic, thinking all day and never doing anything.  “What use is that?” He wondered.  He thought of how the people in the city lived, spending all their time working hard and never being happy, and he had an idea “If we all grew these gardens, we would have enough sweet fruits for everyone to eat, the people wouldn't have to work all day, and they could be happy and enjoy their lives.

Karl tended the garden, and other people helped him.  Together they explored the world for new seeds so they could plant more seeds of sweet fruit trees and vegetables, in every colour and flavour imaginable into the garden.  They dug up more land and made the garden bigger. 
Along came Marx, a man from the upper classes who chose to spend his life campaigning for the working class.  Marx is well known for many things, particularly for the role of his ideas in the Russian revolution and other similar movements around the world.  It was he who re-created the concept of Praxis, originally a Greek word related to action.  Marx saw Hegel's Dialectic as revolutionary in it's ability to include many different perspectives previously ignored by people in power.  He borrowed Hegel's concept of integration and also Feuerbach's idea that the physical world and material satisfaction are important.

Marx was a very practical man, he is well known for saying “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways—the point however is to change it”. To Marx, theory and philosophy were useless if they did not seek to change the world, and action, without theory could be futile. To remedy this Marx constructed Praxis as the synthesis of theory and praxis.  Praxis was about taking philosophy out of it's lofty tower and putting thoughts to work in the real world in order to change the world.  Praxis was revolutionary.
When Karl was very old and tired, he handed the garden over to his friends and followers.  One of them was Paulo. 


Paulo liked what Karl had done with the garden, and he had been happy to help him, but he also had ideas of his own.  “We have been growing so many plants in this place.” He said to the other gardeners, “But not everyone in the city is able to eat them.  Why don't we teach the other people in the city to grow their own gardens, with the fruits that they will enjoy, then everyone can have enough delicious food to eat and enjoy their lives.”  “How will we do that?” asked the other gardeners, “What if they don't want to learn?”  Paulo thought about this for a while.  He saw a boy on the street and he asked him “Little boy, what is important to you?  The little boy said “I like to play sports with my dad.” Paulo nodded, “Does he play sports with you enough?” “No,” said the boy, frowning “He is always working so that he can feed our family.”  Paulo was very interested in this, he asked the boy “What if you and your father, and your whole family could grow your own food together, delicious food like the fruits in this garden, and then you would all have more time together and spare time to play sports.” The little boy looked at Paulo and smiled, then he ran off to find his father.

Paulo went back to the other gardeners.  “I have figured it out!” He said.  “This is the way we can teach people – we must find out what they really want to learn and why, and then we can help them to learn it.  This is the best way to teach because we can do it with love and humility, with respect and creativity, and through this we can help people to think for themselves, to choose their destiny and to grow their own food.  Together we can turn the whole city of Logic into a garden of Praxis!”
Freire drew on Marx's ideas.  He envisioned society as one liberated through education.  He didn't agree with the kind of education he saw in schools, where children were treated like knowledge banks, being deposited full of information.  He didn't see education as something that should be instructed or forced on people.  He believed in learning empowerment.  He thought that if people could learn about what they were passionate about they would learn much more quickly.  He thought critical consciousness was necessary in real learning and communication.  He wanted to help people in developing the ability to act  reflect on action and act in light of their reflection.  This is his action-reflection cycle.

Freire believed that through praxis human beings create and recreate society.  He thought that praxis required self determination, intentionality, creativity and rationality.   He developed a system for people to learn about the world through a process he called 'dialogue'.  He said   “Dialogue cannot exist, however in the absence of a profound love for the world and for men.  The naming of the world, which is an act of creation and re-creation, is not possible if it is not infused with love.  Love is at the same time the foundation of dialogue and dialogue itself. It is thus necessarily the task of responsible Subjects and cannot exist in a relation of domination. Domination reveals the pathology of love: sadism in the dominator and masochism in the dominated.”  Freire's ideas have been used, with great success in Cuba, with their literary campaign, and other places around the world.  Although they have amazing potential to educate people they have not gained much popularity in the Western world, probably because they create a gateway for people to become more political which is something governments would find difficult.

So what is praxis?

Praxis is the union of the mind and the body, of thoughts and actions, of theory and practice. 
Praxis is empowering and transformative.  It is the process through which philosophy can impact reality, to create positive change.

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