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What is it that we 'do', when we perform an action?

Author: Allan Parsons
Date: 28 November 2008-23 February 2009; amended 18 November 2011 and May 2013
Some threads of this essay are continued in: 

Conditional and environmental performativity: conditioning and environing: Link
  1. Vita Activa

In The Human Condition, as Bambach (1998) notes, Hannah Arendt identifies a fundamental opposition within the Western philosophical tradition between two ideals of human life:
  • vita activa (the active life); and
  • vita contemplativa (the contemplative life).
Within Western philosophy, Arendt argues, the latter is favoured, following the Socratic ideal of the bios theoretikos, reiterated in the Augustinian model of meditative stillness. Within this tradition, truth, having become essentialised (hypostatised), idealised and universalised, is accessible only through supernatural possession or meditative prayer, i.e. through revelation. As a result of this, within the tradition of Western philosophy it is assumed that truth can only be reached through a cessation of all worldly activity. 

Against this meditative withdrawal into worldless solitude, Arendt, taking her lead from Marx and Nietzsche, and deploying the Heideggerian techniques of retrieval (Wiederholung) and de-construction (Abbau), reverses the priority and asserts the value of human action and the active life, while displacing its sense. [1]

2. Praxis

Margaret Canovan (1983), in a discussion of the creative mis-reading of Hannah Arendt's work by Jurgen Habermas, brings to attention the latter's intellectual debt to the former, as noted by Habermas himself. Following a Heideggerian lead, it was Arendt, Habermas indicates, who revived the forgotten Aristotelian distinction between praxis and poiesis, a distinction which Habermas used in developing his concepts of communicative action and discourse [2]. She did so to refine her understanding of human action, in the context of her validation of the vita activa. 

The distinction enables a more adequate understanding of political action than would otherwise be possible. Most contemporary theories of action understand political practice in instrumental or tactical terms, i.e. in terms of poiesis or making, on the model of persons setting up goals and adjusting means to ends. Arendt, instead, highlights action as praxis, i.e. action or doing, a concept which articulates the historical experiences and normative perspectives of participatory democracy. 

Canovan outlines what Habermas considers to be the three particularly important features of Arendt's theory of action:

  • a stress on the plurality or diversity of individuals and their multiple perspectives and standpoints;
  • the symbolic, interactive nature of the web of human relationships and the role of communication in holding unique individuals together; and
  • the insistence that every individual holds the promise of a new beginning, that to act means to be able to seize an initiative and do the unanticipated.

In contrast to Habermas, Canovan points out, Arendt did not presume that we can settle practical political disputes by purely rational means. For Canovan, Habermas's reading of Arendt is excessively intellectualist, a move, it could be argued, back towards the vita contemplativa. Arendt's concern is with action, which is always a web of intersecting inter-actions, with no common goal or definite communication. Habermas misses the significance of Arendt's insistence that free individuals are inescapably plural. The implication that Arendt draws from this is that the public world and its institutions are  the only means of holding plural individuals together in freedom. Free people do not share common convictions or have a common will.

Canovan argues that Habermas's creative misreading of Arendt shows that distorted communication arises not only from domination or repression, ideology and neurosis but also out of something that even the most utopian radical would not wish away: human creativity, human ingenuity or human originality, the human capacity to innovate.

Human creativity, as much as the other reasons given by Habermas, frustrates the Habermasian ideal of "discourse", i.e. non-manipulative, fully transparent exchanges concerned purely and simply with establishing the truth in matters of principle. Thinking persons, as Habermas himself concurs, in contrast to the Kantian view, are not mere embodiments of the processes of logic. They are distinct individuals engaged in the lifelong business of trying to make sense of their experience. 

Thus, an ideal speech situation geared to rational consensus,  such as posited by Habermas, would not only have to exclude domination and repression but also creativity. The work of Arendt, through the distinction between poiesis (making) and praxis (doing), enables a view of political action that does not preclude creativity while seeking to avert domination and repression.

3. Political action

Arendt's conception of politics as basically performative is, as Melany (2006) points out, based on a qualitative distinction between purposive action (praxis) and productive activity (poiesis) that is fundamentally Aristotelian in origin, but with a post-Kantian inflection. As Stewart and Zediker (2000) state, for Aristotle poiesis was a 'making action'. In more recent times, this concept has been discussed as purposive-rational action by Max Weber and is now what many call instrumental action. Praxis is also action directed toward the achievement of some end, but with praxis the end is not to produce a specific product but to realise some morally worthwhile good. For Aristotle and his contemporaries, praxis was not a neutral instrument or method but an inherent part of whatever is done. Crucially, praxis could not be understood as a form of technical expertise. This is because identification of the good, which constitutes the end of praxis, is inseparable from a discernment of its mode of expression. 

Moreover, Melaney continues, the Aristoteliam background to Arendt's conception of praxis is political and ethical at once. Productive activity differs from moral choice. Productive activity (poiesis) is structured in terms of an end that exceeds the means required to bring about a specific end. By contrast, moral activity demonstrates how that which may be done is an end in itself, because acting well is an end in itself, not a means for producing an object. As Stewart and Zediker paraphrase this, praxis intimately joins an abstract, theoretical good to concrete actions or practices that more or less effectively embody it. 

These differences mean that 
poiesis relies on a kind of knowledge that Aristotle termed techne, or expertise, while praxis relies on a kind of knowledge he termed phronesis, or practical wisdom. Techne, explain Stewart and Zediker (2000), following Aristotle, consists of instrumental moves that produce predictable results. These moves can be organised into a technology, i.e. a logos of techne. Phronesis, on the other hand, continually mediates between the abstract, theoretical universal and the practical and particular, between generalisations supported by cultural understandings and specific responses to the particularities of the issues or events at hand. Aristotle emphasises how practical wisdom (phronesis) is concerned with "the capacity for determining what is good  for both the individual and the community". (Melaney, 2006: 467)

Thus, while Arendt follows Aristotle in seeing politics as located in action, not contemplation, she differs from him in viewing it not as a form of poiesis, a craft, but as a form of praxis, a form of doing, not making. In this, Bambach suggests, she is following Heidegger and his exploration of the pre-Socratics, in order to break with the Socratic-Platonic-Aristotelian understanding of politics as poiesis, subject to the logos of techne (techne-logos or techno-logy). Through this manoeuvre, Arendt nominates action as the highest mode of human comportment, Bambach asserts, and finds its mode of articulation in politics. [3] Melaney (2006) concurs that Arendt was significantly influenced by Heidegger's commentaries on Aristotle, most directly by Heidegger's lectures on Plato's Sophist, which she attended at Marburg University in 1924-1925, in the context of which he offered a detailed analysis of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. For Melaney, Arendt's emphasis on the distinction between praxis and poiesis can be traced back to her initial response to these lectures. Aristotle's concept of cause underlies his insistence on the capacity of happiness (utility?) to order the political community in terms of an ultimate goal. Through this, Aristotle comes to define the public realm teleologically in a way that tends to reduce the significance of human action to an instrumentalist horizon. Arendt strongly resists this teleological conception of politics, enabling her to emphasise the performative aspect of political life, since the meaning of our ability to retain a commitment to the future is not reducible to naturalistic premises. 

It is this analysis, and this revaluation of action over contemplation and praxis over poiesis, that underlies Arendt's critique of the liberalism of a consumerist social ethic based on the production and consumption of commodities, i.e. domination by the 'free market', on the one hand, and of the totalitarianism of an instrumentalist bureaucracy, i.e. domination by the bureaucratic state, on the other hand, both of which view politics as poiesis, subject to techne, technical or techno-logical knowledge.

4. Conditionality, Contextuality and (Narrative) Environments

Arendt works to overcome the effacement of political and moral action and the vita activa in the Western philosophical tradition and the subsumption of the meaningfulness of praxis to the instrumentality of poiesis. Thus, for Arendt, as already noted, the public world and its institutions are the only means of holding plural individuals together in freedom. Free people, she suggests, do not share common convictions or have a common will. They negotiate their differences in a public domain, as a clash of wills, in order to create compromises, not create a single, common will. 

Crucial to developing Arendt's focus on action, negotiation and compromise is an understanding of the conditionality provided by 'the public world' and the forms of communicative praxis thereby enabled. Such conditions, as Arendt makes clear, are not just constraining but also enable human inventiveness. Such an understanding is crucial to the practice of designing narrative environments, a venture to which this note contributes, and which involves an understanding of design as 'action' (praxis), in addition to design as 'making' (poiesis). 

This understanding is central to Arendt's position in The Human Condition, in which she argues, 

"Men are conditioned beings because everything they come in contact with turns immediately into a condition of their existence. The world in which the vita activa spends itself consists of things produced by human  activities; but the things that owe their existence exclusively to men nevertheless constantly condition their human makers." (Arendt, 1958: 9)

A point which she immediately reiterates, 

"In addition to the conditions under which life is given to man on earth, and partly out of them, men constantly create their own, self-made conditions, which, their human origin and their variability notwithstanding, possess the same conditioning power as natural things. Whatever touches or enters into a sustained relationship with human life immediately assumes the character of a condition of human existence." (Arendt, 1958: 9)

In this way, Arendt clearly distinguishes her notion of the human condition, human existence, from any idea of 'human nature'. For her, "the sum total of human activities and capabilities which correspond to the human condition does not constitute anything like human nature". (Arendt, 1958: 9)

To develop this understanding of conditionality, of contextuality or environmental-ism, or intercorporeal interaction in the form of acting/networking, it is important to (re-)turn to the debate on the performative, i.e. actions as performances that are formative, in terms of agency, relationships and environments, environments which are themselves presences/histories, presences/memories, processes of tracing back and forth. The degree of stability, persistence and durability, indeed sustainability or sustainment, that such agency, relationships and environments possess depends both on the character of the performative action and the persistence of the medium in which it inscribed or embodied.


1. Arendt's contention is that, 

"...the enormous weight of contemplation in the traditional hierarchy has blurred the distinctions and articulations within the vita activa itself and that, appearances notwithstanding, this condition has not been changed essentially by the modern break with the tradition and the eventual reversal of its hierarchical order in Marx and Nietzsche."  (Arendt, 1958: 17). This "turning upside down" of philosophic systems leaves the conceptual framework more or less intact, Arendt argues, following Heidegger. 

Walsh (1963) summarises the Platonic rationale for the contemplative life in the following terms:

"Plato...argued that the philosopher should spurn bodily pleasures and cultivate his soul, regarding earthly life as nothing more than a preparation for death. His assumption here was that any man would want what was to his ultimate benefit, and his conclusion turned on his apparently factual contentions that the essence of man is not body but soul, and that the soul is immortal." (Walsh, 1963: 196)

Nietzsche sees the denial of this world, of the active life, for the benefit of another, better world, this deferral and endless deferring, as nihilistic. For this reason, Nietzsche sees Christianity as a nihilistic religion, as he  argues in The Anti-Christ. "In that way, such phenomena as desire, embodiment, and even life itself, will be conceived of as a nothing in the eyes of the Christian church." (Sigurdson, 2008: 25)

Gardiner (1999) points to a moment in European history when such a distinction, between the embodies, mortal and earthly and the disembodied, abstract and etheral, was further confirmed for the modern mind, on top of a philosophico-religious history. He writes: 

"As Toulmin asserts in his book Cosmopolis, the brief flourishing and great promise of Renaissance humanism, exemplified by the writings of Rabelais, Montaigne, and Erasmus, was effectively squandered when seventeenth-century thinkers like Descartes and Leibniz came to dominate European intellectual life. Whereas the former emphasized the sensual, local, oral and particularistic aspects of human life and language, the latter transferred cosmology and philosophy to a 'higher, stratospheric plane, on which nature and ethics had to conform to abstract, timeless, general and universal theories'"

2. Thus, according to Habermas, for example in "Technology and Science as "Ideology"" (Habermas, 1971), as noted by Landman (1984), it is necessary to make a distinction between work and interaction or communicative behaviour. The domain of work is that of instrumental, goal-oriented reason, i.e. poiesis. This type of reason deals with the choice of strategies and use of techniques in fixed situations and given situations. It does not reflect on the context of interests in society as a whole. In the domain of interaction, i.e. praxis, reason seeks an understanding of the suitability and desirability of the intersubjective norms. Under work, rationalisation means increase of skills and productive forces, the extension of disposable power. Under interaction, rationalisation means the progress of emancipation, the liberation of humanity, individualisation, domination-free communication and the abolition of repressiveness and rigidity. The intention of rationalisation under interaction is not a better functioning of the industrial economy but what Plato and Aristotle called the good life, of living well, and with it a change in the institutional framework. Given this, technical progress has a potential for liberation only when it is embedded with such a change in institutional framework. (Landman, 1984).

3. For Arendt, in the modern age, i.e. the European project of technical-instrumental activity pursued from the 17th century onwards, there are three types of the vita activa: labour (activity tied to the biological necessity of survival); work (human activity that involves the making, producing and instrumental fabrication of poiesis, including works of art and, by extension, design in its many forms); and action (an activity that has no end outside of itself and is a genuine form of praxis), where, as has been noted, Arendt locates politics.

Keywords: Praxis; Poiesis; Action; Making; Purposive-rational action; Instrumental action; Doing; Good; Moral Good; Political good; Knowledge; Techne; Phronesis; Vita Activa; Vita Contemplativa; Liberalism; Totalitarianism; Labour; Work; Body; Soul

Key theorists: Arendt, Hannah; Habermas, Jurgen; Aristotle; Heidegger, Martin; Nietzsche, Friedrich; Marx, Karl; Augustine; Rabelais, Francois; Montaigne, Michel de; Erasmus, Desiderius


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