The Gap Between Theory and Practice

Reflecting on recent columns about love, the issue of the gap between theory and practice has resurfaced. It is one thing to write or theorize about love, but quite another to practice loving. One may theorize about being moderate, courageous, just or healthy, but that is different from practicing these virtues. Similarly, one may have theoretical knowledge as to why one shouldn’t smoke cigarettes or get more exercise, but putting this theory into practice is something else indeed.

The Greek word “praxis” refers to freely engaged-in activity by which a theory, lesson or skill is practiced, embodied or realized. Aristotle held that there were 3 basic human activities: 1) theoretical, whose goal is knowing the truth; 2) productive, whose goal is making the beautiful; and 3) practical, whose goal is doing the good. Theoretical thinking pursues knowledge for its own sake; productive activity refers to humans as artisans, making clothes, homes, art, music, books and the like; practical activity concerns humans as moral and social beings trying to do the right thing and be just.

As we saw in a previous post, Aristotle thought that the idea of moral habits or virtues bridged he gap between, for instance, theoretical knowledge of love and loving action. If I know that I should be patient or loving with my spouse but have difficulty being patient or loving, Aristotle says I should practice patience or love until I they become habits. If I practice waiting patiently, as well as expressing the care, concern, and understanding characteristic of love, those actions will become second nature. 

While this is insightful, I have always thought there was a problem in his analysis. For in the same way there is a gap between knowledge and practice, there is also a gap between knowing I should have good habits and actually having those habits! Even if I know I need to practice patience or love that doesn’t guarantee I will practice them. The only answer here seems to invoke will. We just keep trying to be patient or loving and, after years of long and arduous toil, we might begin to transform ourselves.

So again we end without easy answers, but with Spinoza:

 If the way which, as I have shown, leads hither seem very difficult, it can nevertheless be found. It must indeed be difficult, since it is so seldom discovered, for if salvation lay ready to hand and could be discovered without great labour, how could it be possible that it should be neglected almost by everybody ? But all noble things are as difficult as they are rare.

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