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Praxis and poiesis
Aristotle's praxis/ poiesis does not mark a single, fixed distinction. The terms bear different senses in different works. But a quite important distinction is one Aristotle draws between praxis (action) in ethics and poiesis (production) in the crafts.
In Aristotle's 'virtue ethics', actions are intentional and voluntary broadly speaking and a morally good action is an intentional, voluntary action done for its own sake and not with a view to a further end. So, for example, a morally good action would be one in which I returned a $50 bill to you simply because you had dropped it and were entitled to be re-possessed of your property: and not because you are good-looking and I reckon my chances for a date. The morally good action is done for its own sake and not for some end separate from it.
Poiesis, now, is different : the activity of practising a craft is an example of poeisis. Intentional, voluntary actions are involved but also, crucially, so is an end-product. In poeisis I am not doing an action or series of actions for its own sake; I aim to produce something - a pot, a vase, a box, a statue - as the end-product. These are quite separate from the actions that produced it.
(T. Irwin, Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics, 2nd ed, Hackett, 1999: 315 (sense (3) of 'praxis'; and 344 ('produce, production, do, poeisis'.
Problems with the distinction
JL Ackrill is useful on this point. Consider the following:
(a) Aristotle holds that when we choose to do something we always
choose with a view to some end, for the sake of something; but he
also insists that a man who does a virtuous act is not doing it virtuously - is not displaying virtue - unless he has chosen it 'for itself'.
(b) Actions are done for the sake of other things, and things we can do
are not themselves the ends with a view to which we do them; yet
action (praxis) differs from production (poiesis), according to Aristotle,
precisely because it is its own end.
(c) In recommending the theoretical life Aristotle says that whereas
contemplation 'aims at no end beyond itself' fine actions do 'aim at
some end and are not desirable for their own sake'; but in recom-
mending the life of action he says that doing noble and good deeds
is a thing desirable for its own sake, and that 'those activities are
desirable in themselves from which nothing is sought beyond the
Passages like these suggest two problems. First, how can action be good
in itself if it is valued as a means to eudaimonia? Secondly, how can an
action be something done to bring about an outcome and yet be distinguished from a production because done for its own sake? The first
problem invites discussion of Aristotle's view of morality and its foundation: is it valuable in itself or only because it promotes something else?
The second-with which the present note is concerned-calls for an
examination of Aristotle's concept of an action, and of his distinction
between praxis and poiesis.
Commentators discussing this distinction often fail to face the real
difficulty, that actions often or always are productions and productions
often or always are actions. (The idea that some periods of the day are
occupied by action-episodes and others by production-episodes would
obviously be absurd even if 'production' referred only to the exercise
of special techniques or skills, since a period of such exercise could
certainly be a period during which an action, of promise-keeping for
example, was being performed. In fact however Aristotle's notion of
production is not limited either to technical performances or to the
making of material objects.) The brave man's action is fighting uphill
to relieve the garrison, and the just man is paying off his debt by mending
his neighbour's fence. How then is one to understand the thesis that
paying off a debt is an action but mending a fence is a production? (JL Ackrill, 'Aristotle on Action', Mind, New Series, Vol. 87, No. 348 (Oct., 1978), pp. 595-601: 595-6.)
The response to Ackrill is by no means straightforward but this extract may give you an idea of the difficulties which beset Aristotle and his distinctions.