Chapter 2 of Nicolini (2012) provides a quick tour through a few thousand years of philosophy to highlight the deep roots of practice theory.

When describing the types of activity of the human mind Aristotle added to Plato’s episteme (scientific knowledge) two more categories: phronesis (practical wisdom) and techne (art or skill). Phronesis in particular was a non-inferential, non-deductive and highly improvisational form of knowledge. Nicolini draws on the work of Nussbaum (1986) in his reading of Aristotle. He reminds us that Greek society at the time was highly segmented by slavery, and that it was a luxury of the ruling class to be able to dedicate one’s life to learning (episteme). Those that mastered practice, the artisans, were second class citizens at best. So there was a hierarchy to episteme, phronesis and techne.

In the centuries following Aristotle this aspect to his work was all but lost until Marx and Nietzsche rediscovered it, and turned the hierarchy on its head, with practice becoming the fundamental principle. Marx’s focus on human activity, can be found in his discussion of praxis which eventually becomes production in his later writing. Production is a word that he used to cover all human material practices. Marx’s philosophy hinged on the importance of putting ideas into practice in the world, as Nicolini says:

[Marx] makes clear the aim of science is not that of producing theoretical knowledge but more of obtaining practical mastery of the world in order to satisfy the practical needs of mankind.

I can’t help but be reminded of the American Pragmatism here too (Pierce, James and Dewey) and was a bit surprised that Nicolini doesn’t mention them at all. Shrug. At any rate, it’s clear that Nicolini sees Marx as opening up a new space for thought, a space that Nietzsche and Heidegger would later fill. Quite a bit of the chapter is also devoted to Heidgegger’s idea of Dasein or being in the world, which quite a few later practice theorists draw on. Heidegger positions everyday practices prior to representation – echoing Marx’s inversion of knowledge and practice. Heidegger introduces the idea of breakdown, which makes everyday practices visible. Breakdown is an idea that gets used a great deal in infrastructure studies. To understand it Nicolini borrows Heidegger’s thought experiment of hammering a nail:

The hammer belongs to the environment and can be unthinkingly used by the carpenter. The carpenter does not need to ‘think a hammer’ in order to drive in a nail. His or her capacity to act depends upon the familiarity with the act of hammering. His/her use of the practical item‘hammer’is its significance to him/her in the setting ‘hammering’ and ‘carpentry’ … The hammer as such acquires a separate ‘existence’ only when it breaks or is lost:> that is, when its unreflective use becomes problematic. (Nicolini, p. 34)

I first encountered Heidegger’s idea of breakdown a few years ago when I read Winograd & Flores (1986), which applied the idea to the context of computing and design. Since then it’s popped up in the context of infrastructure studies as well as work centered on repair. It might be useful to return to learn more about the origins in Heidegger’s work, perhaps through Dreyfus (1991) who Nicolini references quite a bit.

The chapter ends with a discussion of Wittgenstein and practice theory. I’ve encountered Wittgenstein’s work back when I was looking for to understand the semantic web agenda back when I was working at the Library of Congress a few years ago. His earlier and later career make for such a fascinating embodiment of the problems of philosophy particular where sense making and mathematics intersect Halpin (2011). So it was fun to find another parallel between practice theory and my own interests.

Nicolini references Shotter (1996) when drawing attention to three ways in which Wittgenstein’s work informs practice theory:

  • meaning is found outside in social practices, not in internal contemplation
  • the function of following rules (or not following rules) as practices that can only be understood through hints, tips and examples.
  • practices provide a criteria of truth, and understanding is demonstrated by being extrapolate rules/practices further–how to go on

Wittgenstein’s ideas of forms of life is also influential Johannessen (1988), because it brings attention to specific ways of acting, and day-to-day performances. It is through the study of these that rules or practices can be observed.


Dreyfus, H. L. (1991). Being-in-the-world: A commentary on Heidegger’s Being and Time, Division I. MIT Press.

Halpin, H. (2011). Sense and reference on the web. Minds and Machines, 21(2), 153–178. Retrieved from

Johannessen, K. S. (1988). The concept of practice in Wittgenstein’s later philosophy. Inquiry, 31(3), 357–369.

Nicolini, D. (2012). Practice theory, work, and organization: An introduction. Oxford University Press.

Nussbaum, M. (1986). The fragility of goodness: Luck and ethics in Greek tragedy and philosophy. Cambridge University Press.

Shotter, J. (1996). Problems of theoretical psychology. In C. W. Tolman, F. Cherry, R. van Hezewijk, & I. Lubek (Eds.), Problems of theoretical psychology (pp. 3–12). Captus Press.

Winograd, T., & Flores, F. (1986). Understanding computers and cognition: A new foundation for design. Intellect Books.