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Phronesis (Greek: φρόνησις) in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics is the virtue of moral thought, usually translated "practical wisdom", sometimes as "prudence".

Aristotle distinguishes between two intellectual virtues: sophia and phronesis. Sophia (usually translated "wisdom") is the ability to think well about the nature of the world, and is used in our attempts to discover why the world is the way it is (this is sometimes equated with science); sophia involves deliberation concerning universal truths. Phronesis is the ability to think about how and why we should act in order to change things, and especially to change our lives for the better. Aristotle says that phronesis isn't simply a skill, however, as it involves not only the ability to decide how to achieve a certain end, but also the ability to reflect upon and determine that end (this is, however, denied by some commentators, who argue that Aristotle considers the desired end (eudaimonia) to be given, so that phronesis is simply the ability to achieve that end).

Gaining phronesis requires time, as one must gain both the habit and understanding of correct deliberation:

“ Whereas young people become accomplished in geometry and mathematics, and wise within these limits, prudent young people do not seem to be found. The reason is that prudence is concerned with particulars as well as universals, and particulars become known from experience, but a young person lacks experience, since some length of time is needed to produce it (Nichomachean Ethics 1142 a). ”

Phronesis is concerned with particulars, because it is concerned with how to act in particular situations. One can learn the principles of action, but applying them in the real world, in situations which one could not have foreseen, requires experience of the world. For example, if one knows that one should be honest, one might act in certain situations in ways that cause pain and offence; knowing how to apply honesty in balance with other considerations and in specific contexts requires experience.

Aristotle holds that having phronesis is both necessary and sufficient for being virtuous; because phronesis is practical, it is impossible to be both phronimos and akratic.

Aristotle's importance to mediæval European thought led phronesis to be included as one of the four cardinal virtues.

Bent Flyvbjerg, in his book Making Social Science Matter, has argued that instead of trying to emulate the natural sciences, the social sciences should be practiced as phronesis. Phronetic social science [1] focuses on four value-rational questions: (1) Where are we going? (2) Who gains and who loses, by which mechanisms of power? (3) Is this development desirable? (4) What should we do about it?

In After Virtue Alasdair MacIntyre makes a similar call for a phronetic social science, combined with weighty criticism of attempts by social scientists to emulate natural science. He points out that for every prediction made by a social scientific theory there are usually counter-examples. These derive from the unpredictability of human beings, and the fact that one unpredictable human being can have a world-changing impact. Following Pascal, he points out that the shape of Cleopatra's nose changed the course of history, for if her profile had not been classically beautiful it is unlikely that Mark Anthony would have pursued her, with significant consequences for Roman political history.


Sources and further reading

  • Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, dual text, with translation by H. Rackham (Harvard University Press, 1934) ISBN 0-674-99081-1 [2]
  • Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics trans. Terence Irwin (2nd edition; Hackett, 1999) ISBN 0-87220-464-2
  • Robert Bernasconi, “Heidegger’s Destruction of Phronesis,” Southern Journal of Philosophy 28 supp. (1989): 127–47.
  • Bent Flyvbjerg, Making Social Science Matter: Why Social Inquiry Fails and How It Can Succeed Again (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001) [3]
  • Clifford Geertz, "Empowering Aristotle." Science, vol. 293, July 6, 2001, p. 53. [4]
  • Martin Heidegger, Plato's Sophist (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997).
  • Gerard J. Hughes, Aristotle on Ethics (Routledge, 2001) ISBN 0-415-22187-0
  • Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (Duckworth, 1985)ISBN 0-7156-1663-3
  • William McNeill, The Glance of the Eye: Heidegger, Aristotle, and the Ends of Theory (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999).
  • Amélie Oksenberg Rorty [ed.], Esays on Aristotle's Ethics (University of California Press, 1980) ISBN 0-520-04041-4
  • Richard Sorabji, "Aristotle on the Role of Intellect in Virtue" (Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 74, 1973–1974; pp 107–129. Reprinted in Rorty)
  • David Wiggins, "Deliberation and Practical Reason" (Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 76, 1975–1976; pp 29–51. Reprinted in Rorty)

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