Phronesis as Practical Wisdom
Phronesis is a moral and intellectual virtue rooted in a natural and human capacity “to do the right thing in the right place, at the right time in the right way” (qtd. in Carr 39). In general, “The Greek word translated as ‘prudence’ or ‘practical wisdom’ is phronesis, which conveys a general sense of knowing the proper behavior in all situations” (SparkNotes).
Phronesis is an intellectual virtue rather than a moral virtue because we learn it through instruction and not practice, but it is very closely connected to the moral virtues. Without phronesis, it would be impossible to practice the moral virtues properly. A person who has all the right moral virtues knows what ends to pursue, but without phronesis, that person will not know how to set about pursuing the right ends.
According to Aristotle, “having one’s heart in the right place is not good enough: being a good person requires a kind of practical intelligence as well as a good disposition” (SparkNotes). For Aristotle, “Practical wisdom is a true characteristic that is bound up with action, accompanied by reason, and concerned with things good and bad for a human being” (MCKAY). Thus, it is agreeable.
Moreover, phronesis is not a virtue acquired through an education or books, it is more of a virtue that is learned and built from social interaction and real life experiences. Phronesis is something like common sense, but it is really more than that. What phronesis means is practical wisdom….
“There are many things you can do to develop your own practical wisdom, such as learning critical thinking skills, refining your goals and core values, expanding your intellect, and always being sure to understand the circumstances of a situation as much as possible before making a decision. But the real key is experience.” (MCKAY)
Thus, phronesis is the ability to both figures out what to do in any given moment while also knowing what is worth doing. So the idea is that it’s a practical wisdom – that you are wise about your intentions, wise about your ends, and at the same time you have a very clear understanding of the means that you need to actually get there. Thus, it is only possible through practice and on the basis of practical experience.
However, “according to Socrates and his student, Plato, achieving sophia gave a man a general understanding of the nature of virtue. And once a man reached an understanding of each of the virtues, he would naturally live them” (MCKAy). For example, if a man understood the true nature of justice, he would naturally be just. Thus, becoming a man of virtue was an exercise in abstract thought. But Aristotle believed that,
“An understanding of absolute truth was necessary in order to be practically wise. Absolute truths act as boundaries for us while we exercise practical wisdom. Understanding absolutes requires an informed intellect. We inform our intellect of these absolutes by contemplating the nature of every virtue and vice.” (MCKAy)
Indeed, phronesis is called the form of practical reasoning and the kind of morally informed human practice. For Aristotle, “the end of a practice is some ethically worthwhile good that is internal to, and inseparable from, the practice and only exists in the practice itself” (Carr, 39). Wisdom is a virtue that we are able to gain and increase throughout our lives through experience and time.
Phronesis is wisdom that somebody with no schooling can be adept at, it is the ability to make good judgments and decisions throughout life. When thinking of Phronesis, one of the better ways to understand it would be to think of it as the more rational side of our thoughts and personalities. As Aristotle puts it “it is concerned with human affairs” (Aristotle Phronesis).
According to Aristotle, “practical reasoning is not a methodological, rule-governed skill that can first be taught in theory and then applied in practice” (Carr, 39). It is acquired only through self-understanding and self-reasoning which comes by experience. It employs practical understanding of a thing or task of a person.
It is the wisdom to judge the good and evils and all the things in the life that are desirable and to be avoided, to behave rightly in society, to observe due occasion, to employ both speech and action with prudence, to have expert knowledge of all things that are useful. The virtue of practical thought, and is usually translated practical wisdom. Phronesis combines a capability of rational thinking, with a type of knowledge and requires the capability to rationally consider actions which can deliver desired effects.
Phronesis involves not only the ability to decide how to achieve a certain end, but also the ability to reflect upon and determine good ends consistent with the aim of living well overall. “But in fact this capacity [alone] is not practical wisdom, although practical wisdom does not exist without it” (Brumbaugh, 121). However, “Without virtue or excellence, this eye of the soul, [intelligence,] does not acquire the characteristic [of practical wisdom]: that is what we have just stated and it is obvious” (Brumbaugh, 121).
Hence, it is important to be virtuous in order to get practical wisdom or excellence. Just as virtue cannot be taught, so is the Phronesis because both are to be acquired rather than taught. It is not necessary to take guidance of knowledge to be good rather it is self-understanding which makes every individual virtuous. According to Socrates, “it is not true that human affairs are carried on rightly and well only through the guidance of knowledge.
That is perhaps why recognition of the way good men becomes good escapes us” (Plato, 25). Just because one is educated it is not necessarily that he/she can take right and proper decision. But being virtuous one can take instant decision in right time with right reason. “So right opinion is not worse or less beneficial than knowledge in respect to action; nor is the man who has right opinion inferior to the man knows” (Plato, 27).
Thus, phronesis is not intellectual value acquired by any training or formal education rather it is a moral and intellectual virtue rooted in a natural and human capacity. Phronesis is instinctual quality that every being have been carried since birth and which they perform in day-by-day actions. According to Aristotle, “practical wisdom is bound up with action” (MCKAY).
The exercise of practical wisdom comes from an individual’s freedom to deliberate the best course of action to take in a set of particular circumstances. As mentioned in the Plato’s dialogue that, “virtue comes to be present by divine apportionment in those to whom it comes” (28). Therefore, moral and intellectual virtue is something divine deep rooted innately which is neither knowledge nor wisdom but it is instinctual divine capacity “to do the right thing in the right place, at the right time in the right way” (Carr, 39).
Writer : Pradip Bhatta
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“Aristotle Phronesis” StudyMode.com. 06 2002. 07 Sec 2013. <http://www.studymode.com/essays/Aristotle-Phronesis-42920.html>
Brumbaugh, Robert S. ” Afterword” in Philosophy of Education: The Essential Texts, Ed Steven M. Cahn New York: Routledge, 2009
Carr Wilfred: “What is the philosophy of Education?” The Routledge Falmer Reader in the Philosophy of Education, Oxon: Routledge, 2005
MCKAY KATE& BRETT. “Practical Wisdom: The Master Virtue”. 19 Dec 2011. artofmanliness.com. 7 Sec 2013. <http://www.artofmanliness.com/2011/12/19/practical-wisdom.html>
Plato: “Meno” in Philosophy of Education: The Essential Texts, Ed Steven M. Cahn New York: Routledge, 2009
SparkNotes. “NICOMACHEAN ETHICS”. sparknotes.com. 07 Sec 2013.< http://www.sparknotes.com/philosophy/ethics/section6.rhtml>