Thursday, May 2, 2013

Phronesis - Wisdom


In Book 6 of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle distinguishes between two intellectual virtues which are sometimes translated as "wisdom": sophia and phronesis. Sophia (sometimes translated as "theoretical wisdom") is a combination of nous, the ability to discern reality, and epistēmē, a type of knowledge which is logically built up, and teachable, and which is sometimes equated with science. Sophia, in other words, involves reasoning concerning universal truths. Phronesis also combines a capability of rational thinking, with a type of knowledge. On the one hand it requires the capability to rationally consider actions which can deliver desired effects. Aristotle says that phronesis is not simply a skill (technē), 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 good ends consistent with the aim of living well overall. Aristotle points out that although sophia is higher and more serious than phronesis, the highest pursuit of wisdom and happiness requires both, because phronesis facilitates sophia. He also associates phronesis with political ability.


According to Aristotle' theory on rhetoric phronesis is one of the three types of appeal to character (ethos). The other two are respectively appeals to arete (virtue) and eunoia (goodwill).
Gaining phronesis requires maturation, in Aristotle's thought:
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 (Nicomachean 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 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 offense; 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 phronetic and akratic; i.e., prudent persons cannot act against their "better judgement."

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