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Phronesis, also written as Fronesis or Phronēsis (Ancient Greek: φρόνησις) is a Greek word for a type of wisdom or intelligence, which is a common topic of discussion in philosophy. In Aristotelian Ethics, for example in the Nicomachean Ethics, it is distinguished from other words for wisdom and intellectual virtues – such as episteme and techne – as the virtue of practical thought. For this reason, when it is not simply translated by words meaning wisdom or intelligence, it is often translated as "practical wisdom", and sometimes (more traditionally) as "prudence", from Latin prudentia.
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.
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."
In light of his fundamental ontology, Martin Heidegger interprets Aristotle in such a way that phronesis (and practical philosophy as such) is the original form of knowledge and thus primary to sophia (and theoretical philosophy). Heidegger interprets the Nicomachean Ethics as an ontology of Human Existence. The practical philosophy of Aristotle is a guiding thread in his Analysis of Existence according to which facticity names our unique mode of being in the world. Through his ‘existential analytic’, Heidegger recognises that ‘Aristotelian phenomenology’ suggests three fundamental movements of life including póiesis, práxis, theoría and that these have three corresponding dispositions: téchne, phrónesis and sophía. Heidegger considers these as modalities of Being inherent in the structure of ‘Dasein’ as being-in-the-world that is situated within the context of concern and care. According to Heidegger phronesis in Aristotle’s work discloses the right and proper way to be Dasein. Heidegger sees phronesis as a mode of comportment in and toward the world, a way of orienting oneself and thus of caring-seeing-knowing and enabling a particular way of being concerned. While techne is a way of being concerned with things and principles of production and theoria a way of being concerned with eternal principles, phronesis is a way of being concerned with one’s life (qua action) and with the lives of others and all particular circumstances as purview of praxis. Phronesis is a disposition or habit, which reveals the being of the action while deliberation is the mode of bringing about the disclosive appropriation of that action. In other words, deliberation is the way in which the phronetic nature of Dasein’s insight is made manifest. Phronesis is a form of circumspection, connected to conscience and resolutness respectively being-resolved in action of human existence (Dasein) as práxis. As such it discloses the concrete possibilities of being in a situation, as the starting point of meaningful action, processed with resolution, while facing the contingencies of life. However Heidegger’s ontologisation has been criticised as closing práxis within a horizon of solipsistic decision that deforms its political sense that is its practico-political configuration (Volpi, 2007). 
In After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre makes a similar call[clarification needed] for a phronetic social science, combined with 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. Hence the unpredictability of human beings and human life requires a focus on practical experiences.
Bent Flyvbjerg also called for the development of Phronesis in the social sciences in response to the science wars which arose following the publication of Alan Sokal's hoax article in Social Text.
- Günter Figal, Martin Heidegger zur Einführung, Hamburg 2003, p. 58.
- Franco Volpi (2007) 'In Whose Name?: Heidegger and "Practical Philosophy"', European Journal of Political Theory 6:1, 31-51,
- Flyvbjerg, Bent (2002). Making Social Science Matter. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 3. ISBN 0521 772 680.
Sources and further reading
- 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.
- Clifford Geertz, "Empowering Aristotle." Science, vol. 293, July 6, 2001, p. 53. 
- 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).
- Ikujiro Nonaka, Managing Flow: A Process Theory of the Knowledge-Based Firm (Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2008).
- Amélie Oksenberg Rorty [ed.], Essays 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)