Phronesis (Ancient Greek: φρόνησις, phronēsis) 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.
“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." Aristotle
Phronesis refers to an individual’s capacity to discern what is worth doing together with the ability to get it done, a “reasoned and true state of capacity to act with regard to human good”. Practical wisdom differs from theoretical wisdom (scientia) by a conclusion in human action. Whereas theoretical wisdom is often abstracted from action, practical wisdom is the kind of knowledge and capacity that guides action. Phronesis is an umbrella cognitive capacity that coordinates judgment, understanding, and insight to result in effective action. A capacity acquired through experience, phronesis helps practitioners to ask penetrating questions, provide insight into the implications of actions and events and to advise appropriate courses of action. Phronesis involes the ability to understand how complex and messy situations hang together, and to discern the affordances whereby appropriate actions might be founded.
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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. Phronesis, 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 experience, according to Aristotle who wrote that:
...although the young may be experts in geometry and mathematics and similar branches of knowledge [sophoi], we do not consider that a young man can have Prudence [phronimos]. The reason is that Prudence [phronesis] includes a knowledge of particular facts, and this is derived from experience, which a young man does not a possess; for experience is the fruit of years.
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."
Phronesis in the Social Sciences
Phronetic social science is an approach to the study of social – including political and economic – phenomena based on a contemporary interpretation of the Aristotelian concept phronesis, variously translated as practical judgment, common sense, or prudence. Phronesis is the intellectual virtue used to deliberate about which social actions are good or bad for humans. Phronetic social scientists study social phenomena with a focus on values and power. Researchers ask and answer the following four value-rational questions for specific instances of social action:
1. Where are we going? 2. Is this development desirable? 3. Who gains and who loses, and by which mechanisms of power? 4. What, if anything, should we do about it?
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 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 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.
- Nicomachean Ethics 1142a, Rackham translation with Greek key terms inserted in square brackets.
Flyvbjerg, Bent. "Phronetic Organizational Research." ProQuest Social Science Journals. ProQuest, 1 Jan. 2008. Web.
Burns, Harold. Making Social Science Matter: Why Social Inquiry Fails and How It Can Succeed Again. Oxford, UK: Cambridge UP, 2001. Print.
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)
- The dictionary definition of phronesis at Wiktionary