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Phronesis (Ancient Greek: φρόνησῐς, romanizedphrónēsis) is a type of wisdom or intelligence relevant to practical action. It implies both good judgment and excellence of character and habits, and was a common topic of discussion in ancient Greek philosophy. Classical works about this topic are still influential today. In Aristotelian ethics, the concept was distinguished from other words for wisdom and intellectual virtues—such as episteme and sophia—because of its practical character. The traditional Latin translation is prudentia, which is the source of the English word "prudence".

Ancient Greek philosophy[edit]

Aristotle and Plato[edit]

In some of Plato's dialogues, Socrates proposes that phronēsis is a necessary condition for all virtue.[1] Being good is to be an intelligent or reasonable person with intelligent and reasonable thoughts. Having phronēsis allows a person to have moral or ethical strength.[2]

In Plato's Meno, Socrates explains how phronēsis, a quality synonymous with moral understanding, is the most important attribute to learn, although it cannot be taught and is instead gained through the development of the understanding of one's own self.[3]


In the sixth book of his Nicomachean Ethics, Plato's student Aristotle distinguished between two intellectual virtues: sophia (wisdom) and phronesis, and described the relationship between them and other intellectual virtues.[4]: VI Sophia is a combination of nous, the ability to discern reality, and epistēmē, which is concerned with things which "could not be otherwise... e.g., the necessary truths of mathematics"[5] and is logically built up and teachable. This[ambiguous] involves reasoning concerning universal truths. 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.[4]: VI 1140a, 1141b, 1142b

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.[4]: VI.8 1142 He also associates phronesis with political ability.[4]: VI.5 1140b

According to Aristotle's theory of 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).[6]

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 possess; for experience is the fruit of years.[7]

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, in certain situations one might act in ways that cause pain and offense; knowing how to apply honesty in balance with other considerations and in specific contexts requires experience.[citation needed]

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".

Modern philosophy[edit]


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 prior to sophia (and theoretical philosophy).[8]

Heidegger interprets the Nicomachean Ethics as an ontology of human existence. The practical philosophy of Aristotle is a guiding thread in his Being and Time according to which "facticity" names our unique mode of being-in-the-world. Through his "existential analytic", Heidegger says "Aristotelian phenomenology" suggests three fundamental movements of life[clarification needed]póiesis, práxis, and 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[ambiguous] is situated within the context of concern and care. According to Heidegger phronesis in Aristotle's work discloses the right and proper way to 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[clarification needed]. Phronesis is a disposition or habit, which reveals the being of the action[clarification needed] while deliberation is the mode of bringing about the disclosive appropriation[jargon] of that action. In other words, deliberation is the way in which the phronetic nature of Dasein’s insight[clarification needed] is made manifest.

Phronesis is a form of circumspection, connected to conscience and resoluteness respectively being-resolved in action[clarification needed] 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.

Heidegger's ontologisation has been criticised as closing práxis within a horizon of solipsistic decision[clarification needed] that deforms its political sense that is its practico-political configuration[clarification needed].[9]

Other uses in psychology[edit]

Phronesis according to Kristjansson, Fowers, Darnell, and Pollard is about making decisions in regards to moral events or circumstances.[10] There is recent[anachronism] work to bring back the virtue of practical judgement to overcome disagreements and conflicts in the form of Aristotle’s phronesis.[needs copy edit][11]

In Aristotle’s work, phronesis is the intellectual virtue that helps turn one’s moral instincts into practical action[4] by inculcating the practical know-how to translate virtue in thought into concrete successful action and this will produce phronimos by being able to weigh up the most integral parts of various virtues and competing goals in moral situations.[needs copy edit][12] Moral virtues help any person to achieve the end, phronesis, is what it takes to figure out the right means to gain that end.[needs copy edit][4] Without moral virtues, phronesis degenerates into a inability to make practical actions in regards to ends that are genuine goods for man[13] and without phronesis we may be lost in regards to exercising decisive judgment on any moral matter. The concept of phronesis includes the telos that is the "well-being for all in society."[14]

The common wisdom model was developed by Grossmann, Weststrate, Ardelt, et al.[15] as explaining the foundation for making moral functioning to occur and by strategy for fitting it to the context of the situation at hand, using major scholars research on the idea that wisdom is best described as morally-grounded excellence in social-cognitive processing, by empirical wisdom scientists.[needs copy edit] Moral grounding is what the researchers found that the following is the moral basis:[needs copy edit] "balance of self-interests and other interests, pursuit of truth (as opposed to dishonesty), and orientation toward shared humanity". And secondly it[ambiguous] means excellence in social cognitive processing: "context adaptability (e.g. practical or pragmatic reasoning, optimization of behavior towards achieving certain outcomes), perspectivism (e.g. considering diverse perspectives, foresight and long-term thinking), dialectical and reflective thinking (e.g. balancing and integrating points of view, entertaining opposites), and epistemic modesty (e.g. unbiased/accurate thinking, looking through illusions, understanding your own limitations)."

In the social sciences[edit]

In After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre called for a phronetic social 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.

In his book Cognitive Capitalism, The psychologist Heiner Rindermann uses the term phronesis to describe a rational approach of thinking and acting: "a circumspect and thoughtful way of life in a rational manner".[16] Intelligence supports such a "burgher" lifestyle.[further explanation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^
    • Guthrie, W. K. C. (1990). A History of Greek Philosophy. Vol. 6: Aristotle, an Encounter (revised ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 348. ISBN 0521387604.
    • Engberg-Pedersen, Troels (1983) [1983]. Aristotle's Theory of Moral Insight. Oxford University Press. p. 236. ISBN 0198246676.
  2. ^ Long, Christopher P. (2004). The Ethics of Ontology: Rethinking an Aristotelian Legacy. State University of New York Press. p. 123). ISBN 079146119X.
  3. ^ Gallagher, Shaun (1992). "Self-understanding and phronēsis". Hermeneutics and Education. State University of New York Press. pp. 197–199. ISBN 0791411753.
  4. ^ a b c d e f Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics.
  5. ^ Parry, Richard (2021), "Episteme and Techne", in Zalta, Edward N. (ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2021 ed.), Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, retrieved 2021-11-28
  6. ^ Aristotle. Rhetoric. 1378a.
  7. ^ Aristotle. The Nicomachean Ethics. The Loeb Classical Library. Translated by Rackham, H. VI.8¶5 1142.
  8. ^ Figal, Günter (2003). Martin Heidegger zur Einführung (in German). Hamburg. p. 58.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  9. ^ Volpi, Franco (2007). "In Whose Name?: Heidegger and 'Practical Philosophy'". European Journal of Political Theory. 6 (1): 31–51. doi:10.1177/1474885107070828. S2CID 144896866.
  10. ^ Kristjánsso, Kristján; Fowers, Blaine; Darnell, Catherine; Pollard, David (2021). "Phronesis (Practical Wisdom) as a Type of Contextual Integrative Thinking". Review of General Psychology. 25 (3): 239–257. doi:10.1177/10892680211023063. S2CID 237456851.
  11. ^ Beresford, E.B. (1996). "Can phronesis save the life of medical ethics?". Theoretical Medicine. 17 (3): 209–24. doi:10.1007/BF00489446. PMID 8952418. S2CID 39100551. Retrieved 5 October 2022.
  12. ^ Kristjansson, Kristján (2015). "Phronesis as an ideal in professional medical ethics: some preliminary positionings and problematics". Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics. 36 (5): 299–320. doi:10.1007/s11017-015-9338-4. PMID 26387119. S2CID 254786871. Retrieved 5 October 2022.
  13. ^ MacIntyre, Alasdair (1981). After Virtue (2nd revised ed.). US: Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press. p. 154. ISBN 978-0268006112.
  14. ^ Conroy, Mervyn; Malik, Aisha Y.; Hale, Catherine; Weir, Catherine; Brockie, Alan; Turner, Chris (2021). "Using practical wisdom to facilitate ethical decision-making: a major empirical study of phronesis in the decision narratives of doctors". BMC Medical Ethics. 22 (16): 16. doi:10.1186/s12910-021-00581-y. PMC 7890840. PMID 33602193.
  15. ^ Grossmann, Igor; Weststrate, Nic M.; Ardelt, Monika; Brienza, Justin; Dong, Mengxi; Ferrari, Michel; Fournier, Marc A.; Hu, Chao S.; Nusbaum, Howard; Vervaeke, John (2020). "The Science of Wisdom in a Polarized World: Knowns and Unknowns". Psychological Inquiry. 31 (2): 64. doi:10.1080/1047840X.2020.1750917. S2CID 221055201. Retrieved 28 October 2022.
  16. ^ Rindermann, Heiner (2018). Cognitive Capitalism: Human Capital and the Wellbeing of Nations (1st ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 188. doi:10.1017/9781107279339. ISBN 978-1107279339.

Sources and further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

  • The dictionary definition of phronesis at Wiktionary