Phronesis or Pragmatic Wisdom

An important component to Aristotle’s virtue ethics is the concept of Phrönesis. In book VI of the Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle’s presents two concepts of wisdom, sophia and phronesis. Sophia is generally translated as wisdom or knowledge and is typically meant to encapsulate the data produced by mathematical and scientific inquiry; whereas, phrönesis is imbued with the further distinction namely the ability to judge between competing choices. It requires, according to Aristotle, a degree of life experience or maturity to correctly judge. He says,
“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.” (Nichomachean Ethics 1142a)

This has led most commentators to define phrönesis as a kind of prudence. I would suggest that since Aristotle considers it a species of wisdom that the better translation is “pragmatic wisdom.” I have in mind the kind of wisdom that comes with a life long lived or at least one where one has managed to get the most out of one’s life. To this end, my choice is echoed by Thoreau when he defines a philosopher along eminently practical lines in the chapter on economy on Walden where he says,
“To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust.” (Walden)
The question in becomes how one can profitably gain the kind of pragmatic wisdom from one’s experiences that leads to the development of one’s character and that will, in turn, allow you to judge correctly.

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