Aristotle’s phronesis misunderstood

aristotle

When educationalists use the theory of phronesis to argue that teachers should determine educational purpose, they misrepresent Aristotle.

My investigation into educational purpose has so far focused on the mistaken assumptions of many progressive educationalists, starting from the position of Professor Gert Biesta at the recent Commons Education Select Committee conference. I cannot complete this first part without addressing the theory of phronesis, which has been widely used, by Professor Biesta among others, to argue that teachers should be left to determine the purposes of their own teaching. In this post, I explain why the modern version of the theory misrepresents Aristotle.

Aristotle’s theory of phronesis (or “practical wisdom”) has become a popular way of explaining why we should trust to the wisdom of teachers to determine not only the means of education but also its ends. This view has been expressed by Frank Furedi, by Dylan Wiliam (at 27:40) and by Gert Biesta (p.36). A concise summary of the theory is given by Dylan Wiliam in his inaugural professorial lecture (hardcopy, p.14 or softcopy, p.11).

Most researchers have misunderstood the nature of expertise in teaching. Aristotle identified three main intellectual virtues – he called them episteme, techne, and phronesis. Episteme was the knowledge of universal truths… Techne was the ability to make things….  But what Aristotle regarded as the highest intellectual virtue was what he called phronesis… translated as… “practical wisdom”. The example of phronesis that Aristotle gave was the leadership of the state.  The point he was making was that you should always have some principles underlying what you do but you must always temper those principles in the light of context, so there cannot be a set of unyielding, forever true, rules for the leadership of the state.

According to Wiliam, phronesis counted as the “highest intellectual virtue” because it was able to apply abstract principle to the infinitely variable context of the classroom, which teachers only came to understand through their own experience and the development of their own tacit judgement. In this post, I will explain why this account is based on a misunderstanding of Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics (NE).

First, it is not true that Aristotle identifies phronesis as the highest intellectual virtue, stating it to be inferior to philosophical wisdom or sophia (NE, VI, 12):

it would be thought strange if practical wisdom, being inferior to philosophic wisdom, is to be put in authority over it

… and also to be dependent on the subject’s virtue (arête), which may be acquired by training as well as by sophia (NE, VI, 12)…

for virtue makes us aim at the right mark, and practical wisdom makes us take the right means… [so] it is impossible to be practically wise without being good.

Second, while it is true that Aristotle says that phronesis requires an ability to apply abstract ethical principles to a variable world, it is not true that this distinguishes phronesis from techne. The latter applies scientific and mathematical knowledge (episteme) to particular contexts in exactly the same way that phronesis applies ethical knowledge (sophia). Having learned the general scientific principles that are relevant to bridge-building, a civil engineer must be able to assess all the relevant geological, meteorological, capacity and planning characteristics of a project, before those abstract principles can be applied to a particular context.

What distinguishes phronesis from techne is not the greater variability of the circumstances in which knowledge is applied but the nature of the knowledge itself. Techne is about the application of scientific and logical knowledge (episteme) while phronesis is about the application of ethical knowledge (sophia). Dylan Wiliam, who urges the need for (28:30)…

phronetic researchers [who] focus on values… [who] are not going to focus on the right answer but where we are going, is it desirable, what should be done

… is right that phronesis is about values but wrong to assume that it is about determining what our values should be. Nor is it clear how “phronetic researchers” are going to help, given that research is about the collection of objective, empirical evidence and the modern advocates of phronesis believe that values are a matter of subjective opinion.

This is a third sense in which the modern interpretation of phronesis misrepresents Aristotle and the ancient Greeks. For Aristotle’s tutor, Plato, an understanding of “the good” was the most fundamental knowledge to which the philosopher could aspire, being attained by a sort of direct intellectual perception, analogous to gazing at the sun (The Republic, Book VII). For the Greeks, ultimate reality was not to be found in the material world, which is forever changing and decaying, but in abstract ethical principles.

Our perception of this reality is what Aristotle termed nous (a word we use differently, to refer to basic common sense). We acquire our knowledge of reality by direct acquaintance and acquaintance, unlike scientific knowledge, is not transferable. I might persuade you of the truth of a proposition like “2 + 2 = 4” but I cannot transfer to you my acquaintance with John, if I know him and you do not. Philosophical wisdom (sophia) is ultimately dependent on our tacit acquaintance with reality (nous) as well as our more easily demonstrable descriptions of scientific and logical truth (episteme).

Because our ethical knowledge is tacit and not demonstrable, our actions do not provide us corrective feedback. If a civil engineer misunderstands the abstract principles of bridge-building, his bridges will tend to fall down; but a bank-robber will not discover his ethical mistake by robbing banks.

The difference in the relationships between episteme and teche (science and technology) on the one hand, and nous, sophia and phronesis (acquaintance with reality leading to theoretical and applied ethics) on the other, is illustrated below. Both require the application of singular abstract principles to multiple contexts. To do this, both require knowledge of the world. The difference is that the relationship between science and technology is “cybernetic” (it closes the feedback loop and allows the practitioner to learn from his or her mistakes) while the practice of ethics depends on setting out from the correct assumptions in the first place.

phronesis

This is why Aristotle talks of techne addressing subordinate or intermediate purposes. The cybernetic feedback loop that is characteristic of all technological processes depends on the existence of a clearly defined objective. The fact that this objective is often set by someone else means that people do not themselves need phronesis in order to act well: they just need to follow instructions (NE, VI, 12):

it will make no difference whether they have practical wisdom themselves or obey others who have it, and it would be enough for us to do what we do in the case of health; though we wish to become healthy, yet we do not learn the art of medicine.

As ethical expertise is not acquired through normal experience, it will be more rare than technical expertise. It therefore makes sense that the seat of ethical expertise should be more centralised. Aristotle identifies phronesis as the particular virtue of the statesman for the same reason that his tutor, Plato, argues for a state led by the philosopher king. It is not, as Dylan Wiliam supposes, because the statesman has to manage more variability than the engineer, but because the statesman is responsible for setting the ultimate ethical purpose for what everybody else is doing.

Aristotle’s understanding of phronesis is in many respects the exact opposite of the theory that is presented by Professors Wiliam, Furedi and Biesta. Instead of arguing that responsibility for the determination of purpose should be left to everybody whose work might have ultimate ethical consequences or who may have different experiences of the world, Aristotle argues that practitioners are held to account for the technical, instrumental quality of their work through interlinked chains of ends and means. The saddle-maker is responsible to the cavalryman, the cavalryman to the military general and the general to the statesman. Expertise that is directed towards intermediate objectives is demonstrable and transferable, not tacit and private (as a recent article in the Economist magazine says, “teaching can be taught”). Part of what teachers need to be taught is how abstract principles apply in different contexts. It is not necessarily the role of the teacher to determine even the intermediate objectives toward which their work is directed. Even less is it their role to decide the ultimate ethical principles, which are principally for the statesman to decide.

None of this means that we have to apply to our modern education system the politics of the ancient Greek city state. In future posts, I will investigate whether, to what extent and how this, the true Aristotelian account of practical wisdom, should be applied to modern education. Before that, it will be useful to understand how and why the bogus theory of phronesis, that has achieved such currency with modern educationalists, first arose. That will be the subject of my next post.

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