09 December 2014

Practical wisdom and why we need to value it

by David Blockley, directly quoted from Oxford University Press blog

“Some people who do not possess theoretical knowledge 
are more effective in action (especially if they are experienced) than others who do possess it.”

Aristotle was referring, in his Nicomachean Ethics, to an attribute called practical wisdom – a quality that many modern engineers have – but our western intellectual tradition has completely lost sight of. I will describe briefly what Aristotle wrote about practical wisdom, argue for its recognition and celebration and state that we need consciously to utilise it as we face up to the uncertainties inherent in the engineering challenges of climate change.

Necessarily what follows is a simplified account of complex and profound ideas. Aristotle saw five ways of arriving at the truth – he called them art (ars, techne), science (episteme), intuition (nous), wisdom (sophia), and practical wisdom – sometimes translated as prudence (phronesis). Ars or techne (from which we get the words art and technical, technique and technology) was concerned with production but not action. Art had a productive state, truly reasoned, with an end (i.e. a product) other than itself (e.g. a building). It was not just a set of activities and skills of craftsman but included the arts of the mind and what we would now call the fine arts. The Greeks did not distinguish the fine arts as the work of an inspired individual – that came only after the Renaissance. So techne as the modern idea of mere technique or rule-following was only one part of what Aristotle was referring to.
Episteme (from which we get the word epistemology or knowledge) was of necessity and eternal; it is knowledge that cannot come into being or cease to be; it is demonstrable and teachable and depends on first principles. Later, when combined with Christianity, episteme as eternal, universal, context-free knowledge has profoundly influenced western thought and is at the heart of debates between science and religion. Intuition or nous was a state of mind that apprehends these first principles and we could think of it as our modern notion of intelligence or intellect. Wisdom or sophia was the most finished form of knowledge – a combination of nous and episteme.

Aristotle thought there were two kinds of virtues, the intellectual and the moral. Practical wisdom or phronesis was an intellectual virtue of perceiving and understanding in effective ways and acting benevolently and beneficently. It was not an art and necessarily involved ethics, not static but always changing, individual but also social and cultural. As an illustration of the quotation at the head of this article, Aristotle even referred to people who thought Anaxagoras and Thales were examples of men with exceptional, marvelous, profound but useless knowledge because their search was not for human goods...

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