Practical Wisdom

Practical “wisdom”, as I would use the term, would be an excellence in practical judgment. Aristotle says that practical judgment is neither knowledge nor opinion, but something grounded in deliberation that has an outcome in action. Such deliberation is a kind of doing that uses the the best resources available to it to determine the best action in concrete circumstances. Aristotle uses the Greek phronesis for both practical judgment and what I am distinguishing as practical wisdom.

Joe Sachs says in his glossary to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics that phronesis is “The active condition by which someone discerns the right means to the right end in particular circumstances. Hence the intellectual virtue of practical judgment and the whole of virtue of character are mutually dependent and must develop together, since the right end is apparent only to someone of good character, while the formation of good character requires the repeated choice of the right action, which is impossible without practical judgment” (p. 209).

We might notice that this sort of pattern of mutual dependence between good judgment and good character is exactly the same as that of several mutual dependencies that are emphasized by Hegel in his discussions of what intelligibility in general requires. Of course this is no accident; Aristotle is Hegel’s inspiration for this kind of idea.

“Apart from virtue of character, the capacity to reason from ends to means is mere cleverness; practical judgment involves skill in making distinctions and seeing connections, but if one does not recognize that such thinking imposes upon oneself an obligation to act, that skill is merely astuteness” (ibid).

“The translation ‘practical judgment’ is chosen here as the best way of conveying Aristotle’s central understanding that ethical choices can never be deductions from any rules, principles, or general duties, but always require a weighing of particular circumstances and balancing of conflicting principles in a direct recognition of the mean” (p. 210).

Phronesis is a weighing, and not a deduction. This is extremely important, though I would use some other words than “direct recognition” in regard to the mean.

Aristotle is not qualifying a more general, pre-existing notion of “judgment” by calling it “practical”. We should not take literally this implication of the grammar of the English phrase “practical judgment”, which diverges from the Greek, in which phronesis is a single noun. As far as I can tell, phronesis just is Aristotle’s notion of what I have been calling “judgment”. Sachs also calls it “practical”, using the ethical connotations of that word from Kant. That is consonant with Aristotle’s meaning, though not literally present in the Greek.

I am fascinated by the possibility of a mutual inter-articulation of Aristotelian phronesis and the “reflective judgment” extensively dwelt upon by Kant and Hegel. It seems to me that the kind of weighing Aristotle emphasizes is inherently reflective in Kant and Hegel’s sense. (See also Reflective Grounding; Life: A Necessary Concept?; Reflection and Higher-Order Things; Reflection and Dialectic; Hegel on Reflection; Apperceptive Judgment.)

“Practical judgment is acquired primarily by experience of particulars, but also involves a knowledge of things that are universal” (p. 209).

This last qualification is important. Phronesis is directed at particulars first, but Aristotle never considers particulars in complete abstraction from applicable universals. The emphasis on particulars tells us that practical judgment will require open-ended interpretation, not a mechanical application of rules. But the reflective “knowledge of things that are universal” that contributes to practical wisdom includes not just classifications, but potentially, for example, all the lessons of Hegel’s Logic about interpretation and intelligibility in general, as well as any Kantian ethical universals that may be applicable.

(Most of the Logic’s development is an articulation of higher-order concepts, but the final stage of “the idea” explicitly involves a return to the concrete world, in which reflective judgment weighs particulars and higher-order concepts together. I want to suggest that this is Hegel’s own development of genuinely Aristotelian practical judgment. Properly understood, Hegel’s “absolute knowing” is nothing more than a making explicit of general conditions for practical “wisdom” in the sense above, fully compatible with the free play of Aristotelian phronesis in relation to particulars.)