Phrónēsis (φρόνησις), often translated as “practical wisdom” or sometimes “prudence”, is a kind of knowledge or intelligence that guides choice and real-world action, as opposed to abstract knowledge or knowledge about things. To have phrónēsis is to know how to apply the virtues you possess correctly and appropriately to the specific circumstances you encounter. It helps you choose the actions that best meet your goals, and also helps you choose your goals well.
Francesco Piccolomini (according to Alasdair MacIntyre, Ethics and Politics, 2006) considered phrónēsis “the virtue that enables us to make use of theoretical knowledge of the human good to pass judgment on whatever inclinations we may have in particular situations. It is this ability to apply theory to practice that enables us to answer the question: would it tend towards the achievement of the human good to act on this desire here and now?” MacIntyre himself summarized the virtue this way: “Phrónēsis is the virtue of those who know how to do what is good, indeed what is best, in particular situations and who are disposed by their character traits to do it.”
William Wollaston (The Religion of Nature Delineated, 1722) wrote: “Prudence, the queen of virtues, is nothing but choosing (after things have been duly weighed), and using the most reasonable means to obtain, some end that is reasonable. This is therefore directly the exercise of reason.”
Phrónēsis does not imply that the actor necessarily goes through a conscious process of selecting the ideal end, deliberating over possible means to that end, and then choosing the most promising from them. In the virtuous person, this is usually more of a subconscious process: more like perception than deliberation. However, having chosen an action, that action can then be analyzed theoretically using this framework. An action is a sort of assertion that such-and-such an end is desirable, and such-and-such an act is the best available way of pursuing that end (see Wollaston again, on actions being varieties of truth-statements).
Practical wisdom comes under different headings, depending on the sphere in which it is exercised. For example:
|domestic management||home economics|
|legislation||the universal principles of politics|
|deliberative or judicial government||executive government; the carrying out in particular cases of the universals enacted by legislation|
- Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (some notes on his discussion of phrónēsis)
- conative intelligence