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Short description: Ancient Greek word for a type of wisdom or intelligence

Phronesis (Ancient Greek:), translated into English by terms such as prudence, practical virtue and practical wisdom, or, colloquially, sense (as in "good sense", "horse sense") is an ancient Greek word for a type of wisdom or intelligence relevant to practical action. It implies both good judgment and excellence of character and habits, and was a common topic of discussion in ancient Greek philosophy, in ways which are still influential today.

In Aristotelian ethics, for example in the Nicomachean Ethics, the concept is distinguished from other words for wisdom and intellectual virtues – such as episteme and techne – because of its practical character. The traditional Latin translation was prudentia, the source of the English word "prudence". Among other proposals, Thomas McEvilley has proposed that the best translation is "mindfulness".[1]

Ancient Greek philosophy


In some of Plato's dialogues, Socrates proposes that phronēsis is a necessary condition for all virtue.[2][3] Being good, is to be an intelligent or reasonable person with intelligent and reasonable thoughts. Phronēsis allows a person to have moral or ethical strength.[4]

In Plato's Meno, Socrates explains how phronēsis, a quality synonymous with moral understanding, is the most important attribute to learn, although it cannot be taught and is instead gained through the development of the understanding of one's own self.[5]


In the 6th book of his Nicomachean Ethics, Plato's student and friend Aristotle famously distinguished between two intellectual virtues: sophia (wisdom) and phronesis, and described the relationship between them and other intellectual virtues.[6] Sophia is a combination of nous, the ability to discern reality, and epistēmē, which is concerned with things which "could not be otherwise... e.g., the necessary truths of mathematics"[7] and is logically built up and teachable. This involves reasoning concerning universal truths. Phronesis involves not only the ability to decide how to achieve a certain end, but also the ability to reflect upon and determine good ends consistent with the aim of living well overall.[8]

Aristotle points out that although sophia is higher and more serious than phronesis, the highest pursuit of wisdom and happiness requires both, because phronesis facilitates sophia.[9] He also associates phronesis with political ability.[10]

According to Aristotle's theory of rhetoric, phronesis is one of the three types of appeal to character (ethos). The other two are respectively appeals to arete (virtue) and eunoia (goodwill).[11]

Gaining phronesis requires experience, according to Aristotle who wrote that:

...although the young may be experts in geometry and mathematics and similar branches of knowledge [sophoi], we do not consider that a young man can have Prudence [phronimos]. The reason is that Prudence [phronesis] includes a knowledge of particular facts, and this is derived from experience, which a young man does not possess; for experience is the fruit of years.[12]

Phronesis is concerned with particulars, because it is concerned with how to act in particular situations. One can learn the principles of action, but applying them in the real world, in situations one could not have foreseen, requires experience of the world. For example, if one knows that one should be honest, one might act in certain situations in ways that cause pain and offense; knowing how to apply honesty in balance with other considerations and in specific contexts requires experience.

Aristotle holds that having phronesis is both necessary and sufficient for being virtuous; because phronesis is practical, it is impossible to be both phronetic and akratic; i.e., prudent persons cannot act against their "better judgement".


Pyrrhonism denies that the existence and value of phronesis has been demonstrated. The Pyrrhonist philosopher Sextus Empiricus explained the problem of phronesis as follows:

Thus, insofar as it is up to his phronesis, the wise man does not acquire self-control, or if he does, he is the most unfortunate of all, so that the art of living has brought him no benefit but the greatest perturbation. And we have shown previously that the person who supposes that he possesses the art of living and that through it he can recognize which things are good by nature and which evil, is very much perturbed both when he has good things and when evil. It must be said, then, that if the existence of things good, bad, and indifferent is not agreed upon, and perhaps the art of life, too, is nonexistent, and that even if it should provisionally be granted to exist, it will provide no benefit to those possessing it, but on the contrary will cause them very great perturbations, the Dogmatists would seem to be idly pretentious in what is termed the "ethics" part of their so-called "philosophy".[13]

Modern philosophy


In light of his fundamental ontology, Martin Heidegger interprets Aristotle in such a way that phronesis (and practical philosophy as such) is the original form of knowledge and thus primary to sophia (and theoretical philosophy).[14]

Heidegger interprets the Nicomachean Ethics as an ontology of Human Existence. The practical philosophy of Aristotle is a guiding thread in his Analysis of Existence according to which "facticity" names our unique mode of being-in-the-world. Through his "existential analytic", Heidegger recognises that "Aristotelian phenomenology" suggests three fundamental movements of life including póiesis, práxis, theoría, and that these have three corresponding dispositions: téchne, phrónesis and sophía. Heidegger considers these as modalities of Being inherent in the structure of Dasein as being-in-the-world that is situated within the context of concern and care. According to Heidegger phronesis in Aristotle's work discloses the right and proper way to Dasein. Heidegger sees phronesis as a mode of comportment in and toward the world, a way of orienting oneself and thus of caring-seeing-knowing and enabling a particular way of being concerned.

While techne is a way of being concerned with things and principles of production and theoria a way of being concerned with eternal principles, phronesis is a way of being concerned with one's life (qua action) and with the lives of others and all particular circumstances as purview of praxis. Phronesis is a disposition or habit, which reveals the being of the action while deliberation is the mode of bringing about the disclosive appropriation of that action. In other words, deliberation is the way in which the phronetic nature of Dasein’s insight is made manifest.

Phronesis is a form of circumspection, connected to conscience and resoluteness respectively being-resolved in action of human existence (Dasein) as práxis. As such it discloses the concrete possibilities of being in a situation, as the starting point of meaningful action, processed with resolution, while facing the contingencies of life. However Heidegger's ontologisation has been criticised as closing práxis within a horizon of solipsistic decision that deforms its political sense that is its practico-political configuration (Volpi, 2007).[15]

In the social sciences

In After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre called for a phronetic social science. He points out that for every prediction made by a social scientific theory there are usually counter-examples. Hence the unpredictability of human beings and human life requires a focus on practical experiences.

The psychologist Heiner Rindermann uses in his book Cognitive Capitalism the term phronesis for describing a rational approach of thinking and action: "a circumspect and thoughtful way of life in a rational manner" (p. 188). Intelligence is supporting such a "burgher" lifestyle.[16]

See also


  1. Thomas McEvilley, The Shape of Ancient Thought, 2002, p. 609
  2. W. K. C. Guthrie – A History of Greek Philosophy: Volume 6, "Aristotle: An Encounter" (p. 348) Cambridge University Press, 1990 (reprint, revised) ISBN:0521387604 [Retrieved 2015-04-25]
  3. T Engberg-Pedersen – Aristotle's Theory of Moral Insight (p. 236) Oxford University Press, 1983 (reprint) ISBN:0198246676 [Retrieved 2015-04-25]
  4. CP. Long – The Ethics of Ontology: A Structural Critique of the Carter and Reagan Years (p. 123) SUNY Press, 2012 ISBN:0791484947 [Retrieved 2015-04-22]
  5. S Gallagher – Hermeneutics and Education (Self-understanding and phronēsis – pp. 197–199 SUNY Press, 1992 ISBN:0791411753 [Retrieved 2015-04-26]
  6. Nicomachean Ethics, Book 6
  7. Parry, Richard (2021), Zalta, Edward N., ed., Episteme and Techne (Winter 2021 ed.), Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University,, retrieved 2021-11-28 
  8. NE VI 1140a, 1141b, 1142b
  9. NE VI.5.1142
  10. NE VI.5.1140b
  11. Rhetoric 1378a
  12. Nicomachean Ethics 1142a, Rackham translation with Greek key terms inserted in square brackets.
  13. Outlines of Pyrrhonism, III, 31
  14. Günter Figal, Martin Heidegger zur Einführung, Hamburg 2003, p. 58.
  15. Franco Volpi (2007) 'In Whose Name?: Heidegger and "Practical Philosophy"', European Journal of Political Theory 6:1, 31–51.
  16. Rindermann, Heiner (2018). Cognitive Capitalism: Human Capital and the Wellbeing of Nations (1 ed.). Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/9781107279339. ISBN 978-1107279339. 

Sources and further reading

  • Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics trans. Terence Irwin (2nd edition; Hackett, 1999) ISBN:0872204642
  • Robert Bernasconi, “Heidegger’s Destruction of Phronesis,” Southern Journal of Philosophy 28 supp. (1989): 127–147.
  • Clifford Geertz, Empowering_Aristotle "Empowering Aristotle". Science, vol. 293, July 6, 2001, p. 53.
  • Martin Heidegger, Plato's Sophist (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997).
  • Gerard J. Hughes, Aristotle on Ethics (Routledge, 2001) ISBN:0415221870
  • Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (Duckworth, 1985) ISBN:0715616633
  • William McNeill, The Glance of the Eye: Heidegger, Aristotle, and the Ends of Theory (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999).
  • Ikujiro Nonaka, Managing Flow: A Process Theory of the Knowledge-Based Firm (Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2008).
  • Amélie Oksenberg Rorty [ed.], Essays on Aristotle's Ethics (University of California Press, 1980) ISBN:0520040414
  • Richard Sorabji, "Aristotle on the Role of Intellect in Virtue" (Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 74, 1973–1974; pp. 107–129. Reprinted in Rorty)
  • David Wiggins, "Deliberation and Practical Reason" (Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 76, 1975–1976; pp. 29–51. Reprinted in Rorty)
  • Roberto Andorno, "Do our moral judgements need to be guided by principles?" Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics 2012, 21(4):457–465.

External links