Phronesis and techne – technical philosophy

Phronesis and techne – technical philosophy

Practical wisdom (phronesis) involves Aristotle notes in moving between the particular and the general.

The mark of a prudent man [is] to be able to deliberate rightly about what
             is good and what is advantageous for himself; not in particular respects,
             e.g. what is good for health or physical strength, but what is conducive to
             the good life generally.[i]


There are several linked arguments for the separation of phronesis from techne, none of which hold:[ii]


  1. Phronesis  understands how means connect to ends which distinguishes it from technical understandings of reason and practice. Techne involves a simple relation between means and ends: ends are set in advance and reason is used in determining how to apply established means to achieve them.

Embodied skill does not work in this way


  1. Phronesis involves a less abstract conception of application than techne.

Gadamer argues that techne requires the application of knowledge to an object, i.e.  the person  is situated outside and is unaffected by the process of using their skills. The experienced cabinet-maker has thoroughly mastered a craft but such habitual embodied skill does not equate to wisdom.

In fact, techne involves the actor totally, embodied embrained skilled practice.


  1. Phronesis involves knowledge of particular situations and circumstances, whereas techne involves abstract, universal knowledge not determined by circumstance. Applying techne is juts applying the universal to particular, whereas with phronesis the application determines the meaning of both universal and particular.

Techne is sensitive to context; embodied practice is an ecological dynamic.


  1. Phronesis requires wisdom and insight, which can only be gained by experience, whereas techne involves knowledge, which can be taught and transferred simply from one actor to another.

Rather than a skill to be taught, it is an awareness, or consciousness, that needs to be cultivated. It is a process rather than a product. The good is manifest in everyday life in various degrees and in a myriad of ways; thus, everyday life cannot consist of a constant, immutable goodness. It is rather always in process, always moving toward the good, its never-quite-achieved telos. Techne presents an epistemic aspect, while phronesis presents an ontic aspect. Techne is not simply knowledge transfer, but to repeat embodied skilled practice.[iii]


Instrumental rationality is a problem, but that rationality and techne must be given their due as poetic. The problem comes in particular discourses and social formations, e.g. capitalism with its driving force no longer production as Marx thought, but consumerism. Such concerns have been expressed within different ethical, political, religious traditions.[iv] A practice of phronesis suggests a conception of community in which the question of the good, ‘How ought we to live?’ is never finally answered, and in which the common negotiation of this question itself helps to constitute the community.[v] Dewey encouraged the, ‘ethics of the open road’, openness to experience, which he sees as an inheritance from Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman. An openness, that Dewey argues, together with art, enriches life.[vi]

[i] Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics. Trans. J. A. K. Thomson, London: Penguin 1976: 209

[ii] These arguments are adapted from Michael McGee, ‘Phronesis in the Habermas vs. Gadamer Debate’, 1996, [DL 8.2.2000]

[iii] Pierre Bourdieu views practical reflection as habitus in friction with social practises. Pascalian Mediation, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000. See chapter ‘Knowledge in the Body’.

[iv] ‘All living workers who live with their hands truly and lawfully, to them our Lord Truth grants perpetual pardon, right as with Piers the Plowman.’ Piers Plowman, IX. 58-66

[v] This notion of substantive constitutive is one I use for language, tools and techne. From a fallabilist position there is no answer. These important questions which poetry is often attracted to, fate, justice, good, are transcendentals.

[vi] ‘Art throws off the covers that hide the expressiveness of experienced things, it quickens us from the slackness of routine and enables us to forget ourselves by finding ourselves in the delight of experiencing the world about us in its varied qualities and forms. It intercepts every shade of expressiveness found in objects and orders them to a new experience of life’. John Dewey, Art as Experience, (1934) Capricorn Books, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1958, p110.

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