Wisdom as phronesis: philosophical backgrounds

Wisdom, in professional expertise, can also be approached in terms of the different forms of knowledge, or dispositions to knowledge, and the corresponding forms of action. In this section, we look at the modern classification of expert knowledge through the lens of a synthesis of different forms of knowledge. Our review is based on Stephen Kemmis’s interpretation, where Aristotle’s forms of reasoning are integrated with the Theory of Knowledge and Human Interests by Jürgen Habermas (Kemmis & Smith, 2008).

Aristotle (384-322 BGE), in his Book VI of the Ethics (trans. 2011), discussed three forms of knowledge: one theoretical, called episteme, and two practical forms of knowledge: called techtie and phronesis (Saugstad, 2005; Heikkinen, de Jong, & Vanderlinde, 2016, p. 8). Each of these knowledge forms is actualised through specific activity forms (episteme < theoria; techne < poiesis; phronesis < praxis). These forms of knowledge have had a remarkable influence on Western epistemology. For example, the etymological origins of the words theory' and practice as well as technics and technology are rooted in this three-fold categorisation of knowledge (Heikkinen et al., 2016, p. 8).

The ideal form of epistente is to see the world around us as if seen through the “eyes of the gods on Mount Olympus in Ancient Greece”. The form of action associated with epistHtn? is theoria, the original Greek meaning of which was seeing or watching. Literally, theoria means “looking at”, “gazing at”, or “being aware of’ (Mahon, Heikkinen, & Huttunen, 2018, p. 4). This form of knowledge is theoretical knowledge, and it was regarded as pure knowledge in the sense that the knowing subject has no aims or aspirations other than just knowing how things are (Mahon et al., 2018). Thus, episteme is based on the disposition to seek universal and eternal truth for its own sake, regardless of time and place (Aristotle, trans. 2011, 1139a27—8). From that perspective, expert knowledge should be based on objective and universal knowledge, which can be verified through a correspondence between propositions (truth claims) and the state of affairs in the world (Heikkinen et al., 2016, p. 8; Mahon et al., 2018, pp. 3—4).

Another disposition to knowledge is manifested in producing material goods: techne (Aristotle, trans. 2011, 1094a5—10). Techne is the form of knowledge that is needed in making or producing something; that is, poiesis (making action). In contrast to episteme, techne is not valuable in itself. It is deemed “good” and valid only if it helps to produce usable and appropriate objects or services, or when applied to develop methods that can be used in production. In other words, technical knowledge is instrumental: its aims are external to the knowledge itself. The term techne finds expression in the modern concepts of technical knowledge and technology'. From this perspective, expert knowledge is understood in terms of technical expertise regarding technology and the production of goods and services (Mahon et al., 2018, pp. 3—4).

The third disposition in Aristotle’s classical specification (trans. 2011, 1140Ы-6) is phronesis. Often translated as “practical wisdom”, phronesis is the disposition to live a meaningful, happy, and worthy life together with others; that is, knowing how to live a “good life”, eudaitnonia (Mahon et al., 2018). The word endainionia cannot be translated into any language without a remainder, but most often it has been translated by using expressions describing living a “flourishing”, “happy”, “good”, or “worthwhile” life; that is, a life worth living.

The form of action (“doing”) associated with phronesis is praxis; that is, action oriented toward living a virtuous life through choices based on judgements about what is wise and right to do in everyday human life. Praxis is a form of deliberate action in the social (and physical) world, based on reflective thinking about what is the best way to act in order to maximise the common well-being of a social community. In praxis, the impacts and consequences of actions are carefully considered (Mahon et al., 2018). As Kemmis and Smith (2008, p. 4) have crystallised, “praxis is what people do when they take into account all the circumstances and exigencies that confront them at a particular moment and then, taking the broadest view they can of what is best to do, they act”. In praxis, unlike poiesis, the goals and means of activity cannot be separated; praxis is an end in itself. In terms of professional practice, action as praxis is itself rewarding for the expert. An expert enjoys the action itself, which promotes positive social relations achieved through the interaction with other people. From a praxis perspective, the ultimate aim and purpose of an expert is to foster understanding about how to live well, and to allow human flourishing and living a meaningful life together with each other, outlining the place of humans in the world (Mahon et al., 2018, pp. 3—6).

In addition to these three forms of disposition toward knowledge, Kemmis and Smith (2008) add a fourth one: a critical-emancipatory disposition to knowledge. The formulation of such interest in knowledge was first introduced in Habermas’s (1972) Theory of Knowledge-Constitutive Interests (see Table 10.1). The critical-emancipatory interest in knowledge refers to a disposition to expose belief systems or ideologies that maintain an unreasonable and subordinating power over people. The purpose of critical-emancipatory knowledge is to enable people to critically reflect and to be released from the mechanisms of power that oppress or harm them. From this perspective, the social world is understood as a struggle for power. The form of action associated with this disposition is emancipatory action (Habermas, 1972; Kemmis & Smith, 2008), or empowering action (Heikkinen & Huttunen, 2017). This amounts to “collective critical reflection and action to overcome irrationality, injustice, suffering, harm, unproductiveness, or unsustainability” (Kemmis & Smith, 2008, p. 23). It is collective in the sense that it transpires in reflective communication and interaction with others. It is also transformative in that it leads (ideally and simultaneously) to changed circumstances and selfchange (Mahon et al., 2018, pp. 3-6).

The dispositions and associated forms of action outlined above are not separate entities. On the contrary, they are interconnected in many ways (Mahon et al., 2018). From this perspective, expertise is essentially about the integration of these aforementioned forms of or dispositions to knowledge and the ability to act in accordance with them. In order to achieve expertise in any professional field, we need all of these forms of knowledge; the ability to observe and see, understand and interpret the world (theoria); to utilise techniques, materials and natural resources in our work (poiesis); as well as to more profoundly understand what is good for humans (praxis) and how to overcome injustice, irrationality, and unsustainability in our societies (emancipatory) (Mahon et al., 2018). The aforementioned forms of knowledge can be juxtaposed with the concepts used in the contemporary research on professional expertise in the way suggested in Table 10.1.

TABLE 10.1 A Synthesis of the fonns of action and dispositions to knowledge of Aristotle (2011) and Jürgen Habermas (1972). (Adapted From Kenunis & Smith, 2008; Heikkinen et al., 2016; Heikkinen, Kiilakoski, Huttunen, Kaukko, & Kenunis, 2018; Mahon et al., 2018)



Knowledge-constitutive interests (Habermas)





Dispositions to knowledge (Aristotle)











Action involving

Collective critical

for example, the-

aimed at

practical reasoning

reflection and

oretical content-


about what is wise.

action to over-

plation about the nature of things;

known ends;

right and proper to do in a given situation and in terms of the good life;

come injustice, irrationality, harm, and unsustainability;

contemplative action.

making action.

doing action.

empowering action.


In the realm of ideas

In the material realm

In the social realm


Attainment of


Good life; flourish-





ing; life worth living

irrationality and





Position of


Maker or

Agent in the social

Questioner, critic

the knowing subject


designer of products.


(together with others).

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