Toward a synthesis of expertise, adult cognitive development, and phronesis

In summary, we suggest two claims. Firstly, as a conclusion based on our analysis of the traditional forms of knowledge (Aristotle), the critical-emancipatory interest in knowledge and the concepts used in contemporary research on expertise, we suggest the following synthesis (Table 10.2). It is evident that declarative knowledge is what we can typically associate with theoretical knowledge or the disposition that can be referred to as epistêmë in Aristotelian terms. We may also postulate a direct link between the technical knowledge in contemporary terms, the Aristotelian techne, and the Habermasian technical aspect of knowledge. The concepts of practical, procedural, and experiental knowledge, however, cannot be reduced to any of the previously mentioned forms of knowledge. They are, at least to a large extent, associated with technical knowledge, but to some degree also with the phronesis form of knowledge. Self-regulative knowledge, in turn, is clearly an element of phronesis, but also the ability of critical and emancipatory reflection necessitates reflective and metacognitive skills. What is called socio-cultural knowledge in the contemporary research literature, in turn, is essentially what can be referred to as the phronesis form of knowledge in the Aristotelian terminology. But likewise, a capacity for socio-cultural understanding is a necessary condition for critical-emancipatory reflection. Therefore, the practical, self-regulative, and socio-cultural forms of knowledge overlap with the phronesis and the critical-emancipatory elements in the columns of Table 10.2.

Secondly, we see resemblances between theoretisations across the three fields of research on professional expertise, adult cognitive development, and wisdom. They have been developed as separate research lines but seem to share certain ideas, or at least exhibit “family resemblances”, to apply Ludwig Wittgenstein’s well-known concept (Wennerberg, 1967). The integration of practical action and theoretical knowledge is one theme that is common to all these traditions. Thus, wisdom includes theoretical (reflective, contemplative) thinking and understanding, episteme in Aristotelian terms, but also techne (“action aimed at producing known ends”), and phronesis, as one acts for the common good to flourish, and eudaimonia, that is, for ethical goals. The practical consequences inform and enable judgement of whether an action has been wise or not. In wise action, positive effects for oneself and others are the natural result.

TABLE 10.2 A synthesis of the forms of action and dispositions to knowledge of Aristotle (2011) and Habermas (1972) and the concepts used in contemporary expert research

Forms of knowledge







Practical Critical-

hermeneutical) emancipatory

Contemporary research on expertise

Declarative conceptual or theoretical knowledge

Technical knowledge

Practical, procedural and experiential knowledge Self-regulative knowledge (metacognition, reflection) Socio-cultural knowledge

We must also remind readers of the risks of this kind of synthesis, where modern concepts and the concepts of ancient philosophy are merged, and this applies both to our aforementioned synthesis and the one suggested by Kemmis and Smith (2008). As Pierre Hadot (1995), a world-renowned expert on Hellenistic philosophy, has pointed out, the application of ancient Greek and Roman philosophy to present day situations is always risky. According to Hadot, it is not even possible to interpret the ancient philosophies “correctly”, because the “lifeworld” of humans today is completely different from that of ancient times. Hadot claims that modern interpretations of ancient philosophy are actually misinterpretations, or even misunderstandings, and calls them “creative misinterpretations”. Nonetheless, Hadot does not want to deny anyone the freedom to introduce concepts of ancient philosophy into today’s debate; quite the contrary: “In fact, such new meanings correspond to the possibility of a kind of evolution of the original doctrine” (Davidson, 1995, p. 7). However, it is essential to also note that the meanings are construed fundamentally differently than in the ancient days.

Conclusion: integrative model of wisdom in professional practice and expertise

Based on the assumed “family resemblance” of the three fields of research on expertise, adult cognitive development, and wisdom, we suggest an Integrative Model of Wisdom in Professional Practice and Expertise, as shown in Figure 10.1.

Integrative model of wisdom in professional practice and expertise

FIGURE10.1 Integrative model of wisdom in professional practice and expertise

Although the components of the model can be analytically discerned from each other, in practice they are tightly integrated so that in an expert’s decision-making and action they are fused. In Figure 10.1, this is illustrated by overlapping ovals representing the different forms of knowledge described in previous sections. Our further investigation into the nature of adult thinking and wisdom revealed that typical actions regarded as wise is integrative thinking, by which an individual makes connections, reconciliations, and syntheses of different, even opposite, perspectives in order to find solutions to complex problems. For this reason, integrative thinking and problem solving are depicted as core processes in wisdom related to professional practice and expertise. The third core process is socially responsible action and interaction for the common good, which is required in solving professional problems that typically involve ethical dilemmas. This component of the model reflects our understanding of wisdom not only as an individual phenomenon but also as a highly social one.

Neither the Aristotelian interpretation of knowledge nor modern expertise research have taken the emotional sphere of human life into account. In recent conceptualisations, assumptions of wisdom have been broadened to include emotions and motivation (Ardelt, 2003; Staudinger & Gluck, 2011). Similarly, in research on learning (e.g., Pekrun & Linnenbrink-Garcia, 2014), adult development (e.g., Labouvie-Vief, 1990, 2015), and professional development (e.g., Aarto-Pesonen & Tynjala, 2017), the role of emotions has received significant attention. Thus, emotions are included in our model as an essential element.

While the mainstream of research on expertise, as well as on adult thinking and wisdom, has treated these matters as individual phenomena, we argue that — in this world which faces highly complex problems such as climate change, a growing population, economic turbulences, and wars - we need a wider perspective. We need research that goes beyond individual cognitive processes and sees expert thinking as a part of a holistic system of a psychological, social, and physical world. Thus, not only thinking but also socially responsible action and interaction are included in our model of Wisdom in Professional Practice and Expertise. We argue that, nowadays, real experts are those individuals who pursue global responsibility' and support the well-being of others rather than focusing on pure epistemic, technical, or economic aspects in their work.

An important implication of our analysis is the importance of examining professionals’ thinking from the wisdom point of view and in relation to action and the social and ecological environment, and as an interaction rather than an isolated individual cognitive activity. For this purpose, we think that a useful framework could be provided by the Practice theory (Heikkinen et al., 2018), where expert thinking is seen as an essential element of practices and — in an ideal case — of praxis, contributing positively and meaningfully to society and acting in the interests of humankind; that is, “to live well in a world worth living in” (Kemmis et al., 2014, p. 27).

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