Preliminary results on wisdom, sophia and phronesis

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Here are some thoughts on our work with sophia and phronesis, Spring 2009 Wisdom Class:

1. What's at stake in the identification of wisdom with sophia rather than phronesis?

Privileging sophia makes considerable philosophical sense. It allows a unified theory of knowledge, for example. But it seems to require other beliefs, such as:
  • An openness to the possibility of absolute normative knowledge.
  • Acceptance of purpose at the level of knowledge of causes (Aristotle's four causes instead of today's one.)
  • Committment to some model of abstraction or transcendence. Minimally, to the idea that theoretical knowledge is a reliable abstraction from reality. That theoretical knowledge "gets behind" appearances and allows predictive knowledge. Further, that we could theorize a knowledge of human flourishing. Maximally, privileging sophia could open up a commitment to ultimate knowledge as possible in some transcendent state from the one which characterizes our experience. We saw this in Plato's image of the soul freed from the body. We will encounter it also in the model of enlightenment in Yoga and spiritual development and discernment in Ignatius.
To the extent that one moves toward the maximal commitment, one encounters a possible paradox. Let's call it the "paradox of transcendence of wisdom".
  1. On the one hand, Wisdom is a virtue, practiced in order to promote human flourishing and happiness.
  2. On the other hand, if Wisdom is only or typically achieved through transcendence, then it is not a virtue that one could typically practice in one's lifetime.
There are a few solutions to this paradox. A major philosophical one, starting with Pythagoras in the west and championed by Plato, is to distinguish the art of philosophy as the "pursuit of wisdom" (philia + sophia, love of wisdom) from any art (it would be a false art on this view) that claimed to possess knowledge. On this view, we can still say that wisdom is a virtue practiced to promote flourishing, but we are careful to avoid presuming that we actually possess virtue. The door is open, theoretically, to positing wisdom as found in a transcendent realm, as in the Phaedo, or in a transcendent being, such as God.

2. What are some other ways to re-conceive of the balance of Sophia and Phronesis?

  1. The Stoics and Epicureans represent a re-balancing of the Aristotlean paradigm of knowledge and virtue by focusing more on the psychology of virtue and adjustment.
  2. The psych. literature we've been reading could be thought of as taking phronesis seriously and leaving sophia pretty much out of the equation. On this approach we might still model wisdom as "expert knowledge" (as in Baltes), but as contextualized. That makes it conditioned by history and human choice. Of course, we should acknowledge that this is a very different idea of "knowledge" than Aristotle would have recognized.