Blogs > Cliopatria > Phronesis

Nov 17, 2005 9:16 pm


Scott McLemee just made my day (it doesn't take much):
phronesis ... “a sound practical instinct for the course of events, an almost indefinable hunch that anticipates the future by remembering the past and thus judges the present correctly.” [also see definitions here and the Aristotelean context here]

I was just talking about that with my Historiography course. We were doing some of the usual"is history a social science" and"should historians make predictions" discussions and I opined that one of the reasons that historians even talk about predictive models, etc., is that we want to be a social science, and the social sciences, by and large, claim (as sciences) to have as the end result of their analyses the potential to predict future behaviors and developments.

The problem, of course, is that all us social scientists have discovered that human behavior, individually or collectively, is incredibly complex and prone to confounding our best deterministic models and mechanistic regressions. We haven't even achieved the statistical un/certainty of quantum physics. Why not? Because people are people: free will does exist, personalities do matter, people are (ir)rational at their own convenience, accidents happen. In order to make our models sensible, we must use the study of the past to develop an intuitive sense for social process, for the quirky effects of leadership, for the likely and unlikely social reorganizations from technological progress.

Historians are, by nature, phronetic [Thanks, Irfan!], and we should be proud of that. I'm not giving up on the use of analogy, and the development of models of social processes, but I'm not going to be quite so shy about the intuitive judgement which I've earned.

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Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

The adjectival form of phronesis is usually rendered "phronetic" in English. There's a huge literature on phronesis in the scholarship on ancient Greek philosophy, but little (I think) that integrates it with historiography. A task waiting to be done...

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

You might be interested in a paper by a colleague of mine, Carrie-Ann Biondi Khan. The paper is "Aristotle's Moral Expert: The Phronimos," in Ethics Expertise: History, Contemporary Perspectives, and Applications, edited by Lisa Rasmussen, (Dordrecht: Netherlands: Springer, 2005). Very much on point.

Brandon Scott Watson - 11/19/2005

You might like Newman's discussion of the Illative Sense in Chapter 9 of An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent. Newman's 'illative sense' was modeled on Aristotle's discussion of phronesis, and Newman explicitly uses history as an example of the illative sense in operation. (The example is of disagreements among historians over what can strictly be proven.)

You can find it online somewhere.

Jonathan Dresner - 11/17/2005

Thanks! I thought someone with an Aristotelean background might be able to clear that up for me. I've corrected it above. We need someone trained in philosophy, historiography and AI-Fuzzy Logic.... Or Stonewall Jackson:

Judgement comes from Experience
Experience comes from bad judgement

Sherman Jay Dorn - 11/17/2005

Wow. Thanks. Now, is there a pill I can hand out to my students so they can gain some phronesis?

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