Aristotle on practical wisdom, part 1
This blog has been on hiatus while I was finishing coursework for my doctorate, but I’m happy to say I’m once more in the position to write here as I work toward a dissertation proposal in the coming months. My anticipated topic is the acquisition or development of practical wisdom (phronêsis) in Aristotle’s ethical writings. Practical wisdom has struck many readers of Aristotle as one of his most interesting and elusive concepts, and understanding how we can acquire it seems to be a central goal of his Nicomachean Ethics and Politics. So as I set out to say something about it, I think it’s worth saying first what’s interesting about it and why (from Aristotle’s point of view in writing these texts as well as ours in reading) it’s so elusive.
Aristotle thought human rational excellence came in two forms, character excellence and intellectual excellence. Practical wisdom is a special form of intellectual excellence that is intimately bound up with character excellence. In fact, one can’t (fully or strictly) possess the one without the other. Practical wisdom has something to do with successfully acting on the basis of character excellence, in particular, with coming to decide how best to achieve the ends or goals that are expressive of character excellence. But beyond this rough characterization, Aristotle seems to think that it is difficult to see exactly what practical wisdom is as a state of the intellect, given the way he proceeds in the book devoted to intellectual excellence in the Nicomachean Ethics (Book VI).
In particular, he seems to think practical wisdom has many doubles, and instead of coming right out and telling us what practical wisdom is, his method in Book VI is largely negative. Is it a form of understanding (epistêmê)? Not in the way that medical science is an understanding of bodily health, though it too requires a grasp of universal principles. Is it a form of knowledgeable skill (technê)? Not in the way that such skill is what doctors use in curing patients, though it too is closely concerned with features of the particular case. Is it a form of rational insight (nous)? Not in the way that insight allows to grasp a definition without prior knowledge of it, although an analogous form of insight is crucial for its activity.
As even this summary of just one part of the complicated dialectic of the book shows, we can, I think, learn a lot about practical wisdom through carefully examining its intricate arguments. Indeed, Aristotle’s method, despite being negative, is aimed at saying something about what practical wisdom really is. Moreover, thought the topic is certainly worth exploring for its own sake, if Daniel Russell is right, anyone who really wants to do Aristotle-inspired virtue ethics needs to come to grips with this concept, too.
 I’d like to have something to say about the Eudemian Ethics, too, but for now I think that will have to wait for another project.
 We can’t conclude from that that he wasn’t sure about what practical wisdom was. There are two reasons: first, that the Ethics is in some sense a teaching text means that Aristotle may often be content to gesture where we would rather he say more – he is inviting his students to debate the points he raises rather than settling all the questions; second, and related, Aristotle’s awareness of the epistemological limits of what we can say truly in ethical matters is quite keen and he repeatedly insists both that what he is providing is just an outline to be filled out and that this will nevertheless be helpful to his audience.
 C.D.C Reeve has recently published a new commentary on and translation of the book, which I’m looking forward to consulting.
 Russell argues for this view at length in his 2009 book Practical Intelligence and the Virtues.