Aristotle—Theory and Practice

17.08.2017 |

Episode #4 of the course What is wisdom: An introduction to philosophy by Will Buckingham


Yesterday we looked at Plato. Today, we are going to move on to explore Plato’s student, Aristotle, who was one of the most important philosophers in all history. Aristotle was an extraordinary thinker. He had an almost endless intellectual hunger, studying everything from biology and politics to poetry and physics. Aristotle was a very systematic thinker. He liked to break topics down into different categories and sub-topics so he could see things more clearly. What we are going to look at today is Aristotle’s distinctive approach to wisdom. So instead of asking, “What is wisdom?”, he asked, “What are the different kinds of wisdom, and in what ways do they differ?”

This is a powerful approach because there may be several kinds of things that make up wisdom. Aristotle identified at least 2 major aspects of wisdom. The 1st of these, sophia (the sophia that we are supposed to love if we are philosophers, or “lovers of wisdom”), is what might be called “theoretical wisdom.” But there is a 2nd kind of wisdom that matters as well, and that is what Aristotle calls phronesis, often translated as “practical wisdom” (or sometimes as “prudence”). So, what is the difference between these 2?


Wisdom in Theory

Let’s look at sophia first. Aristotle says that this is theoretical wisdom. The word “theory” comes from the Greek theoros, meaning a spectator at the theater (the word “theater” has the same root!). So, theoretical knowledge is the kind of knowledge that comes from standing back and looking on. Theoretical wisdom is wisdom that is concerned with unchanging truth. It is not concerned with things that we can change.


Wisdom in Practice

Practical wisdom is about the things that we can change. But it is not just a matter of applying a bunch of theoretical rules to a particular situation. Instead, Aristotle says that when choosing how to act wisely, the particular circumstances are always more important than general theories. Aristotle says that practical wisdom is like the art of navigation: You need to get to know the winds and the tides, you need to know where you want to go, and you need to be responsive to the changing circumstances in which you find yourself.


Becoming an Experienced Navigator

Of course, to be an experienced navigator, theory may help: you can study meteorology or the movements of the tides. But theory—the business of standing back, being a spectator—is no substitute for experience. What makes the idea of phronesis interesting is it clarifies that a large part of acting wisely is becoming experienced in how to act. There is no substitute for experience.


Emulating the Virtuous

But you don’t have to experience everything yourself. One way you can know what it means to be wise is to study those who are wise and to act in the way that they would act. For Aristotle, it is not a matter of, “What ought I do in this situation?”, and looking around for a theoretical answer. Instead, it is a matter of asking, “What would a wise (or good) person do in this situation?” This is sometimes called virtue ethics, and it is still an important area of philosophy today.

Tomorrow, we will talk about the connection between wisdom and pleasure, as well as Epicurus’s contribution to this question.


Recommended book

Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle (Book VI has the material on practical wisdom)


Recommended video

Philosophy—Aristotle by The School of Life


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