Sophia vs Phronesis: two conceptions of wisdom

Sophia, from the Library of Celsus at Ephesus

Sophia, from the Library of Celsus at Ephesus

Wisdom is something that pretty much all philosophical and religious traditions seek. While it isn’t a popular concept in modern academic philosophy departments, that’s a bad reflection on the latter, not on the former.

The Greeks since Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics distinguished two different kinds of wisdom: phronesis, or practical wisdom, and sophia, or “transcendental” wisdom. To complicate things from a Stoic perspective, while phronesis is one of the four cardinal virtues (the others being temperance, courage, and justice), many Stoics thought — together with Socrates — that these are all aspects of one underlying virtue, which they referred to as wisdom. Clearly, a bit of unpacking is in order.

A good, if somewhat unusual, place where to start is a special issue of the journal Research in Human Development (volume 8, issue 2, 2011), which published a collection of essays on “Sophia and Phronesis in Psychology, Philosophy, and Traditional Wisdom,” as the title of the introductory article, by Richard Hawley Trowbridge and Michel Ferrari, spells out.

Until reading the paper, I was unaware, for instance, that psychologists have published over 100 articles featuring empirical research on wisdom, or of the existence of the Berlin Wisdom Paradigm, an ongoing research effort on wisdom based on principles of cognitive psychology.

In 2009, the same journal published another issue on wisdom (to which the 2011 one is a follow-up), which defined the subject matter in this way:

“Wisdom is a practice that reflects the developmental process by which individuals increase in self-knowledge, self-integration, nonattachment, self-transcendence, and compassion, as well as a deeper understanding of life. This practice involves better self regulation and ethical choices, resulting in greater good for oneself and others.”

Trowbridge and Ferrari then provide their readers with a brief historical overview of conceptions of wisdom. Beginning of course with early antiquity (i.e., before ancient Greek philosophy developed), they state that a number of thinkers throughout the Near East started teaching about wisdom, conceived initially as the “ability to live a full human life in accordance with [the] divine plan. Possessing wisdom meant knowing the rules that governed the natural world, the way people (both righteous and wicked) behaved, and the way the gods treat each person according to his or her merit.”

If we drop talk of somewhat anthropomorphic gods, this isn’t that different from the Stoic concept that in order to be wise one has to understand the way the world works (by studying “physics”) and locate one’s place in it. Not doing so leads to foolishness, not wisdom, because one begins to wish for things that are not “in accordance with nature.”

Then came the Greeks, and the focus became the human ability to reason and figure things out. Aristotle’s take on wisdom in the Nichomachean Ethics is summarized by Trowbridge and Ferrari: “Those with sophia ‘must not only know the conclusions that follow from his first principles, but also have a true conception of those principles themselves’ (NE VI.7), making sophia a combination of nous (intuitive understanding) and episteme (scientific knowledge).”

So, again, while phronesis is a practical type of wisdom, sophia is more general, more abstract. It actually helped me recently to be reminded that the Romans translated phronesis as prudentia, or prudence, which comes from providentia, meaning “seeing ahead, sagacity,” and is the ability to govern and discipline oneself by the use of reason. If we follow the Romans, then the four cardinal Stoic virtues become prudence, temperance, justice and courage, and we can use the word “wisdom” for that kind of deeper understanding of things from which, presumably, the four virtues themselves spring. I find this solution of the one-vs-many virtues issue as well as of the difference between sophia and phronesis both elegant and helpful.

Interestingly, Trowbridge and Ferrari note that the emphasis on wisdom continued during the Middle Ages and into the Renaissaince, but tapered off after the Scientific Revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries: “With the advent of modern science, this tradition ended up disparaged, forgotten, and ignored in the leading circles of learned thought in the West. In the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Smith wrote that after the mid–17th century, ‘wisdom is mentioned only in passing, or simply passed by altogether by philosophers’. Scholars in Europe increasingly turned from a pursuit of wisdom and happiness to a pursuit of truth and usefulness.”

That is highly unfortunate, particularly because wisdom and truth are most certainly not mutually exclusive, and “usefulness” should be regarded more broadly than just the idea that new gadgets will make our lives more pleasant. Do they also make it more meaningful?

This relegation of wisdom and the pursuit of virtue to a quixotic, if not even pernicious, way of thinking is something that we need to redress as a society. It is indeed wonderful that science and technology have made so many useful things available to us, not to mention having greatly expanded and refined our understanding of the cosmos. But ultimately, we all seek to live meaningful, not just entertaining, lives (even those who would deny such statement, I suspect), and science simply cannot be a source of transcendental wisdom, because that comes from experience and especially considered reflection. That is, it requires philosophy.


12 thoughts on “Sophia vs Phronesis: two conceptions of wisdom

  1. Jonathan Gossage

    My understanding is that prudence contains the elements of understanding the consequences of actions before choosing an action, but also having the courage to make the choice and act when necessary. Timidity relates to being fearful of the consequences of an action, thus being unwilling to make the decision and act.


  2. Douglass Smith

    I would be interested to know more about the scientific investigation of wisdom. There will be aspects of it that cannot be captured entirely in empirical investigation, as you suggest. Wisdom isn’t a matter of having all the facts, it’s a matter of having the right ones, where “right” is defined at least partially in ethical terms. This is not to denigrate an empirical study of wisdom, far from it. But it is to say one should probably approach claims to its empirical investigation with some trepidation.

    Many of the defining characteristics of wisdom are as it were a priori, even if (as captured in the concept ‘phronesis’/’prudentia’) their precise contours may only come into focus through practice. It is therefore as you note more properly a subject of philosophy than science.

    But philosophy is cross-cultural. Would be good to note that the high regard held for wisdom is cross-cultural as well, including (at least) the Buddhist tradition. Buddhist notions of wisdom are very, very similar to the above 2009 definition, including notions of ethical behavior, nonattachment, self-transcendence (e.g., awareness of non-self), as well as compassion and similar positive emotional components.


  3. Massimo Post author


    Yes, “prudence” is a word whose immediate meaning has changed in recent times, though I think the classical meaning is actually very appropriate. “Foresight” is, I think, insufficient, it sounds too ethically neutral to me. See also Jonathan’s comment.


    Right, I share your caution about empirical investigations of wisdom, but I am also convinced that philosophy shouldn’t be done in a vacuum, and that good empirical inputs are always welcome. They do, however, usually underdetermine philosophical positions (meaning that more than one philosophical take is compatible with a given set of empirical data), which is why I reject the simplistic, Sam Harris or Michael Shermer-like, notion that one can read ethics directly from empirical science.

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  4. Douglass Smith

    Massimo, is there any summary available of the empirical research on wisdom, or the Berlin Wisdom Paradigm? Can you provide a summary? Agreed that empirical inputs are always welcome.

    I also hope the investigators will take philosophical inputs from a variety of cultures and time periods so as to have available the most complete toolbox for investigation. While it is an open question whether all past, worldwide notions of wisdom qualify as such by contemporary standards, nevertheless if we do not at least put them on the table for discussion we are doing a disservice to the study.


  5. Massimo Post author


    I think those two special issues of the journal I mention here are meant, in part, as summaries of the available empirical literature. I’ll look to see if there is anything else. I’m sure there will be.

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  6. Douglass Smith

    OK, at present one is left asking the authors for a copy of the 2011 paper through the site. The abstract is less than entirely informative. Thanks for your help, and if you do find more information I hope you will let us know in future blog posts.


  7. SocraticGadfly

    Ahh, yes, brings back my collegiate Greek days. Massimo, per the various meanings of the Latin, perhaps “sagacity” might be even better than “prudence” in English. And, it certainly comes off as an ethically non-neutral word, and, to me, a more active word than prudence.

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  8. pascojc

    i like sagacity too- that which the sage possesses. ‘prudence’ has come to be reserved for when explaining why a strong action was not taken, though i like its specific definition.

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  9. Valahae

    Perhaps there is another reason why science cannot be a source of phronesis but, Science ultimately is experience and reflection.


  10. Massimo Post author


    As a scientist myself, I can attest to the fact that it is a much narrower activity than a general reflection on experience — which is what philosophy is. Only certain kinds of experiences count for scientists (systematic observations and experiments, not personal experiences, for instance), and reflection is limited to those and informed by specific questions and theoretical frameworks. The sort of reflection we are talking about here has, of course, a much broader scope.


  11. ToT

    I suspect that modernity and wisdom tend to not mix well. During the modern era our culture has changed so rapidly as to be tangibly different from each generation. Also, in modernity this change is viewed as progress. One consequence of this is that youth becomes valued, while older age becomes under-appreciated, since old people’s knowledge is seen as obsolete. Wisdom takes time to develop, and to value wisdom is also to value older people’s knowledge and abilities….

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