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Phronesis – the Virtue of the Humanities?

In the summer semester at the University of Marburg in 1923, Martin Heidegger gave a seminar on phronesis. In this seminar the anti-rationalistic potential of this „ἄλλο γένος γνώσεως“, i.e. this „other type of knowledge“ was explored as the concept of phronesis fits very well into Heidegger’s critique of the occidental Seinsvergessenheit and his idea of placing man in the concrete world. The influence of the rediscovery of the Aristotelian concept of phronesis is prominent in the opus magnum of one of the participants in the seminar, i.e. in Truth and Method by Hans Georg Gadamer. Using this concept of practical knowldge, Gadamer develops a series of interconnected and related concepts: sensus communis, taste, tact, and cognitio sensitiva. This series of concepts, a product of the way Gadamer understood the „other reason“ which he allegedly was introduced to in the concept of phronesis, represents his new influential method in and of the humanities.

Gadamer and Heidegger are just two examples for one of the many movements which have at their core a critique of modernity: in this critique many modern thinkers fight against the concept of an abstract and cold reason, which is a product of the Enlighten- ment and the essence of modern consciousness. Phronesis, i.e. practical reason, which Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics separates from episteme or scientific reason, is celebrated in the course of such a critique of modernity as the harbinger of a holistic, practical and empirically rooted turn in thought because phronesis appears to be a form of reason which is unburdened by all that miscredited reason in the occidental tradition in the first place. Phronesis is practical and based on concrete action, not theoretical-speculative. According to Aristotle, it is based (also) on experience and doesn’t consist (only) of abstract deductions. It is a virtue of a human being as a whole, not only of a human being, who uses scientific reason.

That’s why in the 20th century phronesis was able to become the symbol for the way into a new period in thought after the modern period. Phronesis was able to be portrayed as „the other part of reason“ and at the same time that which overcomes the aporia of reason. Practical philosophy emancipates itself – with the humanities – from theology’s and theoretical philosophy’s need for and difficulty in finding a certain foundation.

However, there is a philosophical tradition – beginning in the Roman Empire and stretching into the late Middle Ages – which doesn’t see the relationship between phronesis and episteme or scientific reason as an opposition but derives phronesis from episteme, yet without fully equating them. This tradition is represented in the antique and medieval commentaries on Plato and Aristotle. Its foundation is not in ethics, but in a different concept of the essence and primary function of reason, of which practical reason is only one type. In this tradition, reason or rationality is defined differently than in the Enlightenment and its precursors, i. e. it is not seen as an abstract-structural processing of content but as an ability or faculty having certain content-based criteria which are at the root of knowledge in general as its object.

In determining the relationship between phronesis and reason in antiquity, the Middle Ages, the early modern period, the Enlightenment and the periods following the Enlightenment up until the present, the conference „Phronesis – the Virtue of the Humanities?“ would like to contribute to the analysis and critical comparison of different concepts of reason.

Phronesis was not first seen by Gadamer as being an instrument and methodological principle of the humanities, i.e. philology, literary and cultural studies and art, but ever since Giambattista Vico phronesis as a tool in the humanities has been laying the groundwork for a separation of the humanities, which have understanding as their primary function, from the natural sciences, which have explanation as their primary function. On account of that, this conference doesn’t only want to carry out a philosophical discourse on this topic but engage in an interdisciplinary dialogue between philosophy and the methodology of current trends in literary and cultural studies as well as between classical philology and modern philologies. Since the autonomy of phronesis as a virtue of the modern social sciences and humanities takes place at the expense of theoretical reason, the possibility of a dialogue with theology must be explored at this junction.


Sections of the Conference

A Systematic

I. Theoretical Philosophy and the Autonomy of the Practical

II. Theology and the Cooperation between Theoretical and Practical Reason

III. Forms of Reason

IV. Ethics and Literary Studies

V. Forms of Rationality in Art and Literary Studies

B Historical

I. Phronesis in Antiquity

II. Phronesis in the Middle Ages

i. Christian Middle Ages

ii. Arab Middle Ages

III. Phronesis in Post-Renaissance and Modern Philosophy

IV. Renaissances of Phronesis in the 20th Century

C Phronesis in Literary Studies (historically viewed)

D Phronesis in Art and Cultural Studies (historically viewed)