Phronesis in Gadamer Ricoeur and Bernstein

Ordering the relation between practical, theoretical, and technical reason is only a small part of social theory. It is, nonetheless, an important beginning point. And, as I said above, it has important implications for defining the nature of both theology and social theory. It means that both, when fully and properly viewed, should be seen as forms of practical reflection and action. When this is acknowledged, theology and social theory have certain overlaps or analogies that give them an affinity, although certainly not an identity.

This assertion will be clearer if we ask, what exactly is phronesis or practical reason? How does it work? What are its sources? There are many answers to these questions. I will discuss two classic alternatives that both find their roots in Aristotle. One view says practical reason is strictly a process of reasoning about the means to certain ends that are themselves assumed. Aristotle's famous illustration went like this: "I want to drink, says appetite; this is drink, says sense or imagination or mind; straightway I drink."5 Note that in this example, thirst and the identification of drink are assumed and reasoning is mainly about the best means to appropriate the beverage - "straightway I drink." This is an expression of technical reason and some philosophers have basically identified practical reason with technical rationality - with calculations about efficiency in the sense found in this illustration. This is thought to have been the view of the philosopher David Hume (Dahl 1984:14, 23-34). It is also the view of human reason undergirding much of the more functionally oriented and rational-choice social theories of our day - those views that see human action as primarily a matter of calculating prudential means to attaining material satisfactions such as food, water, sex, wealth, and reproduction for individuals in society.6

But Aristotle had a broader theory of practical reason. Aristotelian scholar Norman Dahl argues that this view sees phronesis as evaluating the ends of action as well as the means. This, according to Dahl, is reason asking not only "what do I want?" but also "what do I really want?" and "what would it be morally good to want?" This is reason evaluating the norms and ideals of action as well as the means of action. This second view of practical reason is the one that has been rehabilitated by the turn to practical philosophy, and the one thought to be so useful for gaining the most complete understanding of individual and social action.

This is where the thought of Hans-Georg Gadamer, Paul Ricoeur, and Richard Bernstein has been so useful in reorienting social theory and the more discrete social sciences. They have helped re-establish an understanding of how practical reason avails itself of the norms and ideals that guide and evaluate social practices. It is argued that the sketch of practical reason that I am about to present is a more adequate account of how free individuals and groups act, deliberate, and reshape their social life than accounts that build on more functional or technical accounts of phronesis.

We must begin with Gadamer, a German philosopher whose writings over the last half of the twentieth century had a massive influence on social theory, theology, and the specific social sciences. His major work was Truth and Method (1960). The core of his thought was his argument for the close relation between understanding (verstehen) and phronesis. Understanding something - a text, another person, another society, or event - is for him a form of practical activity. Why? Because one always begins the understanding process out of a particular history and a particular set of concerns and questions shaped by that history. Those who claim that theoretical reason is and should be the dominant human activity have seen understanding as an act of cognitive objectivity. They have seen it as a matter of pushing aside or suppressing one's questions and the history that shaped them and then apprehending the object of knowledge independently of these tradition-formed practical concerns. Once, according to this view,

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objective understanding is accomplished, then one can apply this objective knowledge to the various practical concerns of life. It is a matter of moving from theory to practice, from theory to application. But Gadamer, significantly influenced by the older German philosopher Martin Heidegger, said no. A concern with application shapes understanding from the beginning. In developing his argument, Gadamer invokes Aristotle as a model:

To conclude, if we relate Aristotle's description of the ethical phenomenon and especially of the virtue of moral knowledge to our own investigation, we find that Aristotle's analysis is in fact a kind of model of the problems of hermeneutics. We, too, determined that application is neither a subsequent nor a merely occasional part of the phenomenon of understanding, but co-determines it as a whole from the beginning. (Gadamer 1982:289)

The idea that a concern with application co-determines understanding from the beginning is a hard concept to grasp. Twentieth-century people have been so educated to believe that understanding requires objectivity that to hear Gadamer say otherwise seems wrong. But it becomes clearer when we read his argument that understanding should be understood as "conversation" or "dialogue" where one understands another in light of one's own beginning point - one's history, social experience, and the questions and concerns that flow from them (Gadamer 1982:330-3). We understand texts and other communications by contrasting and comparing them to our own historically shaped practices, perspectives, and questions. Remove these from the understanding process and we lose our point of reference.

Hence, Gadamer rehabilitated the role of prejudices (to be understood in the sense of pre-judgments shaped by one's traditions) in the understanding process. He rejected the Enlightenment, positivistic, and scientistic idea that we should suppress our pre-judgments in order to understand something (Gadamer 1982:235-53). To fully comprehend, however, the role of pre-judgment in understanding, it is also important to grasp Gadamer's two concepts of effective history and classics. For Gadamer, the past is not simply a dead event that happened long ago. The past lives on in tradition, culture, and institutions, to shape the contemporary experience of societies and individuals (1982:267). Persons and groups may not be very conscious of how this is so, but in a variety of silent ways, the past lives on in present experience. When we attempt to understand some text, event, or monument of the past, we do so from a stance of having been already influenced by that which we are now trying to understand. When interpreting the past, the distinction between subject and object (the interpreting subject and the object to be understood) is blurred; we already know to some extent the thing that we are attempting to understand more deeply. This is especially true when we attempt to understand the classics of the traditions that shape us. These classics - whether they be religious or philosophical texts or works of art - have already subtly shaped us before we attempt to consciously understand them more deeply (1982:253-8). This is how we should conceive of understanding as a conversation or dialogue; we generally already have a point of contact or analogy with that which we are coming to understand.

This is especially true when we try to understand the religious and philosophical classics of the past that constitute a pervasive source of our ideals and to which we repeatedly return for clarification and renewal. When social action runs into a conflict or impasse about the norms and ideals that should guide us, we ask: what ideals are already a part of us, do we understand them correctly, and are they true? This creates the understanding process - the dialog or conversation between our present experience and the classics that time and time again our culture has returned to, to clarify where it is going. Since present experience is always changing and since we are always confronted with new challenges, each time we return to our classics to clarify our ideals, we create a new "fusion of horizons" - a somewhat new structure of meaning -between our contemporary questions and these classics (1982:2 73). Hence, individual and social action, when it is free and undistorted, moves in a circle from present situations and their crises backward to the clarification of goals and ideals - the understanding of classics - to a return once again to present situations for renewed and better defined guiding ideals. It is a practice-theory-practice movement - not a process of moving from theory to practice. Because interpretation and understanding as practical activities are so central to this view, it can conveniently be called a hermeneutic theory of social action built on a hermeneutic circle.

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