Theology and Phronesis

Over the last several decades, there has been a rebirth of what is commonly called "practical philosophy." This turn in philosophy has had important implications for theology, social theory, and the more discrete social sciences such as sociology, psychology, political science, and economics. It is associated with the hermeneutic philosophy of Hans-Georg Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur, the ordinary language analysis of Wittgenstein and Peter Winch, the discourse ethics of J├╝rgen Habermas, and American pragmatism - especially the recent work of Richard Rorty and Richard Bernstein (Rorty 1979, Ricoeur 1981a, Gadamer [1960] 1982, Habermas 1990).3

The convergence of these different schools of thought has brought the Greek terms praxis (practice) and phronesis (practical wisdom, or practical reason) into prominence in much of contemporary philosophy. The elevation of these terms has revived the ancient view of human beings as practical actors trying first of all to determine what they should do to order their lives together. This at first glance might appear to be a trivial claim. It becomes more important, however, when placed against two other dominant views of humans celebrated in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. These are the views of humans as primarily technical or economic creatures (built around the idea of techne, or technical reason) or as pursuers of scientific knowledge (built around the concept of theoria, or theoretical reason). These last two views of humans, and their associated understandings of human rationality, have gone handin-hand with what sociologists call the modernization process. Modernization, since the writings of the great German sociologist Max Weber, has been understood as a strategy of life in which technical reason has been increasingly applied to the enhancement of life satisfactions and the ordering of society (Weber 1958). Technical reason generally has been defined as the use of a certain kind of means-end thinking to solve life problems, i.e., the use of the most efficient and powerful means possible to realize ends that are themselves assumed but not critically evaluated. Technical reason, within the context of modernity, has had an alliance with theoretical reason or science. Science increasingly has provided the knowledge needed by technical reason to accomplish its goals. Many contemporary social theorists believe that in late modernity, science or theoretical reason has been captured and indeed corrupted by technical reason and the cultural goal of controlling nature and society for the increase of individual satisfactions.

The push by practical philosophy to make phronesis, or practical wisdom, the center of our image of humans is not designed to vanquish either techne or theoria. It is, rather, to locate them within phronesis. Phronesis, as practical and moral reasoning about the good individual and social life, is presented in these philosophies as more fundamental than either of the other two forms of human reason. Humans need both technical and theoretical reason, but these must be guided by practical reason. Increasingly, technical and theoretical reason are understood as abstractions from the concreteness of phronesis. This means that, in real life, technical and theoretical reason should be situated within the more inclusive framework of practical reason and either wittingly or unwittingly be guided by it. We cannot order individual and social action, as founda-tionalist philosophies have advocated, by inductively or deductively moving the full task of determining our individual and social ethics from science or technology upward.4 The central human activity is practical reason; science and technology must find their rightful places, and their rightful contributions, in relationship to practical ethical reflection and action designed to regulate individual and social life.

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