What Is Phronesis?

Surgeon leaning on handrail in corridor
"Reasoning persuades because we think it is a sign of character. No one infers that because someone is a doctor and knows health, that the doctor is therefore healthy. But we make that ​inference all the time with respect to rhetoric and phronēsis.". Kevin Dodge / Getty Images

In classical rhetoric, phronesis is prudence or practical wisdom. Adjective: phronetic.

In the ethical treatise On Virtues and Vices (sometimes attributed to Aristotle), phronesis is characterized as the "wisdom to take counsel, to judge the goods and evils and all the things in life that are desirable and to be avoided, to use all the available goods finely, to behave rightly in society, to observe due occasions, to employ both speech and action with sagacity, to have expert knowledge of all things that are useful" (translated by H. Rackam).

From the Greek, "think, understand"

Practical Wisdom

  • "[The] concept of persuasion points . . . to the human capacity for practical judgment. By judgment I mean the mental activity of responding to particular situations in a way that draws upon our sensations, beliefs, and emotions without being dictated by them in any way reducible to a simple rule. This kind of judgment may involve integrating new information into existing patterns of thought, readjusting those patterns to make room for a new perspective, or both. There are several sorts of judgment--logical, aesthetic, political, and perhaps others--but the concept I have in mind is linked most closely to what Aristotle called practical wisdom, or phronesis, and what Aquinas discussed as prudence, and it is also linked to our idea of common sense."
    (Bryan Garsten, Saving Persuasion: A Defense of Rhetoric and Judgment. Harvard Univ. Press, 2006)

Phronesis in Speakers and Audiences

  • "To the extent that rhetoric is conceived as an art, capable of practical refinement, phronēsis, or practical wisdom, is often considered to be one of the by-products or relational 'goods' enhanced and cultivated through rhetorical conduct. For Aristotle, practical wisdom was one of the rhetorical constituents of ethos. But perhaps most important, this overriding intellectual virtue was also cultivated in audiences through the practice of deliberation. In fact, the methods of invention and argument, along with the vast array of commonplaces and topoi, may all be conceived as devices for the enhancement of phronēsis in speakers and audiences."
    (Thomas B. Farrell, "Phronēsis." Encyclopedia of Rhetoric and Composition: Communication from Ancient Times to the Information Age, ed. by Theresa Enos. Routledge, 1996)

Phronesis and Invented Ethos

  • "Reasoning persuades because we think it is a sign of character. No one infers that because someone is a doctor and knows health, that the doctor is therefore healthy. But we make that ​inference all the time with respect to rhetoric and phronēsis. We assume that if someone can give good advice, he or she must be a good person. Such inferences are grounded in the belief that phronēsis and goodness are more than knowledge. Reasoning is persuasive to us because it is evidence, fallible and defeasible as all such evidence must be, of phronēsis and character.
    "It is evidence for the character created in the speech [that is, invented ethos]."
    (Eugene Carver, Aristotle's Rhetoric: An Art of Character. Univ. of Chicago Press, 1994)

The Example of Pericles

  • "In the Rhetoric [of Aristotle], Pericles is an exemplary figure of rhetorical effectiveness both for his skillful choice of persuasive strategies and for the persuasive appeal of his own character. That is, Pericles exemplifies how closely successful rhetoric is tied to phronēsis: the best rhetors possess a practical wisdom that can discern the most effective means of persuasion in any specific situation, including an appeal to their own reputations as persons of practical wisdom. Aristotle builds the phronetic power of discernment into his influential definition of rhetoric as the ability, in each particular case, to see the available means of persuasion . . .."
    (Steven Mailloux, "Rhetorical Hermeneutics Still Again: or, On the Track of Phronēsis." A Companion to Rhetoric and Rhetorical Criticism, ed. by Walter Jost and Wendy Olmsted. Wiley-Blackwell, 2004)
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "What Is Phronesis?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/phronesis-rhetoric-1691510. Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). What Is Phronesis? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/phronesis-rhetoric-1691510 Nordquist, Richard. "What Is Phronesis?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/phronesis-rhetoric-1691510 (accessed May 30, 2023).