Embodied Phronesis: Conceptualizing Materially Engaged Practical Wisdom in Teaching, Teacher Education, and Research.

Author:Pickup, Austin


This article incorporates multiple perspectives to offer embodied phronesis as a theoretical position that might reorient teachers, teacher educators, and educational researchers toward social justice efforts in the face of oppositional education policy. Aristotle's (2000) explanation of intellectual virtues, particularly that of phronesis discussed in book VI of the Nicomachean Ethics, serves as the primary theoretical framework for this argument. There, Aristotle defines phronesis, or practical wisdom, as an intellectual virtue "concerned with what is good and bad for a human being" (p. 107). He contrasts phronesis with the virtues of episteme and techne, which are sometimes translated as "scientific knowledge" and "skill" respectively. Episteme is a state of reason that demonstrates universal principles which "cannot be otherwise" (p. 105), while techne is a state of reason concerning production toward "an end distinct from itself' (p. 107). In this way, the practical and value rationality of phronesis is distinct from the scientific and technical rationality of episteme and techne.

Many scholars have invoked Aristotelian phronesis as a way to recover practical wisdom from an instrumental rationality seen as the dominating force of contemporary life. Within philosophy, for example, Gadamer (1975) centered phronesis as a critical virtue in his development of philosophical hermeneutics. Similarly, Flyvbjerg (2001) has argued that phronesis, rather than episteme or techne, must be the guiding intellectual virtue for the social sciences. Additionally, numerous scholars have written about the potential application and revival of phronesis within professional disciplines generally (Kinsella & Pittman, 2012) and teaching specifically (Birmingham, 2004; Dunne, 1993; Noel, 1999). Taking inspiration from this scholarship, I will argue that phronesis runs counter to the ideological forces that currently dominate education and educational research, namely neoliberalism and neoconservatism. These will be defined more precisely in the following sections, but generally they emphasize top-down management of learning in the service of free-market, economic agendas as opposed to social, democratic ones.

Attention has also been paid to possible links between phronesis and embodied knowledge, with suggestions that practical wisdom may be an embodied practice (Kinsella, 2015). In this article, I will also attempt to update discussions of phronesis with considerations of embodiment as noted in the "corporeal turn" in professional practice and, more specifically, the new materialist turn within feminist social theory. Together, these theoretical frameworks challenge and disrupt the tenets of contemporary educational policy with its focus on top-down management and economic reform. Conversely, embodied phronesis positions education as a socially and morally contested space formed, not just by thought and word, but also by the bodies, places, and spaces of lived contexts. After examining the diverse theories that inform embodied phronesis, I suggest implications for putting this theory to work within teaching, teacher education, and educational research respectively.

Impact of Contemporary Education Reform

A brief account of the impact of contemporary educational reform is important to fully characterize phronesis, and later embodied phronesis, as a framework that might allow for thinking differently in education. For the past few decades, numerous scholars have indicated that recent education policy has emphasized top-down managerialism to further a narrow economic agenda (Apple, 1986, 2006; Au, 2013; Barrett, 2009; Lipman, 2004; Kuntz, Gildersleeve, & Pasque, 2011). In particular, Apple (2006) argues that contemporary education policy has been shaped by what he calls "conservative modernization," informed by both neoconservatism and neoliberalism. Neoconservatism relies upon a strong state, calling upon the government to enforce the cultural order of society representing the Western tradition (Gildersleeve, Kuntz, Pasque, & Carducci, 2010). This top-down approach manifests in education in the form of accountability measures and standardization. Neoliberalism relies upon a weak state where social values are subsumed within free market principles to ensure the dominance of private enterprise and economic individualism (Gildersleeve, Kuntz, Pasque, & Carducci, 2010). Educational standards informed by an economic agenda, as well as school choice and privatization policies, such as vouchers and charter schools, are representative of neoliberal education reform. Apple (2006) explains, "Neoliberalism transforms our very idea of democracy, making it only an economic concept, not a political one" (p. 15).

Importantly, these do not represent a synthesis of left- and right-wing political movements, but rather are complementary ideologies working under the umbrella of conservative modernization to supplant socially valuable educational ends in favor of economic ones. Hursh (2007) explains that education is caught up in a modern phenomenon where "societal institutions are recast as markets rather than deliberatively democratic systems" (p. 493-494). This recasting of schools as markets, which are measured by their ability to contribute to economic production, has led to increasing accountability over schools and educators. For example, Leaton Gray (2007) suggests that modern school reform instills the notion of the "technicization of teaching," where teachers execute plans designed by managers. Au (2011) informs this concept by arguing that curriculum policies constitute a "New Taylorism," or a top-down managerial approach akin to the scientific management of the early 1900s.

The increasing bureaucratization of professions and public services has been labeled "new managerialism" (Clark & Newman, 1994, 1997; Deem & Brehony, 2005). Davies (2003) writes that new managerialism "is characterized by the removal of the locus of power from the knowledge of practising professionals to auditors, policy-makers and statisticians, none of whom need know anything about the profession in question" (p. 91). This seems to adequately describe the situation in public education policy reform with its emphasis on top-down management, accountability measures, and quantification of performance. Interestingly, however, many note that managerialism is becoming increasingly prevalent in higher education as well (Baez, 2014; Giroux, 2002; Strhan, 2010). Thus, teacher education has been increasingly subject to accountability measures through the rise of performance assessment programs (Lewis & Young, 2013). In terms of educational research, models of cause and effect reasoning are prioritized as governing bodies become increasingly invested in a technical rationality of "what works" to produce pre-determined outcomes (Biesta, 2007). Within recent memory, this has had the impact of marginalizing research programs that emphasize context, social justice, and non-linear theories of education (Baez & Boyles, 2009; Lather, 2004; St. Pierre, 2002).

This account illustrates that current educational reform rests upon a technical rationality emphasizing decontextualized understandings of economic utility. Of importance in the public policy discussion on education is knowledge of the most efficient means to reach measurable outcomes such as higher test scores and the prevalent notion of college and career readiness. Such an emphasis has had the impact of deprofessionalizing teachers through increased managerialism, marginalizing socially responsible goals of education, and elevating simplified cause-effect models of education research. Clearly, then, teachers, teacher educators, and educational researchers committed to a social justice agenda require a framework that counters these dominant modes of educational policy.

Phronesis as a Counter-Framework

As stated previously, scholars in diverse fields have called for a revival of the ancient concept of phronesis to break from the narrow focus on scientific and technical rationality of modern times. According to Kinsella and Pitman (2012), phronesis "is generally defined as practical wisdom or knowledge of the proper ends of life" (p. 2). Thus, phronesis includes both practical rationality related to the particulars of lived contexts and value rationality of "what is good and bad for human beings" (Aristotle, 2000, p. 107). In this section, I first offer a brief overview of Aristotle's account of intellectual virtues before discussing how the concept of phronesis has been engaged in scholarly discourse on education and the social sciences. I conclude that phronesis offers a framework that challenges dominant technical understandings of education, and that opens up space for further development related to material forms of knowing and being.

Aristotle (2000) focuses on the distinct intellectual states that allow one to arrive at truth in book VI of the Nicomachean Ethics. The first state that Aristotle discusses is episteme, or scientific knowledge. This is a form of rationality concerned with laws and universal rules that can be demonstrated from eternal principles. He writes that it is a state of reason by which humans can demonstrate the truth from what "cannot be otherwise" (p. 105). Aristotle then discusses techne, or skill, as a form of knowledge "concerned with what can be otherwise" (p. 107). Techne represents craft knowledge on the part of a practitioner dealing with the means to reach a desired end. Finally, Aristotle arrives at phronesis, describing the possessor of practical wisdom as one who can see "what is good for themselves and what is good for people in general" (p. 108). Importantly, phronesis is distinguished from techne because practical wisdom involves deliberation on praxis, or right action, while skill only deliberates on poiesis, or production toward an already given end...

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