From the Multiversity Cave: Aristotle and Phronesis



Saginaw, MI

This post is part of a series that will explore what prominent thinkers can teach us about today’s public multiversity, the modern university with its many colleges, departments, and other administrative units that play multiple functions and roles in our society.

In my last post I wrote about how Plato could provide us a paradigm of periagoge and the methodology of dialectics for the multiversity, shifting students, faculty, and administrators from thinking about the question of how to teach to the problem of how to learn. By pursuing, although not necessarily finding, truth, the multiversity becomes whole among its disparate communities, with each one following truth in its own fashion: students learning in the classroom and partaking in campus life; teachers modeling students and conducting research; and administrators creating the conditions for periagoge to become possible. Each of these communities pursue in their own distinct way how to learn about truth.

Aristotle offers a different paradigm for the multiversity but one that complements Plato’s: it is the paradigm of phronesis. In Book VI of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle distinguishes between the intellectual virtues of sophia and phronesis: the former is oriented towards theoretical or scientific knowledge, while the latter combines the insights of sophia with the practical demands of life. Phronesis consequently is a paradoxical virtue in that it cannot be scientific because it is concerned with the contingency of practical matters, but, at the same time, it relies upon scientific insight to guide its action. In spite of its paradoxical nature, phronesis is the preferred virtue for education because, unlike sophia with its rigid, abstract, and morally-disengaged reasoning, it is able to direct people to deliberate about truth and act upon it in particular, concrete manner.

Being practical but guided by theoretical insight, phronesis also is uniquely suited to become the primary mission for the multiversity. The multiversity, and more broadly higher education, is best suited to cultivate a character of phronesis among the young when compared to non-educational institutions in America. Whereas business and government organizations subordinate theoretical reasoning solely to specific practical ends, the multiversity can orient students’ reason to the theoretical insights of sophia while simultaneously direct their action to the world of the particular, concrete, and contingent, something which liberal arts and religious institutions tend to neglect. By navigating between these two extremes of masters of the universe and locust-eating poets, the multiversity’s cultivation of phronesis preserves both theoretical insight and practical application for the flourishing of the whole human being.

The fostering of phronesis also comports with one of the multiversity’s role of civic formation, a duty sometimes ignored by liberal arts and religious colleges and certainly abandoned by businesses. Because phronesis requires both theoretical and practical reason, students would learn the former in the classroom and the latter in the field. This combination of theoretical and practical reasoning addresses some of the common criticisms leveled against multiversity’s leadership and service-learning programs. Leadership programs are often criticized for their over-theoretical nature, where student learn concepts abstracted from particular contexts and thereby become meaningless to students as they do not know how to apply them concretely. By contrast, service-learning programs tend to be entirely practical and disregard any theoretical reasoning, reducing such programs to lessons of sentimental slogans of therapeutic ethics. Phronesis corrects the deficiency of both of these programs by requiring students to learn both theoretical and practical reason.

Phronesis does not only balance theoretical and practical reason for its students, but it also can serve as the mission for the multiversity. By asking how to cultivate phronesis not only in teaching but also in research and public service, the multiversity can connect its various, disparate functions under a coherent concept. For example, if a multiversity determines its core mission is to foster responsible and engaged democratic citizens, phronesis can provide the template to students, faculty, and administrators on how to accomplish it. These actors would have to address such questions, like “What is the proper allocation of courses between theoretical and practical reasoning?”; “What kind of research should be encouraged?”; and “What kinds of off-campus relationships should students, faculty, and administrators form in order to accomplish this specific goal?”

Given the diversity of institutions in American higher education, and even among multiversities themselves, there is no need to impose a single, normative understanding of phronesis onto all colleges and universities. If a religious college wants to incorporate theological beliefs into its understanding of phronesis, it would have a different type of student, faculty, administrator as well as curriculum and campus life than a multiversity that focuses on cultivating democratic citizenship. Phronesis provides a flexibility among American higher education institutions in tailoring a mission that is best suited for them but demands that these institutions focus on fostering the whole person in developing both its theoretical and practical reason.

Thus, this paradigm of phronesis calls for higher education institutions to create and commit to a normative understanding of human flourishing that includes both theoretical and practical reason; and, as a result, it directs an institution’s teaching, research, and public service towards that specific end. When compared to other institutions in American society, such as governmental agencies and private corporations, colleges and universities are uniquely suited for this task of cultivating both theoretical and practical reason aimed at a particular ethical formation. Other institutions in society simply lack this combination of theoretical and practical reason or are deficit in their aim in an ethical conception of human flourishing. Only colleges and universities have the unique resources of students, faculty, and administrators to nurture phronesis.

Conceding that phronesis may lack a certain branding appeal when compared to other current mottos, like “something more, something better” or “advancing knowledge, transforming lives”; but this and other administrative matters can be resolved once the university decides what types of human being it wants to promote. Without such a paradigm like phronesis, the multiversity often falls prey to ones of management-speak, such as “something more, something better,” that are vague and abstract, having little effect on the lives of students, faculty, and administrators. A paradigm of phronesis compels these communities to think about what should be the core mission of its institution. It forces these groups to address the question “why am I here?” with an answer of what constitutes human flourishing. Without asking such questions, the multiversity is set to float adrift, exposing itself to a seat of criticisms from all sectors of society but without any genuine understanding as to the reasons why.

Lee Trepanier is a Professor of Political Science at Saginaw Valley State University. More information about him can be found at

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