4IR and Phronesis, the Phronimoi and Phronetic Intelligence

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4IR and Phronesis, the Phronimoi and Phronetic Intelligence


By Dr Cobus Oosthuizen, Dean, Milpark Business School.

As organisational leaders are struggling to make sense from the rhetoric emanating from news, views, opinions and debates related to 4IR, all the ambiguity, surprise and conflicting values inevitably puts pressure on their judgement; especially as the judgement is mainly grounded in a rationalist orientation.

John Shotter and Harmidos Tsoukas (In Search of Phronesis: Leadership and the Art of Judgment) reason that a rationalist orientation prevents leaders from accurately comprehending vital attributes of the interpretation-development process in arriving at a judgement. They believe that “the role of emotions, moral agency, language use, and, especially, the selective and integrative nature of perceptual processes, are far too easily ignored.” In their critique towards the currently dominant approaches to judgment they go on to argue a case for a concept of judgment known as “phronesis.”

Phronesis is generally regarded as practical wisdom (an intellectual virtue that implies ethics) based on Aristotle's thinking. It involves deliberation that is grounded in values, concerned with practical judgement and informed by reflection, is pragmatic, variable, context-dependent, and oriented toward action.

Bent Flyvberg (Making Organization Research Matter: Power, Values, and Phronesis) writes that phronesis concerns values and goes beyond analytical, scientific knowledge (episteme) and technical knowledge or know how (techne) and it involves judgements and decisions made in the manner of a skilful social actor. As a departure point for managed action, Flyvberg states, phronesis concerns the analysis of values (things that are good or bad for man), and it is that intellectual activity most relevant to praxis. It focuses on what is inconstant, on that which cannot be encapsulated by universal rules, on specific cases, or as John Wall (Phronesis, Poetics, and Moral Creativity) puts it, phronesis contains “attention to otherness as an end.”

Phronetic leaders, Shotter and Tsoukas argue, “are people who have developed a refined capacity to come to an intuitive grasp of the most salient features of an ambiguous situation and, in their search for a way out of their difficulties, to craft a particular path of response in moving through them, while driven by the pursuit of the common good.” Richard Trowbridge (The Scientific Approach of Wisdom) contends that Aristotle’s list of “the excellences requisite to phronesis” emphasises that, phronetic individuals must be ‘well brought-up; they require exposure to, and consideration of, examples of well-lived lives; the friendship of good people; temperance; intelligence; experience; understanding; consideration or decency; and virtue of character’.

Ikujiro Nonaka and Ryoko Toyama (Strategic management as distributed practical wisdom (phronesis) conceive of phronesis as a concept that synthesises “knowing why” as in scientific theory, with “knowing how” as in practical skill, and “knowing what” as a goal to be realised. In as far as the abilities that constitute phronesis are concerned, they refer to (i) making a judgment on “goodness”, (ii) sharing contexts with others to create a shared space of knowledge, (iii) grasping the essence of particular situations/things, (iv) reconstructing the particulars into universals and vice-versa using language/concepts/narratives, (v) using any necessary political means well to realise concepts for the common good, and (vi) fostering phronesis in others to build a resilient organisation.

Dimitris Bourantas (Phronesis: a strategic leadership virtue) believes that the experience gained by practical wisdom and knowledge enables phronetic individuals (the ‘phronimoi’) to see beyond isolated facts, to think beyond linear logic and to appreciate the whole, recognising the limitations and relativity of all perspectives and knowledge, so that they may make a decision for the common good. Also noteworthy is Robert Sternberg’s (WICS: a model of leadership in organizations) view of aspiring to the common good “means that one extends one’s field of vision beyond oneself, one’s immediate family, or the particular groups with which one identifies.”

The way I see it, the myriad of voices resonating across the globe about what leaders and management practitioners ought to be doing to navigate the uncharted waters of 4IR, only exacerbates the uncertainty and ambiguity. However, by no means am I implying that we should shut out the noise and draw ourselves into our own microcosms, head in the sand. The challenge is rather, who’s voices are counting? Whose voices are based on an intellectual virtue that infers ethics, grounded in values, concerned with practical judgement and informed by reflection, pragmatic, variable, context-dependent, and action oriented? Who is the ‘phronimoi’, the ones seeing beyond isolated facts, the ones thinking beyond linear logic, appreciating the whole, the ones recognising the limitations of relativity of all perspectives of knowledge, the ones making decisions for the common good?

I would suggest, apart from lending our ears to the phrominoi, we also need to develop our own ‘phronetic intelligence’ so we ourselves become phrominoi, able to synthesise “knowing why” with “knowing how” and “knowing what” as a goal to be realised for the common good. And yes, it implies challenging our own assumptions and exploring paths contra the dominant rationalist orientation, extending our field of vision beyond ourselves and the particular groups with which we identify.

01 Aug 2019