What is Phronesis?

Dr. Brendan O’Byrne

‘In Antiquity the philosopher regards himself as a philosopher, not because he develops a philosophical discourse, but because he lives philosophically.’ Pierre Hadot

For the last few hundred years philosophy has been diverted into what can seem like an obscure scholasticism and professionalism that takes place behind the high walls of the university. Even within the academic discipline of philosophy there has been an ever-increasing drive towards specialisation to the point that even colleagues in the philosophy department can find it difficult to understand each other’s interests so refined and specialised have they become. Many contemporary philosophers have taken the view that for philosophy to survive in modern academia, it must become more like the sciences in its methods and the scope of its interests.

Philosophy began among the ancient Greeks as an activity which was neither scholastic nor professional. In time a scholasticism did develop, but it was nothing like the kind we find within the present state of affairs because it remained rooted in solving problems with an ultimately practical origin and application. One of the important inspirations behind Phronesis has been the work of the French philosopher, scholar of ancient thought, and former member of the prestigious Collège de France, Pierre Hadot. In an influential book of his entitled Philosophy as a Way of Life, his translator and associate, Arnold I Davidson in his Introduction sums up the situation as follows:

‘One central feature of the university is that it is an institution made up of professors who train other professors, of specialists who learn how to train other specialists. Unlike in antiquity, when philosophical teaching was directed towards the human being so as to form him as a human being, the modern university forms professionals who teach future professionals, and thus philosophy, rather than proposing an art of living, is presented above all as a “technical language reserved for specialists.’ (p. 32)

In ancient times there was no university and therefore no professional class of scholars. Instead, philosophy was largely carried on by people with sufficient leisure to do so. Philosophers were primarily dedicated to the search for truth, but they were keenly aware of their responsibilities to share the fruits of their labours with others as philosophy was, as Hadot stated, ‘intended, in the first instance, to form people and to transform souls’. Phronesis is about getting philosophy out of the university and back amongst the people. This does not mean that we oppose university philosophy, that would be a little strange given that the present author has taught philosophy at a university for twenty years! It does mean that we need to reconnect philosophy with non-philosophers – 99% of people! – in the same fraternal spirit of service that animated Socrates in the Athens of the fifth century BC.

Phronesis is an experiment in restoring philosophy to its original place in the public space to pursue the original motivations of the philosophers of ancient times. We believe in the supreme value of truth and wisdom and believe that the best life for human beings must include a love of truth, wisdom and virtue. We strongly believe that the philosopher has a duty to truth, but also, as a citizen, a duty to his or her community. The philosopher is a servant of truth but also of other people, the society of those around us. In ancient Greece and Rome, philosophers were central in providing their societies with the fruits of their inquiries, mainly in setting out ethical teachings, but also as counsellors and even as authors of laws and constitutions. Across this site we will develop many of the themes that motivated and defined philosophy in its origins, both for the benefit of our fellow citizens and human beings, but also to revivify and preserve this ancient and noble tradition.

Here at at Phronesis we are not just interested in writing and talking about philosophy but primarily in practising it, both in our own lives and in emulation of the ancient masters who moved freely in the public square, teaching and giving counsel, when sought, but most of all, by  setting an example. For this reason, Phronesis is itself a philosophical experiment without conditions and no preconceived limits as to what can be achieved. We are already involved in working with individuals, groups large and small, in counselling situations, seminars, workshops and public speaking engagements. Shortly we will be introducing the weekend retreat programme (based on a suggestion by some friends of ours) where people can get away from the noise and pressures of city life to spend a weekend in comfortable surroundings ‘doing’ philosophy. We are also developing a publishing arm which will put out the first of a series of publications later this year and shortly a Youtube channel will be hosting a continuous series of 15-minute talks once a week.

We are very keen to hear from you, to maintain and on-going dialogue. The Disqus comment system is there to aid in this. Alternatively drop us an email with questions, suggestions, or perhaps your thoughts on any of the topics that come up: become part of the experiment.