Sunday, April 15, 2012
A contribution to a human-scientific theory of action
How can Aristotle help cast light over the concepts of theory and practice, the difference between doing and acting, and the importance of practical wisdom? My answer will be that teaching in our professions should be based on theory-orientated empirical research.
The problem is not only what we do, but also how we do it. Knowledge is not just the objective result or product of scientific work, as we can read as articles, doctoral dissertations or other scientific presentations, but also something we do and we call this productive activity for scientific research. This is the background for the titel “Creative meaning”. Research is a creative activity.
Teaching and training of our professions tends to be insufficient when we stand face to face with making difficult choices. The professional knowledge that is taught in our educational institutions does not follow the quick and unforeseen changes that take place in our society. We are often forced to find our own private and quiet ways out of our difficulties with “homemade” explanations. That is why it is important to try to make visible and articulate the experience which grows forth through personal and long-lasting intercourse with everyday situations and problems. This knowledge-in-action is a perspective which is concerned with solving specific problems, but success depends on practical skill, judgment and personal competence in handling unexpected situations.
Theory and practice
Theory and practice are two of our most common dichotomies. Theory and practice are of those philosophical concepts that have become a part of our everyday language and are used to legitimate, limit, excommunicate and most of all try to explain something without really doing so. We often hear people say that “we are not theoretical, we are practical”. But what is really “theory” and what is “practice”?
Theory and practice are amongst the oldest words in our western culture. They were created by the Greeks. We associate spontaneously theory with thinking or knowledge, and practice with doing. The first sits in our head and the other in our hands. The question is if one can think without doing, or do something without thinking. We are responsible for our actions, because we are conscious of them. Thinking can therefore be considered a form for action.
Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics) presents a tool box which I mean can help us give some kind of perspective to these two concepts. Aristotle took words out of our everyday language and formed concepts that would become instruments for philosophical and scientific understanding. His influence on our way of thinking is enormous.
The tool box creates a system of concepts which points to different forms of existence and knowledge. Knowledge is a most problematic word, because we often mean an objective result or a product. To know something is to have something in ones head, but also to manage or to cope with something. To know something is first and foremost an activity and about the competence this activity forms in the individual.
Aristotle speaks of five forms of knowledge, one form for theory and two forms for practice. These can be put together in this way:
Theory (Theoria a theoretical activity)
Doing (Poiesis, a productive activity,)
Acting (Praxis, an activity with its own value)
Forms of knowledge
Practical wisdom (Fronesis)Philosophical wisdom (Sofia)
I will concentrate on science, skills and practical wisdom in this papir and not give so much attention to philosophical wisdom and insight. Philosophical wisdom is a combination of insight and practical wisdom. Insight is a form for intuition, an understanding we have right before we meet something without having to discuse it in words (logos).
Skills develop through long-lasting training of productive activity. We find the word theory in all European languages. One develops scientific competence by working with theoretical activities. Aristotle understands being practical on a richer and more varied level than we do today. Aristotle differs between to do and to act and this is important for Aristotle.
Praxis has become practice, which includes both doing and acting. Aristotle meant something else. Praxis stood for our actions, but could also imply the things we do. Doing and acting was in the same way as theory, a human activity for Aristotle.
Techne stands for the skill that productive activity (of any kind) creates in the individual. One becomes a musician by playing music. A person, who practices long enough with speaking, can become a good speaker. The word techne is often translated with art in this words old meaning. This is the same as “craftsmanship”, or some kind of practical skill.
Fronesis is translated to Latin with prudential, which is the same as practical wisdom. This is about collecting experience over time and building up a capability to act in specific human situations.
Aristotle, in his Nicomachean Ethics, talks about theory as a way of living. The Greek word theoria does not mean the same as the word theory as we use it today. We most often think of the objective result, the Greeks are inclined to think of the activity. With theory in Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle did not mean the product of scientific activity which comes forth in compositions and is stored in texts or other information media. Aristotle meant the activity that is produced when we investigate the world around us.
Scientific knowledge was not, as for us, the attained scientific product, not the objective result, but the subjective capacity to attain such results, through theoretical activity. Theory was for Aristotle a theoretical activity, a productive activity, even the highest form for activity a human could be concerned with. Theory was therefore also a form for doing, a productive activity. If doing is building a house, to compose melodies, to care for the sick (which constructors, musicians and nurses do), than theory is a doing which is concerned with using words objectively in different cases in order to describe them and codify and store this descriptions for the knowledge and use for others.
This productive activity is best done by those scientists who have attained the ability to do science (episteme) through studying science (epistemology). One becomes more scientific by practicing theoretical activity, which again makes us more capable of understanding theory. A theory is therefore a special kind of activity. A scientist is a person who has learned to work with theories. Theories are the activities of a scientist, the same way as building a house is the activity of a building worker.
To conceive the concepts of Aristotle
To create concepts is not to en capsulate, but rather as pointing with a shaking finger or using a flashlight which blinks. An understanding which stems from Plato is that concepts are definable and. Plato understands all concepts as if they where geometrical. The concepts “triangles” or “horses” are identical with the contents of their definitions. One can never completely understand Aristotle if one starts with concepts that have permanent and unambiguous definitions.
Aristotle says that one must always remember that concepts are not physical structures. We can for example talk about “shoe” as a common denominator for all shoes, but we can also divide “shoe”, “sandals”, “boots”, etc. We use the word man as in “mankind” and “human” to describe both men and woman. In some contexts we differ between human and animals and in others we say that humans are animals. Sound is both a sound and a noise. A bat is some ways a mouse and in other ways a bird. The problem arises when we think of a bat as only a mouse or a bird.
Three different forms for human existence
Acting means “action” in its strict form, but in it’s broaden meaning acting can be understood with Aristotle as all forms of doings and in it’s broadest meaning acting means “human existence”. These forms for living are theory, doing and acting. In Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics he talks about three different forms for human existence.
Theory (Theoria) An intellectual, theoretical life (Bios theoretikos)
Acting (Praxis) Citizenship (Bios politikos)
Doing (Poiesis) The rational strive for material benefit (Bios apolaustikos)
Theory and acting are something we want in it selves. Doing is a useful activity which is valuable only for the good results which it causes. Aristotle regarded “the good life” as citizenship (bios politicos), even though an intellectual, theoretical life (bios theoretikos) was a higher form for life activity. The fact that Aristotle praises theory as the highest form and most sought-after activity stems from Plato, and can creates some confusion in his way of thinking. It is clear that the concept of acting gives the best expression for human action and life form at all. Even if theory is the highest form for activity, it is acting that is the typical human paradigm for all human living.
We get a clear reflective form for knowledge, science (episteme), through theoretical activity, and practical wisdom (fronesis) through long-lasting reflective action (which means that we give meaning to what we do). We get competence and skills (techne) by doing something productive, by working with something creative in the existing reality. To act is not the same as to do, but it is through what we do that our actions can be seen and understood. Our skills differ from science, but at the same time it is a form for science. Science can explain, and skills help us in a productive activity. But to explain what one does is also science. Theory and science are both activities and thereby capabilities which can be learned. These words become, by help of the written language, a result of something one does; formulating thesis, constructing theories, and writing text and books. Theory and science are just forms of productive activity. The most important concept according to Aristotle in order to live a good life is acting with the corresponding capability, practical wisdom. Science is just the competence to know, while skills are the competence to do a productive activity. It is the concept of action (an understanding-creative activity) which leads to the practical wisdom of bringing forth the knowing and doing which again can create a meaningful life.
Kaare T. Pettersen
Aristotle, [350 BC], 2000. Nicomachean Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Ramírez, José Luis, 1995. Creative meaning. A contribution to a human-scientific theory of
action. Stockholm: Nordic School of Planning, diss.13. (Language: Swedish).