The Ontological Reappropriation of Phronesis

Long, Christopher P. “The Ontological Reappropriation of Phronesis,” Continental Philosophy Review 35, 1 (2002): 35-60.

Ontology has been traditionally guided by sophia, a form of knowledge directed toward that which is eternal, permanent, necessary. This tradition finds an important early expression in the philosophical ontology of Aristotle. Yet in the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle’s intense concern to do justice to the world of finite contingency leads him to develop a mode of knowledge, phronêsis, that implicitly challenges the hegemony of sophia and the economy of values on which it depends. Following in the tradition of the early Heidegger’s recognition of the ontological significance of Aristotle’s Ethics and of Gadamer’s appropriation of phronêsis for hermeneutics, this article argues that an ontology guided by phronêsis is preferable to one governed by sophia. Specifically, it suggests that by taking sophia as its paradigm, traditional philosophical ontology has historically been determined by a kind of knowledge that is incapable of critically considering the concrete historico-ethico-political conditions of its own deployment. This critique of sophia is accomplished by uncovering the economy of values that led Aristotle to privilege sophia over phronêsis. It is intended to open up the possibility of developing an ontology of finite contingency based on phronêsis. Such an ontology, because it is guided by and must remain responsible to the concrete individual with which it is engaged, would be ethical at its very core.

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