2013 / 17 February

Phronesis and an Aristotelian Look at a Transhuman Future – Dr. David Roochnik


The first philosophy book that I ever dove into was Nichomachean Ethics, at age 19. The emphasis on self-cultivation and the articulation of the depths of fulfillment pulled me in, and I’ve been immersed ever since. I reached out to Dr. David Roochnik as an award winning teacher at Boston University, but also a recognized expert on Aristotle and author of five books, including 2013’s “Retrieving Aristotle in an Age of Crisis.”

Aristotle’s Potential Response to Transhumanism

Dr. Roochnik believes that Aristotle would have been very interested in the concerns of transhumanism, and that the ideas of enhancement and prolonged longevity might have been particularly congenial both to his belief in a physical connection to consciousness, and because of his support of a constant forward technological progression. Dr. Roochnik believes that Aristotle would not be all too surprised to see where we have come today, because technological development was an inevitability in his eyes.

Aristotle did not hold onto a particular conception of man as inalterable or innately sacred, but improvable – with consciousness likely being alterable as well.

Balancing ‘Techne’ and ‘Phronesis’

The trouble with the concerns of transhumanism for Aristotle wouldn’t so much be in the ideas themselves – which would appear to be potentially beneficial – but in the application of these technologies and “enhancements” to human life.

The term “techne,” in Aristotle’s time refers to craft, or craftsmanship equatable to what we now ever to as technology. “Phronesis” translates most closely to “practical wisdom.” For Aristotle, Phronesis is the higher of the two domains because it focuses it’s efforts purely at the right use or application of ideas, technologies, etc…

No amount of knowledge, no new set of tools, and no new way or organizing a people is likely to result in “good” if it is not vigilantly calibrated to be “good,” if practical wisdom is not applied to use it’s strengths and check it’s weaknesses or boundaries. Hence, this contemplative – albeit imperfect and relatively subjective domain of phronesis heads the list of importance above other types of wisdom or knowledge.

Dr. Roochnik sees phronesis as essentially forgotten in our modern time, partially beaten our by Baconian ideals of scientific progress and a resentment for the potentially “fluffy,” subjective phronesis (though Bacon was certainly not the only contributor to this shift away from practical ethics). Dr. Roochnik also believes that the supposed “softness” of practical wisdom is a great misunderstanding – and that the world has a kind of “frankenstein” potential without the vigilant presence of phronesis on our society and in modern thought.

Though I cannot speak to the social impacts of the lack of this sense – for I know little of the trends and popularity of practical wisdom (or the resulting impact on a society) – the idea certainly rings true for me in an age where “techne” is exploding to such a vast extent.

Phronesis in the Modern Age

I was glad to be reminded of the term “Phronesis,” and in reflection I genuinely see it as the aim of this blog – and as my deepest personal aim as well.

On this page my aim isn’t (at least at this point) to push any particular agenda, but to see the concerns of transhumanism and the potentially radical shifts in sentient potential (that is, the potential of consciousness and volition, even well beyond a human manifestation) through the lenses of great past thinkers and ways of thinking – and in so doing – to aim to discern more closely how these issues and possibilities might be considered as humanity moves forward in an attempt to better itself.

I regularly delve into the technical side of what is developing, and the scientific research and trends, but it is through a great many lenses that we must look in order to arrive at practical wisdom – and philosophy and ethics have much to contribute in this regard. This is one of the reasons that I believe in discussion and conversation across the borders of science, business, politics, and philosophy – to give raise to a better and better conception of phronesis – a constant vigilant pursuit of ideas for the best way forward, the best application of ideas, the best result for humanity.

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If you’d like to learn more about Professor Roochnik, you can find his books here, or learn from his Greek philosophy courses online at The Great Courses.

All the best and thanks again to Professor Roochnik.

-Daniel Faggella

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