"The whole movement of life is learning" (Krishnamurti). "To be an act of knowing, then, the adult literacy process must engage the learners in the constant problematizing of their existential situations" (Freire). "Once you learn to read, you will be forever free" (Douglass). "I can learn anything I have the desire to learn" (White, S.G.).

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Episteme and Phronesis

       I love books.  I read books for pleasure and for knowledge.  When I need to understand something I tend to rely on book knowledge.  I think this was the way I was originally taught to learn – episteme.  To me the “new to me” term, episteme, means I have gained knowledge from the act of learning; tonight this learning came from reading an assigned article.  I think reading is one arena where I am really comfortable learning.  Another would be a classroom.  These are structured environments.  Teaching primarily math (as I do), like science, is a model of epistemology (I just googled this to determine if I have made up a new word – and I learned that I might have even used it appropriately).   In math, there is the right answer and many wrong answers.   I like this way of thinking.  It is analytical.  It’s where I am comfortable.

      Today I think education is leaning toward my other newly learned term, phronesis.   This term causes me to think harder as my Microsoft product underlines it with a red squiggle.  Am I spelling it wrong?  I have to now combine my book knowledge with some real life experience.  Although I might have my book knowledge, I now have to construct meaning from my personal experiences - Microsoft isn't always correct.  I have to apply my understanding as I resist letting Microsoft turn my new word into “prognosis”.  This is what we are asking students to do in education when we ask them to practice phronesis – essentially we are asking them to trust what they know and not let spell check change their experiences.  I think this is a good thing, “learning by doing” is the way I’m simplifying it for my analytical mind.  Perhaps we are combining our book smarts with our common sense and equating it to the best of both worlds.


  1. OK, Lisa, after reading this I'm changing my entire post. :-) You got me thinking about teaching again; I was going in a different direction. I find there are many layers and senses to these words. I also see episteme as those variables that are consistent across contexts--math formulas, science data--the content that we can teach, isolate, and measure (or grade) for being correct, although I use the word consistent. It's the consistent knowledge that we have all come to agree on as being the 'truth.' I was going in a much darker direction about episteme, that which has come to be regarded as 'truth.' These truths came to be while we were looking the other way and not critically challenging the methods and process. I was thinking about the so-called 'illiteracy crisis' and the 'skills gap'. When you talked about resisting the spell checker, a light bulb went off. Yes, let me add that to my working definition of phronesis--the wisdom to know when to resist and challenge the established truths. I also love that you said 'practice phronesis' because I also do not regard it as the kind of knowledge that can be explicitly taught, I think it is cultivated. Thanks for helping me think through this on a new level (and changing my entire post ha ha)!

    1. Susan-
      Your direction is likely to be just as valid. I would have loved to have read your original ideas, because I struggled to wrap my own mind around the differences between the two ways of considering knowledge. My mind tends to go to the black and white, and when there is any gray I circle things around and around. I was going in such circles that I had to just do it. Looking forward to your ideas...

  2. Lisa, I love the open way you wrestle with these ideas. And strongly agree with Susan that phronesis takes practice. But episteme takes practice too—for episteme, practice leads to technical competence; for phronesis, practice leads to improved judgment (and some would say, wisdom). Lisa, be careful not to confuse episteme with epistemology. Epistemology refers to the study of knowledge, and in common practice, a “way of knowing.” There are numerous ways of knowing—artistic, poetic, scientific, mathematic, meditative, motoric, intuitive, etc. And each epistemology comes with its own methods for validating its truths. Episteme is an epistemology that seeks universal truths by slowly building up parts. For example, we isolate variables, hypothesize how one intervention might affect it, and then test it out. Then we look to take this experiment out of context and test it on other contexts, gradually building up a grand theory. Conversely, phronesis is an epistemology that is at home in complexity and rather than study it in parts, wants to see the whole picture and the parts simultaneously. It has no interest in generalizing, but rather, like a courtroom judge, wants to sort out all the threads in the fabric and see how they weave together into a unique tapestry. It pays attention to unquantifiable things like values and how conflicts across two cultures have historical roots. If episteme likes black and white (or at least simple and elegant solutions), phronesis looks for colors that haven’t been seen yet. 

  3. Hi Lisa,
    I really liked the connections you made in your post and was nodding and bobbing my head right along with you as I read. And then I read Bill’s reply and I realized with the addition of his comments, I have gained “more” knowledge and layer upon layer of understanding.
    I too, may be shaky in how I defined “episteme” and “phronesis” but as these terms are unfamiliar to me, I still feel that I got some of it right and now I have more knowledge to add to my original thread of learning. *If I were making a sweater, I’d probably have the collar done at this point. :) Looking forward to seeing where we all go with our shared learning with these terms as a class and on our own. Also, I thought you made a nice analogy between environment of space (classroom) and material (books/reading). Nice post! :)


Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts on this post. Diverse opinions are welcomed.