Maggie and Me (a philosophical dialogue): On the Different Types of Knowing


Maggie:  We need to continue our discussion about intelligence and feeling stupid.  If you recall, we initially concluded that intelligence is a good-for-other-things.  That means that it is not a good-in-itself, but is used to obtain other good things.

John:  I remember.  And nice summary!

Maggie:  Next, we were going to address the idea that there is not just one type of intelligence, but several different types.

John: I think it is best if we focus on the three main types or categories of intelligence and skip the many subcategories that philosophers have come up with.  Does that work for you?

Maggie: Sure.  But let’s start with the category most of us think about when we think about intelligence.

John: Okay.  That category is called “episteme” in Greek, but we can think of it as deductive reasoning.  This is the type of intelligence that allows a person to start with one premise and reason to a conclusion.  Let me give you an example.  Let’s start with the idea that “Mother Teresa is a woman.”  Let’s add a second thought: “All women are human.” If Mother Teresa is a woman and all women are humans, can you draw a conclusion from this about Mother Teresa?

Maggie:  Sure, that’s easy.  Mother Teresa is a human.

John: Right.  That is called deductive reasoning or episteme.  Scientists, mathematicians, lawyers, engineers, teachers and others use this type of reasoning on a daily basis, and it is typically what we refer to when we say that a person is smart.  Does this make sense?

Maggie: Yes.  It is what I was thinking about when I said that I feel stupid.  I can’t seem to reach the conclusions that others can reach.

John:  Well, that doesn’t mean you are stupid. You just need to work on training your deductive reasoning a bit more.  Its just work, like training any other muscle, and we can do that together.  So don’t be so hard on yourself.

Maggie: Okay.  I get it.  What is another type of intelligence?

John:  There is one that I am fascinated with called “techne” in Greek. 

Maggie:  That sounds like technology.

John:  That’s right.  It is often translated as craft or craftsmanship or art.  But it is concerned with producing a product. Again, let me give you a couple of examples.  When an experienced carpenter builds a house, she does so using techne.  When an experienced logger falls a tree, she does so because she has techne.  And when an architect draws up plans for a building, she is able to do so because she has techne.  This is the intelligence a person must have in order to produce a product. Does this make sense?

Maggie:  I think so.  It is the kind of intelligence that a certified car mechanic would have that her trainee would not have.

John:  Yes, yes.  But how do you know about certified car mechanics?

Maggie:  I just know some things.

John:  You constantly surprise me.

Maggie:  Why does techne fascinate you so much?

John:  I always appreciate people who are at the top of their craft, no matter what that craft is.  It is fun to watch a master builder or a good painter or an expert logger.  I recently saw a video of a logger who fell a tree right between two houses.  It was amazing work.

Maggie:  I like that to.  Especially good musicians like Bruno Mars.  He’s amazing.  But let’s get back on point.  What is the third type of knowledge?

John:  The third type is called “phronesis” in Greek. It means practical wisdom. It is something like common sense, but more concerned with facilitating good actions.  I know this is perplexing, since it is the first time you have heard this, so let me explain it a bit more.

Phronesis is concerned with grasping the truth about what is a good and bad action for a person to take.  Let’s say you have to make a decision about whether to finish your homework or talk with your friend whose parents are going through a divorce.  Phronesis helps with this kind of practical decision. 

The first thing a person with phronesis does is ask further pertinent questions.  This is important, because if you don’t ask all the right questions you may miss some information you need that will help you make the decision.

Maggie:  Like what questions?

John:  Why don’t you tell me what questions you think you should ask?

Maggie: I suppose I would ask how important it is to get the homework done right then?  Could it be done later that night or the next day? I would also ask whether my friend is calling to talk about the divorce and how she feels about it, or is she calling to talk about her boyfriend?

John:  Good questions.  I think you have the idea.  Once a person asks the further pertinent questions and answers those questions, then she can make a judgment about what she should do. As you can see, there is a process to phronesis, with the primary focus on asking the right questions.

Maggie:  I get that.  The questions are the most important part of the process.  And once we have asked the right questions and gained the right answers, we can make a good judgment about what to do.

John:  You are really smart, you know.  You got this so easily.  And just as an aside, this is also why we should never stifle children’s many questions, no matter how annoying they can be. This is where they start to learn the basic skills needed to develop phronesis. 

Maggie:  Do you think most people have phronesis, or just a few?

John:  I think a lot of people believe that they have common sense, but in fact it is difficult to develop this type of intelligence. 

Maggie:  Why?

John:  There are two main reasons.  First, we teach the previous two types of reasoning–episteme and techne–in schools, colleges, and apprenticeships, and through on-the-job training.  But I have never seen a class in practical wisdom.  Which is odd, because it is the reasoning that we use most often in our daily lives.  But we are simply left to our own devices, to try and develop it on our own.

Second, to be good at phronesis, a person must also be good at self-appropriation.  Let’s talk more about the example of your friend. In order for you to know whether to talk with your friend or do your homework, you also have to know something about yourself.  Are you lazy?  Do you habitually procrastinate?  Is chatting with your friend just an excuse to get out of doing what you know you should be doing? Only when you properly and adequately know yourself can you fully and completely respond to the primary question.

Maggie:  Can you give me another example?

John:  Sure.  Choosing to buy a product like a car or clothes or an Apple watch requires not just information about the product, but also information about you.  Are you buying the product because you think it will make you look cool, or because you think people will be impressed? Are you spending more than you should because you have become obsessed with a product?  You can see where I am going with this.

Maggie:  I can.  In order to make good decisions about our actions, we need to also ask questions about ourselves.

John:  Yes.  That is called self-appropriation.  Phronesis requires good self-appropriation, which is challenging for people to adequately do.  This is another reason why phronesis is so difficult to develop.

Maggie:  So just to make sure I am clear on this, there are three main types of intelligence: episteme (deductive reasoning), techne (knowledge of how to produce things), and phronesis (practical wisdom or common sense).

John:  That is correct.  And now that we have identified three types of intelligence, let’s go back to the beginning.  We started this blog series because you said you were stupid.  Remember?

Maggie:  I remember.  But when I made that statement I didn’t know about the many different types of intelligence. 

John:  Can you rephrase your statement now?

Maggie:  What I meant was that I am stupid because I am not as good as some others in my class at episteme (deductive reasoning). 

John:  That’s a little better, I guess.  I am still not liking the fact that you keep calling yourself stupid.  But at least you have now identified the real issue, and we can work with that.  Like I said above, getting good at deductive reasoning just takes training.  It may take a little less training for some people and a little more for others, but it is just training.  And all of us can get to where we want to be with a little hard work.  Does this make sense?

Maggie:  Yes, I get it.

John:  And please stop calling yourself stupid. It really bugs me.

Maggie:  I know it does.  Which is why I do it sometimes.  It’s funny to me.

John:  Well, okay, as long as you are amused.  In the next blog post I want to talk about the fact that you keep comparing yourself to others as a basis for making statements about yourself.

Maggie: That sounds interesting.  Hey, what do you say to us going and watching the Hobbit movies now?  That Peter Jackson sure has techne! 


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