I have written previously about the distinction between knowledge that something is the case and knowledge how to do something ("Engineering as Knowledge-How," November 2011). The ancient Greeks, Aristotle in particular, actually identified three different kinds of knowledge by further subdividing knowledge-how:
- episteme (eh-pis-TEH-meh), which is the root of the words epistemic (of, or pertaining to, knowledge) and epistemology (the study of knowledge) and designates knowledge-that.
- techne (TEKH-neh), which is the root of words like technique, technical, and technology and designates knowledge-how to achieve a predetermined outcome.
- phronesis (FRO-neh-sis), which has not found its way into English at all and designates knowledge-how to behave in a manner that is contextually sensitive and appropriate.
Each kind of knowledge pertains to a specific human activity:
- theoria (theh-oh-REE-ah), which is contemplation or thinking.
- poiesis (POY-eh-sis), which is production or making.
- praxis (PRAK-sis), which is (inter)action or doing.
As such, episteme, techne, and phronesis also correspond with certain forms of rationality and judgment. However, for the sake of clarity, I will refer to them going forward as theoretical knowledge, technical rationality, and practical judgment, respectively. I believe that these terms succinctly capture the most fundamental aspects of each category.
Theoretical knowledge is propositional in nature and aims at eternal truth. It consists of conceptual beliefs that count as facts when possessed by a person of understanding, who is characterized as intelligent and makes decisions on the basis of evidence grounded in data. It applies primarily in the mental realm, resides in one’s memory, and is imparted to a student by means of instruction.
Technical rationality is procedural in nature and aims at external success. It consists of instrumental abilities that count as proficiencies when possessed by a person of skill, who is characterized as competent and makes decisions on the basis of method grounded in rules. It applies primarily in the physical realm, resides in one’s habits, and is imparted to an apprentice by means of training.
Practical judgment is personal in nature and aims at internal integrity. It consists of ethical dispositions that count as virtues when possessed by a person of wisdom, who is characterized as prudent and makes decisions on the basis of intuition grounded in experiences. It applies primarily in the social realm, resides in one’s conscience, and is imparted to a disciple by means of education.
Many scholars have argued that today’s culture has largely collapsed theoretical knowledge and practical judgment into technical rationality, with the result that the latter is widely regarded as the only legitimate form of reasoning. One example is Irish philosopher of education Joseph Dunne, who made the case for this position and worked out some of its implications in his book, Back to the Rough Ground, published by the University of Notre Dame Press. The original hardcover edition (1993) had the subtitle "Phronesis" and "Techne" in Modern Philosophy and in Aristotle, but this was changed in the paperback version (1997) and all subsequent printings to Practical Judgment and the Lure of Technique.
It might seem natural to associate theoretical knowledge with science and technical rationality with craft. However, as Dunne noted:
productive know-how... is now brought into alignment with the new science, which therefore no longer retains the contemplative aspiration of the old theory. Henceforth the only type of knowledge that really counts... is precisely that which is given to us by science. Scientific information about the world contains technical imperatives: the formulae for the new technology and modes of production no longer reside in the rules of craftsmen but rather in the corroborated findings of scientists. And so the gulf which had separated theory and production for the Greeks is now eliminated.
Likewise, practical judgment has largely been discredited. Again, in Dunne’s words:
The extension of the technical form of rationality has been pursued on the basis of a claim to value-neutrality... An orientation to efficiency and economy in the organization of means, which is the core of technique, does not in fact, as is often claimed... stand ready to serve any set of values which is otherwise (non-rationally) decided upon. Rather, by a deeper, though unacknowledged, decision, this orientation is imposed on the organization of practical life as itself the only value − even though it is not conceived as a value at all but is granted a privileged status because of its seeming coincidence with the structure of rationality itself.
One might expect the triumph of technical rationality and its "orientation to efficiency and economy" to elevate the status of engineering. On the contrary, Steven Goldman recognized that these trends have actually fostered the higher regard in which science is generally held in comparison with engineering ("The Principle of Insufficient Reason," May 2008), as well as the tendency for the latter to be exploited by managers and clients to achieve their own objectives ("The Social Captivity of Engineering," May 2010).
In other words, the institutions that employ and retain engineers largely embrace technical rationality and are motivated by goods that are external to the practice of engineering ("Rethinking Engineering Ethics," November 2010). It thus falls to the profession itself to identify and pursue its internal goods by cultivating the appropriate virtues ("Engineering Ethics as Virtue Ethics," May 2011). In order to do so, we must recover the classical notion of praxis and its associated concept of phronesis in contrast with poiesis and techne. Dunne had more to say about this in a 2005 paper, which I will summarize in my next column.▪