The phronetic practitioner

I have just submitted an abstract for a conference with the title Reflective minds and communities. The conference will take place in Tartu at the end of August. Here are the title and text of the abstract

Reflection, tacit knowledge and the phronetic practitioner 

Reflection is very often seen as a crucial component allowing practitioners of all sorts to develop professionally. The idea of the reflective practitioner is often championed to be the royal road towards development and improvement. In my presentation I will not argue against this view. Rather, I will try to point to the limits of reflection in the light of Polanyi’s idea of tacit knowledge. I will then argue for an alternative proposal based on the Aristotelian notion of phronesis (practical wisdom), where I would propose to re-locate reflection.

In discussing its limits I will posit that reflection cannot be of much help for practitioners and their development, if it is reduced to turning one’s own practice into an (apparently) transparent object of investigation. The main assumption behind strategies like this (and their appealing) is that it is only by making the implicit explicit that change and development can be achieved. Relying on Polanyi’s idea of tacit knowledge, I will show that the attempt to make the tacit explicit leads to abstraction and to a type of knowledge that is simply not actionable for practical purpose.

Although tacit knowledge is often seen as opaque and therefore scarcely accountable in the light of various standards of performance, it is far from being unreflective. One’s tacit knowledge is in fact constitutive of what we may call the “phronetic practitioner”. The phronetic practitioner is the one who is not merely reflective, but who, in the full engagement with her own practice, prioritizes and thus cultivates professional thoughtfulness, moral and professional autonomy, and all those forms of judgment-in-action that resist codification such as insight, intuition, acuity of vision, perception, the capacity of reading situations, which constitute the practitioner’s phronesis, that is, her practical wisdom.

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Towards a phronetic space for responsible research (and innovation)

My colleague and friend Marianne Lind and I have just finished the draft of a paper on responsible research. Here are the details and the full text.

Towards a phronetic space of responsible research (and innovation).


The term Responsible Research and Innovation has recently gained currency, as it has been designated to be a key-term in the European research framework Horizon 2020. At the level of European research policy, Responsible Research and Innovation can be viewed as an attempt to reach a broader vision of research and innovation as a public good. Apart from some generic appeal to inclusiveness and more participatory forms of governance, the current academic debate seems to be much too biased towards a quite restrictive idea of how the social sciences and the humanities can actually contribute, that is, a vision that leaves the core business, namely, scientific and technological innovation for its own sake, virtually untouched. In this paper we argue that the current debate might be fruitfully re-oriented by making a categorial shift. Such a categorial shift involves moving away from what we refer to as a technocratic interpretation of responsible research, which is ultimately based on the application of abstract procedures and templates to complex and often ambiguous situations, towards a more pluralistic one that is rooted in the idea of phronesis. In the present context phronesis points the attention to the cultivation and nurturement of a type of engagement with the actual practice of researching, a practice in which researchers (and other parties concerned) are called to apply judgment and exercise discretion in specific and often unique situations without the re-assuring viewpoint of the technician.

The full text can be found here

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On the practical utility of research

On November the 8th I’ll be part of a roundtable chaired by Prof. Heidrun Allert at a conference dedicated to the future of research in Kiel.

Here’s a kind of handout summarizing what I’m going to talk about.

The question that I’d like discuss is: what is the practical utility of research?

If we take, for instance, a sofa, it’s very easy to see its practical utility. A sofa is what we need when we want to lay down, have a rest or simply chill out. It follows that we need sofa makers, because we need sofas.
How about research and researchers? Can we apply the same very way of thinking?

One of the things that is often forgotten when we talk about research is uncertainty. We simply don’t know what we are heading for, what we are going to achieve. Even in the simple case in which a hypothesis is put to the test, we just don’t know what it is going to happen. It might be that our hypothesis will be confirmed. It might be that it will not be confirmed. Or it might be that something else will come out, instead, leading us to a completely new hypothesis.
This is the type of uncertainty that is essential to research.

To say that researchers do not know what they are doing may sound irresponsible or at least not very politically correct. Am I telling you that researchers are paid for not knowing what they are doing?
We tend to think that not knowing what we are heading for is irresponsible. Indeed, if we go to a sofa maker and right before we pay he tells us that actually he doesn’t know what is going to do, we would not indeed pay him. However, when it comes to research the uncertainty concerning the outcome is fundamental. That is because it forces researchers to venture into the unknown, act opportunistically and be ready to select the strategy in due course in relation to whatever comes in handy.

If we go back to the example of the sofa (and the sofa maker), we can see that there’s a fundamental difference with research. The “practical utility” of research cannot be viewed in terms of a product that we are going to produce or bring into existence. The reason is that such a product will never really materialized.
That is the reason why – I claim – we should move away from the idea that the practical utility of research is a product to focusing on research as an activity.

What type of activity is research? And why can we say that this activity has some practical utility? Research has some significant similarities with play. Alison Gopnik in her The Philosophical Baby gives a very interesting account of play in children, which allows us to make interesting observations that are valid for research and researchers as well.
Babies and children play all the time. They explore, try out things, imagine alternative worlds, pretend, etc.. That is due the fact that they are still very much uninhibited in comparison with grown adults. Just like children and babies, researchers (and creative people) are able to sort of step back and apparently regress to a previous stage of development, while retaining, though, the kind of discipline and dedication typical of adulthood. This allows researchers to avoid taking for granted what other people would do and be driven by wonder, curiosity and one’s own ignorance and even stupidity.

But what is the purpose of all this? Are researchers just fooling around? Both children’s play and research are apparently useless, as they do not target anything in particular, anything seemingly useful for our survival. However, far from being a waste of time, play enables children as well as researchers to accomplish something that would not be possible to do otherwise. While not targeting anything directly, research (just as much as children’s play) allows us as a society to come in contact with the world outside ourselves and see what we can learn (or unlearn) in it.

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On the virtue of killing two birds with a stone and chance-seeking

Some time I’ve tried to collect some famous proverbs that I could use to describe aspects of chance-seeking (or trovatism). I have a new one to add to the list, which, I believe, is among the most important ones. The proverb is: to kill two birds with a stone. 

To me this proverb helps us realize one important thing concerning human action. There are situations in which, while we are not pursuing anything specifically, several things get accomplished. So, for example, consider taking the dog out for a walk. This simple activity allows us to do many other things. For instance, for an old lady it is a way to do a bit of exercise. It is also an excuse to go out – even several times a day. While walking with the dog, she may meet other dog’s owners and socialize on the basis of an interest that easily brings people from all ages together. Besides, one may even have fun while doing that.So, one thing that is not done with a specific objective in mind allows a person to accomplish several things.

I was actually thinking that the same happens with many other things we, by the way, tend to appreciate. For instance, laughing. These are both activities that are not necessarily aimed to something specific. Yet they are very “powerful”. So, by laughing , we get more intimate with a person, we make other people laugh, because it is contagious, and we have a number of benefits for our health. While laughing we also become aware of connections with things apparently unrelated to each other.

Now, I believe that the “to kill two birds with a stone” has an important consequence also for education and the role of the so-called humanities. We are often told that a student that is going to study at the university should choose a degree that would allow him to find a job. This is the usual argument that is often used for persuading students not to choose the humanities. What is interesting is that it’s not always true that people from humanities are jobless. Quite the contrary. What is hard to find is a job that is related to, for instance, philosophy, literature, and the like.

I believe that the humanities – since they are dealing with the cultivation of one’s own character – work with the same logic as the proverb “to kill two birds with a stone”. Indeed, if we adopt a linear goal-oriented approach, according to which something is done instrumentally for accomplishing something else, then the humanities do not pay off. However, it is often the case that those who studied humanities posses those “skills” that are usually called “transferable skills” that are in great demand in certain domains. That is, the things they have studied, while not being useful directly for any job specifically, turns out to be useful because they open up several other options. In a way studying humanities can be viewed like laughing or taking the dog out: you don’t do it for a specific reason in mind. But it may turn out that several doors will open.

To conclude, my guess is that once again we tend to overemphasize the value of those strategies or ways of going about things that rely on highly purposive plans of action. That is, ways that make immediately visible the potential gain, because they are presented so that it’s easy to see what they are for. If they reduce anxiety, they also reduce the positive impact that uncertainty may have in terms of positive things we may bump into in due course, when we decide not to unilaterally pursue one goal or the other.

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RRI: empty toolbox or opportunity to seize?

I’ll participate in a workshop in Tartu on responsible Research: social, cultural and material aspects, which is organized by Endla Lõhkivi who is associate professor at the Faculty of Philosophy, University of Tartu (Estonia).

Here’s the title and abstract of my communication.

RRI: empty toolbox or opportunity to seize?

The term Responsible Research and Innovation has recently gained currency, as it has been designated to be a key-term in the European research framework Horizon 2020. At the level of European research policy, Responsible Research and Innovation can be viewed as an attempt to reach a broader vision of research and innovation as public good. Apart from some generic appeal to inclusiveness and more participatory forms of governance, the current academic debate seems to be too much biased towards a quite restrictive idea of how the social sciences and humanities can actually contribute, that is, a vision that leaves the core business, namely, scientific and technological innovation for its own sake, virtually untouched.

In my presentation I will argue that the current debate might be fruitfully re-oriented by making a categorial shift. Such categorial shift involves moving away from a mere technocratic interpretation of RRI, which is ultimately based on the application of abstract procedures and templates to complex and often ambiguous situations, towards a more pluralistic one rooted in the idea of phronesis. In the present context phronesis points the attention to the “rough ground” of one’s everyday engagements with research. Such rough ground is ultimately characterized by a plurality of elements (i.e., values, evidence, emotions, practicalities, sensitivities, etc.) often inconsistent with each other, which nonetheless do not relieve the researcher of the need for applying judgment and making choices.

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The context of inquiry

I’m collecting some material for an article that would like to show the importance  that some debates in philosophy of science would actually have for science education. And there is, in particular, an issue that I’m going to treat in this post.

Very often science – be it natural science or social science – is reduced to a kind of device whose main function is to provide proofs. That is, it is as if the whole enterprise of science is ultimately a game whose main goal is to prove that something is in fact the case or just a myth.

A quite compelling example pointing to that is the number of articles in magazines and newspapers, in which rather trivial beliefs and stereotypes are scientifically proven as true (or false). For instance, why men like women with large breast, why women like shopping more than men, why we are more productive in the morning (but not all of us), and so on and on. In other cases, science provides the solid basis for making (alleged) “rational” decisions regarding an almost endless list of things, like the kind of food to eat, the amount of hours to devote to physical exercise or the best economical policy to implement. In all those cases science provides proofs telling us – beyond any reasonable doubt – what we should hold true, believe in or make happen for our own good.

My take is that this kind of “attitude” towards science is rooted in the assumption, which is never quite discussed, that science is superior to other epistemic practices (that is, practices chiefly devoted to knowing) because of the scientific method that is used. So, the superiority of science would rest in the application of a specific procedure whose main role is to test ideas and that type of procedure would then guarantee us that we have achieved certified or beyond-any-reasonable-doubt results.

Although I believe that this is not entirely wrong, especially in the case of  controversies where pros and cons of a theory are weighed, I would argue in a quite different direction. I would argue that the major contribution of science comes from the generation of ideas rather than merely proving them either wrong or right. Indeed, it’s not quite that any idea is a good idea. That means that we don’t just generate ideas, but we also assess them. However, ideas have been deemed as good or bad in the light of many, sometimes conflicting and even ambiguous criteria. Like, for instance, beauty, luminosity, practical utility, convenience, popularity, fecundity. Etc. Such a variety is not to be taken as a minus, but as a plus, because it reflects the complexity and diversity of the experience that knowers have.

Now, to make a step further, if we emphasis more the generation of ideas over merely proving them either wrong or right, then we would not ascribe priority to those characteristics that belong to an alleged scientific method, but to what I’d call the context of inquiry. That is, the variety, complexity and diversity of happenings, experiences, situations that belong to science as an enterprise chiefly devoted to inquiring into things and that ultimately concern scientists as inquirers.

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The tacit and the explicit

9780226004211For a project I’m involved in I’ve recently read and pondered a number of articles, guides, and chapters about methodologies and methods for data collection. I’ve done that, because I never really received a proper training in this particular (and interesting) field. And yet as an epistemologist by formation I’ve found the whole thing particularly congenial to the mind set of a person that has been always interested in what they are usually termed “methodological issues”. Now, in this post I’ll briefly talk about my experience in relation to one of my favorite topics: tacit knowledge and explicit knowledge I’ve been treating in this blog on several occasions.

The first conclusion that I derive from my reading session on methodologies and methods is that all these guides, chapters, wikis are completely useless when it comes to what we may generally regard as “how to conduct a research”. Basically, one learns how to conduct a research by…conducting a research. That is because all the issues related to “how to” are eminently related to building one’s own tacit knowledge around something that is practiced. Interestingly, we tend to think that we learn via applying instructions given by a person, which, as time goes by, we tacitly apply, that is, without thinking we are actually applying them. According to the idea of tacit knowledge, this is fundamentally wrong. The formation of tacit knowledge is basically a process that involves the appropriation of a practice as a whole. As such it is fundamentally forward-looking and it cannot be guided from the outside: it is a self-centered process. This means that the formation of tacit knowledge proceeds by trial and error: the learner starts practicing that which he will eventually appropriate (hopefully). Indeed, instructions may come to play an important role, as long as the instructor is able to understand how to cue the appropriating process. This type of understanding is not merely technical or intellectual, but it requires the instructor to make a considerable empathetic effort to see how the appropriating process (which is specific to the learner) is proceeding. It’s basically like imaging to be somebody else while remaining oneself. That is in a way the art of teaching.

Indeed, the instructions are not inherently useless. They may serve the purpose of cueing the learner in the process, and yet I doubt that they are what a learner needs. Now there’s a catch here. If a person just follows the instructions, this person may come to do things the proper way. However, he or she will not build his or her own tacit knowledge regarding how to conduct research. But he or she will become a skillful complier –  the one who complies or obeys. That means that he or she will develop tacit knowledge corresponding to how to apply the right instructions and thus comply with some explicit requirements. Which is in a way a different thing from being able to conduct a research that is more than just applying the right “instructions”. In educational science I have the feeling that researchers tend to mistake these two levels of analysis, when the whole deal is about “efficient methods of learning” that merely focus on outputs (more on this issue in the future).

The second conclusion is specifically related to explicit knowledge. I do agree with Harry Collins (the author of a brilliant book called Tacit and explicit knowledge) that in a way explicit knowledge is the least considered in the couple. My guess is that it is so because we overestimate our ability to control the tacit and therefore we fail to see the actual value of explicit knowledge. In my reading sessions I realized one thing. That all these chapters and articles about methodologies and methods helped me with developing a kind of broader perspective. I’m not able yet to put this into words. So, I only have vague considerations to make here.

For instance, I’m very much interested in those qualitative methods that investigate a phenomenon trying to minimize the distorting effects of our theoretical presuppositions. I’m saying minimizing, because I don’t think it’s possible to eradicate them or to do as if they don’t exist. They do exist. This was actually something that I had already experience about. And yet it was only after reading some papers on unstructured interviews that this became crystal-clear to me. In Bill Gillham’s book on Research interviewing he writes that the examples provided in the chapter will point to what qualitative research is and – I quote – “where the researcher is concerned with discovery” (italic in the text). That was a kind of insight for me, because it allowed me to clearly understand that discovery is my main focus.  (as opposed to validation or explanation, for instance). And this triggered a series of reflections that helped realize that I value more exploratory activities within the practice of research. (That is actually an understatement, because I actually think that research is exploring. All other activities are somehow derivative.)

Now, this that I’ve briefly reported about is in essence a sense-making type of thing. Something that chiefly deals with acquiring a broader meaning and significance of something that I’m doing and practicing. And as such it has nothing to do with application, rather, with orientation. Which will be the subject of a future post.

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