Three Approaches to Knowledge
posted by Ted Goertzel

In The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle describes three approaches to knowledge.  Bent Flyvbjerg's book Making Social Science Matter elaborates the relevance of these to contemporary social science.  In Greek, the three are episteme, techne and phronesis.  Flyvbjerg explains that "whereas episteme concerns theoretical know why and techne denotes technical know how, phronesis emphasizes practical knowledge and practical ethics" (p 56).  He summarizes the three as follows (p. 57):

Episteme  Scientific knowledge.  Universal, invariable, context-independent.  Based on general analytical rationality.  The original concept is known today from the terms "epistemology" and "epistemic."
Techne  Craft art.  Pragmatic, variable, context-dependent.  Oriented toward production.  Based on practical instrumental rationality governed by a conscious goal.  the original concept appears today in terms such as "technique," technical," and "technology."
Phronesis  Ethics.  Deliberation about values with reference to praxis.  Pragmatic, variable, context dependent.  Oriented toward action.  Based on practical value-rationality.  The original concept has no analogous contemporary term.  [Terms that are similar are "applied ethics" or "policy studies." - TG]
The physical sciences have been quite successful in establishing universal scientific laws, and the social sciences have tried to mimic them but [Flyvbjerg argues and I would agree] unsuccessfully.  Introductory and Research Methods textbooks often still stress this as a goal.  I believe that sociology and criminal justice have much more to offer in the way of techne and phronesis than they do in episteme.  In the Methods and Techniques of Social Research course we will learn techne, the technical art of doing social science.  In this day and age, this includes a good deal of computer work.

Here are some quotes from Aristotle on the three approaches:

What science [episteme] is...will be clear from the following argument.  We all assume that what we know cannot be otherwise than it is, whereas in the case of things that may be otherwise, when they have passed out of our view we can no longer tell whether they exist or not.  Therefore, the object of scientific knowledge is of necessity.  Therefore it is eternal...  Induction introduces us to first principles and universals, while deduction starts from universals... Thus scientific knowledge is a demonstrative state, (i.e., a state of mind capable of demonstrating what it known)...i.e., a person has scientific knowledge when his belief is conditioned in a certain way, and the first principles are known to him;  because if they are not better known to him than the conclusion drawn from them, he will have knowledge only incidentally. [N.E. 1139b18-36].

Since building is an art [techne] and is essentially a reasoned productive state, and since there is no art that is not a state of this kind, and no state of this kind that is not an art, it follows that art is the same as a productive state that is truly reasoned.  Every art is concerned with bringing something into being, and the practice of an art is the study of how to bring into being something that is capable either of being or of not being...For it is not with things that are or come to be of necessity that art is concerned [this is the domain of episteme] nor with natural objects (because these have their origin in themselves)...Art...operates in the sphere of the variable.  [N.E. 1140a1-23].

We may grasp the nature of prudence [phronesis] if we consider what sort of people we call prudent.  Well, it is thought to be the mark of a prudent man to be able to deliberate rightly about what is good and advantageous...But nobody deliberates about things that are invariable...So...prudence cannot be science or art;  not science [episteme] because what can be done is a variable (it may be done in different ways, or not done at all), and not an art [techne] because action and production are generically different.  For production aims at an end other than itself;  but this is impossible in the case of action, because the end is merely doing well.  What remains, then is that it is a true state, reasoned, and capable of action with regard to things that are good or bad for man.  We consider that this quality belongs to those who understand the management of households or states.  [N.E. 1140a24-1140b12].