Wisdom in the News

Investigating wisdom (pt 5):

Maria Silvia Vaccarezza and Mario De Caro on Practical Wisdom

This is Part Five of our Investigating Wisdom series, where we discuss Practical Wisdom: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives with its authors to obtain a better understanding of practical wisdom and its components. This installment features the volume’s editors: Dr. Maria Silvia Vaccarezza and Dr. Mario De Caro.

Practical Wisdom was edited by University of Genoa Moral Philosophy Professor Maria Silvia Vaccarezza, and Roma Tre University and Tufts University Moral Philosophy Professor Mario De Caro.  The volume is a collection of essays from various scholars who each give their own take on phronesis, or practical wisdom. The two editors also co-authored the book’s second chapter titled The Priority of Phronesis: How to Rescue Virtue Theory From Its Critics along with Dr. Massimo Marraffa.

The development of Practical Wisdom began when Vaccarezza and De Caro recognized the need for a further exploration of phronesis following its rising popularity in the philosophical community.

“The concept of phronesis has long held a prominent place in the development of Aristotelian virtue ethics and moral education. However, the nature and development of phronesis is still in need of investigation, especially because of the new insights that in recent years have come from both philosophy and science,” said Vaccarezza and De Caro.

They explain that there are two sides battling for priority when it comes to virtue ethics interpretation. The first involves the belief that there are specific moral and ethical virtues, while the second places an importance on practical wisdom, rationality, and thoughtful consideration when making decisions. Due to the nature of this division, De Caro and Vaccarezza concluded that something needed to change.

“De Caro and I believe that within virtue ethics a paradigm shift is strongly needed. This shift has to do with a radical re-evaluation of practical wisdom,” explains Vaccarezza. “Two competing poles aspire to a position of primacy in any virtue-ethical theory: a first pole is represented by the ethical virtues, each focused on a specific moral domain or sphere of ethical concern; a second is constituted by practical wisdom, the excellence of practical rationality that guides and permeates the ethical virtues by providing them with insight, deliberative competence, general orientation, sensitivity to the context, and so on.”

They believe that most thinkers in the field approach virtue ethics with the first perspective, focusing on specific virtues regardless of whether or not they are viewed as skills. While interesting, the editors believe that this approach fails to address several large challenges, such as the potential conflict between virtues, and the reliance on an unrealistic general model of the ideal life that is “capable of balancing the demands of different moral domains.” Because of the complications of this view, they decided to develop their own interpretation model of virtue ethics and practical wisdom, called “virtue molecularism”.

The editors propose “to substitute this dominant paradigm and develop an alternative one, namely ‘virtue molecularism’, which conceives of practical wisdom as a general ethical expertise, encompassing rational and affective dimensions, and which has conceptual, epistemological, and ontogenetic priorities over the individual virtues.”

However, they did not come to this conclusion immediately. They first began by rethinking practical wisdom using a virtue-ethical approach. They developed a thesis in a co-authored paper with Dr. Ariele Niccoli on the primacy of wisdom, which eventually led them to the idea that phronesis is an ethical expertise that precedes the specific ethical virtues. They developed this idea further, exploring the issue from an interpretive stance and analyzing the underlying theory of emotions in the following years. Eventually, they coined the term 'virtue molecularism' to describe their concept, discussing their theses with other scholars. While not initially their goal, creating a volume on practical wisdom seemed like the logical next step after they discovered that some of their colleagues were also working on new conceptualizations of practical wisdom from their own unique academic perspectives.

In their particular chapter, the editors teamed up with Marraffa to defend virtue molecularism by showing how it can address three alarming challenges to virtue theory: the situationist, anti-rationalist, and automaticity challenges. First, they argue their model opposes the situationist challenge better than other virtue theory concepts. Next, they defend the priority of phronesis against the anti-rationalist challenge by exposing the two-dimensional interpretation of the mind that the challenge utilizes. Finally, they argue that the stipulations for the automaticity challenge do not apply to virtue molecularism, because their theory argues that practical wisdom is an expertise or skill, while the automaticity challenge is mostly effective against “more traditional skill-based accounts of the individual virtues.” The two editors were already accustomed to working together, so Marraffa’s alternative philosophical background provided a new dynamic that was essential to the chapter’s development.

Vaccarezza and De Caro also hope that their chapter sparks healthy debate among other virtue ethic scholars, stating, “We think our chapter will be of interest not only to those who want to know more about our new virtue ethics paradigm, but also to scholars who oppose it. It is perhaps the most programmatic and complete of our works on the topic, and tries to face criticisms from different fields (both philosophical and psychological).”

As for the rest of the volume, various scholars accepted the editors’ invitation to write chapters, resulting in a collection of diverse arguments that each serve to enrich the reader’s understanding of phronesis and allows them to approach it in a number of ways.

“The chapters in this volume contribute to the debate about practical wisdom by elucidating its role in empirical psychology and advancing important new research questions,” said Vaccarezza. “They address various topics related to practical wisdom and its development, including honesty, ecocentric phronesis, social-cognitive theory, practical wisdom in limited-information contexts, Whole Trait Theory, skill models, the reciprocity of virtue, and challenges from situationism.”

While the book’s goal is to advance the research on practical wisdom, the editors stress that its audience should not be limited to practical wisdom scholars. Other researchers and advanced students in the fields of virtue ethics, moral education, and moral psychology are also encouraged to read the text.

De Caro and Vaccarezza will continue to work together, and plan on holding an online seminar series on practical wisdom organized by Roma Tre University, the Aretai Center on Virtues, and the European University of Rome. They plan to invite scholars who contributed to the volume as well as other scholars from outside philosophy. Additionally, the two are currently writing a paper that outlines the framework of their proposed model in a more systematic manner.

About Maria Silvia Vaccarezza

Dr. Maria Silvia Vaccarezza is a Moral Philosophy Professor at the University of Genoa in Italy. She has previously done research on ancient ethical thought during the Medieval period, and is currently doing work regarding virtue ethics on topics including practical wisdom, character traits and virtues, and morality. She has collaborated with several virtue ethics institutions including the Institute for the Study of Human Flourishing (ISHF) at the University of Oklahoma, and the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues at the University of Birmingham. She has written a number of publications outside of Practical Wisdom, including The Unity of the Virtues Reconsidered. Competing Accounts in Philosophy and Positive Psychology and Paths to flourishing: Ancient models of the exemplary life.

About Mario De Caro

Dr. Mario De Caro is a Moral Philosophy Professor at Roma Tre University and Visiting Professor at Tufts University. His research interests include but are not limited to moral philosophy, neuroethics, law and cognitive science, and philosophical naturalism and the relation of science and philosophy. He has been invited to speak at several institutions across 17 different countries, including Oxford University, Harvard University, Princeton University, Paris Sorbonne, etc. He has contributed to a large number of publications either as an author or editor, some of which include Naturalism and Normativity, Realism, Common Sense, and Science, and Cartographies of the Mind: Philosophy and Psychology in Intersection.

References

  • De Caro, M., & Vaccarezza, M. S. (2020). Morality and interpretation: The principle of phronetic charity. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice23(2), 295-  307. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10677-019-10054-2 
  • De Caro, M., Vaccarezza, M. S., & Niccoli, A. (2018). Phronesis as ethical expertise: Naturalism of second nature and the unity of virtue. The Journal of Value Inquiry52(3), 287- 305. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10790-018-9654-9
  • De Caro, M., & Vaccarezza, M. S. (Eds.). (2021). Practical wisdom: Philosophical and psychological perspectives. Routledge.

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