Techne, phronesis, design and innovation

A passage from Richard J. Bernstein’s Beyond Objectivism and Relativism, illuminates a problem I have encountered innumerable times working as a user experience consultant: the need for predictability in innately unpredictable situations.

Before I quote the passage, I should provide some background, which involves the role of process in the practice of design, and how the need for predictability and preconceptions about process play into it.

What clients want is an established, proven process which can be applied to their business problems in order to lead them step-by-predictable-step to a predictable outcome. The ideal is maximum predictability throughout the process.

Predictability, though, can apply to many different aspects of a process. For instance, predictability can be applied to the specific form a solution will take, or it can apply to the general effectiveness of a solution to solve defined business problems. It can apply to the specific functions a solution must perform or it can aim at achieving more general goals (and leave open the question of what specific functions are needed to accomplish those goals). It can apply to varying granularities of time, ranging from the time it will take to complete the whole process, to the time it will take to complete each particular step within the process, all the way down to the number of minutes it will take to complete each sub-task in a project plan.

The question of which particular things must be predicted is very important because predictability comes at a cost. Every point of predictability necessitates a trade-off of some kind.

For instance, predictability in regard to the form a solution will take limits innovation: it means the form is pre-defined. The kind of solution available to this kind of pre-definition is most often an assemblage of “best practices”, which is a euphemism for “imitation”. An assemblage of existing elements is easily pre-visualized and implemented methodically and predictably with easily predicted results: a competently executed best-practices frankenstein will perform well enough to earn an employee a shiny new resume bullet and maybe a year’s job security. When a client comes in white-knuckling a feature-aggregate “vision”, nine times out of ten what looks like fixation on an idea is in truth only a side-effect of severe risk aversion.

Genuine innovation requires a different and slightly more harrowing approach. It requires a higher tolerance for open-endedness. Innovation entails, by definition, the discovery of something significantly new: a possibility nobody has yet envisioned and considered. Until it is discovered, the innovation cannot be shown to or described to anyone. (Innovation: ORIGIN Latin innovat– ‘renewed, altered,’ from the verb innovare, from in– ‘into’ + novare ‘make new’, from novus ‘new’).

Innovation does not necessitate radical unpredictability, though, and it also does not entail an undisciplined or purely intuitive approach. The locus of the unpredictability is in particular points within the process where discovery and the need to innovate are concentrated. At the micro-level, a solid innovation process is still mostly constituted of predictable activities, but wherever open-endedness is needed, the demand for predictability is relaxed or suspended. At the macro-level, at the overall success of the solution a solid, user-informed innovation process is predictably effective in its results, even if it is unpredictable in matters of form.

Most companies fail to innovate, not because they lack ingenious, inventive, creative people capable of innovation,  and not because innovation is unavoidably risky, but rather because the thoughtless demand for predictability at all points precludes innovation.

A big contributing part of this problem is that for many people, practice means predictability. It means pursuing closed-ended goals, and evaluating ideas with pre-defined criteria. The notion of an open-ended process, where evaluation involves human deliberation and multiple satisfactory outcomes are possible seems antithetical to “best practice”.

Here is where Bernstein becomes useful. It turns out that the Greeks were aware of this distinction, and had names for the types of reasoning  involved in each process. According to Bernstein, one of the most fundamental and damaging philosophical blindnesses of our time is the identification of techne (of technical know-how) with method. We tend to impose our conception of techne on understanding and practice in general, and in the process we lose something very important and central to humanity, a type of reasoning Aristotle called “phronesis”, generally translated as prudence or “practical wisdom”.

 The chapter from which this passage is taken is excellent from beginning to end, but here is the most directly relevant part:

…Phronesis is a form of reasoning and knowledge that involves a distinctive mediation between the universal and the particular. This mediation is not accomplished by any appeal to technical rules or Method (in the Cartesian sense) or by the subsumption of a pregiven determinate universal to a particular case. The “intellectual virtue” of phronesis is a form of reasoning, yielding a type of ethical know-how in which what is universal and what is particular are codetermined. Furthermore, phronesis involves a “peculiar interlacing of being and knowledge… Understanding, for Gadamer, is a form of phronesis.

We can comprehend what this means by noting the contrasts that Gadamer emphasizes when he examines the distinctions that Aristotle makes between phronesis and the other “intellectual virtues,” especially episteme and techne. Aristotle characterizes all of these virtues (and not just episteme) as being related to “truth” (aletheia). Episteme, scientific knowledge, is knowledge of what is universal, of what exists invariably, and takes the form of scientific demonstration. The subject matter, the form, the telos, and the way in which episteme is learned and taught differ from phronesis, the form of reasoning appropriate to praxis, which deals with what is variable and always involves a mediation between the universal and the particular that requires deliberation and choice.

For Gadamer, however, the contrast between episteme and phronesis is not as important for hermeneutics as the distinctions between techne (technical know-how) and phronesis (ethical know-how). Gadamer stresses three contrasts.

1. Techne, or a technique,

is learned and can be forgotten; we can “lose” a skill. But ethical “reason” can neither be learned nor forgotten…. Man always finds himself in an “acting situation” and he is always obliged to use ethical knowledge and apply it according to the exigencies of his concrete situation.

2. There is a different conceptual relation between means and ends in techne than in phronesis. The end of ethical know-how, unlike that of a technique, is not a “particular thing” or product but rather the “complete ethical rectitude of a lifetime.” Even more important, while technical activity does not require that the means that allow it to arrive at an end be weighed anew on each occasion, this is precisely what is required in ethical know-how. In ethical know-how there can be no prior knowledge of the right means by which we realize the end in a particular situation. For the end itself is only concretely specified in deliberating about the means appropriate to a particular situation.

3. Phronesis, unlike techne, requires an understanding of other human beings. This is indicated when Aristotle considers the variants of phronesis, especially synesis (understanding).

It appears in the fact of concern, not about myself, but about the other person. Thus it is a mode of moral judgment…. The question here, then, is not of a general kind of knowledge, but of its specification at a particular moment. This knowledge also is not in any sense technical knowledge…. The person with understanding does not know and judge as one who stands apart and unaffected; but rather, as one united by a specific bond with the other, he thinks with the other and undergoes the situation with him. (TM, p. 288; WM, p. 306)

For Gadamer, this variation of phronesis provides the clue for grasping the centrality of friendship in Aristotle’s Ethics.


…for Gadamer the “chief task” of philosophic hermeneutics is to “correct the peculiar falsehood of modern consciousness” and “to defend practical and political reason against the domination of technology based on science.” It is the scientism of our age and the false idolatry of the expert that pose the threat to practical and political reason. The task of philosophy today is to elicit in us the type of questioning that can become a counterforce against the contemporary deformation of praxis. It is in this sense that “hermeneutic philosophy is the heir of the older tradition of practical philosophy.”


To put it in Bernstein’s and Gadamer’s language: a solid, innovative design methodology requires an intelligently coordinated blend of techne and phronesis, guided by phronesis, itself. It is an immenently reasonable process – meaning that the participants in the process make rational appeals to one another in order to come to decisions – but what is being arrived at is not predetermined, and the decision-making process itself is not determinate. Many good outcomes are acknowledged as possible. The innovators are not looking for a single right solution, but rather a solution that is among the best possibilities.


Incidentally, innovation is not needed always and everywhere (any more than predictability is). Unrestrained innovation is not a desirable goal, as fun as it may sound.

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