On Being Critical: Critical Hermeneutics and the Relevance of the Ancient Notion of Phronesis in Contemporary Moral and Political Thought

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Guerin, Frederick Allan
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University of Guelph

This thesis explores the question of what it means to be a critical being, and how we can cultivate and enact a critical orientation through the ancient Aristotelian notion of phronesis. I begin by defending the claim that the familiar traditions and methods of rhetoric and hermeneutics have their practical, experiential and critical origins in a fundamental and constitutive human desire to express and understand ourselves and others through the most primary of human capabilities: listening, speaking, interpreting and understanding. This way of describing hermeneutics and rhetoric gives us a sense of their origins in lived experience. It also reminds us that rhetorical expression and hermeneutic understanding are not to be thought of as merely ‘systematized disciplines’, ‘instruments’ or ‘methods’ that we can be indifferent to, but part of our participatory linguistic experience. I argue that once the interpenetrating relation of rhetorical expression and hermeneutic understanding is made apparent, an implicit critical-thinking dimension in experience also becomes visible. This ‘critical dimension’ is not discovered in static theory, procedure or method, but, rather, something that is enacted over time with and among others. It is Aristotle’s concept of phronesis, and his understanding of insight and practical reasoning that best captures the emergence and enactment of critical thinking-being. Phronesis is a mode of practical reasoning that is always in motion, always challenging and interrogating the relation between the particular circumstances we find ourselves in, and the historical traditions, general rules, laws or procedures that form our normative background. I allow this argument for a critical hermeneutics through phronesis to be challenged by Jürgen Habermas’s critical sociological approach. I conclude, firstly, that Habermas’s critical theory relies for its critical thrust on a hermeneutical reflective tradition of immanent critique and insights about communication that can be grasped through phronetic reasoning, tradition and concrete embodied linguistic practices. Secondly, I argue that critical hermeneutics enacted through practical reasoning and phronesis describes a way of thinking-acting-desiring being that is more congruent with our actual experience, and therefore capable of meeting the personal, occupational, moral and political exigencies of a complex and diverse contemporary world.

Hermeneutics, Rhetoric, Phronesis, Critical Theory, Immanent Critique Gadamer, Ricoeur, Habermas