Philip Whiteley's Blog

January 31, 2017

Practical wisdom, and Louis de Bernières

Filed under: Uncategorized — felipewh @ 10:23 am

As a self-taught journalist, management writer and novelist, I’ve picked up a lot more in the way of life experience than qualifications. When you self-educate, you need to be constantly aware of the cautionary note that a little knowledge can be dangerous. I think that I can argue that, after 20 years’ interviewing, researching and writing about management; about people in business, I’ve gleaned far more than a little about human nature. A text that particularly intrigued me was the book Making Social Science Matter, where the author Bent Flyvbjerg introduced me to Aristotle’s three concepts of knowledge: episteme (intellectual knowledge), techne (expertise, craft), and phronesis (practical wisdom). He argued that the last of these is neglected, and that the quest to turn social sciences into an exact science based on episteme alone was doomed. He is of course, quite correct. There’s a useful summary on this link.

‘Practical wisdom’ is an inexact translation of ‘phronesis’, as the latter is closer to ‘virtue’ in meaning, but the concept triggered in me a reflection that a broader definition, incorporating learning experiences in a fully lived life, is not highly valued in our society, though this may be changing. The phenomenon of exponential organizations shows that where a large number of gifted and highly motivated freelancers and consumers contribute to the development of a service or product, they tend to produce better improvements at a quicker pace than a small number of more highly qualified individuals. The case for diversity is now pragmatic, rather than political.

The concept of ‘practical wisdom’ also gave me the confidence to complete my first novel, which took 17 years. While I lacked the critical faculties of one who had studied TS Eliot, I could combine an eclectic reading list with a rich life experience, including backpacking in France while reading Camus, or travelling by boat up the Paraguay River reading Eduardo Galeano and Gabriel García Márquez, encouraging myself to challenge some of the world views I grew up with. The university of life is not superior to the formal faculty – I totally defend the place of literature that requires interpretation – but it can offer a complementary perspective. Given the popularity of thoroughly researched and finely crafted historical fiction, it’s probably a fair comment to say that contemporary novels are stronger on episteme and techne than phronesis.

When I had the opportunity to interview Louis de Bernières last year, I had the audacity to convince myself there were a few common points. His ability is of whole different order to mine – I could not complete a work on the scale of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. But there was the living in South America, reading nothing but magical realism for a while, recognizing telepathic experiences, the emphasis on passion and authenticity, and being a British writer with a heavy bias towards non-British influences.

So I took the bloody nerve to ask him to read my second novel Marching on Together prior to publication, with a view to providing a quote for the cover. I did not expect that he would say yes. But he did. Once he had, I did not really expect him to like it. But he did. So now – ta da, drum roll – is said comment, going to the printers for the front cover as I write:

“I very much enjoyed Marching on Together and was happily carried along by the wonderfully realised characters” – bestselling author Louis de Bernières.

It’s a proud moment.


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