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The Death of a Child and the Birth of Practical Wisdom


This paper explores the notion of practical wisdom asan alternative to current formulations of criticalthinking. The practical realm is that ofill-structured problems that emerge from life aslived; it is a realm of legitimate uncertainty andambiguity that requires an ethical responsiveness orpractical wisdom. The death of a child is a case inpoint. The author identifies and examines threeaspects of practical wisdom – the ethical claims ofpartiality, a yielding responsiveness and the play ofthought – and juxtaposes them with aspects of criticalthinking. The work of Martha Nussbaum and RichardPaul are interwoven throughout the discussion. Theauthor concludes that the discourse of criticalthinking is in danger of lapsing into a form of moralescapism wherein all we are rationally responsible foris thinking correctly. Practical wisdom, on theother hand, recognizes that thinking is not simply anintellectual cognitive act of an individual but adance between the life of a child and the love of anelder, a conversation between what is and what couldbe, an openness to passionate sorrow and surprise, aplay between understanding and perception. As such,practical wisdom provides a more likely account ofliving in good faith with oneself and others.

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Phelan, A.M. The Death of a Child and the Birth of Practical Wisdom. Studies in Philosophy and Education 20, 41–55 (2001).

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  • practical wisdom
  • Martha Nussbaum
  • Richard Paul
  • critical thinking