The Arts of the Practical: Variations on a Theme of Prometheus

Document Type


Publication Date

Summer 1984


Ancient Philosophy | Arts and Humanities | Classics | Education | Philosophy


“Joseph Schwab's career can be read as a series of explorations into the consequences of the Prometheus myth for effective action today. Like Protagoras, Schwab wants to teach virtue, to teach people to deliberate better and act more effectively; his arts of the practical are a modern version of the art of justice that Zeus sent to mankind. But Schwab is aware that current practical problems cannot be solved by acting as though we were still citizens in a Greek democracy; his arts of the quasi-practical and the eclectic, and his corrective picture of what scientists do, are what he thinks Zeus could give us if he could send Hermes back to us today. Zeus' original gift of the arts of the practical enabled men to deliberate and make intelligent choices in direct democracies; Schwab's arts of the quasi-practical confront the political organization and distribution of responsibilities characteristic of modern societies. Zeus' original gift allowed specialists from doctors to shoemakers to coordinate their activities, exchange goods, and unite for a common defense. But modern societies' division of labor and today's proliferation of experts cause further political problems, needing a new divine endowment which Schwab calls the arts of the eclectic: today's experts, whom Schwab, like Protagoras, restricts to "scientific experts," speak with competing voices. We can't leave questions of ship-building to the ship-builders because we require environmental impact statements and the supplementary testimony of experts in other fields. Furthermore, political debate can no longer rest content with experts announcing the conclusions of their investigations; modern practical deliberation and judgment require understanding how scientific enquiry works.”