The complexities of knowledge co-production

Practical wisdom and virtue ethics for knowledge co-production in sustainability describes how since antiquity, philosophers in the Western tradition of virtue ethics have declared practical wisdom to be the central virtue of citizens involved in public and social life. Practical wisdom is of particular importance when values are conflicting, power is unequal and knowledge uncertain.
Practical wisdom and virtue ethics can inform the practice of sustainability researchers by strengthening their capacity to engage with the normative complexities of knowledge co-production when aspiring to contribute to transformative change.

The practical wisdom is illustrated through a visual metaphor that depicts sustainability researchers as a sailboat navigating difficult situations. The metaphor signifies the multiple capacities that allow researchers to:

  • Find direction and sustain determination (the will) by: committing to justice (a), embracing care (b), fostering humility (c) and developing courage (d) — a-d are visualized as important elements of the sailboat.
  • Thoughtfully deliberate and skillfully take action (the skill) when: dealing with plural values with agility (e), working through power with intelligence (f), traversing principles and situations with discernment (g) and developing means and goals with strategy (h) — e–h are visualized as the many situations where learning takes place.

Rather than an exhaustive list of capacities, some central ones were selected that speak to the will (a–d) as well as to the skill dimensions (e–h) of practical wisdom.

Metaphorical visualization of the learning journey that allows sustainability researchers to develop the capacity to wisely navigate the normative complexities of knowledge co-production. Sustainability researchers are depicted as the yellow sailboat. The normative complexities of knowledge co-production are visualized through the waves, winds, icebergs and sea stacks.
a–d, The circle in the middle represents a typical situation of difficulty (the big wave) and highlights important elements that allow for wise navigation through dedication to: justice (the steering wheel, which gives direction) (a); care (a life buoy used for keeping people afloat) (b); humility (the keel that provides stability to the sailboat) (c); courage (the sails pressured by the winds pushing the boat forward) (d).
e–h, The other situations in the journey (which are not temporally sequential) show how a–d are put into practice when dealing with multiple values with agility (the many kinds of boats) (e); working through power with intelligence (going through a vortex) (f); traversing principles and situations with discernment (circumventing stacks or icebergs to move in the desired direction) (g); developing goals and means with strategy (constellations of boats navigating waterscapes towards different destinations) (h).

Virtue ethics through practical wisdom offers an integrated and learning-oriented approach to deal with the normative complexities of knowledge co-production in sustainability science. It allows for highlighting and organizing some of the most important capacities that support researchers to wisely navigate such complexities, from justice, care, humility and courage (the will) to agility, intelligence, discernment and strategy (the skill).
Yet, an ethics of practical wisdom does not provide either easy recipes or certainty of success. It rather cautions against approaches that consider only one way or one set of values to assess what is good or bad, successful or unsuccessful. Practical wisdom also provides guidance for the development of high levels of reflexivity essential to enable transformative processes. Whether individual or collective, reflexivity allows for crafting narratives that give voice to the often-implicit struggles and accomplishments of researchers. These narratives represent the backbone of an ethics of practical wisdom. They are an essential addition to existing standardized ethical procedures and can also help researchers to grasp established principles of knowledge co-production.

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