Volume 23, Number 1, Spring 2012

Clinical Wisdom in Psychoanalysis and Psychodynamic Psychotherapy:

A Philosophical and Qualitative Analysis


Cynthia Baum-Baicker and Dominic A. Sisti


The Journal of Clinical Ethics 23, no. 1 (Spring 2012): 13-27.


To precisely define wisdom has been an ongoing task of philosophers for millennia. Investigations into the psychological dimensions of wisdom have revealed several features that make exemplary persons “wise.” Contemporary bioethicists took up this concept as they retrieved and adapted Aristotle’s intellectual virtue of phronesis for applications in medical contexts. In this article, we build on scholarship in both psychology and medical ethics by providing an account of clinical wisdom qua phronesis in the context of the practice of psychoanalysis and psychodynamic psychotherapy. With the support of qualitative data, we argue that the concept of clinical wisdom in mental healthcare shares several of the key ethical dimensions offered by standard models of phronesis in medical ethics and serves as a useful, albeit overlooked, reference point for a broader development of virtue-based medical ethics. We propose that the features of clinical wisdom are pragmatic skills that include, but are not limited to, an awareness of balance, the acceptance of paradox, and a particular clinical manner that maintains a deep regard for the other. We offer several suggestions for refining training programs and redoubling efforts to provide long-term mentorship opportunities for trainees in clinical mental healthcare in order to cultivate clinical wisdom.


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