Transcendence in Positive Psychology


It is not true that every time I act justly, or honestly, or generously, or courageously, the goodness of what I do somehow ripples out to touch every human being. Rather, the cultivation and exercise of virtue enables me to participate fully in the intentional production and reproduction of sound modes of human social life in light of the nature I share with all of my fellow human beings. In my previous post I discussed how the cultivation and exercise of virtue in this way enables individual human beings to share in human social life ordered to the collective pursuit of the highest good humans can secure, promote, and protect, individually and collectively. Indeed, the cultivation and exercise of acquired virtue actualizes and expresses the best human beings can manage under their own steam. On this understanding, there is no problem about demonstrating the sense in which I can do right by (or wrong) a fellow human being with whom I have nothing else in common. That we are fellow human beings suffices to make it possible for us to interact justly or unjustly.[1]

In both Aristotle’s understanding of the political and social dimensions of the cultivation and exercise of virtue and Aquinas’s expansion of the significance and reach of virtue to the human community more generally (through an account of human nature and our place in creation), we find accounts of virtue as inherently bound to understandings of human good that outstrip the good of personal achievement, self-expression, and whatever might conduce to merely individual satisfaction in life. In this sense, both of these varieties of virtue ethics point to aspects of what contemporary empirical research treats under the rubric of “self-transcendence.” Virtue in both Aquinas and Aristotle requires modes of self-improvement and personal development that are inherently self-transcendent. The cultivation and exercise of virtue turns on intrapersonal coordination that enables individuals to participate in the production and reproduction of sound modes of social life by directing their efforts to common good. “Self-transcendence” in this connection signals practical orientation to an overall good that an individual cannot attain alone, the benefits of which go beyond measures of personal welfare or the welfare of the virtuous person’s own immediate family, circle of friends, or other small community.

Some contemporary empirical research on self-transcendence comes close to being research on these aspects of practical orientation to overall good. In their classification of virtues (understood as “signature strengths”), Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman treat appreciation of beauty, gratitude, hope, humor, and spirituality as “Strengths of Transcendence.”[2] They explain the grouping this way:

The common theme running through these strengths of transcendence is that each allows individuals to forge connections to the larger universe and thereby provide meaning to their lives. Almost all the positive traits in our classification reach outside the individual—character, after all, is social in nature—but in the case of the transcendence strengths, the reaching goes beyond other people per se to embrace part or all of the larger universe. The prototype of this strength category is spirituality, variously defined but always referring to a belief in and commitment to the transcendent (nonmaterial) aspects of life—whether they be called universal, ideal, sacred, or divine. How do the other strengths classified approach this prototype? Appreciation of beauty is a strength that connects someone directly to excellence. Hope connects someone directly to the dreamed-of future. Humor—admittedly the most controversially placed entry—connects someone directly to troubles and contradictions in a way that produces not terror or anger but pleasure.[3]

One of the strong points of the Peterson-Seligman classification system is its emphasis on the ways in which virtues orient their bearers to distinctively human goods. As they understand the category, transcendence virtues orient their bearers to immaterial goods available to human experience and at issue in some of our activities. Presumably, a material connection to the troubles and contradictions heighted by humor brings negative, rather than positive, emotional states. A material orientation to the future will have less to do with dreams and more to do with live options and the means available to realize these. If I understand them, the kind of orientation to beauty or excellence that they see as transcendent is one that is detached from personal desires or goals and is, to that extent, immaterial. And their understanding of spirituality has more to do with the cosmos as a whole (or some sacred or divine aspect of the cosmos) than my relation to myself and my fellow human beings. In a sense, Aquinas also understands virtue in terms of human orientation to human good. Aquinas’s approach, however, is unlike the work on virtue found in positive psychology.

As a theologian who understands natural law as our participation in eternal law, and acquired virtues as equipping us to participate in collective pursuit of human good (in light of our nature as creatures), Aquinas of course sees human life in relation to creation in general and to the divine. For all that, he recognized pagan virtue[4] and did not classify virtues in quite the way suggested by research informed by the Peterson and Seligman scheme.[5] Aquinas, like Aristotle, held that the acquired virtues form a unity—no one of them can operate fully as a virtue in isolation from the others—and all such strengths of character operate in the context of self-transcendence, not as a transcendence of the human, but as enabling the fullest expression of the human that we can manage under our own steam. Virtues, for Aquinas, are self-transcendent strengths that promote inwardly and outwardly harmonious, reasonable pursuit of the good that it belongs to rational animals to pursue. There is nothing especially immaterial (in the Peterson-Seligman sense of that term) in the cultivation and exercise of virtue, where the immaterial is understood as properly distinct from the sphere of thought, feeling, action, and response to the social world in which we find ourselves. The common good at issue in virtuous activity for Aquinas is not something other than our concrete, collective pursuit of good (material or immaterial) from one generation to the next.

Transcendence in Positive Psychology[1]

[1] I am grateful to Liz Gulliford at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues for urging me to address the place of transcendence in positive psychology and for letting me read her doctoral thesis, An Interdisciplinary Evaluation and Theological Enrichment of Positive Psychology.

[1] On Michael Thompson’s diagnosis, the hurdle that such a neo-Aristotelian account must surmount is epistemological—we need a good story about how the human being comes to recognize what he owes fellow human beings simply in virtue of their shared human nature. Again, Aquinas’s response to this difficulty takes us into the heart of his account of the way in which the natural law is promulgated to us in and by nature. Again, Stephen Brock’s account offers what I take to be exactly the sort of story needed for Thomist neo-Aristotelianism to meet the challenge Thompson sets for any account of justice. For the challenge, see Thompson, “What is it to Wrong Someone? A Puzzle about Justice,” pp. 376-379. For Brock’s account see The Legal Character of Natural Law According to St. Thomas Aquinas, pp. 96-175.

[2] Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman, Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

[3] Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman, Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification, p. 519.

[4] See, e.g., Angela McKay Knobel, “Aquinas and the Pagan Virtues,” International Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 51 (2011): 339-354.

[5] Some such research treats “transcendence” as a category of virtues; other research treats “transcendence” as the name of a distinctive virtue. Neither use of the term corresponds with self-transcendence in the way that seems most in keeping with Aquinas’s understanding of virtue.

Candace Vogler is the David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor of Philosophy and Professor in the College at the University of Chicago, and Director and Principal Investigator for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

Virtue and the Common Good in Aristotle and Aquinas

SPAIN – CIRCA 1986: stamp printed by Spain, shows Aristotle, text from De Cielo et Mundo, circa 1986.

Aristotle thought that work on virtue had a profoundly political aspect. According to Aristotle our capacity to perceive good and bad is inextricably linked to the complexities of our sociality, and it is hard to imagine a sound reading of Aristotle (or any other good philosopher) on topics such as virtue and practical reason that did not involve our capacity to distinguish good from bad. Human beings, Aristotle thought, are at home in ordered communities, and our capacity to track practical good and bad and right and wrong (even to engage in means-end reasoning, interestingly) are capacities properly exercised in society:

…it is evident that the state is a creation of nature, and that man is by nature a political Bust of Aristotle (Greece 1978)animal. And he who by nature and not by mere accident is without a state is either a bad man or… he is like the ‘Tribeless, lawless, hearthless one,’ whom Homer denounces—the natural outcast…. Nature, as we often say, makes nothing in vain, and man is the only animal who has the gift of speech. And whereas mere voice is but an indication of pleasure and pain, and is therefore found in other animals…the power of speech is intended to set forth the expedient and inexpedient, and therefore likewise the just and unjust. And it is a characteristic of man that he alone has any sense of good and evil, of just and unjust, and the like, and the association of living beings who have this sense makes a family and a state.[1]

Further, according to Aristotle, individual human beings develop their understanding of good, bad, right, and wrong by criticizing their fellows’ bad conduct in light of community standards.[2]

"School of Athens" by Raphael (Greece 1978)The polis is the natural setting for virtuous activity in Aristotle, and even though there is no question that Aristotle sees virtuous citizens as working for the good of the polis, it is not clear how far Aristotle’s understanding of virtue and sound practical reason locates these excellences as aimed, first and foremost, at the good of the community rather than at the virtuous person’s own good (even if participation in ordered community life is required if individuals are to thrive). It is one thing to hold that an individual human being’s good cannot be understood in isolation from that individual’s participation in an ordered community. As near as I can tell, Aristotle thought as much. It is quite another to treat the proper end of virtuous activity as the common good understood very broadly—as extending, for example, beyond the boundaries of the polis, of political friendships, of a community ordered by shared customs or rules, of humans who share a common language, beyond, even the reach of norms enjoining hospitality. Notoriously, Aristotle has little to offer on the question of how individuals who are in these respects strangers to one another are capable of doing right or wrong by each other.[3]

In short, Aristotle’s understanding of the point or target or end of virtuous activity certainly transcends the apparent limits of love of self far enough to encompass love of neighbor. Aristotle’s insistence on the centrality of communities ordered by shared customs and rules shows us this much. But the circle of those who will count as my neighbors is rather narrower than contemporary ethicists might have hoped.

Postage stamp Spain 1962 Apotheosis of St. Thomas Aquinas
SPAIN – CIRCA 1962: a stamp printed in the Spain shows The Apotheosis of St. Thomas Aquinas, Painting by Zurbaran, circa 1962

Aquinas understands virtue as directed to the common good in much more expansive terms. Aquinas takes up Aristotle’s stress on our sociality, together with the thought that human beings are the only animals who will develop an articulate sense of good and bad (if all goes as it should go in their lives). Aquinas also moves arm-in-arm with Aristotle in focusing on the importance of an ordered community to an understanding of the kind of common good at issue in the exercise of virtue. For all that, Aquinas’s account of the extent of the ordered community served by virtuous activity, and the kind of order at issue in the community, grows beyond any Aristotelian root.

Full discussion of the sort of order at issue in Aquinas’s account of the common good (for the sake of which we cultivate and exercise acquired virtue) requires entering into the difficult territory of Aquinas’s undeniably theological account of natural law.[4] Discussion of Aquinas on the character of natural law is beyond the scope of this essay. Suffice to say that the boundaries that delimit any distinct human community—the polis, say, or nation, or state, or club, or group of people with shared customs, or religious group, or group of users of one or more human languages—do not circumscribe virtue’s arena on Aquinas’s account. The kind of transcendence of personal good at issue in Aquinas’s understanding outstrips the sort associated with the political and social dimensions of virtue in Aristotle.

Laws associated with natures are operative in the whole of creation on Aquinas’s view.

Postage stamp Italy 1974 St. Thomas Aquinas, by Francesco Traini
ITALY – CIRCA 1974: a stamp printed in the Italy shows St. Thomas Aquinas, by Francesco Traini, Scholastic Philosopher, 700th Death Anniversary, circa 1974

Still, it won’t do to treat the breadth of Aquinas’s understanding of the good at issue in the cultivation and exercise of virtue by postulating a shapeless, all-inclusive, creation-sized “bigger and better than I am” good as the backbone for an interesting variety of virtue ethics. On the face of it, a spiritual exercise that primarily serves to give me a sense of oneness with the Pacific Ocean will not count as an exercise of virtue. Attempting to view myself as at once noble and charged with responsibility for helping to maintain all that sustains life because I, too, am made of stardust likewise has nothing to do with the cultivation or exercise of virtue. Instead, Aquinas understands acquired virtue as a cultivated strength of character that fosters the cooperative operations of reason and emotion, perception and volition, thought and feeling, attraction and aversion in the service of reasonable pursuit of human good.

Editor’s note: This piece continues tomorrow with the post Transcendence in Positive Psychology.

[1] Politics 1.2, 1253a2-18, B. Jowett, translator, in Jonathan Barnes, editor, The Complete Works of Aristotle, Vol. 2 (Oxford: Princeton University Press, 1984), pp. 1987-88.

[2] See, e.g., Nicomachean Ethics I.13, 1102b 33-35.

[3] For some discussion of the difficulty here, see Michael Thompson, “What is it to Wrong Someone? A Puzzle about Justice,” in R. Jay Wallace, Philip Pettit, Samuel Scheffler, and Michael Smith, editors, Reason and Value: Themes from the Moral Philosophy of Joseph Raz, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2004), pp. 338-339.

[4] I share many readers’ deep dissatisfaction with the so-called “new natural law” theories associated with work by John Finnis and Germain Grisez. The reading of Aquinas on the character of natural law in the background of this essay is rooted in Stephen Brock’s The Legal Character of Natural Law According to St. Thomas Aquinas (PhD thesis, University of Toronto, 1988) [stable URL: <>%5D.

Candace Vogler is the David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor of Philosophy and Professor in the College at the University of Chicago, and Director and Principal Investigator for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

Interview with Matthew Dugandzic, Summer Session Participant


This post is part of a series of interviews with our incoming class for the “Virtue & Happiness” 2016 Summer Seminar. Matthew Dugandzic  is a PhD student in moral theology/ethics, who does some research in psychology as well, at The Catholic University of America, Washington, DC.

Valerie Wallace: Where are you from?

Matthew Dugandzic: I come from suburban New York, attended college in Montréal, and currently reside in Washington, DC. 


VW: Tell me about your current research.

MD: My main research interest is in medieval psychology. I especially enjoy tracing the development of concepts over time during the 12th and 13th centuries and seeing how the introduction of Aristotelian philosophy to the Latin West shaped Scholastic thought. The purpose of all this is to try to understand why there is a disjunction between what people think they ought to do, what they feel they want to do, and what they actually do. And, of course, I want to learn to remedy that disjunction, which is why I’m also interested in contemporary research in neuroscience.

VW: What are you most looking forward to about this summer’s Virtue & Happiness seminar?
MD: I’m looking forward to seeing what people with more scientific backgrounds have to say about virtue ethics and in exploring how an Aristotelian philosophical anthropology and a scientific understanding of human nature can benefit one another.


VW: What are your non-academic interests?

MD: Frisbee, winter sports, and proving to my Midwestern friends – with live demonstration – that there is not just one New York accent, but several.


Interview with Sungwoo Um, Summer Seminar Participant

Sungwoo Um.jpg

This post is part of a series of interviews with our incoming class for the “Virtue & Happiness” 2016 Summer Seminar. Sungwoo Um is a PhD Philosophy student and  Assistant Director of the Center for Comparative Philosophy at Duke University.

Valerie Wallace: Where are you from?

Sungwoo Um: I was born and raised in Seoul, South Korea. But I stayed in the UK for three years to get one of my two master’s degrees and have been studying in the US for about three years. I feel blessed to go through such diverse cultural and academic experiences, which are enriching my character as well as my study.


VW: Tell me about your current research.

SU: I’m mainly interested in ethics, understood as any serious attempt to answer the question, “How should we live?” I hope my life and my study enrich each other, forming something like a soaring double helix. I want be happy, but I need to be virtuous. My philosophical journey has been an endeavor to harmonize these two (seemingly conflicting) thoughts in a good human life. This is why I have focused on examining the relationship between them and investigating the nature of particular virtues such as modesty or trustfulness. My ultimate goal is to defend the thesis that the happiest life for human beings can be achieved when they live virtuously.

Now I am particularly interested in how to make sense of personal relationships in living a good human life. This reflects my personal belief that large part of my happiness comes from the intimate personal relationships I share with my family and friends. I believe such partial aspects of human life have irreplaceable ethical value and thus cannot be simply overridden by impartial morality. To solve the puzzle of partiality and personal relationships, I am now trying to develop a version of virtue ethics that puts relational aspects of human life at the center.


VW: What are you most looking forward to about this summer’s Virtue & Happiness seminar?

SU:  The Virtue & Happiness summer seminar will be a perfect opportunity to enhance my research for two main reasons. First, the topics addressed in the seminar, especially self-transcendence and moral development, are closely relevant to my current and future research. I expect the discussion of self-transcendence will help me to give a better account of how virtue and happiness of the agent herself can be harmonized with morality, which are often considered as mainly other-regarding. The discussion of moral development will also help me to explain how to cultivate the ethical virtues that are essential for human happiness in a diachronic manner.

The second reason for my interest in this seminar is its interdisciplinary approach. Joint work among researchers from philosophy, psychology, and theology/religious studies will create a great platform to gain new insights on the topic of virtue and happiness. I believe any plausible ethical theory should adequately respect the facts about what kind of creatures we are. Interaction with psychologists will help me to have a clearer idea about what kind of happiness is possible to us and how are we to cultivate what sort of virtues. Views from religious background would also be important for broadening my perspective because many people have been, and still are, seeking their source of virtue and happiness in the religions they endorse.



VW: What are your non-academic interests?

SUWhen I don’t study, I spend most of my time with my wife and my baby boy. They are the inspiration and the source of motivation for both my life and study. 

9th Biennial International Meaning Conference

We’re pleased to share the announcements for this conference, which is coordinated by our scholar Paul T. P. Wong.

The International Network on Personal Meaning (INPM) is pleased to announce the 9th Biennial International Meaning Conference to be held July 28-31, 2016 in Toronto, Canada.
The main theme of the conference is, “Spirituality, Self-Transcendence, and Second Wave Positive Psychology.” This conference theme was partly inspired by the Chicago Virtue, Happiness, and Meaning project. It will address the topic of self-transcendence from theoretical, empirical, and therapeutic perspectives.
Dr. William Breitbart, the foremost authority on palliative care, will give a keynote as well as a pre-conference workshop. Other keynote speakers will include Robert Neimeyer, Mick Cooper, Kirk Schneider, Michael Steger, Carol Ryff, Itai Ivtzan, Paul T. P. Wong, and more.


Here are other conference highlights relevant to spiritual care and self-transcendence:
    • Workshop on Meaning-Centered Psychotherapy for Advanced Cancer Patients
    • Workshop on Integrative Trauma Informed Treatment
    • Workshop on Mindfulness Programs in Positive Psychology
    • Workshop on Techniques of Grief Therapy
    • Workshop on Pluralistic Therapy
    • Workshop on Need for Transcendent Meaning

For more information, including registration, visit the  conference’s website.

Candace Vogler on “Virtue Insight” vlog

Candace Vogler, our co-Principal Investigator and Director, recently spent time as a Distinguished Visiting Professor in the Jubilee Centre. Up on their blog “Virtue Insight”, she speaks about our project and its synergies with Jubilee Center projects.

Click the image below to view the video as well as find the text of a paper Vogler presented  titled ‘A Few Remarks About Self-Transcendence’ while at the Jubilee Centre.

Vogler Virture Insight Screenshot 2016-04-15 10.53.07

Photos, tweets, and audience response: Anselm Mueller’s leture, “What Do We Live For?”

We will post the recording of Anselm Mueller’s April 11 lecture “What Do We Live For?” when it becomes available, but in the meantime thought you might enjoy some feedback we received on our surveys, photos, some of our live tweets, and first, this article about Mueller’s lecture with an interview with Candace Vogler about our Visiting Scholar program.
anselm tweets.jpg
Audience survey responses to Anselm Mueller’s “What Do We Live For?”
  • The tension between well-being and perfection is what living life day-to-day is all about.
  • I have a broadened grasp of the problems in trying to understand virtue.
  • The talk provided a different framework for which to shape my own perception of moral philosophy.
  • The lecture provided clear examples of competing factors and forces that we humans aim for both perfection and well-being, and the difficulties in choosing between them.
  • The lecture has contributed to my understanding of the meaning of life. It provided a framework for understanding personal virtue that I had ever thought of before.
  • The lecture gave me a broader understanding of theories on the dichotomy between well-being/perfection.
  • The event will lead to further exploration of these topics in personal reading and attendance at other events and lectures.
  • The lecture helped clarify the nature of the two specific tele as ways in which to frame my life.
  • I hadn’t considered the importance of the conceptual between well-being and perfection as different tele.
  • The lecture illuminated the function of perfection in relation to a meaningful life and the place of the pursuit of well-being within it.
  • The lecture helped to order the variety of philosophical approaches and their limitations.
  • The lecture helped me to see that the collapse of well-being and philosophical perfection is rife in ableism. The lecture provided with useful material to counter the basic claims in ableism.
  • The lecture certainly inspired me to do further reading.
  • The lecture helped me to see that philosophy is well equipped to clarify the tension between well-being and perfection but that it is not equipped to resolve it.

Photos by Valerie Wallace. For more photos from our events, visit our Flickr page.