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This article originally appeared in Tableau, the Division of the Humanities at the University of Chicago’s quarterly publication, as Scholarship of Self-Transcendence: Candace Vogler leads a search for the meaning of life by Courtney C. W. Guerra.
Candace Vogler, the David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor in Philosophy, is invested in her fellow human beings, and she’s determined to help them—us—find fulfillment. To tackle such a complex issue, she proposed the collaborative research project Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life, the aims of which are every bit as ambitious as its name implies. With major support from the John Templeton Foundation, this multiyear initiative—jointly led by Jennifer A. Frey, a philosopher at the University of South Carolina—explores self-transcendence: a feeling of connection to something beyond the individual self.
Of course, there’s no single way for human beings to attain self-transcendence: it can happen through spiritual practice, professional drive, familial bonds, or any number of commitments to a higher cause. Vogler’s group includes psychologists, philosophers, and religious thinkers from a variety of traditions. Many are UChicago colleagues: assistant professor Marc G. Berman and professor Howard C. Nusbaum in Psychology, associate professor Tahera Qutbuddin in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, and, in Philosophy, assistant professor Matthias Haase and Josef Stern, the William H. Colvin Professor Emeritus. The 30-scholar cohort represents institutions throughout the United States, Middle East, and Europe; they have been meeting and teaching since October 2015.
When she devised the project, Vogler says, “The ambition was to get a kind of deep integration between people working in very different disciplines” without relegating their work to the margins of less widely read, explicitly interdisciplinary publications. And it worked: the participants are “doing disciplinary work, they’re publishing in the disciplinary journals, and the inspiration for it is coming out of the frame of the project.”
These discussions have informed 10 published or forthcoming articles—a figure that “pretty dramatically exceeded” her initial expectations—with many more on the way. One essay that encapsulates the spirit of the project is being developed by Notre Dame theologian Jean Porter, about studies by Cornell University psychologist Katherine Kinzler on early childhood food preferences. Porter finds parallels between contemporary psychology and the views of Catholic philosopher Thomas Aquinas on the influence of group identity on what children choose to eat. (A draft is available on the Virtue Blog, along with other writings and filmed lectures.) This video helps to introduce and contextualize the group’s scholarship.
Like Porter’s essay, much of the project is “built on things that ought to be super interesting to people who are not academics,” says Vogler. She hopes a broad audience will attend the culminating conference at UChicago over the weekend of October 14–15. From there, Vogler plans to share her team’s findings with educators—from early childhood through MBA programs and beyond—to help promote self-transcendence at every stage of development. “There’s a big difference,” she points out, “between leading a life that’s super busy and leading a life that’s full.” Her hope is that the group’s work, as it reverberates out into the broader world, will help people achieve the latter.
On April 21-22, our co-PI, Jennifer A. Frey, hosted a philosophy workshop at the University of South Carolina titled, “Practical Truth: Reflections on the Aristotelian Tradition.” Frey hosted an international group of philosophers on campus in Columbia, SC to discuss the importance of the concept of practical truth, both historically within the Aristotelian tradition and in terms of its relevance for contemporary philosophical debates about action, practical reason and virtue. She is currently pursuing the possibility of publishing the essays in an edited volume.
In her opening discussion of practical truth, Professor Frey discussed her reasons for thinking the concept of practical truth is central to a philosophical account of virtue. What follows is a condensed version of her basic argument.
Let us start with the claim that the knowledge the virtuous person possesses is a distinctive kind of knowledge, what the ancients and medievals called practical knowledge or practical wisdom. What marks the difference between practical and theoretical knowledge and wisdom? Well, traditionally the thought was that it is grounded in the distinction between theoretical and practical reasoning, which Aristotle differentiated in terms of distinctive ends or aims (their distinctive work or operation as modes of reasoning). Theoretical reasoning, Aristotle argued, aims at an understanding of being or what is, and its measure is truth; such reasoning is finished (i.e., its work is done) when truth is grasped intellectually. Theoretical wisdom, the perfection of theoretical reasoning, aims to know general and timeless truths about the highest or best objects of contemplation. But practical knowledge, by contrast, aims at praxis, at realizing or making actual a good human life through deliberative choices of certain actions and activities; it aims to realize what is truly good in particulars, in human actions. If we say that its measure is also truth, it must be truth of a special kind, one that somehow hooks up with realizing what is truly good. It cannot be a truth that ends with an intellectual grasp of what is; rather, it would have to be a truth that is achieved in the living of a certain life, in a praxis.
It is worth noting, in this regard, that Aristotle thought one could possess theoretical but not practical wisdom—theoretical but not practical truth. Suppose, for instance, that someone excels in math, physics, chemistry, biology, and general cosmology. Such a person grasps the way things are ordered at the most basic and fundamental level, and he can apply these most general principles to explain much of what happens in the world. Suppose he has devoted his life to this kind of knowledge. Of course, this in no way guarantees or even tends to the cultivation of his moral virtue. Perhaps he is lascivious with women outside of the lab; perhaps he is willing to lie, steal, and cheat when it allows him more time and grant money to pursue his passion for science, perhaps he is a coward and incapable of helping others in need; and so on. None of this necessarily impacts his ability to do great science; and, more importantly, nothing about doing great science inoculates him against developing a gross moral character.
It wouldn’t change anything, I suspect, if we added theology to the list of studies to which our imagined knower dedicated himself. Being able to argue about the metaphysics of the Trinity does not necessarily make you a loving or good person either. A mere change of topic won’t cut it. For the same reason, one might even be a great moral theorist and have a bad moral character; that is, one might have theoretical knowledge about practical subject matters but not the practical dispositions that lead to making good decisions and living well.
This goes back, once again, to the different inherent teleologies or inherent aims of the two different kinds of reasoning. Practical reasoning is not practical in virtue of having a special kind of content; it is not ordinary theoretical thought and inference suddenly turned to the topic of human good. Practical reasoning is practical because it aims to realize some good or end that the agent desires—most especially the desire to live well or to flourish. Such reasoning depends on the agent wanting to realize some end or objective or good; thus desire for some good is essential to practical reasoning, it is the arche or starting point of such reasoning. This explains why Aristotle defines practical truth as “truth in accordance with right desire.”
Now, if practical knowledge and reasoning essentially aims at action, and if such thought depends for its teleology upon a certain appetitive orientation, then it can only be successful when the agent brings about the goods in question through the use of this very thought and reasoning. So it is somewhat misleading to say that the practically wise man knows how to live, because again, he may know this as a theory rather than as a praxis. To come to know the praxis would require a different kind of training that the one the moral theorist typically receives. What we might strictly speaking say of the practically wise man, if he is really practically wise, is that he knows he is living well, not simply that he knows how to live well, generally speaking. For the knowledge is operative in the practically wise and is the explanation of what he does—of his choices and actions. The manifestation of the knowledge is primarily in what he does rather than what he says.
Thus it seems to me that there is a difference between a theoretical conception of living well, which the moral theorist might possess, and a practical conception of living well, which only the practically wise possess. It also strikes me that the good or happy life is one that displays a kind of truth about human nature and human beings—a truth about what our good is. But again, this is a distinctively practical kind of truth that is displayed in living well, not simply in the possession of correct general propositions or principles. One sees practical wisdom and practical truth principally or paradigmatically in action, as it were, not standing behind it.
In contemporary virtue ethics, there is almost no discussion of practical truth. But if the line of reasoning I have outlined is roughly correct, virtue ethics needs an account of a distinctively practical notion of truth just as much as it needs a distinctively practical account of knowledge and wisdom. The point of the workshop (and eventually, the collected volume of papers) is to begin to advance such an account in light of our understanding of the Aristotelian tradition, broadly construed to include Aquinas and the work of Elizabeth Anscombe.
We’ve distilled our Scholars’ research for this semester into respective questions; tomorrow we’ll post eight more. And in forthcoming posts, we’ll feature in-depth look at each. For now, we thought our readers would enjoy pondering each question. Together, they can read as a kind of meditation on the inter-relatedness of virtue, happiness, and deep meaning in life.
Can cognitive effort be measured?
~Marc Berman, University of Chicago
What good are the humanities?
~ Talbot Brewer, University of Virginia
What work does anger do across moralities?
What work ought anger to do in a particular morality?
~ Owen Flanagan, Duke University
How can Thomistic notions of of Temperance enlarge and enrich our understanding of that virtue?
~ Jennifer Frey, University of South Carolina
What is the role of friendship in human flourishing?
~Michael Gorman, The Catholic University of America
Given my circumstances, can I do what befits a human being?
~Matthias Haase, University of Chicago
Can we achieve happiness without an understanding of the ultimate finality of the human soul?
~Reinhard Huetter, Duke Divinity School
Can human character experience sudden moral change?
~Angela Knobel, The Catholic University of America
How is Aristotle’s meta-virtue of megalopsychia, or magnanimity, useful to us today?
Can immoral people undergo sudden moral conversions?
~Kristján Kristjánsson, Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, University of Birmingham
Click the link below to hear our scholar and philosopher Matthias Haase discuss his research in philosophy of action, and the unexpected benefits of doing research with theologians and psychologists.
Recently it has been suggested that the concept of virtue can be understood as something like a skill. Like a skill, virtue is a disposition that requires habituation, where such habituation, however, cannot be reduced to mere routine. It has been central to this view that these two modes of practical knowledge, skill and virtue, are clearly distinguishable from mere habits.
According to this picture, skill and virtue are particular species of the more general categories of “acquired capacities” and “acquired tendencies.” Both rational and sub-rational animals are meant to have acquired capacities and acquired tendencies. A trained dog is said to have the capacity to control its sphincters, and if it is well behaved, it tends to exercise this capacity. An adult person has the capacity to fulfill her promises, and if she is virtuous, she will tend to fulfill them. According to this picture, only the capacities and tendencies of human beings are rational. The capacities of sub-rational creatures are mere habits. Thus skill and virtue are conceived as the rational species of two more general categories, acquired capacity and acquired tendency. They are meant to be more general because they also apply to sub-rational animals. I call this the Modern Approach to habit. It rests on the assumption that the contrast between acquired and not acquired capacities and tendencies, i.e. between habituated and non-habituated capacities and tendencies, is intelligible independently of the rational sub-categories.
I criticize this view and oppose to it what I call the Orthodox Doctrine of habit endorsed by Aristotle, Aquinas and Hegel. On this view, the relation between capacity and tendency on the one hand, and habit on the other hand, is not the relation between a genus and a species. Rather, habit is a formal feature that properly belongs to the idea of a rational power. According to this doctrine, sub-rational animals cannot, properly speaking, have habits; only rational animals are creatures of habit. While mere animals possess their capacities “immediately” or “by nature”, humans equip themselves with a “second nature” through repeated actions. A human is the creation of her own activity.
The opposition between the Neo-Aristotelian and the orthodox doctrines of habit thus comes to this: on the Neo-Aristotelian conception of the distinctions within the general category of capacity, the opposition rational/sub-rational is applicable to the concept of habit. There are rational as well as sub-rational habits. According to the orthodox doctrine, the rational/sub-rational opposition is not applicable to habit, since the latter constitutes a structural moment of rational capacities. There are no sub-rational habits. There are only good and bad habits: i.e. the two ways in which a rational capacity can be actualized. The wisdom of this orthodox doctrine is evident from the difficulties afflicting the Neo-Aristotelian account. So let us consider habit in its three principal dimensions: acquisition, act, and subject.
In the categorical framework of Neo-Aristotelianism, the conceptual capacities distinctive of humankind form a sub-category of acquired dispositions. Let’s assume for the moment that this is correct. What are we to say of those exemplars of our species who have yet to acquire any second nature? What are we to say of our first nature? John McDowell gives the following response: “Human infants are mere animals, distinctive only in their potential.” McDowell does not maintain that newborns belong to the class of beasts and brutes; he rather advances the thesis that the distinction between us and animals obtains at the level of first nature. An infant differs from mere animals not through its activities but through its as-yet unactualized capacities, its predispositions. Thus, when, in the course of their development, children acquire conceptual abilities and tendencies, they are actualizing a capacity that they were born with. In other words, human infants differ from mere animals by virtue of a second-order capacity, a capacity to acquire abilities. A rational second nature is thus the actualization of a second-order capacity that is in-born, and hence a first nature.
But if this capacity distinguishes us in virtue of our first nature, then the question arises as to whether the capacity to acquire rational capacities is itself a rational capacity. For mere animals can have a second nature as well, and therefore have the ability to acquire abilities. The capacities that they acquire, however, are—unlike ours—not rational. The question is what this means for the corresponding second-order capacities. What sort of distinction is there between their second-order capacities and ours? Are ours rational?
Aristotle, Aquinas, and Hegel deny that humans think from birth. A human infant differs from a mere animal in virtue of its predispositions, not in virtue of the (supposed) fact that it thinks. Infants first acquire concepts, which are applied in judgments, through practice. So why doesn’t the problem that these predispositions must themselves be rational capacities arise here? This problem only crops up if one assumes that the rational/sub-rational contrast applies to the concept of second nature. That is what leads to the question whether the relevant second-order capacity is itself rational or sub-rational. In the context of the orthodox doctrine of habit, this question makes no sense. Wherever first and second nature – ability and power – come apart, it is already settled whether the capacity in question is rational. It is the hallmark of rational lifeforms that their essential capacities are operative in individual exemplars only as mere predispositions. The spirited actuality of the human infant – and thus its mere being as “natural spirit” – consists precisely in the inactivity, the uncultivated indeterminacy of its essential vital capacities. It is precisely this unfinished quality of the individual, this dependency that is the material perspective, whose formal complement is the original sociality of humankind.
Matthias Haase is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Chicago (beginning Fall 2016), and scholar with the project Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.