Howard Gardner, the Harvard psychologist who came up with the theory of multiple intelligences, which was a big influence on the idea of teaching emotional intelligence in schools, has brought out a new book, called Truth,%20Beauty,%20and%20Goodness%20Reframed:%20Educating%20for%20the%20Virtues%20in%20the%20Twenty-first%20Century” title=”" target=”_blank”>Truth, Beauty and Goodness Reframed: Educating for the Virtues in the 21st Century . He explores the relationship between ancient virtue ethics and modern psychology – and what this synthesis can say in response to the challenge of post-modernism, moral relativism, and biological and economic determinism.
He says: “Plato and Socrates had a lot to say on the topic, also Confucius and Rousseau among others. But we can’t simply repeat the traditional answers mindlessly. We can’t just go back to the trivium and quadrivium because they seemed to work in the Middle Ages. We do know a lot about human beings that we didn’t know before, and we know something about the shape of the world, which is very different than it has been in the past. I am pondering the constraints of education as well as the things that are changing; I am thinking about what we’ve learned about the mind and the brain and different cultures. I want to lay out something which at least I’d want to have for my kids, and at best what I’d want to have for kids everywhere.”
The book made me think about the awkward dance we’ve seen conducted between virtue ethics and modern psychology in the last few years. On the one hand, psychology presents a challenge to virtue ethics and the idea of building character, as Julian Baggini discussed in the Demos report, Building Character, here. Social psychologists like Philip Zimbardo have shown the extent to which the situation affects our moral choices (‘it’s not my fault, I just got caught up in the riot’), while social intuitonists like John Bargh have shown how many of our moral decisions are automatic and unconscious responses to stimuli.
On the other hand, psychologists are increasingly coming round to the ancient Greeks’ idea that we can develop character through training and habit. CBT has shown how we can examine our unconscious beliefs and challenge them, and create new ways of responding to the world. Positive Psychology has gone further, suggesting psychology can help us build up our ‘character strengths’ to achieve ‘the good life’. Self-control theorists like Roy Baumeister have explored how we can develop our self-control through training. Even Philip Zimbardo now talks of training young people to be ‘heroes’.
Yet psychologists are often wary of talking about ‘virtues’. CBT takes the personality-training methods of Stoicism, but ditches any mention of virtue, preferring to talk about ‘skills’ or ‘techniques’ (I discussed that absence of virtue in CBT in this talk). Positive Psychology seems to talk about the virtues (or ‘character strengths’) while also insisting it is not a theory of ethics, it does not tell people what they should do.
The reason for this hesitancy, perhaps, is that presenting oneself as an objective science means you’re much more likely to get public funding for your projects – western governments are wary of putting public funds into any public projects that put forward a particular moral view (God forbid a spirituality) because it would go against the pluralist idea that governments should leave people to decide the good life for themselves. So psychologists talk about the good life while quietly dropping any mention of virtue, values or goodness. But I think you can’t talk about the good life without talking about goodness and the virtues, so I welcome Gardner having the courage to face this head on.
Here’s another interesting-looking new book, by University of Texas social psychologist James Pennebaker, with the wonderful title, The%20Secret%20Life%20of%20Pronouns:%20What%20Our%20Words%20Say%20About%20Us” title=”" target=”_blank”>The Secret Life of Pronouns . Pennebaker used computer analysis of blogs, speeches, poems and other texts, and discovered who we are and how we feel has a lot to do with the pronouns we use. He’s famous for his research into the self-writing exercise, whereby people write about something significant that happened to them, for 10 minutes, three days in a row. The exercise has been shown to have significant health benefits.
Why? One thing Pennebaker noticed was that the participants who got the most benefit wrote about a traumatic event, and as they wrote, they moved from using mainly first person pronouns (I, me, my) to multiple pronouns (I, you, it, they, our, your etc) and causal connecting words (therefore, that’s why). They achieved a pronoun flexibility, or the ability to see their situation from multiple perspectives, and to come to terms with it. For example, Pennebaker analysed the work of poets who committed suicide, and found they used first person pronouns much more often than poets who didn’t! This is why it’s healthier to be a novelist or playwright – they train themselves, and us, to see things from multiple perspectives. Unless you’re TS Eliot, of course. What is The Wasteland, but an exercise in multiple perspectives?
Many of you will have heard of Pierre Hadot, the French classicist who sadly died last year. He wrote the wonderful book, Philosophy%20as%20a%20Way%20of%20Life:%20Spiritual%20Exercises%20from%20Socrates%20to%20Foucault” title=”" target=”_blank”>Philosophy as a Way of Life , which has been a big inspiration for me and many other people interested in practical philosophy. If you like him, you’ll enjoy the website of this philosophical counsellor, Andrew Taggart, who says he was inspired by Hadot. Taggart’s blog brought my attention to this interesting article from the Washington Post on the philosophical counselling movement in the US.
Hadot-fans might also enjoy this collection of essays edited by Clare Carlisle of the University of Liverpool, who teaches an MA there in philosophy as a way of life. I wonder if one can study it purely as an academic subject…or is that self-defeating?
Finally, I was sad not to be able to go to Uncivilization, a festival set up by Dougald Hine, who’s a really interesting guy. He co-edited the Dark Mountain anthology, exploring the poetics and philosophy of the collapse of civilization (yes, the perfect Christmas present for your Gran!). The second volume has just come out. One of the speakers at Uncivilization was Vinay Gupta, who set up the Institute of Collapsonomics with Hine. He also designed something called the Hexayurt, a pop-up structure for people to live in when states collapse. He’s advised the Pentagon on how to cope with dirty bombs in large urban areas, and other cheery scenarios. Anyway, here’s Vinay’s latest 4am thoughts-on-the-world-and-how-to-save-it. I really like the way he draws on Stoic ideas of resilience – he and the Dark Mountain crew are bringing together the world of philosophy and environmentalism in an interesting way.
That’s all for this week. I’m fairly confident I will be on holiday next week, so see you on September the 9th.