I. Religion & Virtue Theory > Positive Psychology and Willliam James on Healthy-Minded Religiosity: Papers Available

Abstracts/papers papers by Fishman, McCarthy & Pawelski, for the W. James Society meeting at the upcoming SAAP 2009 Meeting are available.

1. Positive Thinking, Positive Psychology, and The Nature of Virtue.
Stephen Fishman & Lucille McCarthy

Abstract. The co-authors of this presentation believe that one of the most significant contemporary developments of James' discussion of the principles of "healthy-mindedness" is occurring today in Positive Psychology. The co-authors also believe that, for philosophy, the most important developments in Positive Psychology are twofold. These are (1) Positive Psychology's claim that it has evidence that use of positive personality traits like hope, optimism, zest, and passion, regardless of motives or consequences, are ways to exhibit virtue. And (2) its claim it has evidence that exercise of these positive traits, regardless of motives or consequences, leads to the good life and "authentic happiness" (Seligman, Authentic Happiness, Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis). We say that these are significant developments because, if true, we have scientific support for the long-standing desire (at least since Luther's time) to show that moral behavior is a guarantee of happiness and that we have a moral obligation to be hopeful and optimistic. In this presentation, the co-authors focus on Positive Psychology's claims to have shown that exercising one's character strengths are ways to exhibit virtue or is the same as acting morally and living a morally good life.

2. Varieties of Healthy-Mindedness: Religion or Science? James O. Pawelski

Abstract.William James was the most important critic of the self-help movement of his day. In The Varieties of Religious Experience, he wrote extensively about its religious manifestations in mind cure. While James noted definite limitations and problems with what he called “healthy-mindedness,” he refused to dismiss it out of hand. His reason for defending healthy-mindedness was pragmatic. For all its omissions and overstatements, it seemed to have powerful positive effects for many people. When James returned to the topic of healthy-mindedness in “The Energies of Men,” his 1906 presidential address to the American Philosophical Association, he called for a rigorous new branch of empirical psychology to study this phenomenon systematically. Such scientific study, he thought, could help separate the wheat from the chafe, making healthy-mindedness even more healthy for those for whom it worked. James’s call has gone largely unheeded in the century since he made it. Healthy-mindedness has been the province of wildly popular, and scientifically ungrounded authors such as Dale Carnegie (How to Win Friends and Influence People), Napoleon Hill (Think and Grow Rich), Norman Vincent Peale (The Power of Positive Thinking), and Rhonda Byrne (The Secret). The last decade, however, has seen a powerful answer to James’s call for the scientific study of healthy-mindedness in the form of a new branch of psychology called positive psychology.

This paper explores this new science of well-being through a Jamesian lens. What are the research methods used by this new science, and do they meet the standards James laid out? What new knowledge have these methods opened up for us, and how can they help us articulate a “scientific healthy-mindedness”? How does this scientific healthy-mindedness differ from the religious forms of healthy-mindedness James explored in his day—and from those that are current today? What advice would James give to the science of well-being as it continues to develop? What opportunities does it open up? What dangers must it avoid?

3. The Nature of Virtue

Although it seems clear to us that in many cases virtuous behavior leads to happiness, we raise questions about Positive Psychology's use of the word "virtue." More specifically, we question its view that the exercise of such personal traits as hopefulness, optimism, passion, and zest are "ways we achieve the virtues" regardless of their consequences or the reasons these "strengths of character" are used (Seligman, op. cit., p. 133, 137). For example, we believe that hope is not a virtue when one acts hopefully for domination over others. We believe that the same is true when optimism, passion, and zest are marshaled for personal advantage or aggrandizement. Failure to make this distinction allows Seligman to conclude that a millionaire options trader, champion bridge player, and avid sports fan leads "a good life" because he has exercised his "signature strengths" and, thus, has achieved virtue (Seligman, op. cit., pp. 35, 111-112). We speculate that those who believe that virtuous behavior is moral behavior because it includes working for the common good would disagree with Seligman's choice of an exemplar of the virtuous and good life. In addition, we speculate that the list of those disagreeing would include figures like Socrates, Mill, Dewey, and James. For us, James' understanding of the conditions of virtuous behavior is encapsulated in a question he once asked and answered for his audience. James' question was: "Are we not bound to take some suffering upon ourselves, to do some self-denying service with our lives, in return for all those lives upon which ours are built?" His response: "To hear the question is to answer it in but one possible way, if one have a normal constituted heart" ("Is Life Worth Living," 1895).
March 3, 2009 | Registered CommenterGuy Axtell
Guy, who's the author of the third article noted above? Is the paper available in the JB library? Do you know whether it, or the others, will be published anywhere?

March 4, 2009 | Registered CommenterJason Baehr

The first two are abstracted from the SAAP Meeting program for next week--actually the same weekend on our Oklahoma conference, or else I'd go. The Program is at . I think they'll link the full papers there as they have in the past, but am not sure. The third paper I'll have to check on and get back to you.
March 6, 2009 | Registered CommenterGuy Axtell