Anthony Seldon: Universities should promote the flourishing of students and staff

This week I took the train out to Milton Keynes, then a taxi through the golden fields of Buckinghamshire to the University of Buckingham, where Sir Anthony Seldon recently became vice-chancellor. He was previously headmaster of Wellington School, where he became prominent for his advocacy of happiness classes. Now, he has brought that vision to higher education, outlining his plan to make Buckingham ‘Europe’s first positive university’.

What does that mean? Well, you can listen to our conversation through this podcast. In brief, it’s a holistic vision that includes various measures, from mentoring to mindfulness. The most eye-catching is the introduction of classes in Positive Psychology for all students and staff.

I met the head of psychology, Dr Alan Martin, who has been given this task by Anthony. Imagine – you’re the head of faculty in the UK’s smallest university, your speciality is children’s understanding of science, when a new vice-chancellor arrives and calls you in for a meeting. ‘I’d like to introduce classes in Positive Psychology. For everyone’. ‘All psychology students?’ ‘No, everyone.’

In that first meeting with Alan, Anthony called up Martin Seligman, founder of Positive Psychology, and booked him in as a consultant. Suddenly, Alan is thrust into the fabulously-funded world of Positive Psychology,  the cultish conferences at Penn, the sermons from Seligman, the endless well-being questionnaires. And he is the European apostle – go forth, and make Buckingham flourish. It’s the stuff of David Lodge novels.

His task is made slightly easier by the fact Buckingham only has 2500 undergraduates, and it already has the highest scores for student satisfaction in the UK, thanks to its low student-to-teacher ratio and tutorial system. But it’s still quite a shift in culture for the university – it was founded in the 1970s by two neoliberal wonks from the Thatcherite Institute of Economic Affairs, and opened by the Iron Lady herself, as a way to challenge state control of universities. The previous vice-chancellor was a grumpy libertarian who didn’t believe in staff training. 

Seldon, by contrast, has a much more paternalist vision of the university. The part of our conversation that most struck me  – have a listen yourself on the podcast – is where Anthony says: ‘Universities are helping people to be free. You can’t assume that people suddenly morph from dependent teenagers to autonomous adults over the summer holidays.’  He adds:

This is about liberating but not infantilizing people. Liberty is not license. If you let 18-year-olds without any guidance have lots of money and access to whatever they want to do, without guidance, then it would be a recipe for disaster in some people’s cases. We’re here to try and help people learn how to be free. Many adults aren’t free. I’ve never met an alcoholic who’s free, I’ve never met a sex addict who’s free. I’m sure they were all given huge license to indulge themselves, but life is not about indulgence, indulgence is enslavement.

Cardinal Newman

He quotes Jean-Jacques Rousseau, about the state helping people to be free (or forcing them, rather – Seldon says ‘ there’s a place for coercion in education’) but the educator he really reminds me of is Cardinal John Henry Newman, the 19th-century Catholic thinker and rector of the Catholic University in Dublin. He wrote The Idea of a University, which is the classic defence of the liberal arts model of education, ie the idea that universities shouldn’t just teach vocations but also the intellectual, social and spiritual virtues.

Newman, like Seldon, saw universities as pastors shepherding students to autonomous adulthood. Newman thought that ‘a Tutor was not a mere academical Policeman, or Constable, but a moral and religious guardian of the youths committed to him’. He also thought peer-to-peer education was key – students really mould each other through what Newman called the ‘genius loci’, or ‘spirit-of-the-place’ (through sports, clubs, arts groups, and so on). 

Paul Shrimpton, author of a recent book on Newman’s vision for higher education, writes: ‘Throughout his life Newman was preoccupied with the ‘problem’ of human freedom, and in particular how it played out in a person’s formative years. In all his educational ventures he grappled with how best to negotiate that delicate and gradual process of launching the young person into the world, how to pitch demands and expectations with just that right mixture of freedom and restraint.’

Seldon clearly thinks universities are more in loco parentis than most British universities currently are – his vision is closer to the American liberal arts model, where of course 18-year-olds are still legally minors. I wonder how this vision will go down in the UK. As we emerged from dinner, Anthony greeted three Buckingham students wandering down the village street, pints in hand. ‘Good evening, how are you!’ he beamed. The students seemed startled by running into their new vice-chancellor. ‘We were just discussing student drinking!’ he said. ‘We…er….just came second in the pub quiz’, one of the students responded, while the other two lurked in the background.

Maybe some will find his vision creepy. I’m sure many sullen British academics will say his project is really turning out cheerleaders for neo-liberalism, and that students should actually be taught to be angry at the injustices of global capitalism.  But it must be possible to have an education that both wakes us up to the sometimes harsh reality of life on this planet and also gives us the confidence, equanimity and inner strength to believe we can improve that reality.  Is this not what, say, Martha Nussbaum advocates in her defence of the liberal arts? 

Personally, I wish I’d had a tutor like Anthony at university. He’s an unusual chap, no mistake. On the one hand, a political operator, well-connected, not shy of publicity, who’s written biographies of four prime ministers. On the other hand, a deeply spiritual person who talks of transcending the ego, with whom one can discuss anything from yoga to Gurdjieff.

He greeted me at his cottage and then went off to meditate, and he went off to meditate again after my talk. In between, we sat in his living room with assorted students and staff, for what he called a ‘fireside chat’. ‘Who’s watching Love Island?’ he asked the startled cohorts, who seemed unsure whether to admit such a vice. He has a habit of firing questions at people. ‘What’s your greatest fear?’ he asked me at dinner. ‘When was the last time you took drugs?’ he asked at the fireside chat. ‘About a month ago”, I said. ‘A microdose of psilocybin for psycho-therapeutic purposes.’ Well, Anthony, you did ask!

If you want to hear highlights of our conversation, click here

What UK universities can learn from the US about promoting well-being

A diagram from Donald Harward on the purposes of higher education


I’ve recently begun a new research focus, looking at well-being in higher education. British universities have started to focus on this issue a lot more, spurred by worrying headlines about an ‘epidemic of mental illness on campus’. But, judging by the events I’ve attended so far, universities don’t yet get the complexity of this issue, and see it simply in terms of increasing funding for counselling.

Last week, I came across a collection of essays – Well-Being and Higher Education: A Strategy for Change and the Realization of Education’s Greater Purposes – by a group of American academics. It suggests to me that the US is way beyond the UK in its thinking on this topic.

First, the authors take well-being seriously as a core purpose of higher education, rather than something one farms out to counselling services at the campus periphery. Secondly, they understand the importance of knowing the history of higher education as you try to re-frame its purpose. Third, they recognize the philosophical complexity of defining and measuring well-being. And fourth, they’re prepared to try out innovative interventions. British universities are way behind on all four of these issues.

  1. Taking well-being seriously as a core purpose of higher education

The collection begins with an essay by the editor, Donald Harward, a philosopher who was president of Bates College and now heads up an institute called Bringing Theory to Practice. He called for American higher education to ‘recognize well-being as an inextricable, but not sole, dimension of higher education’s greater purpose’. 

Other American universities have embraced well-being as part of their mission. In 2013, Georgetown University President John DeGioia described the university’s responsibility to our students as the following: “Our explicit way of supporting young people engaged in the most important work in which they can be engaged: learning to know themselves and identifying the conditions that will provide for an authentic, flourishing life.”

The same year, George Mason University included well-being as one of twelve strategic goals in its 2015-2025 strategic plan. Nance Lucas and Paul Rogers from George Mason write: ‘Our vision at George Mason University is to become a model “well-being university”—a place at which students, faculty, and staff learn what it means to have lives well-lived and how to respond well to a full range of emotions and challenges.’ Note that George Mason seeks to promote not just student well-being, but the well-being of faculty, staff and the wider community. 

Several other senior American academics put forward well-being, flourishing or virtue as a core purpose of higher education in the collection. In British universities, by contrast, one rarely hears well-being, flourishing, purpose or virtue mentioned as a central purpose of higher education.

2. It’s important to know the history of higher education if you want to re-frame its purpose

The authors in the collection understand the importance of knowing the history of higher education if you want to re-frame its purpose. As Derek Bok, former president of Harvard, writes: ‘Lacking historical perspective, one cannot even be sure whether “new” proposals are truly new or merely nostrums that have been trotted out before with disappointing results.’

It’s important to understand that universities’ focus on well-being is not an entirely new thing, that universities have focused on character and well-being before in their 2500-year history. In fact, the primary aim of universities until the mid-19th century was explicitly to ‘discipline the mind and build the character of students’ (Bok again). But it wasn’t exactly a golden age of education. Bok writes

Until the Civil War, colleges in the United States were linked to religious bodies and resembled finishing schools more closely than institutions of advanced education. Student behavior was closely regulated both inside and outside the classroom, and teachers spent much of their time enforcing regulations and punishing transgressors. Rules of behavior were written in exquisite detail. Columbia’s officials took two full pages merely to describe the proper forms of behavior during compulsory chapel. Yale turned “Sabbath Profanation, active disbelief in the authenticity of the Bible, and extravagant [personal] expenditures” into campus crimes…

Most courses were prescribed in a curriculum that usually included mathematics, logic, English, and classics, with a heavy dose of Latin and Greek. In a typical class, students recited passages from an ancient text under the critical eye of the instructor. Although many colleges offered courses in the sciences, such as astronomy or botany, classes were taught more often by invoking Aristotle and other authorities than by describing experiments and the scientific method. By most accounts, the formal education was sterile.

As a culminating experience, most colleges prior to the Civil War offered a mandatory course for seniors on issues of moral philosophy, often taught by the president himself. Ranging over ethical principles, history, politics, and such issues of the day as immigration, slavery, and freedom of the press, this capstone course served multiple objectives. It set forth precepts of ethical behavior, it prepared students for civic responsibility, and it brought together knowledge from several fields of learning. For many students, it was the high point of an otherwise dull and stultifying education.

The purposes of higher education then gradually changed. In the mid-19th century, American universities followed German counterparts in focusing more on research and PhDs, and launching institutions like Johns Hopkins that were purely research-focused. By the early 20th century, most Protestant universities no longer had enforced chapel or Bible study. But many still tried to form the character of their students through compulsory courses in moral education or Great Books. That idea – of giving students a taste of the best of western culture, giving them an opportunity to form a life-philosophy – has never entirely gone away in American universities, and many still offer courses in Great Books.

However, the popularity of this sort of liberal education has been eroded by three things. Firstly, since the 1960s, the percentage of the population going to college has risen from around 5% to around 40%. University populations have become much more diverse – attracting more women, ethnic minorities and international students. And it’s become more expensive. Students have become more pragmatic in what they want from a college education – Derek Bok notes that ‘since 1970, the percentage of freshmen who rate “being very well off financially” as an “essential” or “very important” goal has risen from 36.2 to 73.6%, while the percentage who attach similar importance to “acquiring a meaningful philosophy of life” has fallen from 79 to 39.6%.’  With a much more diverse student body, a ‘wisdom curriculum’ mainly or entirely constituted of Dead White Men has come to be seen as problematic.

3) Defining and measuring well-being is philosophically complex

Because of growing concerns about the value of mass higher education, university bosses have increasingly looked for ways to define and measure success, to prove they’re succeeding. Bok notes:

The more objective and measurable the goals, the more attractive they will seem to those in charge. As a result, presidents and trustees frequently look to such tangible signs of progress as growth in the size of the endowment, or gains in the average SAT or ACT scores, or new buildings built and new programs begun. Such achievements do not necessarily reflect genuine improvement in teaching, learning and research. But in the absence of better measures, they seem to offer concrete evidence of forward movement and success.

For example, a commission set up by President Obama defined success based on graduation rates and the earnings of graduates. In the UK, notoriously, Gordon Brown’s government tried to measure universities’ success at achieving ‘impact’ on society, while the present government is attempting to measure teaching excellence. None of these measurements are entirely satisfactory, and the Research Excellence Framework introduced by Brown seems to be actively harmful. As Bok notes: ‘Some of the essential aspects of academic institutions – in particular, the quality of the education they provide – are largely intangible and their results are difficult to measure.The result is that much of what is most important to the work of colleges and universities may be neglected, undervalued or laid aside in the pursuit of more visible goals.’

If well-being is embraced as a core purpose by universities, how will it be defined, and can it be measured? This is not a simple question. In the UK, for example, the debate (one might say furore) over campus well-being is driven by frightening but somewhat meaningless statistics, like the NUS survey that showed 78% of students experienced mental health issues. That sounds terrifying, but those issues could be everything from a panic attack to a hangover to a full-blown psychotic episode.

The authors of Well-Being in Higher Education at least seem to understand this is not a simple issue. In fact, several different definitions of well-being are put forward – hedonic well-being (ie feeling good); eudaimonic well-being (defined by Carol Ryff as ‘purpose in life, environment mastery, positive relationships, autonomy, personal growth and self-acceptance); thriving (defined as ‘engaged learning, social connectedness, diverse citizenship and positive perspective’.

There is a recognition that well-being – if defined in an Aristotelian or eudaimonic sense – will probably involve teaching character virtues. Derek Bok suggests developing character is one of the central roles of a university. Barry Schwartz suggests universities should teach the ‘intellectual virtues’: love of truth, honesty, fair-mindedness, humility, perseverance, courage, good listening, perspective taking, empathy, and above all, wisdom, which Schwartz suggests is the ‘master-virtue’. (By the by, the Oxford philosopher Nigel Biggar has also suggested that a central purpose of universities is to teach intellectual and social virtues). Alexander Astin notes that university seems to improve students’ spirituality, and in particular their capacity for the virtue of equanimity – a key virtue in Buddhism and Stoicism. He notes: 

As part a recent national study of college students’ spiritual development, we devised measures of five spiritual qualities, one of which seems especially pertinent to well-being. We call it equanimity. Students with high equanimity scores say they are able to and meaning in times of hardship, feel at peace, see each day as a gift, and feel good about the direction of their lives. Equanimity actually shows positive growth during the college years. Equanimity is most likely to show positive growth when students participate in charitable activities (service learning, donating money to charity, helping friends with personal problems) or when they engage in contemplative practices (meditation, prayer, reflective writing, reading sacred texts). 

Clearly, there are multiple ways universities can define and measure well-being: happiness, freedom from anxiety, purpose in life, equanimity, belonging, connectedness, social conscience and so on. Not all of these are measurable, and those that are might not always be a good guide to success: a university might have a high sense of student belonging because it does not have a very diverse student body. It may be worth measuring multiple factors – as the Healthy Minds survey does – and then using them as helpful tools rather than rigid benchmarks.

4) Innovative interventions 

Finally, the authors in the collection suggest several innovative ways to enhance well-being in universities. In the UK, universities tend to see well-being just as a mental health issue, to be approached through counselling, peer-to-peer training or technology. That’s such a narrow and instrumental way to view it. American universities, perhaps because of their history of liberal arts education, have a much broader and more intellectually-interesting way of approaching it. Several universities offer courses in Positive Psychology, for example, or contemplative studies, or Great Books courses, or courses in moral philosophy or ‘the art of living’ – such general curriculum courses barely exist in UK universities.

Other interventions discussed in the book include:

Engelhard courses at Georgetown University: as part of its commitment to well-being, the university seeks to include modules related to well-being in several different curricula, from biology to history. Riley and Elmendorf write: ‘In foundations of biology, students are required to write a research paper in which students explore the genetic and environmental bases of a mental families and friends directly, so in our predominantly 18–19 year-old population, we often see papers on addiction, depression, anxiety disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity literature and leverage their nascent knowledge of foundational molecular, genetic, and during face-to-face time in the course and in an online environment. Collectively, the Engelhard project has reached 15,126 students in 358 courses over the ten-year period of 2005 to 2015. More than one-third of our first year students take Engelhard courses

Well-being courses involving the sciences and humanities: James Pawelski, a professor in Positive Psychology at Penn University, notes that well-being can be explored and promoted using both the social sciences and the humanities. He notes, for example, that CBT techniques could be taught with reference to Stoic philosophy (something I’ve taught for the last few years), and that flourishing could be taught through literary studies (he co-authored a book on the ‘eudaimonic turn’ in literary studies). Courses in contemplation can also combine both the sciences (the science of mindfulness) with the humanities (the culture and ethics of Buddhism, for example)

Contemplative studies: Mark Edmundson suggests higher education should promote the virtues of ‘courage, contemplation and compassion’, through such contemplative practices as reflective writing, deep reading, quietness, meditation and poetry.

Volunteering and social work: the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AACU) has a programme called LEAP, which aims to help students’ development through initiatives like ‘service and community-based learning’. I’ll write in the next few days about a similar project in some UK universities, called ‘Open Minds’, where medical and psychology students deliver mental health education in local schools.

Focus on mentoring and relationships: the key finding of a recent study, How College Works by Daniel Chambliss and Christopher Takacs, is that relationships matter more to student thriving than curricula:

At a liberal arts college in New York, the authors followed a cluster of nearly one hundred students over a span of eight years. The curricular and technological innovations beloved by administrators mattered much less than the professors and peers whom students met, especially early on. At every turning point in students’ undergraduate lives, it was the people, not the programs, that proved critical. Great teachers were more important than the topics studied, and even a small number of good friendships—two or three—made a significant difference academically as well as socially.

Barry Schwartz also thinks the intellectual virtues are best passed on to students through relationships, particularly through emulation and modelling: ‘We are always modeling. And the students are always watching. We need to do it better. A good start would be to do it deliberately and not by accident.’

There is so much more one could consider if well-being is taken seriously by universities: the importance of sports, of the aesthetics of a campus, of having places of beauty and quiet to enhance reflection, of marking development with rites of passage. Not to mention the fierce debates over feelings of belonging and safety for women, ethnic minorities, trans students, or white working-class male students (a minority particularly badly-served by British universities).

But this collection shows, encouragingly, that American universities are taking well-being seriously, understanding the historical and philosophical complexity of the issue, and thinking about constructive ways to promote it. We in British universities can learn a lot from their experiences.

On Positive Psychology and the Positive University

Earlier this year, Anthony Seldon, the new vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham, announced he was making Buckingham into the UK’s first ‘positive university’. All students will take a course in Positive Psychology. All tutors will be trained in Positive Psychology. The psychology of happiness will be at the centre of the university, rather like the philosophy of Aristotle and Aquinas was (and sometimes still is) at the centre of Catholic universities.

It’s a radical response to what Liberal Democrat MP Norman Lamb describes as a ‘crisis on campus in respect to mental health‘. Student demand for counselling has risen 50% in the last five years ; student drop-out figures are rising steeply. Post-graduates, academics and staff also report feeling stressed.

Universities increasingly agree that student well-being is important and institutions should help support it. But how exactly? There is no clear consensus, partly because – unlike many American universities – British universities don’t yet measure student well-being so can’t compare the efficacy of different approaches.

Some institutions are focusing on improving funding for student counselling, but that’s dealing with the issue once it’s already become a serious problem. Other solutions include training students in peer support, developing online well-being programmes, and training personal tutors to cope with students’ issues at the departmental level.

But could well-being become more central to universities’ missions? Could universities provide courses in flourishing, as Seldon suggests?

There are some precedents for Buckingham’s ambitious plan. There’s a university in Mexico, TecMilenia, which incorporated Positive Psychology into its main curriculum in 2013. And there are several American universities that have freshmen courses in Positive Psychology – including Harvard, Berkeley, Rutgers and NYU. These courses are apparently very popular, attracting hundreds of students each year and helping their lecturers to lucrative book and lecturing deals – like Tal Ben Shahar, who runs Harvard’s science of happiness course.

Kathryn Ecclestone has called this intersection of well-being, education and the free market ‘therapeutic entrepreneuralism‘. I guess there is a long tradition of that in America – what’s new is that Positive Psychology connects the world of self-help and life coaching to the world of academic psychology.

The lecturers of the NYU course – Daniel Lerner and Alan Schlechter – recently published their own book based on the course, called U Thrive: How To Succeed At College (and Life). It doesn’t break new ground in Positive Psychology, rather it sticks quite closely to a familiar script.

Positive Psychology was launched by University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman in the late 1990s. Seligman was impressed by the success of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), an intervention for depression and anxiety developed by his Penn colleague Aaron Beck, who was inspired in part by Stoic philosophy. Seligman wondered if self-care techniques could be taught not just to the mentally ill, but to everyone, to raise their general level of flourishing.

Positive Psychologists developed a range of brief interventions to improve flourishing. Lerner and Schlechter’s course includes several of them: teach people how their mind-sets and explanatory styles affect their emotions, and how they can become more resilient in their response to adversity; teach people to develop feelings of gratitude and positivity; teach people to identify their core strengths, and the activities that give them ‘flow’ (pleasant absorption) and meaning; teach people to find good role models. And so on.

Each intervention has been tested out and the reader of U Thrive is constantly re-assured with the results (‘the evidence was clear’, ‘the result was surprising’). In some ways, the results aren’t surprising at all – rather, Positive Psychology presents some of the received wisdom of western civilization (be nice, try hard, control your appetites, be optimistic, emulate heroes, find your hobby). But now there is a scientific evidence base for these moral nuggets. Science rather than God can guide us to flourishing.

Positive Psychology sometimes presents itself as something utterly new. It’s not. As the historian George Marsden has chronicled, before the 19th century, Western universities had an explicitly Christian mission, chapel, prayer and Bible study were compulsory, and students’ behaviour was carefully regulated (Seldon’s plans seems a move back to that sort of paternalism, with more university control over students’ drinking, drugs and even social media use. Animal House it ain’t). During the 19th century, Protestant universities like Harvard or Virginia became less explicitly Christian, but still tried to improve students’ moral character through courses in moral philosophy, moral psychology or Great Books. They believed that science and the humanities could teach students character, without any explicit reference to revelation.

The idea that universities exist to support students’ character and wisdom is not new, therefore. It’s only very recently that universities dropped that mission and focused purely on teaching specialist knowledge. They’ve become huge but rather soulless institutions as a result.

Personally, I struggled with emotional problems while studying at Oxford in the late 1990s, and neither my college nor my degree in English Literature was much help. I had to find help for myself, which I finally did through Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Greek philosophy. I wrote my first book, Philosophy For Life, to try and pass on the therapeutic wisdom I’d found in Greek philosophy. I’d love colleges to offer basic courses in different wisdom practices as a free add-on to students’ main degrees. That seems normal and healthy to me.

But it’s crucial to find the right balance between the humanities and the social sciences. While Positive Psychology draws heavily on ancient philosophies, it can take a Positivist and scientistic view. Positive Psychologists sometimes insist that science can quantify and measure everything that makes a flourishing life – happiness, meaning, transcendence, even humility (yes, Positive Psychologists think you can measure humility by asking someone how humble they think they are. Donald Trump would score high). Self-reporting questionnaires can’t tell you if you really are living a meaningful, virtuous, transcendent life, only if you think you are, which is not the same thing. To really know if a person is good, psychologists would need to follow them around and spy on them all the time. That’s hard to get approved by the ethics board.

It’s strange that, in a book on how to flourish at university and in life, there’s hardly any mention of ethics. The closest the authors get is when discussing passion and flow – they admit that sometimes passion can be unhealthily and obsessive. But that’s it. No mention of our obligations to others, except in so far as volunteering apparently makes one happier. No mention of how to discriminate ethically between healthy and unhealthy obsessions, between good and bad purposes. On the whole, happiness is taken as the aim of life, although sometimes it’s admitted that achievement or meaning is important too. But how do we weigh-up difficult trade-offs between these goals? We don’t.

We’re told that 75% of undergraduates arrive at university seeking meaning. But what meaning should they find? What is a good meaning? Positive Psychology can’t help us. ‘Whatever gives your life meaning, studies show that finding meaning will have long-term benefits…People who report finding more meaning in life are more likely to enjoy greater well-being, increased resilience, and lower levels of stress and depression.’

There is no mention of God or any model of flourishing beyond this life. How do you quantify closeness to God? Positive Psychology also steers well clear of politics, economics, gender, and race. It’s mentioned in passing that one of the biggest causes of stress for students is finances. Does the university provide enough support for hard-up students? Does society? Who knows. Yes, there’s a lot that individuals can do for their own well-being, but there are also structural barriers to some groups’ well-being.

There’s a lack of self-criticism in the book, a lack of effort to provoke deep and difficult life-questions in students. The student is only encouraged to ask questions within the framework of Positive Psychology – to ask ‘what is my core strength’, but never ‘is it really healthy to spend a lot of time developing my strengths rather than also trying to improve my weaknesses?’

Crucially, the students are never encouraged to question the evidence for Positive Psychology, or to ask ‘are you sure?’ ‘Is that always the case?’ ‘What are the limits and imperfections of this world-view?’

Because the evidence isn’t actually that clear. Meta-analyses of Positive Psychology interventions found some small improvements in positive emotion, but little effect on negative emotion (see here, here, and here). A three-year trial of a Positive Psychology programme in schools in the UK found little long-term impact on well-being or educational performance . I’m not sure the evidence for Positive Psychology is strong enough to warrant it becoming the guiding philosophy of an entire university. And what if a student or staff member disagrees with it? Are they branded a heretic?

There’s a risk of a new Scholasticism, as mindfulness and Positive Psychology become the unquestionable creed of education institutions. A course or institution devoted to wisdom must have room for rebels and heretics – take the example of Brown University’s contemplative studies department. Although it’s a leading institution for the study and practice of meditation, it’s also produced heretical reports showing, for example, that meditation can lead to serious mental health problems. It’s found a good balance between wisdom and free thinking.

To conclude. I think universities should offer voluntary classes in various evidence-based therapeutic interventions, such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, mindfulness, and peer-to-peer support. Universities should give students certificates for taking these courses, which count to their degree or at least can go on their CV as an employability skill.

I think these sorts of classes could be offered as part of a course in wisdom or flourishing. But any such course needs to have a place for ethics, philosophy, politics and culture – for the humanities, in other words. Otherwise there is an ethics and meaning gap, and the courses end up scientistic, instrumental, and reductive.

Aristotle wrote that ‘it is the mark of an educated mind to look for precision in each class of things only so far as the nature of the subject admits’. Ethics cannot be turned into a precise science. It requires the development of practical moral judgement – phronesis in Aristotelian terms – and that is cultivated not by presenting endless statistics but by training students in ethical reflection, discussion, and practice. This works best not in lectures to hundreds of students, but in small tutorials, seminars and peer groups.

As a future research project, I suggest we study alternative models of universities where flourishing is seen as the core mission of the institution – from the first Buddhist university of Nalanda in the seventh century BC, through Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum, to Catholic colleges like John Henry Newman’s University College Dublin, to alternative contemporary institutions like Naropa University or Schumacher College. The Positive University is not a new idea. Let’s learn from previous experiments.

At the Abyss: The Phenomenon of Self-Reflexive Anxiety

Ruth Rebecca Tietjen recently (2017) finished her PhD-thesis in Philosophy of Emotions at the University of Tübingen, Germany. She works on self-reflexive and mood-like phenomena of fear and anxiety, on religious and mystical feelings. She is particularly interested in how feelings relate to self-hood and processes of self-transformation. Ruth tries to bridge the gap between analytic and existential philosophy and to explore the boundaries of philosophy by touching the borders between philosophy, literature and performance.

Let’s start by having a look at the picture of an abyss:


On my last meters to the summit of the Zugspitze, the highest mountain in Germany, I have to descend some pegs, walk some meters on the ridge, a steel cable on my left side and the abyss on my right side, climb two short ladders, and finally pass another steel cable leading me to the golden summit cross. There are crowds of tourists who, together with me, want to reach the cross sparkling in the sun: people without any experience in mountaineering, young children, old people, all of them having reached the huge platform below the summit by cable car. They all are eager to finally climb up the last meters in order to take a picture proving they had been on the top of Germany. Right in front of me one of the most impatient visitors slips, picks himself up and continues pushing forward. This is the moment, when, for the first time of the day, I really become scared: “If he’s right above me on the ladder and slips again, he’ll definitely take me and some other people with him into the depths”, or so I think. So I’m happy to give way to the oncoming traffic and to thereby increase the distance between him and me. But safety with regard to this outer threat does not end my anxiety. Maybe I as well overestimated my skills? What if I slipped myself? What if I got dizzy? Hadn’t this thought – the thought that I might get dizzy – in combination with the sight of the abyss already started to elicit some kind of dizziness in me? I might fall down the precipice thanks to a fault of my own, or maybe even of my own free will.

For an inspiring analysis of a “traditional” self-reflexive emotion see, for example, Deonna’s, Rodogno’s and Teroni’s book on shame.

For reasons of safety, let’s take a step back, and ask which kind of feeling we are confronted with in this description. We are confronted with a feeling of fear; a feeling of fear of a specific kind: First, besides dimensions of world-directed fear – fear directed at outer events –, the feeling contains dimensions of self-directed fear – fear directed at dangers impending from within ourselves. We are afraid of how we might react, of whether our abilities will suffice to reach a presupposed goal, and/or of whether our will will be strong or stable enough to realize our aims. Metaphorically speaking, in being confronted with the outer abyss into which we might plunge, we are, at the same time, confronted with our inner abyss. Philosophically speaking, we are dealing with an at least partly self-reflexive phenomenon of fear.

Remarkably, the debate on self-reflexive emotions is focused on necessarily self-reflexive emotions directed at our past or present self like shame, guilt or pride. On the contrary, anxiety is a non-necessarily self-reflexive emotion directed at our future self. More precisely, self-reflexive anxiety is about our possible self: about who we as persons might be, might become or might have been.

Being afraid of oneself is a widespread phenomenon. We know it from everyday life: we are afraid of inadvertently burping in public or of failing an exam; we see ourselves confronted with impulses, desires or habits of our own with which we partly identify ourselves and from which we partly distance ourselves. We know it from psychology and psychopathology: think, for example, of the categories of performance anxiety or of obsessive-compulsive disorders (OCD). We know it from art: think, for example, of Alice Munro’s autobiographically inspired short-story “Night” or of the whole bunch of movies dealing with a situation in which someone suffering from amnesia is confronted with a horrible crime s/he might have committed. What makes the experience I described in the beginning significant is thus not the quantity of this specific kind of experience, but rather its symbolic and existential character: the fact that it is our (descriptive and evaluative) self-conception itself that is challenged in such situations. Note, that my example inspired by Sartre’s famous description in “Being and Nothingness” thereby is partly misleading.[1] In the example, the possible consequences are disastrous. Thereby, we tend to lose sight of the fact that self-reflexive anxiety is crucially not (only) about consequences, but rather about causes and reasons of events, about the question what our (possible) reactions, behaviour, and actions might reveal about ourselves.

The concept of “existential feelings” was coined by Matthew Ratcliffe.

The phenomena I referred to are diverse. A philosophical analysis may help us to disambiguate them. For example, the description in the beginning contained different forms of self-reflexivity: being afraid of one’s own bodily reactions, being afraid of one’s own failure, and being afraid of one’s own weakness, ambiguity or changeability of will. Having a closer look at the different examples thereby shows that they contain different forms of self-attribution and different degrees of felt responsibility. Furthermore, we can differentiate different dimensions of “generality” that may be involved in experiences of self-reflexive anxiety: the phenomenon I described is an emotional feeling – a feeling directed at a specific situation. At the same time, it holds the potential for presenting itself as an insight into the basic structures of our existence or of human existence as such. For example, self-reflexive anxiety may confront us with the fact that the borders between ownness and otherness, activity and passivity, power and powerlessness with regard to our practical identity are blurred. Finally, the experience bears the potential for “sinking in” our affective live. It may become an “existential feeling”: a pre-intentional feeling that opens up, shapes, and limits the space of experiences, thoughts, and actions possible to us.

In the previous lines, I only could deliver a fragmentary insight into how a philosophical analysis may contribute to our understanding of the phenomenon of self-reflexive anxiety. Nonetheless, I hope that I was able to convey the idea that the commonly neglected phenomenon of self-reflexive anxiety is not only widespread, but also intellectually fascinating and existentially challenging. A philosophical analysis promises to deepen our understanding of self-reflexive anxiety and of self-reflexive emotions, selfhood and processes of self-transformation in more general.

Ruth is always in search of inspiration and discussion, so feel free to contact her: ruth-rebecca.tietjen [at]! For a much more fine-grained analysis of the phenomenon of self-reflexive anxiety, see her thesis “Am Abgrund. Philosophische Theorie der Angst und Übung in philosophischer Freiheit“.

[1]  Cf. Jean-Paul Sartre (1992), Being and Nothingness. A Phenomenological Essay on Ontology, translated by Hazel E. Barnes, New York: Washington Square Press, pp. 65ff.

‘Silence that Dreadful Bell!’: Hearing Fear in Shakespeare’s Othello

This week is Fears&Angers week on the History of Emotions Blog. We’ll be publishing a series of guest posts arising from our upcoming conference ‘Fears and Angers: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives’ where a group of scholars got to grips with fear and anger. In this second post of the week, Kibrina Davey explores fear in Othello. Kibrina is a PhD candidate and Associate Lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University, researching the relationship between violence and emotion in early modern tragedy. Davey’s articles on passions in the tragedies of John Ford and Philip Massinger have recently been published in issues of academic journals, Early Modern Literary Studies and Textus. Her research interests include early modern literature, history of emotions, and Renaissance medicine.

In early modern Protestant England, a bell was not only an auditory warning to alert townspeople of potential threats such as a fire or invasion, but also carried religious and supernatural connotations. In her study on seventeenth century bells, Dolly MacKinnon writes that:

Bells, depending on the context, could be interpreted as remnants of troubling pre-Reformation practices and superstitions, or as sounds of God’s warnings. In early modern society, bell ringing therefore remained problematic, as it “shall seem to incline to superstitions” The more extreme Protestants sought to silence bells altogether.[1]

In her study, MacKinnon details how in the writings of early modern Protestant pamphlets, bells became an indicator of the unholy, considered as signifiers of the supernatural, warnings from God and opposing the Christianity of Reformed England. Undoubtedly then, the sound of bells in Shakespeare’s Othello (1603), would generate fear among the listeners both in the world of the play and in the theatre itself.

In the opening scene of Othello, Machiavellian villain Iago, suggests ringing a bell to alert the townspeople to Desdemona’s elopement with Othello. After waking Desdemona’s father Brabantio with a frightening yell, Iago implores him to wake the rest of the town, exclaiming

Sir, you’re robbed! For shame, put on your gown.

Your heart is burst, you have lost half your soul.

Even now, now, very now, an old black ram

Is tupping your white ewe. Arise, arise,

Awake the snorting citizens with the bell

Or else the devil will make a grandsire of you.

Arise, I say! (1.I.90-96)

Here, Iago describes Desdemona’s elopement as a robbery, portraying her marriage to Othello and abandonment of her father as a domestic crime which affects the entire town. Othello is figured as a burglar, terrorising the neighbourhood and stealing people’s daughters. This passage reveals several early modern anxieties and fears, the first and most obvious of which is the fear of miscegenation, demonstrated through Iago’s description of Othello as an ‘old black ram’ copulating with the ‘white ewe’, Desdemona. This is added to when Iago refers to Othello as the ‘devil’, presenting him as both religious and racial Other to the citizens of Venice. Iago uses sounds, including his own voice and his reference to the ‘bell’, an alarm that signified the ungodly, to awaken the anxieties about foreign cultures that plagued the early modern populace.

In Act 2, Scene 3, a bell actually rings as part of Iago’s plan to have Cassio removed from the position of Othello’s lieutenant. After persuading Cassio to get drunk in order to exacerbate his passions and make him violent, Iago tells Roderigo to alert the town to the disturbance, telling him, ‘Away, I say; go out, and cry a mutiny’ (2.III.138), and moments later, a bell rings. Feigning ignorance, Iago responds to the alarm, asking ‘Who’s that which rings the bell? – Diablo ho! / The town will rise.’ (2.III.142-143) Once again, Iago links the bell with the devil, conjuring up ideas of the unchristian and supernatural, and imbuing the sound of the bell with the power to generate fear. The use of the verb ‘rise’ here, suggests not only that the citizens will be awoken, but that they will react volatilely, implying that the sound of the bell could exacerbate their fears to such an extent that it would result in violence, chaos and rebellion.

As well as Iago’s response, Othello’s reaction to the ringing of the bell, and the fight that caused it is equally important. He asks

Why, how now, ho! From whence ariseth this?

Are we turn’d Turks, and to ourselves do that

Which heaven hath forbid the Ottomites?

For Christian shame, put by this barbarous brawl: […]

Silence that dreadful bell: it frights the isle

From her propriety. (2.III.151-158)

Here, Othello expresses his anxiety about the fight between Montano and Cassio. He refers to their behaviour as unchristian, comparing their violent outburst to the actions of Turks and Ottomites, two groups of people who represent the Muslim religion which Othello signifies himself. Furthermore, he describes their actions as ‘barbarous’, suggesting that they’re unable to govern their passions. This choice of words is not only telling of the cultural and social anxieties of early modern society, but also indicates the fears that trouble Othello himself. Already, by this point in the play other characters have expressed their fears about Othello’s race and through these acts of hateful speech, the anxieties about his own people have transferred onto Othello himself. This fear is then exaggerated by the sound of the bell which greatly distresses Othello. After all, read more literally, the bell could indicate the threat of invasion by the Turkish armies, and ‘Othello would have been reminiscent for contemporary audiences of the Turks that were considered so dangerous in the play.’[2] The bell provokes Othello’s fears about his colour and culture on more than one level.

In the last two lines of the speech, Othello worries about the effect of the bell on the townspeople, using the adjective ‘dreadful’ to describe the sound.  The word ‘dreadful’ here does not merely convey an unpleasant noise, but an alarming one. He worries that the ringing of the bell will ‘fright the isle/ From her propriety’, suggesting once again the transformative effect that fear can have when transmitted aurally. Not only will the alarm scare the citizens, as in Iago’s description above, it may cause them to act improperly, recalling Othello’s fears about ‘turning Turk’ and behaving in an uncivilised manner. The bell which stands for the unholy, the supernatural and the un-Christian, brings out the fearful voices both real and imagined in Othello’s head that tell him that he himself is sinful, savage, and inhuman.

[1] Dolly MacKinnon, ‘”Ringing of the Bells by Four White Spirits”: Two Seventeenth- Century English Earwitness Accounts of the Supernatural in Print Culture’ in Religion, the Supernatural and Visual Culture in Early Modern Europe ed. by Jennifer Spinks and Dagmar Eichberger (Leiden: Brill, 2015) pp. 83-104 (p.84)

[2] Andrew Hadfield, A Routledge Literary Sourcebook on William Shakespeare’s Othello (London: Routledge Taylor and Francis Group, 2003) p.11

Requiem for a Bad Dream: Fear of the Night, the Devil and the Nightmare in Early Modern England

This week is Fears&Angers week on the History of Emotions Blog. We’ll be publishing a series of guest posts arising from our upcoming conference ‘Fears and Angers: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives’ where an interdisciplinary group of scholars will get to grips with fear and anger. This post is by Charlotte-Rose Millar, a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Queensland and an Associate Investigator with the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions (1100-1800). Her book Witchcraft, The Devil and Emotions in Early Modern England is forthcoming with Routledge in 2017​.

This post was originally published on the Inner Lives project blog.

Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain).

In 1781, Henry Fuseli painted his now-famous depiction of The Nightmare. The painting (above) depicts a woman lying on her back in bed. She appears asleep or in a deep trance, her eyes are closed, she is wearing a figure-hugging robe, and her hair falls sensually off the bed. On her chest sits a demon, a horrid, blackened creature that gazes unsettlingly at the viewer. A mare peeking through the curtains reinforces that the experience on display is the nightmare: an encounter believed to be caused by a demon or, in some cases, a witch, sitting on the chest.

Descriptions and depictions of the nightmare existed long before Fuseli’s painting and continue to resonate today. But what exactly is the ‘nightmare’? When described in these terms, the experience takes on a completely different meaning than that of a bad dream or disturbed sleep. Rather, ‘the nightmare’ refers to a specific episode, one defined by waking with the feeling of something heavy on the chest and being unable to move. Those suffering from a nightmare encounter were likely to experience: a feeling of pressure or weight, often on the chest; a feeling of a presence; a sense of being fully awake but to appear sleeping to others; keen awareness of physical surroundings; paralysis or very limited mobility; fear, often terror; psychic, visual, or aural hallucinations; and fear of death. The nightmare was also most likely to occur when the victim was sleeping in the supine position, that is, on their back: a point reinforced in Fuseli’s representation. These experiences have been described as the ‘dark other’ of the dream, one that provides insights into our inner selves.

Wellcome Images (CC BY 4.0).

One extremely common way of understanding the nightmare in the early modern world was to attribute it to the Devil or to witchcraft; indeed, I first became interested in these nocturnal ordeals while researching seventeenth-century English witchcraft pamphlets. For some the nightmare represented a sexualised demon such as an incubus or succubus, for others, the hallucinations caused by the nightmare reinforced their belief that they were being tormented by a neighbourhood witch. But nightmare encounters were not confined to the early modern period. Fascinatingly, historians, anthropologists, and psychologists have found accounts of the nightmare over almost 2,000 years of human history, with cases from the classical world right up until the present day. These findings have led many historians to label the nightmare as a form of sleep paralysis, a biological condition that appears to have the same, or extremely similar, symptoms to those of the early modern nightmare. This finding has allowed the nightmare to be labelled a ‘pan-human’ phenomenon, one that –  transcending time and space – can provide insight into changing cultural fears.

Wellcome Images (CC BY 4.0).

In both early modern and modern nightmare experiences, fear appears to be an essential component. One eighteenth-century sufferer, whose torment was reported in John Bond’s 1753 An Essay on the Incubus, or Nightmare, was ‘so much afraid of [the nightmare’s] intolerable insults’ that he slept all night in a chair, ‘rather than give [the nightmare] an opportunity of attacking [him] in an horizontal position’. Another victim ‘imagin’d the Devil came to his bedside, seiz’d him by the Throat, and endeavour’d to choak him. Next day he observ’d the black impressions of his hard Fingers on his Neck’. As a result of these encounters, this man made his servant watch over him at night so that he would wake him and thus ‘rescue him from the Paws of Satan’. The dread in these descriptions is palpable and, in both cases, the sufferers imagine the nightmare as a tangible beast that can hurt them and, in turn, be physically warded off.

In these early encounters, the biological fear that is part of the nightmare encounter became representative of the greater anxiety caused by belief in the Devil’s presence. Today, sufferers of the nightmare, or sleep paralysis, are less likely to assume the appearance of Satan, although this is not unheard of. Instead, many modern day sufferers fear alien abduction; a fear that perhaps has more relevance than the demonic in the modern world. Others have more mundane fears: one Canadian sufferer, interviewed in 1973, claimed that ‘those TV chipmunks’ had ‘hagged’ him in the night, a word used to describe nightmare encounters.

Wellcome Images (CC BY 4.0).

So what does this mean for how we interpret supernatural phenomena or access inner lives? Does it help? Or is it all a fascinating yet essentially unhelpful distraction? It’s clear that nightmare encounters allow us an insight into inner lives; through the hallucinations associated with these phenomena in particular we’re given vivid insight into people’s darkest fears (whether these be devils, aliens, or the suddenly suspect Chip ‘n’ Dale). The biological roots of the nightmare also help us to understand supernatural belief. In cases where men and women claimed they were ridden in the night by a neighbourhood witch who crushed them and left them unable to move, it may very well be the case that the afflicted did indeed hallucinate the appearance of the person they suspected of witchcraft. Thus, the nightmare would act to confirm suspicion and, also, to invoke terror. Through exploring cases where men and women experienced a ‘nightmare’ encounter we gain insight into the very real fear that men and women felt towards certain people, phenomena, or beings and, in turn, learn how these phenomena were believed to act in the world. Through its unique symptoms, the nightmare allows a genuine glimpse into how a biological phenomenon can be culturally constructed and, in turn, allow insights into inner lives.

What to do about anger? Pragmatism and passionate disagreement

This week is Fears&Angers week on the History of Emotions Blog. We’ll be publishing a series of guest posts arising from our upcoming conference ‘Fears and Angers: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives’ where an interdisciplinary group of scholars will get to grips with fear and anger. In this, the first post of the week, Dr Mara-Daria Cojocaru asks what we should do about anger. Mara-Daria is lecturer in practical philosophy at the Munich School of Philosophy. She is working on pragmatist theories of emotion and is interested in the epistemic role of affective states. Her background is in political philosophy. 

Register for Fears and Angers (closes June 12)

I am on a bus in Germany and a passenger is being asked to show his ticket. The man is travelling on a ticket he claims is valid, but the bus driver thinks it isn’t. We are on our way to a book festival and some festival tickets include transportation. However, it seems that there are a number of bus companies operating in the area and there is confusion about which company, and which journeys, are included in the ticket the man bought. The situation gets heated. Another passenger, herself also on the way to the book festival, intervenes and offers evidence in the form of the festival leaflet that this bus is, indeed, not included. The man gets even angrier and begins shouting at both the bus driver and the woman. The woman sides with the bus driver, the bus driver sides with indecision, and in light of the increasing delay to our journey, mixed information coming from his superior (whom the driver calls “mein Meister”, my master), and the man getting ever more agitated and refusing to pay, the bus driver leaves and starts driving again. After a few minutes, he announces over the speaker that he has paid for a ticket for the man out of his own pocket and that this is how he resolved the situation he does not find objectively resolved. The passenger mockingly thanks across the bus and scoffs at the woman who had intervened and sits defeated right behind him. Ten minutes later, we hear the bus driver again: thanks to the woman who had supported him, because, normally, he’d find himself alone in such disputes. She signs a friendly, conspiratorial gesture with her age freckled hand. I have very mixed feelings: I had been wondering whether some kind of prejudice on behalf of the bus driver might have been at play when he attempted to control the passenger since he is not Caucasian. I disapproved of the zeal with which the woman appreciated that the person was double-checked in the first place (she had given the bus driver the thumbs up). It is Germany in 2017 after all. I felt that it is easy to get confused with so many bus companies and that nobody would be harmed, really, if this passenger got a free ride. Having recently returned from the UK, I felt ashamed of the culture of deference to authority in my home country. I thought it a nuisance that we were held up for that long. I was annoyed that the man would refuse to look at that leaflet the woman was showing to him, and I asked him why he wouldn’t take a look: he stuck his tongue out at me. I registered anger dwelling up in me as well – and decided to revise this blogpost, which I had just started, and use this situation in order to make my point: that there must be something that we can do about anger that we currently don’t always manage to do. Let me explain.

Maybe we feel we really shouldn’t, but many of us get angry when we disagree, particularly when we disagree about moral and political questions. Unfortunately, philosophers are of little help here because they are divided on the matter. While already Plato knew why we get angry in such situations, philosophers these days defend two competing views as to what we should do with our anger, if doing something about anger has to do with the way we think about it. Basically, one group of philosophers thinks that anger is an ‘apt reaction to injustice’, the other group regards it as ‘road to perdition in moral and political life’. In the first case, anger is taken to be a faculty, like a sensor: there are certain facts in the world, in particular the destruction of value, that “call for” an angry response. Not responding angrily to these facts is at best a sign of apathy and at worst due to false consciousness. And there are many values that are potentially destroyed in the situation on the bus: Imagine the man was indeed travelling on a valid ticket and neither him, as a victim, nor any of us on the bus who are witnesses to what would be systemic racial prejudice, would protest. Accordingly, the idea that anger is an ‘apt reaction to injustice’ has risen to prominence in feminist and racial justice circles. However, we don’t know whether the man is a victim, and whatever his reasons for being angry, just assuming that he is because the situation fits a pattern we have learned to find upsetting doesn’t seem to be enough. Anger seems to be a somewhat unreliable sensor.

Others, in turn, most notably in recent times Martha Nussbaum, suggested that anger should not be allowed in public life: as the self-righteous reaction by the woman on the bus might illustrate, anger breeds anger, it may be seen as essentially unreasonable, a bad character trait even, and undermining the institutions we have in order to deal with moral and political problems. On this view, the most reasonable thing is to call the authorities and to emotionally transition into a concern for justice. While this comes close to what the bus driver did, imagine that, actually, yes: the passenger was travelling without a valid ticket. However, imagine, too, that the information was really not easily available to an outsider and that at some point he gave up in frustration and took his chances. He may have been in a hurry, and we can think of many other structural aspects that may have co-created the problem. We may not be raging, but, eventually, we may be able to see the problem, too. Thus, it seems too easy to simply dismiss hotheads and people who can come to appreciate anger in other ways from moral and political debates either.

I want to suggest, then, that both views, while each seeming plausible in one way or another, have a problem because they take anger at face value. Anger is either taken to be too reliable or too stereotypically unreasonable. Philosophical pragmatism promises help. For while one pragmatist, William James, was famous for promoting a particular view of what an emotion essentially is, the dynamic and semeiotic conception of emotion we find in pragmatists such as Charles Sanders Peirce and John Dewey helps us in thinking what we could do about them. The most important feature of which is interpreting anger in such ways that the violent disagreement that tends to get us stuck, on the bus or in moral and political life, is turned into one that is simply passionate.

Universities should try and teach wisdom, not just knowledge

Students celebrating the festival of Holi at Visva Bharati in Santiniketan – the university set up by the poet Rabindranath Tagore in India.

Should a university provide a moral or spiritual education to its students? The idea seems ridiculous in the age of the mega-university. Universities today are enormous corporations, employing tens of thousands of academics and staff, with anything from 5000 to 30000 undergraduates studying there at any one time. The university is a microcosm of our multi-cultural society – there can be no one over-riding ethos in the ‘multi-university’.

Yet, while few believe universities should teach values, it’s increasingly accepted that they have an obligation to support students’ emotional well-being. Indeed, students now demand better counselling services in return for their tuition fees – demand for student counselling has gone up 50% in the last five years. There’s no sense that students’ emotions might be connected to their values, or that the so-called ‘well-being crisis’ on our campuses is in any sense a crisis of values. But I think that’s what it is. And it’s a microcosm of a wider crisis of values and meaning in our society.

It’s worth remembering that, for most of universities’ existence in the West, they had an explicitly Christian mission to shape the values of their students. ‘Wisdom’s special workshop’ was how Pope Gregory IX described universities in the early 13th century. The life of a student was, until the late 19th century, morally regulated – there was compulsory chapel, time given over each day for prayer and scripture, and a fairly strict moral code students were expected to adhere to. And it was quite easy for the university to act ‘in loco parentis’, because, until the 20th century, there would only be a few hundred students in a university at any one time.

In the mid-19th century, German universities began to develop the research-based university that we know today, with highly-trained specialists working on their particular area of research through departments, seminars and post-graduate doctorates. There was less of an emphasis on Christian dogma, and more on a commitment to scientific truth. But there was still a Romantic emphasis on ‘bildung’, or character-formation. As the German philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte rhapsodized in 1810: ‘The University is the institution…where each generation hands on its highest intellectual education to succeeding generations…[so that] the divine may appear in the human in fresh clearness’.

Through the influence of German academia, American and British universities became less explicitly Christian in the 19th century, but they retained the liberal Protestant idea that universities should try to develop virtuous citizens. This would take place not necessarily through prayer and theology, but rather through courses in moral philosophy or Great Books. There was a liberal faith that universities’ two principle aims – the pursuit of scientific truth and the development of good character – were in harmony, not conflict.

After the First World War, faith in both Christianity and scientific humanism took a battering. There was no longer an optimism that scientific progress necessarily led to moral progress or Christian faith. So to which of these did academics owe their allegiance?

The sociologist Max Weber, in a lecture of 1919 on ‘science as a vocation’, insisted that the proper allegiance of academia is to science, not religion or morality. He told undergraduates: ‘It is not the gift of grace of seers and prophets dispensing sacred values and revelations, nor does it partake of the contemplation of sages and philosophers about the meaning of the universe’.

The good academic, says Weber, should never impose their own view-point, ethical, religious or political, from the lectern. They should not be ‘petty prophets of the lecture-room’. They should not even try to be moral leaders. Instead, academic research and teaching should be utterly value-free, except for the supreme values of scientific rigour and intellectual integrity. Scientific research won’t necessarily improve general well-being – who thinks science leads to happiness apart from ‘big children in university chairs’? – but it will contribute to the great work of our time, namely the rationalization and disenchantment of modern society.

Here one notices a glaring inconsistency in Weber’s lecture, or should I say sermon. After insisting that academics should never impose their own moral view-point from the lectern, that is precisely what he does. The ‘fate of our times’ is disenchantment, he says, and those ‘who cannot bare the fate of our times’ should collapse ‘silently’ into ‘the arms of the old churches’ and leave the battlefield to the brave, like him.

In other words, the culture of modern academia is not really neutral and value-free. On the contrary, it is explicitly disenchanted, naturalist, positivist, materialist, and, in fact, atheist – the perspective of faith or religious experience is denigrated or excluded.

In the 20th century, universities went from being explicitly Christian institutions to being cultures in which there was an established culture of non-belief. Academics are far more likely to be atheist than the general public (see this, on faith among scientists). As the historian George Marsden has argued – perspectives of religious faith or religious experience are now largely excluded from the positivist culture of academic discourse. The 19th hegemony of Protestant rational religion in academia has turned into the contemporary hegemony of positivism.

Re-incorporating experience and wisdom

But something of the old moral mission still exists in American universities, particularly in the form of freshman courses in the ‘science of happiness’ or Positive Psychology. There are freshman courses in the science of happiness at Harvard (where it’s the most popular course in the history of the university); at Rutgers; at Berkeley; at NYU and elsewhere. Anthony Seldon, the new vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham, has even launched a new plan to make Positive Psychology classes compulsory for all students, as part of a whole-university initiative called ‘the positive university’.

I really applaud these sorts of courses in Positive Psychology, but they’re not perfect. They tend to be quite scientistic – they insist that empirical evidence is sufficient for moral formation, that you can measure everything important, from happiness to meaning, and anything you can’t measure (like, say, closeness to God) can be safely ignored.  Positive Psychology also often ignores the role of ethics and debate, for example around such questions as ‘when is flow bad for you?’ or ‘what meanings in life are good meanings?’ and so on.

For example, I’ve just read U Thrive: How To Succeed in College (and Life), a new book by Daniel Lerner and Alan Schlechter, who teach a popular course on the science of happiness at NYU. It doesn’t mention ethics once! The closest it gets is talking about the dangers of ‘obsessive passion’ or ‘junk flow’. And it lacks self-criticism – the authors never question their own perspective, they just relentlessly hype it, which is quite typical of Positive Psychology’s boosterism. It feels spiritually thin – the book is about thriving in life, but doesn’t mention death, or God, or politics. Far from inspiriing difficult life-questions, the book closes them down with pat answers.

Another approach to wisdom in higher education is through mindfulness and ‘contemplative studies‘.There are contemplative studies centres at several universities in the US and elsewhere, and mindfulness centres at the majority of American medical colleges.

Like Positive Psychology, contemplative studies balances research and practice, encouraging students to try out the methods it teaches for well-being. Like Positive Psychology, it incorporates first-person subjective perspectives (how does it feel, what is it like?). But like Positive Psychology, contemplative science can sometimes be rather scientistic, instrumental and lacking in ethical reflection. They also tend to focus exclusively on secular Buddhist contemplation, ignoring other rich traditions. However, the better contemplative studies centres – Brown, Virginia – are genuinely interdisciplinary and include perspectives from the humanities.

University of Virginia’s contemplative studies centre balances research and practice, humanities and sciences

There are also universities trying to explore and promote the practice of wisdom from the perspective of the humanities, particularly philosophy. There is the ‘centre for practical wisdom’ at Chicago, which also has a famous Great Books programme; there are courses in Confucian wisdom and Aristotelian philosophy at Harvard; there is the Art of Living course at Stanford. There is also the ‘modern Stoicism’ project I’m involved with, which tries to marries theory and practice, science and humanities, empiricism and ethics.

And then there are whole universities which take a more holistic approach to well-being and flourishing. There are Catholic universities in the US which still embrace a Thomistic or Aristotelian view that the goal of education is eudaimonia, or flourishing. General courses in philosophy and ethics are a standard part of the curricula in these institutions. There are also some graduate colleges dedicated to a spiritual view of education, such as Naropa College in Colorado, or Schumacher College in Dartington, or Santiniketan University in Bengal.

I think British universities should follow American colleges’ lead, and start to offer courses in wisdom and flourishing, which are open to any undergraduates who want to attend, and which are also videoed. I would like to see courses that combine the empirical science around happiness with more open humanistic ethical discussions around questions like ‘what do we mean by flourishing exactly?’ These courses shouldn’t be outsourced to boring and not-very-smart well-being coaches, they should involve the best and brightest academics in the university.

Well-being and flourishing shouldn’t be something at the periphery of students’ learning journey – something you only think about if you break down. It should be at the heart of the learning journey.

American universities seem much better than British counterparts at offering courses in happiness or wisdom, probably because they allow students to take non-core courses in their first two years. British universities by contrast offer the occasional mindfulness course or well-being day, but nothing with much intellectual meat on the bone. It shouldn’t be too hard to offer such courses, though, and it would be a good selling point when competing with other universities for students’ money (besides being good for them!)

A modern course in wisdom would be eclectic – teaching not one moral philosophy but several. It could balance wisdom from ancient philosophies like Stoicism and Buddhism with research from psychotherapy or social science. It could encourage purposeful discussions in small groups, rather than simply drilling students in dogma. And it could encourage practice and self-experimentation – homework could be trying out a meditative technique for a few weeks, or trying to break a bad habit, or seeking out meaningful conversations, or volunteering for a local charity.

Humanities academics tend to dislike any focus on well-being, let alone ‘wisdom’, because it sounds conservative or neo-liberal to them. But a good course in wisdom would have plenty of room for critiques of particular definitions of well-being – perhaps the Stoic definition of flourishing is too individualist? Perhaps the Marxist definition defers happiness to some idealized utopian future?

In other words, a good course in wisdom would be genuinely pluralist, both politically and metaphysically.

The challenge is not to sacrifice free critical inquiry to dogma. There’s always a risk that universities pursuing wisdom fall prey to what critics call ‘medievalism’ (what they really mean is ‘Catholicism’). They can end up quasi-religious madrasas, endlessly repeating received wisdom, rather than challenging it. If an entire university is built around Positive Psychology, or mindfulness, then what happens to academics and students who challenge that approach – are they thrown out as heretics? You always need room for rebellion, for dissent, for criticism.

Universities can be committed to the goal of encouraging flourishing, while recognizing that the paths to flourishing are several, and rarely run straight.

If you work in this area, and want to connect to our research group on well-being in higher education, please contact Jules Evans at

Turning Jealousy into Compersion

Our final post for #BadFeelings week is by the eminent and influential philosopher of emotions Ronald de Sousa, Emeritus Professor at the University of Toronto. His main research areas are philosophy of emotions, philosophy of mind, philosophy of biology, Plato, psychoanalysis, epistemology, philosophy of sex. He has written four books including The Rationality of Emotion (1987) and Love: A Very Short Introduction (2015).


How malleable are emotions?  Countless internet memes display the dictum that “No one can control how they feel.”  This is especially likely to be applied to feelings one would rather avoid, or of which others might disapprove. Sexual jealousy is one of those: to feel it is unpleasant, and to be its target can be fatal.

And yet, a common assumption about romantic relations is “monogamism”, which insists on sexual exclusiveness.  That implies that we are entitled to sexual jealousy. Jealousy is proof of  love.

That assumption, I argued in my talk at the Geneva Negative Emotions conference, is both false and harmful.  An alternative attitude to one’s lover’s other loves is both desirable and possible.

‘Compersion’ is the joy we take in our lover’s pleasure with another partner. The very idea of it undermines the ideal of monogamy—an ideal flaunted in theory about as often as it is flouted in practice.

Loving someone essentially involves a desire for the beloved’s happiness. Too often we add a rider, But only provided that I am the one to cause it!  Surely that is a mark of possessiveness rather than genuine love!

Arguments in favour of monogamy tend to be question-begging. For example, the fact that my beloved loves another need not imply that she no longer love me. If you are tempted to object that no one can love more than one person at a time, consider how absurd that claim is when applied to the love of children or siblings. Yet surely these forms of love are as real as any other.

Yes, you might say, but romantic love is different because it is sexual love.

True; but do you really believe you can’t desire (and enjoy!) sex without love? If so, there is no obvious reason to think sex with one person is bound to encroach into love for another.

Our expectations are driven by an ideology of love.  An ideology, as I use the term here, is a social convention that pretends to be grounded in facts about what is natural. One example is the socially approved dogma that insists, in particular, that women are by nature incapable of feeling lust without love. Only on that basis could anyone think that if your beloved feels desire for another, she can’t still be loving you.

If only ideology prescribes sexual exclusiveness, jealousy might well be thought to be irrational. But emotions don’t just go away just because they are irrational. Why should we believe it possible to replace jealousy with compersion?

Apart from the personal experience of the many practitioners of polyamory who have done it successfully, there are three reasons for thinking that a large part of what makes jealousy seem both legitimate and ineliminable is nothing more than ideological prejudice.

Edvard Munch, Jealousy (1895)

The first consideration is well known to emotion researchers: sometimes, we can interpret a general condition of arousal in different ways, depending on the framing story about what is going on. A much discussed experiment conducted by Stanley Schachter and Jerome Singer showed that physiological arousal caused by purely chemical means—an injection of epinephrine—could lead a subject to report very different subjective emotional states, depending on the narrative context in which it was embedded. When a stooge behaved in an annoying way,  subjects became angry. When a stooge was zany and amusing, by contrast, subjects felt happy.

The story we tell about any situation can have a determining influence on the emotion we ascribe to ourselves, and specifically on its felt pleasantness or unpleasantness, or “valence”.

Perhaps, then, viewing your lover’s pleasure with another can be experienced very differently depending on the story into which we frame it. When it is an accepted part of an open relationship, it need not place the relationship in jeopardy. On the contrary, it may offer additional areas of communication, enrichment, and mutual appreciation. (Who knows? Your lover might get tips or techniques you can try together!)

A second consideration is based on an analogy with a curious feature of pain. In certain circumstances (under the influence of certain drugs or surgical interventions in the brain), pain can be felt but not minded. In other words, the aversiveness of pain can sometimes be separated from its felt character (as stinging, say, or throbbing or pinching). Sometimes it even gives rise to laughter rather than wincing.

Similarly, the character of the imagined scene of your lover’s pleasure with another might remain intensely, even obsessively interesting, but your attitude to it might be one of positive pleasure—compersion—rather than painful jealousy.

The third consideration is the one most directly related to the importance of ideology as a determinant of our emotions. We often ascribe an emotion without any insight into some subjective mental state, solely on the basis of what we assume “anyone would feel” in that situation. And that, in turn, can be driven by what we think other people would consider appropriate. Crucially, this applies not only to third-person ascriptions, but also to the identification of our own emotions. We often adopt an attitude just because we believe most people would think it natural and appropriate.  We all want to be normal.

In short, if you are able to discard the irrational expectations of monogamy in favour of the ideals of polyamory, that will make you more likely to respond with compersion rather than jealousy when your beloved tells you about their latest sexual adventure.

And that experience of compersion, once achieved, will feel deeply liberating. I recommend it.

Why pain is not a natural kind

As our #BadFeelings week draws to a close, we turn out attention to pain, with Dr Jennifer Corns, Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Glasgow. Jennifer works on the philosophy of mind, with a focus on pain. She has published a number of papers, including “Pain eliminativism: scientific and traditional” (2016) in Synthese, “The social pain posit” (2015) in Australasian Journal of Philosophy and “The inadequacy of unitary characterizations of pain” (2014) in Philosophical Studies.

Pain is a real and ubiquitous part of our everyday lives. Many of these pains are transient; our heads ache, our stomachs hurt, and our feet throb. Some pains are longer lasting: chronic pain and the pains from disease, healing, and surgery. Paradigmatically, a pain is felt, unpleasant, located in our bodies, and motivates us to do something to relieve or minimise the pain.

Despite its ubiquity, I argued that neither pain, nor any type of pain, is a natural kind. ‘Natural kind’ is a term of art. As I use the term, a kind is natural to the degree to which it is usefully referred to in scientific generalisations for explanations and predictions.  My central claim, then, was that neither pain nor any type of pain are usefully referred to in scientific generalisations for explanation or prediction.

This may seem–as it initially seemed to me–incredible.  The nature of pain is both historically and contemporarily debated not only within philosophy, but across science and medicine, but there has nonetheless been implicit agreement that pain is a natural kind.  ‘Pain’ and terms for types of pain, e.g. ‘headache’ or ‘inflammatory pain’, have been assumed to be useful referring expressions for scientific generalisations. Whether pain is a particular kind of sensation, is controversial and has been subject to reasoned argument. Whether there are pain receptors, pain pathways, or a pain area in the brain are all debated questions that have been subject to rigorous empirical investigation. Underlying these disagreements, however, is the shared assumption that when the dust settles, pain and pain types will have been discovered to have a nature such that we can explain and predict them in sciences like biology, psychology, and neuroscience.

If pain or pain types were mechanistically explicable, we would have a strong reason to think that they were natural kinds. If there is a mechanism, or system, whose workings determined our pains, then the workings of this system, or mechanism–once we discovered it– could support our explanatory and predictive generalisations about pain.  The assumption that both pain and pain types will, ultimately ,prove mechanistically explicable underlies inquiries into pain across the disciplines and, typically, likewise underlies the agreement that these are natural kinds. I argue, however, that empirical inquiry reveals that there are no such mechanisms or systems.

First, consider pain. Notice that many of the pains we suffer are different, such that you engage different treatment options when you suffer them. This is appropriate. As encoded in standard models, distinct types of pain reports implicate distinct ranges mechanistic activity, such that distinct treatment options are more likely to be effective. Empirical inquiry into these different types of pain as reported reveals that there is no single pain mechanism, or system, whose workings determines them.

Consider now these different types of pain as reported. Notice that sometimes your pain does not get better, even when you pursue the best treatment option. While an aspirin will often help a headache, for instance, sometimes it is entirely ineffective. Why? Because even as there are multiple distinct ranges of mechanisms implicated in pains that feel different, so there are multiple mechanisms involved even across pains that feel similar. Aspirin alters the activity of inflammatory mechanisms. These are often involved when you have a headache. Other mechanisms, however, are also always involved. It is sometimes these other non-inflammatory mechanisms which are crucial in determining your particular headache. While we have a good understanding of inflammatory mechanisms, we have no reliable mechanistic explanation for headache pain. Or, indeed, for any other type of pain.

Scientific inquiry into pain has revealed two facts that undermine the prospects for any eventual identification of explanatory mechanisms for pain or pain types. First, each pain is the result of the activity of multiple mechanisms. Second, these mechanisms include those for cognition, memory, genetics, and more besides, such that their convergent activity is idiosyncratic. It is the idiosyncratic convergent activity of multiple mechanisms that undermines the prospect of mechanistic identification–for either pain or pain types.

Even if there are no pain mechanisms or systems whose workings determine pain, however, we may still think that pain is a natural kind–we may, that is, still think it is useful to refer to pain for scientific explanation and prediction. Idiosyncratic convergence, however, likewise undermines utile reference in scientific generalisations. If each particular pain is the result of idiosyncratic convergent activity, then our generalisations about pains will always remain poorer than those generalisations that we might instead offer concerning the activity of any of the mechanisms converging in a particular case.

In her commentary on my paper at the recent negative emotions conference, Giada Dirupo was in apparent agreement with all the empirical facts mentioned in the summary above. She agreed that we are currently lacking any mechanistic explanation for either pain or pain types and, moreover, that we now know that a wide range of mechanisms are involved, idiosyncratically converging in each token pain. She nonetheless expressed hope that we may, eventually, be able to identify mechanisms for pain or pain types, such that reference to them for scientific inquiry remains useful.

While I agree that there is much to learn about the many mechanisms involved in pain experiences, it is, I maintain, the empirical inquiries themselves that support the conclusion that this hope is misplaced. Learning more about any of the involved mechanisms will not change that their convergence is idiosyncratic for each pain experience. If that is right, and this idiosyncratic convergence entails that we always lose explanatory and predictive power when we generalise about the pains instead of the mechanisms, then it’s time to give up the assumption that pain is a natural kind.

We should not conclude from this that pains are unreal. We should instead, I urge, understand pains for the convergent, idiosyncratic experience that they are. Like a parent in response to a child’s report that they have an ‘owie’ or a ‘boo-boo’, a good doctor will take a pain report seriously. They will use that report to identify an appropriate treatment target and pursue a treatment option that is likely to be effective for their particular patient, as we do for our particular children. It is my hope that pain treatment will improve if we focus on identifying and treating the particular mechanisms implicated in token cases and targeting our scientific inquiries on improved understanding of their workings.