The past, present, and future of the Positive Humanities

A new Oxford Handbook from Penn’s James Pawelski and Louis Tay of Purdue explores this emerging field, which brings together positive psychology, philosophy, the humanities, and the arts.

Book cover that reads "Oxford Library of Psychology, edited by Louis Tay, James O. Pawelski, The Oxford Handbook of The Positive Humanities" next to a picture of James Pawelski.

This is an excerpt from “The Oxford Handbook of the Positive Humanities,” edited by James Pawelski of the University of Pennsylvania and Louis Tay of Purdue University. Copyright ©2022 by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. 

In a very real sense, the humanities are the gift of a pandemic. 

The Black Death, the most deadly pandemic on record, is esti­mated to have killed up to 200 million people as it ravaged Europe, Asia, and North Africa in the 14th century. The Italian scholar and poet Petrarch lived during this time and wrote movingly about the devastating effects of the plague on those it struck, those it spared, and the societies in which they lived. 

To cope in these horrific times, Petrarch turned to the study of the Greek and especially the Roman classics for guidance on how to think, write, and live. Petrarch’s approach, focusing both on what to read and on how to read it, was taken up and further developed by his followers, who came to be called “humanists,” after Cicero’s phrase studia humanitatis

Humanists were dissatisfied with the contemporary scholastic approaches to learning that had been adopted in the univer­sities. They argued that these approaches had come to overemphasize logic and linguistic analysis, focusing on techniques of abstract thinking and resolution of textual contradic­tions instead of the improvement of students’ lives. They advocated a return to the Greek and Roman classics in a way that would renew the ancient project of education for the purpose of living life well, promoting a particular ap­proach to classical learning. 

They turned away from the mathematical and scientific subjects of the liberal arts contained in the quadrivium [arithmetic, astronomy, music, and geometry] and focused on redesigning the trivium [grammar, logic, and rhetoric]. Removing logic from the trivium, they supplemented the remaining subjects of grammar and rhetoric with history, moral philosophy, and poetry. They saw the humanities as a course of study that would lead them toward wisdom and virtue, clarify the nature of happiness and its relation to virtue, and provide sound guidance for their lives. Thus, human flourishing is not only a central concern of the humanities but was a key catalyst for their initial development. 

In our contemporary world, the humanities tend to be thought of less as a comprehensive program of study and more as a collection of disciplines pursued in our academic institutions, particularly in our colleges and universities. Even a brief look at these various disciplines reveals a concern with human flourishing at their roots as well. 

In philosophy, for example, Socrates argued that “the unexamined life is not worth living” and urged his fellow Athenians to cultivate virtue as that which leads to all public and private goods. Plato wrote dialogues about the nature of virtue, justice, courage, piety, truth, pleasure, creativity, beauty, and love. In his most famous dialogue, “The Republic,” Plato explored the just state and suggested ways politics can best support human flourishing. 

Plato’s student Aristotle wrote extensively about ethics and politics. He argued that human flourishing (eudaimonia) is the goal of all human activity and that its achievement requires the cultivation of virtue, which he understood as the relative mean between vices of excess and deficiency. From this perspective, he analyzed a range of virtues, including courage, temperance, and modesty, noting that the study of ethics has a practical goal: not simply to know what virtue is, but actually to become good. 

An emphasis on human flourishing is at the root of non-Western philosophies as well. In the case of Chinese philosophy, for instance, Confucius explored questions of human flourishing, emphasizing the importance of personal virtue, correct social relationships, and shared culture for individual and societal well-being. Although Zhuangzi focused more on a connection to nature to promote flourishing, his Daoist teachings had much in common with Confucianism. Both philosophical traditions critiqued the individualistic and materialistic methods many people followed in the quest for happiness and advocated instead a connection to something higher and larger than any individual life or momentary pleasure.

The Positive Humanities are interested in understanding more deeply the nuances of the connections between culture and human flourishing as they have developed historically, as they exist presently, and especially as they can be intentionally optimized for the future.

What is true of ancient philosophy is true across the religious traditions developed during this time. Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism, along with the later Christianity and Islam, for example, centered on questions of human flourishing.

Like ancient philosophy, these religious traditions held that the typical pathways for seeking happiness—pleasure, wealth, power, fame, and the like—are not effective and actually lead to more suffering. Instead, they advocated a cultivation of virtue to attain a higher sort of happiness, a tran­scending of narrow, individual concerns in favor of an identification with the broader uni­verse or a connection to the divine. Literature, music, art, architecture, theatre, history, and similar pursuits were seen as ways of supporting this cultivation of virtue and this broader connection in the quest for human flourishing. 

The Positive Humanities are interested in understanding more deeply the nuances of the connections between culture and human flourishing as they have developed historically, as they exist presently, and especially as they can be intentionally optimized for the fu­ture. 

When considering the historical development of these connections, there are a number of salient questions to ask: What conception of human flourishing was espoused in each of these cultural traditions? What were the means these traditions adopted for cultivating flourishing? How successful were these means in achieving the flourishing they envisioned? Which individuals and groups were deemed candidates for flourishing and which were excluded? How did the relationship between culture and human flourishing develop and change in these various traditions?

With regard to this last question, for example, we have already noted that the inception of the humanities as a program of study arose from a concern that the study of culture had drifted too far into abstraction, distancing itself from questions of human life. The return to the study of certain Greek and Roman classics, as advocated by the early humanists, spread throughout European universities, displacing the scholasticism it had initially critiqued. Eventually, however, this return to Greek and Roman classics began to feel too narrow to many scholars, and they advocated the study of modern languages and contemporary works written in those languages. More recently, as we will soon see, the humanities have moved away from prioritizing human flourishing. 

Turning from the past to the present, a look at current conceptions of the humanities can shed light on the connections between culture and human flourishing that hold today. As mentioned earlier, the humanities presently tend to be thought of as a collection of academic disciplines pursued chiefly in our colleges and universities.

The Positive Humanities raise a number of questions specifically relevant to educational institutions. How do the various humanities disciplines conceptualize, understand, and define human flourishing? What do these disciplines say about how to increase human flourishing? In what ways do these disciplines support and encourage the cultivation of human flourishing? Are some approaches within these disciplines more effective than others? Do particular disciplines make unique contributions to human flourishing that other endeavors do not? Are there ways in which humanities disciplines can obstruct human flourishing? 

The study of the relationship between culture and human flourishing as it developed historically in various societies and as it exists currently in different contexts across the world is important in its own right, with significant contributions to make to understanding the nature and outcomes of so much of human experience. This study is also important as a way of informing cultural development and engagement so they can be intentionally optimized to help individuals and communities thrive. 

Built on a knowledge of the past and the present, the Positive Humanities, in their future orientation, focus on bringing about greater human flourishing across societies and around the world. They are part of a “eudaimonic turn” that is influencing a growing number of domains as varied as psychology, economics, neuroscience, psychiatry, medicine, sociology, law, political science, education, organizational studies, and government. This turn is characterized by a commitment to human flourishing as a core interest and goal of endeavors in these domains. 

In the humanities, the eudaimonic turn emphasizes the centrality of human flourishing as a theme of study and as a practical goal of culture. Given the fact that human flourishing is at the root of the humanities, there is a real sense in which this is a eudaimonic return—not to some imagined golden age, but to the questions and concerns that gave rise to the humanities in the first place and that have been at their core for most of their history. In the contemporary context, this return must be informed by new knowledge, perspectives, and cultural realities that can help generate new approaches, fitting for our times, to these perennial concerns. 

James Pawelski is a professor of practice and director of education in the Positive Psychology Center in the School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania. He also directs the Humanities and Human Flourishing Project, which investigates connections between engagement in the arts and humanities and human flourishing.

Louis Tay is the William C. Byham Associate Professor in industrial-organizational psychology in the College of Health and Human Sciences at Purdue University

The text above is excerpted from “The Oxford Handbook of the Positive Humanities,” (Oxford University Press, 2022). All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.