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Laurie Santos, a cognitive scientist, is a star psychology professor at Yale. She is world-renowned for a course she taught in 2018 titled “Psychology and the Good Life,” which made headlines when over a quarter of Yale’s undergrads enrolled. Santos assures young Yalies—and now, through online coursework and a popular podcast, the rest of us—that we can all live happier lives with the scientific, “evidence-based tricks” she teaches. This is critical since—as Santos is quick to inform us—students at Yale, despite being poised to take over the levers of wealth and power in this country, turn out to be anxious, depressed, lonely and adrift. With good-hearted cheer and solid technique, Santos aims to change this—indeed, she claims to have transformed thousands of lives through her lectures.
I came to know of Santos by way of an invitation to participate in a dialogue with her, which was extended to me by some Christian student organizations at Yale. I am a philosopher who works at the flagship university of the state of South Carolina, where we were, at the time, at the tail end of a multimillion-dollar grant project bringing together philosophers, theologians and psychologists to explore how virtue, happiness and meaning in life might be plausibly related. I am also a Roman Catholic reasonably well-versed in my own intellectual tradition. Presumably, I had been summoned to remind students that Christian philosophers and theologians have concerned themselves with the question of happiness for over two millennia now, and this too is worthy of our attention.
The first stop on my trip to Yale was to visit Santos’s famous class. The topic that day was procrastination, and its upshot was the demonstration of a technique for students to reprogram their brains for better time management, enabling them to be more successful and productive. Santos, like most social and cognitive scientists, thinks of happiness within an entirely subjective frame. Happiness is about feeling good, which means experiencing more positive than negative psychological states over a period of time. This suggests, of course, that a life is nothing more than a series of moments we might call good or bad depending on how they made us feel, and the good life one with more good than bad in the final tally. What Santos calls “life hacks” and “science-based tips”—in this case, to enhance students’ time-management skills—are mere techniques for ensuring, as much as one can, that one’s psychological perspective has a net gain on the positive side. As Santos herself admits, it makes no difference whether the objects that make you feel happy are even real, let alone tethered in some way to the demands of morality.
Santos made this commitment plain during a dialogue that night with me in front of about six hundred Yale students. To test how wedded she was to the idea that happiness was fundamentally a subjective state, I posed the following hypothetical: if we could design a virtual-reality machine that was sophisticated enough to guarantee that we could no longer tell the difference between real goods and their simulacra, would she choose a “happy life” plugged into a machine over the complicated mess of a real human life? Without skipping a beat, Santos replied that she would certainly choose the solipsistic “happiness” the machine offers. This was when I realized that Santos’s vision was much darker than the gimmicky self-help she had offered earlier that afternoon.
In the limited time given to me, I tried to present a different vision of the good life, one grounded in philosophy rather than science. On what I call the classical view, to think about happiness (what the Greeks called eudaimonia) is first and foremost to think about how we should aspire to live and what sort of person we most wish to become. And there is no way to bring our thought and imagination to bear on this topic without serious and disciplined reflection on the good: more specifically, what human excellence is and what it would take to realize it in one’s own life. To think about human excellence, I argued, is to think about what it is to be a human being—to have what Iris Murdoch calls a “soul-picture,” or a self-knowledge of human nature that determines, to a large extent, the sort of shape we give to our own lives.
On the classical view, what is distinctive of human nature is the use of our rational capacities: we flourish when we learn how to recognize, appreciate and realize what is truly good, which we can only do once we acquire virtues like wisdom, courage and justice. A virtuous person not only has the moral vision to see what the good objectively demands in a situation but can act accordingly. The good life so construed is a kind of harmony between our subjectivity (our first-personally experienced beliefs, desires, passions and pleasures) and what is objectively good. We do not flourish without communion with the good, most especially the good of loving and just relations with other persons under a system of laws that makes this possible. If what we want is happiness, we must try to bring about and maintain such a world, knowing full well that we will have to suffer, struggle and sacrifice in the midst of our attempt to realize it.
Psychology (and other social sciences) focus on the subjective side of happiness, which creates a divorce between private happiness and the demands of public virtue. But life hacks, which are little more than techniques for the manipulation of our brains, are not proper substitutes for virtue. The cultivation of virtue is the process of shaping what one perceives and loves through free deliberation and choice; it is inextricably connected to a proper education, what the Greeks called paideia, understood as coming to possess a comprehensive vision of what is true, good and beautiful.
Regardless of what one thinks of the classical view, I would hope that my fellow philosophers could agree that a course on “the good life” that presented no unified vision of the good and its demands will at best yield nothing more than shopworn platitudes covered with a thin veneer of scientific authority; at worst, it will mislead and corrupt them by imposing a questionable and contested soul-picture as if it were indisputable, scientific fact.
As much as I disagree with Santos (who was kind and generous to me on my visit), I am less interested in particular professors than in the institutions that have indelibly shaped their minds and careers. Santos’s popularity at Yale tells us something about the contemporary university, an institution not only structured so as to produce Santos’s class, but also to promote it with the sort of devotion that I, as a philosophy professor, can only look upon with a mixture of envy and despair. Philosophy, the traditional home of serious reflection about the good life, is marginalized in most American universities, including Yale. Treated as just one discipline of study among many others, it is not understood as central to a university education; the prevailing assumption is that it can be safely ignored by most students.
Universities, more than any other institution, shape our conception of what constitutes worthwhile knowledge. Therefore, if we want philosophy to thrive in the contemporary university, we will need to clearly articulate a very different vision of what a university is for, one that does not instrumentalize the life of the mind to pragmatic ends and that does not hold up expertise as the paradigmatic form of knowledge. The best philosophers were never experts or specialists, but broad and deep thinkers who strove for a unified knowledge of the whole of reality—at least to the extent that they saw this as possible. They did not seek this with an eye to improving the world, but from a deep and natural desire to understand. There was a time when such desires were not only recognized but respected and honored. We do not live in those times, and our universities are in some measure to blame for this.
My own vision of what a university should be is inspired by the Catholic tradition in which it originally came to be: a university is, in its essence, a community of scholars and students who seek the truth together as a common end for its own sake. This formulation is a rough gloss on the thirteenth-century model of the university. These were institutions in which different academic disciplines were structured in ways that made clear that they were ordered to a single common end of shared knowledge and understanding. These institutions reflected the belief in the unity of knowledge, and, as Alasdair MacIntyre argues in his book, God, Philosophy, Universities, this explains why universities were, from the beginning, sites of recurrent intellectual conflict between disciplines. Disagreement presupposes that agreement is both possible and that a genuine dialogue can take place about how to reach mutually agreed upon ends. But meaningful dialogue and debate between disciplines is by and large missing from the contemporary university—most professors have no idea what anyone outside of their own department is even up to. This is not a personal failure; the university is designed to all but ensure we remain enclosed in our academic silos.
While MacIntyre concedes that most students went to a medieval university to get the credentials necessary in order to pursue a trade like law or medicine, he notes that there was nevertheless a vision of education offered to them which linked it to their ultimate end—their happiness or flourishing. Certainly this was Aquinas’s vision of a university education (studium generale), according to which happiness wasn’t just another object of study, but rather the point of the whole enterprise. And this was why theology wasn’t just another discipline among disciplines, either.
On Aquinas’s view, university study must always take stock of the whole because the horizons of human inquiry are the totality of being. The goal of the university is to foster a unified body of knowledge and the key to this is found through theological, as well as philosophical, inquiry. Theology aims at knowledge of the ultimate horizon of being, which is God, understood (at least in part) as the principle of the universe—i.e. theology reveals how God grounds a reality that embodies an intelligible order. Philosophy shows how the truth as discovered according to the secular sciences relates to and is compatible with the broader truths of theology. In this way, philosophy is able to uncover the unity among the various secular disciplines of study and is therefore intrinsic to the aims of the university.
This conception of philosophy’s place within a university education was taken up in a new way by John Henry Newman, who argues in The Idea of a University that philosophical knowledge—knowledge of truth concerning the whole of reality—ought to be communicated through the teaching of each discipline of university study. Newman argues that we move toward a philosophical understanding of what we study only insofar as we can begin to see how the different disciplines of study are related to one another and how the truths they reveal form a unified body of knowledge. Moreover, he argued that if we subtract theology from the university, then a unified body of knowledge is impossible, since God is the only coherent source of the sort of unity and order that such a search presupposes. As MacIntyre puts it: without a universe, there can be no university.
This is not an essay in which I defend Aquinas’s or Newman’s or MacIntyre’s vision of God’s relationship to the university, though I am sympathetic to this tradition. Within the current landscape of higher education, that vision has no chance of being realized outside of a Catholic context (even there, let’s be honest, its prospects are dim). My concern is rather with what resources these accounts give us for an alternative vision of a secularized university—and what the place of philosophy would be within it. We all know that philosophy is not thriving (in many cases, not even surviving) under the self-conception of the contemporary university, one that understands itself as being in the knowledge-production business with a focus on discrete, isolated knowledge outputs. As MacIntyre points out, even undergraduate education is now merely a prologue to specialization and professionalization, since its measure of success is its effectiveness in preparing students for admission to prestigious graduate programs.
This is true of philosophy as much as any other discipline. Undergraduates seeking admission to Ph.D. programs must write statements of purpose in which they name the areas of philosophical inquiry they wish to specialize in. An applicant who stated that she wished to pursue study of “how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term”—Wilfrid Sellars’s oft-quoted formulation of the true aim of philosophy—would surely be rejected as fundamentally unserious. No one aspires to Sellars’s vision anymore because it is difficult to imagine how it could be realized within the institutional constraints of the university.
Therefore it would be far too quick to say that the university needs to turn to philosophy in order to recover its true mission. Philosophy has for over a century now been shaped in fundamental ways by the market-driven, institutional and ideological pressures of the neoliberal university; not surprisingly, it too has been reduced to a kind of expertise. Unfortunately for us, we are not properly scientific experts—the gold standard—and we work on topics no one has heard of, like metaphysics and epistemology, so the value of all this is increasingly opaque to students, administrators and perhaps even to ourselves. When pressed to defend our place at the heart of a university, philosophers are likely to offer either uninspired and unconvincing boilerplate about the importance of “critical thinking” or the outline of a questionable political or social agenda that careful, philosophical reflection might usefully serve, whether by clarifying it or, more often, by legitimizing it. We are very far from our origins, where the philosopher understood himself as trying to fulfill an erotic longing for the sort of wisdom that constituted his natural perfection. The university philosophy professor is just as likely to scoff at such high-minded talk as the university administrator is. So we produce our research outputs like everyone else, and hope that by the gratuitous grace of those with institutional power over us, we can be allowed to continue to carry on with our labors, despite the fact that our majors and our cultural capital have dwindled to almost nothing. Meanwhile, we watch anxiously as courses like “psychology and the good life” literally fill to the rafters and spill over into music halls.
I do not know what the future of philosophy is in this country, but anyone paying even a modicum of attention to the broader trends in higher education does not have cause for optimism. Departments are closing and losing resources—not even their outputs can save them. While I have no doubt that Yale, given its resources, will always be able to afford the luxury of a philosophy department, it is not at all certain that my grandchildren will live in a country where many institutions that call themselves universities will offer them philosophy majors. And most contemporary philosophers have no vision, either of philosophy or the university, according to which such institutions are anything but universities in name only.
Let me end with a suggestion that I hope will disquiet our comfort with the status quo, which is that the fate of philosophy in the university is tied to that of theology. Theology has been expelled from the university or pushed to its margins in large part because a narrow understanding of rational knowledge has deemed it outside its proper sphere of concern. But that same narrow vision, which overwhelmingly tends to prize scientific expertise and quantificational knowledge as the gold standard, has pushed philosophy (and other humanistic disciplines) to the margins as well. What I am suggesting is that some of the same pressures that have led to the denial that there can be rational knowledge of God—i.e. that theology is a proper discipline of study—are leading students to be suspicious that philosophy has anything meaningful to offer them either. If what one is shopping for is credentialed expertise of some sort, philosophy appears at best as a quirky boutique option.
The vast majority of professional philosophers I know reject and disparage theology, even though they are totally ignorant of what it is or how it proceeds methodologically. In this way, they remind me of students (or, more likely, the tuition-paying parents of students) who reject philosophy in the mistaken belief that it offers them nothing more than an invitation to navel-gaze for four consecutive years. It would be better for philosophy, and the humanities more generally, if the horizons of rational knowledge expanded rather than continued to contract. I am, therefore, begging at the very least for better atheists—atheists who actually understand what they reject and who have thought through what the implications of this rejection are for philosophy’s own self-conception (including an understanding that the distinction between philosophy and theology is itself a historical phenomenon; there is no such distinction in the theistic philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome).
What would better atheists and a more integrated university study look like? I can only offer my own experience doing interdisciplinary research as food for the imagination. Although I was brought to Yale as a foil to Santos, I certainly do not oppose psychologists who study happiness or any other topic that has traditionally been understood as a matter for philosophical or theological reflection. What I oppose is the pretense that psychology is the principal or best source of insight with respect to it. According to my own vision of the potential for unified knowledge, psychology ought to be able to reach some truth about the subjective side of happiness. It goes wrong not in seeking this truth, but in failing to register the limits of its own methods and forms of inquiry. My own view is that we need philosophers and those working from within different faith traditions to be in constructive and critical dialogue with social scientists—and vice versa. Perhaps through such intellectual exchange we could offer students courses on the good life that might match their aspirations in taking them in the first place.
I was engaged in such exchange for three years during my own research project, which drew on work in cognitive science, personality psychology, behavioral economics, philosophy and theology from a variety of faith traditions. I was doing this work in the conviction that happiness was a central topic for moral philosophy, but that the philosopher (atheist or theist) must take into account work on that same topic in other disciplines (including, yes, theology), and I was further convinced that the social scientist could benefit from the sort of critique that the philosopher is uniquely well suited to provide. I wasn’t at all confident that bringing such a disparate group together to share their developing work would be anything other than an unmitigated disaster, but I was delighted to find that our experiment yielded brilliant exchanges and academic work that was meaningfully interdisciplinary. This experience only confirmed in my mind the inherent potential of the sort of university that takes seriously the idea of a universe, one in which professors are actively encouraged, from our unique but limited perspectives, to keep an eye out for an ultimate horizon of truth.
This essay is part of our new issue 25 symposium, “What is college for?” Click here to see the rest of the symposium.