Philosophy was the origin of most scientific disciplines. Aristotle was in some sense an astronomer, a physicist, a biologist, a psychologist and a political scientist.
As various philosophical subdiscplines found ways of treating their topics with full empirical rigor, they gradually separated themselves from philosophy, which increasingly became a purely armchair enterprise, working not from controlled experiments but from common-sense experiences and conceptual analysis.
In recent years, however, the sciences — in particular, psychology and the social sciences — have begun to return to their origin, combining data and hypotheses with conceptual and normative considerations that are essentially philosophical. An excellent example of this return is the new psychological science of happiness, represented, for example, by the fundamental work of Edward Diener.
The empirical basis of this discipline is a vast amount of data suggesting correlations (or lack thereof) between happiness and various genetic, social, economic, and personal factors. Some of the results are old news: wealth, beauty, and pleasure, for example, have little effect on happiness. But there are some surprises: serious illness typically does not make us much less happy, marriage in the long run is not a major source of either happiness or unhappiness.
The new research has both raised hopes and provoked skepticism. Psychologists such as Sonja Lyubomirsky have developed a new genre of self-help books, purporting to replace the intuitions and anecdotes of traditional advisors with scientific programs for making people happy. At the same time, there are serious methodological challenges, questioning, for example, the use of individuals’ self-reports of how happy they are and the effort to objectify and even quantify so subjective and elusive a quality as happiness.
But the most powerful challenge concerns the meaning and value of happiness. Researchers emphasize that when we ask people if they are happy the answers tell us nothing if we don’t know what our respondents mean by “happy.” One person might mean, “I’m not currently feeling any serious pain”; another, “My life is pretty horrible but I’m reconciled to it”; another, “I’m feeling a lot better than I did yesterday.” Happiness research requires a clear understanding of the possible meanings of the term. For example, most researchers distinguish between happiness as a psychological state (for example, feeling overall more pleasure than pain) and happiness as a positive evaluation of your life, even if it has involved more pain than pleasure. Above all, there is the fundamental question: In which sense, if any, is happiness a proper goal of a human life?
These issues inevitably lead to philosophical reflection. Empirical surveys can give us a list of the different ideas people have of happiness. But research has shown that when people achieve their ideas of happiness (marriage, children, wealth, fame), they often are still not happy. There’s no reason to think that the ideas of happiness we discover by empirical surveys are sufficiently well thought out to lead us to genuine happiness. For richer and more sensitive conceptions of happiness, we need to turn to philosophers, who, from Plato and Aristotle, through Hume and Mill, to Hegel and Nietzsche, have provided some of the deepest insight into the possible meanings of happiness.
Even if empirical investigation could discover the full range of possible conceptions of happiness, there would still remain the question of which conception we ought to try to achieve. Here we have a question of values that empirical inquiry alone is unable to decide without appeal to philosophical thinking.
This is not to say that, as Plato thought, we can simply appeal to expert philosophical opinion to tells us how we ought to live. We all need to answer this question for ourselves. But if philosophy does not have the answers, it does provide tools we need to arrive at answers. If, for example, we are inclined to think that pleasure is the key to happiness, John Stuart Mill shows us how to distinguish between the more sensory and the more intellectual pleasures. Robert Nozick asks us to consider whether we would choose to attach ourselves to a device that would produce a constant state of intense pleasure, even if we never achieved anything in our lives other than experiencing this pleasure.
On another level, Immanuel Kant asks whether happiness should even be a goal of a good human life, which, he suggests, is rather directed toward choosing to do the right thing even if it destroys our happiness. Nietzsche and Sartre help us consider whether even morality itself is a worthy goal of human existence. These essential questions are not empirical.
Still, psychologists understandably want to address such questions, and their scientific data can make an important contribution to the discussion. But to the extent that psychology takes on questions about basic human values, it is taking on a humanistic dimension that needs to engage with philosophy and the other disciplines — history, art, literature, even theology — that are essential for grappling with the question of happiness. (For a good discussion of philosophical views of happiness and their connection to psychological work, see Dan Haybron’s Stanford Encyclopedia article.) Psychologists should recognize this and give up the pretension that empirical investigations alone can answer the big questions about happiness. Philosophers and other humanists, in turn, should be happy to welcome psychologists into their world.
Gary Gutting, professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dam
Read more: 12 Happiness Habits for Busy People