New Directions from Philosophy, Psychology, and Theology

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Christian B. Miller, R. Michael Furr, Angela Knobel, William Fleeson
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , October
     720 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Character: New Directions from Philosophy, Psychology, and Theology emerges out of Christian Miller’s multi-year “The Character Project”—funded by the Templeton Foundation and run out of Wake Forest University. The volume is a substantial compendium of the latest thinking on the subject of, well, “character.” The volume not only deals with affirmative foundational issues—definitions, genealogies, and the like—but also grapples with the counter-arguments that emerge from the neurosciences, such as whether or not character, as we ordinarily think of it, is anything other than an anachronistic nomenclature for a complex and multivariate psycho-biological process.

As evidenced by the title, the essays—more than thirty of them—range across a variety of disciplines. Miller leads the charge on the philosophical front, R. Michael Furr and William Fleeson for psychology, and Angela Knobel for theology. There’s a slight disservice in headlining the theoretical approaches in this way, as there are over fifty contributors, but it’s one way to get a handle on this admirably ambitious project.

It is Fleeson’s definition of character that the editors explicitly rely upon in their introduction: “We propose defining character as ‘characteristics that are descriptive of actions, cognitions, emotions, and motivations that are considered to be relevant to right and wrong according to a relevant moral standard.” The advantage of this definition, as they explain, is that it “leaves the ultimate question of what is moral open to conceptual debate” (42). This is a critical innovation, no doubt, as the project invites religious cogitation on the subject—though almost exclusively of the Abrahamic variety, which I’ll get to in a moment.

The volume offers a refreshingly substantial bridge to issues outside the academy. For example, in “Character Development in the School Years,” Elizabeth A. Boerger and Anthony J. Hoffman look at the factors which contribute to prosocial behavior and aggression amongst school-aged children. They find that “moral internalization promotes moral behavior because of the child’s desire to maintain a consistent sense of self” (484). In other words, those children that exhibit “character” care to sustain and nurture the consonance between their internal and external worlds. This is not too far from Emerson’s intuition that those “of character are the conscience of the society to which they belong” (Essays: Second Series, “Character,” Library of America, 1983, 499). In the context of Boerger and Hoffman’s research this means that children with “higher moral internalization” not only are the ones most likely to intervene when another child is bullied, but also the most likely to “experience intense guilt” for not intervening.

As for theological contributions to the volume, there are many. Elizabeth Bucar looks at the cultivation of modesty in Indonesia through the practice of veiling in “Cultivating Virtues Through Sartorial Practices.” Michael Austin examines Christian humility as a social virtue rather than a conscription of vanity. Tzvi Novick argues that etiquette in Judaism “occupies a unique position between law and ethics,” and thus contributes to the formation of character even as it adheres to halakhah’s legalistic proscriptions (535). And the aforementioned Angela Knobel leads the reader through a careful argument surrounding Aquinas’s virtue ethics, and suggests that Aquinas’s divine-dependency over-and-against Aristotle’s self-sufficiency offers new directions “for contemporary scholarship on Christian virtue” (366). There are other notable essays—many others, in fact—and the volume could ably serve as a thematic survey on comparative religious ethics.

Character is diverse in a disciplinary sense, as noted, and in a theological sense as well—if we assume that theological diversity can be fully represented by Abrahamic faiths alone. In fairness, the book is just over 700 pages, and suggesting that some other point of view should have been included feels fastidious. Not to mention that, strictly speaking, theology as a mode of inquiry is Abrahamic. Buddhist noumenal speculation is properly called Buddhalogy, and though you might get away with calling Confucian and Daoist metaphysical hypothesizing Sinology, I don’t know anyone who does, so there’s not even a ready reference for those explanatory systems that is equivalent to “theology.” In fact, the volume only offers what it purports to offer, but still, it feels like a missed opportunity.

Take, for example, intention. The difficulty of apportioning the role of intention in the formation and evaluation of character is all over the collection. Not only do the editors acknowledge the complexity of intentional states as they relate to their subject, many essays explicitly engage with the role of intention in defining ethical behavior, and many more do so implicitly. This is an area where Buddhist ethics could offer a unique contribution to the Character Project. There is a long-established equivalence between kamma (or karma) and intention (cetanā) in the Theravadan tradition, because according to the Nibbedhika Sutta, the Buddha says, “intention [Cetanāhaṃ] is kamma.” Many Buddhist scholars have done work in this area, but I am most familiar with Maria Heim’s The Forerunner of All Things: Buddhaghosa on Mind, Intention, and Agency (Oxford University Press, 2013), which examines the role of intention (and motivation) in the Pali literature in general, and focuses on the fifth century monk Buddhaghosa in particular, whose commentaries have much to offer on the subject. No doubt there are Daoist, Confucian, and Cherokee scholars who also have something useful to say on the subject. Despite the comprehensive nature of the volume, there is little doubt that future studies on character could benefit from a more expansive understanding of the “theological.”

I will not, however, close my review on a critical note. What Miller and his colleagues have accomplished (and continue to pursue) is not only admirable, it is valuable—necessary even. Humanists have restlessly cast about since the early oughts in search of a new trans-inter-cross-disciplinary technique that will recast the late twentieth century’s postmodern pulp into a more elegant mytho-empiricism—one that is a vivid twin to science rather than its pale dopplegänger. I think the Character Project is one way of satisfying that quest.

About the Reviewer(s): 

C. Travis Webb is an independent scholar.

Date of Review: 
February 3, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Christian B. Miller is Professor of Philosophy at Wake Forest University and Director of the Character Project. 

R. Michael Furr is Professor of Psychology at Wake Forest University and Psychology Co-Director for the Character Project.

Angela Knobel is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the Catholic University of America and Theology Director of the Character Project.

William Fleeson is Professor of Psychology at Wake Forest University and Psychology Co-Director for the Character Project.



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