The Tripartite Formal Structure of Human Flourishing: A Hypothesis

Three Aspects of Flourishing

The Theology of Joy and the Good Life project operates with the provisional hypothesis that visions of human flourishing such as those articulated by various world religions (including Christianity) and philosophical movements can be analyzed fruitfully as sharing a formal structure.

Specifically, they can be read to make claims about the content and relative significance of three aspects of a flourishing human life: (1) the agential, (2) the circumstantial, and (3) the affective.

  1. The agential aspect concerns human beings as actors in the world. It encompasses questions of deeds, character/virtue, and projects, and it deals with these not only in terms of obligation, but also of desirability. In treating the agential as just one aspect of human flourishing, we assume that visions of human flourishing do not reduce to accounts of what it is right or good to do.
  2. The circumstantial aspect concerns the character of the various contexts (social, ecological, etc.) in which human beings are situated. An articulation of this aspect responds to the question, “In what kind of world is it good (or best) to live?”
  3. The affective aspect concerns the how human flourishing feels, broadly understood. It encompasses assessments of various feelings (e.g., pain or pleasure) and emotions (e.g., joy or sorrow). While supposed by most traditions to be intimately tied to both agency and circumstance, affect is in principle distinguishable from them. For instance, a person’s affective response to a good circumstance might be negative, and different visions of flourishing might evaluate that disjunction contrarily.

A particular account of human flourishing, we propose, can be seen as offering answers to the questions of (a) what constitutes flourishing under each aspect and (b) the relative significance of these aspects. At the extreme, a vision might claim that one aspect is of no importance for flourishing. Perhaps, for instance, a person’s flourishing might be entirely independent of how she feels. In such a case, the question of the content of the affective aspect of flourishing becomes incoherent.

The Internal Diversity of “Traditions”

The claim that various religious and philosophical movements articulate visions of human flourishing should not be conflated with the implausible historical claim that each movement has consistently propounded a single, coherent, unchanging account of the good life. Rather, these traditions include on-going arguments over what articulations of human flourishing are most faithful or responsible or attuned to the tradition’s deepest intuitions or founding texts/figures or most central insights.

The Limits of Formality

While we have called the distinction between these three aspects of visions of human flourishing a “formal” structure that can be used to read any number of diverse religious and philosophical traditions, any such framework bears the stamp of the historical and cultural contexts of origin. None is purely formal. In using this framework, we do not suppose that all (or even any) of the visions of human flourishing we analyze would recognize the framework as their own. Its function, rather, is hermeneutical. From within certain contexts today, the tripartite framework provides traction for understanding and constructive engagement with diverse traditions and their various visions of human flourishing.

DRAFT - June 2016


JTF Logo The Theology of Joy & the Good Life project is made possible by the John Templeton Foundation with additional support from the McDonald Agape Foundation.