On Positive Psychology, Bullshit, and why you need a Chief Philosophy Officer (CPO)

At our recent onsite at Penn, we had a stimulating discussion on bullshit with James Pawelski – who wears the hat of MAPP´s academic director and at the same time that of Chief Philosophy Officer (CPO). Now the job of a philosopher is to sit in his/her armchair, ask you unnerving questions – and thereby shake the grounds of everything you ever believed in. Or at least something like that … which … probably … is a good thing. I don´t know.

By the way, that´s by far the easiest way to be philosophic: Just say “I don´t know” a lot. But you have to say it in a smirk philosophic kind of tone – or else, you´re just a dumbass who, well, doesn´t know stuff. Which brings me to the question: Do our schools teach us to be anti-philosophers? After all, saying “I don´t know” a lot in class will surely get you in trouble – while a decent capability in the fine art bullshitting can get you at least half-way through your Ph.D. program – and sometimes, published in first-tier journals.

So, I just wanted to write something along the lines of “But I digress…” to lead over to next section. Yet, curiously – I´m already there. Philosophy moves in mysterious ways…

When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off.

Positive Psychology = BullshitWhat is that thing: Bullshit? Well, what I like about philosophers so much is the fact that there are so many of them – and that they´ve started doing what they do (“philosophizing”…) more than 2,500 years ago. So there´s a really good chance that – whenever you have a question or a problem – some philosopher will already have thought about it. Most certainly, this is true for the subject of bullshit. Harry G. Frankfurt, professor emeritus of Princeton, has written a witty (and for a philosophical piece) pleasantly short and graspable essay on that overdue topic.

The essay starts with the skillfully crafted sentence “One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit.” and then moves on to explain why that could be the case; to finally define the nature of bullshit – especially in its relationship to adjacent concepts such as “truth” and “lie”. The following section represents a good synopsis of Frankfurt´s argument:

It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.

So where does Positive Psychology fit in here? And why is it really a good thing (I´m being honest to Flying Spaghetti Monster here!) to have a CPO somewhere at your side?

The truth is: a lot of the subjects in Positive Psychology sound like pure bullshit on the face of it. We´re all about well-being, happiness, virtues, meaning, and other fuzzy wishy-washy touchy-feely stuff. It is quite easy to get carried away in those diffuse realms of the conditio humana.* What separates Positive Psychology as a science from all that self-help literature out there is … well, that it´s a science. We give our best to approach that touchy-feely stuff with double-blind experiments, large-scale, and longitudinal research designs. We like to sell our pudding, point well-taken, but want to make sure first that there is enough scientific proof to it.

Our CPO James Pawelski really helps us to stay “grounded” while wrestling with all those new and exciting Positive Psychology concepts. He supports us in sharpening our minds while moving forward on our learning journey. He never gets tired of reminding us to be careful about what we say, how we say it, and to be aware of the assumptions our newfound knowledge is based upon.

And: he can talk for three hours nonstop just about the different meanings of the word “positive” in Positive Psychology. It´s a beautiful thing to behold.

What he does is absolutely essential. Already, there are prominent people out there that seem not to be able (or willing…) to grasp the difference between ordinary self-help lingo and the science of Positive Psychology. All the more we have to be careful. We have to know where our very own “red line” is – the one that crosses that grey area where talking about something we sufficiently know and understand turns into bullshitting. In Frankfurt´s words:

Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. Thus the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a person’s obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic are more excessive than his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic.

Thus, I stop at this point. My knowledge of bullshit is exhausted.


*Throwing in some Latin or Greek in your writing makes you sound very philosophical. Especially, when you say “I don´t know” in Latin or Greek…

PowerPoint slide © James Pawelski; photographed by Katrina Calihan