David Carr - June 2016 Working Group Meeting Abstract

Spirituality, Transcendence and Flourishing

In the past, concepts of spirit and spirituality have been most commonly associated with, or located in, contexts and discourses of religious commitment or faith often presupposing or implying beliefs in a metaphysically distinctive non-material human dimension of spirit or soul.  In fact, it might be held that little sense can be attached to ideas of spirit and spirituality apart from such contexts and associations. I have previously argued this, pressing against recent attempts to develop more secular or religiously ‘untethered’ (for this term, see McLaughlin 2003) concepts of the spiritual and spirituality. However, the case for some such more accommodating conception of spirituality may not yet be entirely ruled out.

To begin with, it would appear that such terms as ‘spirit’, ‘spiritual’ and ‘spirituality’ have wide application in ordinary usage and that by no means all of such applications have clear religious connotations or associations. I have previously (2008) distinguished a number of different commonly used senses of such terms.  First, to be sure, there is the simple and simplistic association of the spiritual and spirituality with the religious. Secondly, terms such as ‘spirit’ and ‘spiritual’ have sometimes been associated – not least in the ‘occult’ sections of bookshops or libraries – with the supernatural, ghostly or ‘spooky’. Thirdly, but nevertheless distinct from this, ‘spirit’ is often used as a synonym for what has otherwise been called the ‘soul’ and, relatedly, ‘spiritual’ has been applied to human experiences of an psychically ‘transcendent’ or less earthbound kind. Fourthly, such terms have been used to characterise forms of contemplation or meditation associated with such practices as yoga or other spiritual exercise.  Fifthly, in a sense that goes back to Plato (1961), to speak of people as spirited may be to characterise them as lively, energetic or motivated by contrast with the de-motivated, listless condition of the dispirited. Sixthly, people often and fairly naturally speak of spiritual experiences in relation to aesthetic enjoyment of nature or art. But, seventhly, a certain spiritual sense or value has often been ascribed to such moral qualities of character and virtue as compassion, generosity, gratitude and forgiveness as well as to the scholastic (following Pauline scripture) ‘theological virtues’ of faith, hope and charity.

Leaving aside use of the term ‘spiritual’ to refer to occult literature, it would seem that while the religiously associated sense of spirituality – or the idea of spirit as ‘soul’ – might be linked to non-naturalist ontologies at some odds with modern empirical science, they could also be readily accepted by those with no such ‘supernatural’ aspirations. Indeed, it is worth noting that insofar as many traditional religions – such as the non-theistic faith of Buddhism – are not obviously committed to such metaphysically controversial or empirically transcendent senses of God or soul, they may speak of spirit or spiritual experiences without such commitments. That is to say, while people of faith could speak of God or the soul as spiritual in some non-material sense, other – no less religious – folk need not: to be sure, they would not exactly be talking of the same things, but there is little case for refusing either party some ownership over such usage.  Insofar, talk of soul as spirit may well be religious but it need not be, as it were, Cartesian.

So far as other lately identified senses of ‘spirit’, ‘spiritual’ and ‘spirituality’ go, they are familiar enough from ordinary non-religious contexts of discourse and association and there may be no compelling reason to preclude such usage in these contexts. Thus, to speak of certain forms of worldly distanced awareness or contemplation as expressive of ‘spirituality’, of those with energy or personal presence as ‘spirited’ (and those who lack such qualities as ‘dispirited’), of certain forms of artistic or aesthetic experience (either appreciative or performative), or of such virtues of character as love, gratitude or forgiveness, as ‘spiritual’ would seem to be well within the bounds of accepted as well as relatively unobjectionable usage. Moreover, if spirituality so construed as a particular dimension or expression of common psychological experience and sensibility – rather than as, say, the property of some Cartesian ‘ghost in the machine’ (for this term, see Ryle 1949) – one might hope for some clear enough account not just of what is distinctive about such sensibility but of how it might, if so desired, be developed or ‘educated’.