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Metatheory for Positive Psychology
John Chambers Christopher
MONTANA STATE UNIVERSITY
Robert L. Campbell
ABSTRACT. Drawing on Bickhard’s interactivism along with philosophical
hermeneutics, we outline a plausible ontology of human action and devel-
opment that might serve as a metatheory for positive psychology. Our non-
dualistic metatheory rests on a distributed notion of agency. The kinds of
morally imbued social practices that are identified by hermeneutic theorists
constitute one level of agency. At the first level of agency, persons are
already committed, at least by implication, to folk psychologies that cover
positive emotion, positive traits, and positive institutions. Higher levels of
agency and knowing emerge through the process of development. The
higher knowing levels incorporate the capacity for conscious self-reflexive
awareness, which permits the person to consciously deliberate and form the-
ories of the good person and the good life. These more consciously formed
positive folk psychologies are always in a dialectical relationship with the
more implicit and embodied understandings of the good life as manifested
in social practices, emotional experiences, and habitual thoughts. We sug-
gest that this framework helps to account for the ‘diversity of goods’ that
underlie our lives and to clarify the relationship that the professional posi-
tive psychologist will have with his or her native folk psychology.
EY WORDS: critical psychology, cultural psychology, flourishing, good life,
happiness, individualism, interactivism, philosophy of social science, posi-
tive psychology, well-being
Critics both within and outside of psychology have persuasively argued for
a number of years that despite aspirations to be an ahistorical, value- and cul-
ture-free science, psychological theory, research, and practice are all heavily
influenced by Western values and assumptions. Today’s positive psychology
runs the same risk, as the papers in this special issue attest. The uncritical
transmission of culturally specific and contestable values and assumptions
THEORY & PSYCHOLOGY Copyright © 2008 SAGE Publications. VOL. 18(5): 675–697
DOI: 10.1177/0959354308093401 http://tap.sagepub.com
will continue unless two issues are addressed in the theoretical and philo-
sophical underpinnings of positive psychology.
The first issue is the inevitably value-laden nature of psychology. Seligman
(2002) has encouraged positive psychologists to suppose that they can step
around the messiness of trying to be prescriptive:
… the theory is not a morality or a world-view; it is a description. I strongly
believe that science is morally neutral (but ethically relevant). The theory
put forward in this book describes what the pleasant life, the good life, and
the meaningful life are. It describes how to get these lives and what the con-
sequences of living them are. It does not prescribe these lives for you, nor
does it, as a theory, value any of these lives above the others.
It would be disingenuous to deny that I personally value the meaningful life
above the good life, which in turn I value above the pleasant life. But the
grounds for my valuing these lives are external to the theory. I value contri-
bution to the whole above contribution just to the self, and I value the
achieving of potential above living for the moment. (p. 303)
These days a value-free conception of social science is widely questioned,
both by philosophers of science (e.g., Laudan, 1984; Taylor, 1989) and by
theoretical and philosophical psychologists (e.g., Christopher, 1999;
Guignon, 2002; Held, 2005; Sundararajan, 2005). And among all the scien-
tific enterprises that might aspire to value-freedom, positive psychology
would seem to have some of the dimmest prospects. Without judgments that
optimistic attitudes are good for human beings and pessimistic attitudes are
bad, or that integrity is part of a good life for us and lack of integrity is not,
how much positive psychology would there be for Seligman (2002) to enun-
ciate? How could the subject matter of positive psychology be defined in the
first place? As Woolfolk and Wasserman (2005) have noted, declaring that
positive psychology makes no prescriptions
… is a little like an MBA program alleging that it is neutral with respect to
the benefits of capitalism or that an education that teaches one how to be
successful and earn a great deal of money, in no sense advocates economic
achievement. (pp. 88–89).
The value-free assumption does not merely contradict many of the conclusions
that positive psychologists wish to draw. It impedes the future growth of positive
psychology, because it provides no incentive for developing the conceptual
resources to recognize cultural values and assumptions. Theoretical and philosoph-
ical psychologists generally regard such assumptions as embedded in psychologi-
cal theory and research, or as presupposed in these activities. Positive psychologists,
on the other hand, too often take these kinds of assumptions for granted.
The second issue to be addressed by positive psychology is the attempted
separation of descriptive science from prescriptive value commitments. That
separation, in turn, is symptomatic of a tendency in Western culture to bifur-
cate a wide range of phenomena: fact vs. value, self vs. other, subjective vs.
676 THEORY & PSYCHOLOGY 18(5)
objective, mind vs. body, reason vs. emotion, and so on. Such dualism, we
believe, stultifies the progress of psychology in general, and, unless checked,
will hamper the promise of contemporary positive psychology.
We think so, first of all, because these dualistic presuppositions are in
error. A considerable amount of scholarship challenges the ontological
veracity of dualism. Emerging non-dualistic ontologies of the person, so we
would argue, are more successful in modeling human agency and human
Second, the dualistic presuppositions themselves derive from a particular
cultural orientation to life. If we do not recognize this, the underlying cultural
orientation will be uncritically perpetuated in our theories, research, and prac-
tice, and different cultural orientations will be missed or misunderstood. Which,
in turn, will undermine the universal aspirations of positive psychology.
In this paper we draw on the interactivism of Mark Bickhard along with the
philosophical hermeneutics of Martin Heidegger, Hans-Georg Gadamer, and
Charles Taylor to outline a plausible ontology of human action and development.
This nondualistic metatheory rests on a distributed notion of agency. The kinds
of morally imbued social practices identified by hermeneutic theorists constitute
one level of agency. At this first level of agency, persons are already committed,
at least by implication, to folk psychologies that cover the subject matter of pos-
itive psychology: positive emotions, positive traits, and positive social institu-
tions. Other levels of agency and knowing emerge in the course of human
development. The higher knowing levels are characterized by self-reflexive
awareness, which permits the person to consciously deliberate and form explicit
theories of the good person and the good life. These more consciously formed
positive folk psychologies are always in a dialectical relationship with the more
implicit and embodied understandings of the good life that are manifested in
social practices, emotional experiences, and habitual thoughts.
We suggest that this framework helps to account for the ‘diversity of
goods’ (Taylor, 1985) that underlies our lives and also helps to clarify the rela-
tionship that the professional positive psychologist will have with his or her
native folk psychology. We begin by discussing two aspects of interac-
tivism—implicitness and the knowing levels—that we contend will provide a
more specific and more integrated ontology for positive psychology.
Knowing Level 1: Being-in-the-World and Engaged Agency
From the interactive standpoint, our most basic way of knowing, at Knowing
Level 1, comes through interaction in the world. Knowledge begins procedu-
rally: infants and children learn how to do or accomplish various things.
Initially their ways of getting these things done are relatively simple. For
instance, babies learn that kicking the crib makes the mobile shake or that
crying elicits a certain kind of response from a caregiver. Through variation
CHRISTOPHER & CAMPBELL: INTERACTIVIST-HERMENEUTIC METATHEORY 677
and selection, human beings learn functional patterns of interacting with the
physical and social world.
Babies and young children lack the self-knowing ‘I’ or ego that Descartes
(1641/1960) treated as fundamental and that many philosophers and psychol-
ogists are still following him in doing. Until age 4 or so, human beings know
and learn without ever knowing that they know. What they know pertains to
the external environment: which types of interactions are possible, which
consequences those interactions will have. Internal experiences are part of
knowing and learning about the environment, but not until later in develop-
ment will children know anything about their experiences.
According to the hermeneutic philosopher Martin Heidegger (1927/1962),
we are, at the most basic level, beings engaged in the world doing something,
or being-in-the-world. He maintains that we are born into, and take over in a
preconscious way, social traditions and practices along with the meanings
that are implicit in them. Infants, for instance, learn to participate in varieties
of social interactions such as peek-a-boo. Older children learn how to navi-
gate through the social interactions involved in ordering and eating food at a
McDonald’s restaurant. Importantly, children have learned numerous pat-
terns of interaction, physical and social, well before establishing any sense
of themselves as a separate, conscious ego. Children exhibit a type of
engaged and embodied agency not centered in any explicit sense of self.
When we are fully engaged in life activities, our subjectivity or self-
awareness is often noticeably absent. We make judgments about other peo-
ple (Bargh & Ferguson, 2000; Gladwell, 2005; Wilson, 2002) and render
many of our decisions (Klein, 1998) without consciously knowing how we
do them. Musicians, dancers, artists, and athletes have all made reference to
being caught up in the flow of activity and having no room for self-conscious
awareness (Csikszentmihályi, 1990). Indeed, it is often self-consciousness
that inhibits people or pulls them out of the smooth flow of interaction. In
the words of the behind-the-plate philosopher Yogi Berra (n.d.), ‘How can
you hit and think at the same time?’ Heidegger claims that being-in-the-
world precedes our coming to distinguish a subject and an object, a self and
an other, a mind and a body, facts and values. It is our most basic way of
functioning in life.
Heidegger further sought to transcend the diremption between fact and
value by pointing out how concern, care, and signification structure human
lives. What we attend to and how we allocate our time and energy all indicate
what we care about and value. Our behavior, emotions, and thought make pre-
suppositions about what is real, important, and valuable. As Bickhard (1992a,
2004) puts it, a valuing process is inherent in all human functioning. Taylor
(1989) contends that ‘[s]elfhood and the good, or in another way selfhood and
morality, turn out to be inextricably intertwined themes’ (p. 3).
One indication that human agency is basically being-in-the-world comes
from research on the early development of memory. The kind of memory that
678 THEORY & PSYCHOLOGY 18(5)
could capture explicit perception of objects and of the self has been referred to
as episodic or event-based memory. For the episodes to be part of our own life
story, like our recollection of the birthday party we had when we were 5 years
old, something further is required: autobiographical memory. Autobiographical
memory is what enables us to retain the type of self-conscious occurrences that
Descartes insisted were fundamental. But memory researchers see autobio-
graphical memory as a developmental achievement, not a starting place. The
most rudimentary form is procedural or enactive memory—remembering how
to do things in concrete situations, without self-consciousness (Nelson, 1992,
1994; Tulving, 1985, 1987; Tulving & Schachter, 1990). When a baby remem-
bers how to make the mobile above her crib move (by kicking it), she is using
procedural memory. The developmental primacy of remembering how to
accomplish certain things is consistent with Heidegger’s view that human
agency is ‘primordially’the type of embodied and engaged agency he describes
We could multiply examples from the earliest stages of human development,
but need not do so to make our point. And it is not as though we ever outgrow
Knowing Level 1; a good deal of mature adult functioning is still being-in-the-
world, dependent on quick recognition of situations where action is necessary,
or rapid judgments about other human beings whose basis normally remains
unknown to us (Bargh & Chartrand, 1999; Bargh & Ferguson, 2000; Bargh &
Williams, 2006; Gladwell, 2005; Klein, 1998; Wilson, 2002).
Most schools of thought in psychology assume that for something outside us
to have a lasting influence, we must internalize it. Somehow it needs to be
brought into each person’s mind and made present there (Bickhard, 1992a;
Bickhard & Christopher, 1994). For instance, attachment theorists have dis-
cussed ‘internal working models’ of self and other that are based on the
child’s experience with primary caretakers (Bowlby, 1988; Bretherton, 1993;
Bretherton & Munholland, 1999). But the goals that the baby sets, the ways
of acting that the baby is learning, and the baby’s emotional responses do not
require an explicit conception either of what the baby is like, or of what the
caregiver is like; the baby can develop preferences and expectations that pre-
suppose that the caregiver is reliable without constructing any internal model
whatsoever concerning the caregiver’s character or likely future behavior.
Even in adulthood, it is unwise to assume that unconscious biases in judgment
or decision-making are always the result of past conscious value choices,
when they are readily acquired and even modified without the involvement of
conscious processes (Gladwell, 2005; Wilson, 2002).
Interactivism takes implicitness to be a crucial feature both of being-in-the-
world and of social practices. Implicitness explains how certain things can be
CHRISTOPHER & CAMPBELL: INTERACTIVIST-HERMENEUTIC METATHEORY 679
functionally true of an entity in interaction with its environment without hav-
ing to be anywhere within the entity (Bickhard, 1993, 1999). In particular,
implicitness provides a way to model and understand how family and culture,
including familial and cultural norms, can influence early development with-
out having to assume that infants and toddlers have yet acquired the means to
cognize those influences. Even in adulthood, when we can think consciously
about cultural norms and sometimes do, much of their influence on us
For instance, the patterns of interaction that the infant develops within the
family constellation and his or her position in that constellation embody any
number of implicit presuppositions. Imagine an American infant in the 1950s
raised in an emotionally distant and unresponsive family that adhered to clock-
based caretaking routines (such as a strict timetable for feeding) and a belief that
‘crying it out’ alone promotes emotional maturity. Initially the infant will cry for
food, attention, emotional responsiveness, and other basic needs. However, soon
he will discover that such cries go unheeded. Furthermore, crying only aggra-
vates his discomfort by adding physiological and emotional stress. The infant
may learn that quietude offers the best solution in such an environment, for while
his cries continue to go unheeded, he avoids the unpleasant effects of physio-
logical arousal (sore throat, exhaustion, burning eyes, etc.).
Quietude as a response to distress directly presupposes that no one would
respond if he were to cry—precisely what he has in fact experienced. But the
presupposition is entirely implicit. There is no explicit representation or belief
about his mother or father’s response, and as a young infant, he does not have
the cognitive capacity for any such explicit representations.
What’s more, functional patterns of interaction and ways of being will have
layers of presuppositions. Lack of responsiveness to the infant per se presup-
poses that no one cares about the infant’s emotional needs. The infant’s qui-
etude presupposes that others value time and schedules more than they value
the child’s emotional life. A lack of caring or a lower priority can in turn pre-
suppose that the infant is not worthy of being cared for or given priority. A lack
of worthiness can presuppose that the infant is not lovable or has some defect
that makes him aversive to others. The kinds of presuppositions discussed in
this example are not simply presuppositions true of the child. They are presup-
positions concerning the child in his environment. They pertain to patterns of
interaction that undercut and transcend simple dichotomies of self and object.
The infant and young child are cognitively incapable of differentiating the
properties of the current environment from other possible environments; the
ability to recognize alternative possibilities is a developmental achievement
(Piaget, 1981/1987a, 1983/1987b). Nor are they capable of differentiating
who contributes what to any given interaction. Nor can they differentiate a
sense of self from the totality of their being.
One specific pattern of interaction thus entails cascading presuppositions
about the nature of the self, of others, of the world, of life. Meanwhile, the
680 THEORY & PSYCHOLOGY 18(5)
interactivist notion of implicitness guards against prematurely attributing
such presuppositions to explicit cognitive elements (internal representations,
beliefs, schemata, etc.) in the child’s mind.
As a consequence, interactive patterns are not something that the child as a
distinct entity has or engages in. They are not just the child’s differentiated
adjustment to this particular situation; they are central to who the child is. The
interactive patterns afford ways of being that are implicitly about the entire
world, actual and potential, not just this part of it into which she has been
‘thrown.’ The child is initially not able to differentiate the ways of being that
she has learned from other possible ways of being. Until those differentiations
have been made, the presuppositions that are relevant to the current environ-
ment hold for all environments at all times. So, returning to our previous
example, the presupposition is not that my caretakers don’t care for me at par-
ticular times of the day, but instead that no one cares for me and no one will
ever care for me. As Bickhard and Christopher (1994) summarized, ‘A lack
of differentiation of this situation from others, of these caregivers from oth-
ers, implicitly presupposes totality, again without any explicit cognitions or
cognitive capabilities on the part of the infant’ (p. 244).
The notion of implicitness provides critical leverage for analyzing and cri-
tiquing theories of child and adult development, including those used by pos-
itive psychologists. Many of the existing ways of modeling the developing
personality credit the infant and child with capabilities not yet acquired.
Typically, theories account for the child’s behavior by positing some beliefs
or representational structures: internal working models, low self-esteem, or
unconscious self and object representations. The standard tendency is to
assume that such explicit representational structures are present but not con-
scious. The developmental theorist is then obliged to explain how these rep-
resentational structures were acquired, how an infant or toddler could use
them even if they had been acquired, where they are, and why they can’t be
located. These problems do not arise with the notion of implicitness.
The notion of implicitness enables us to explain how the infant can develop
ways of being in the world whose presuppositions about core personality
issues are far in advance of her actual cognitive capacities. Such presupposi-
tions are implicit in the infant’s functioning, and in how it is organized; they
are not explicitly cognized, or represented at all.
What’s more, Knowing Level 1 remains the ground of being throughout
life. Nonetheless, our treatment of reflective abstraction will show how some
presuppositions can become explicit.
Interactivism provides a process-oriented framework for addressing how the
various forms of self-conscious awareness emerge from being-in-the-world,
CHRISTOPHER & CAMPBELL: INTERACTIVIST-HERMENEUTIC METATHEORY 681
or Knowing Level 1. Interactivism draws on Piaget’s (1950/1973, 1974/1976,
1974/1978, 1977/2001) key notion of ‘reflecting abstraction,’ the process that,
in his later writings, was hypothesized to account for the emergence of think-
ing at a higher stage out of thinking at a lower stage. Interactivism does not,
however, rely on the common interpretations of Piaget’s theory that posit
overarching structures for each stage of development; for Piaget, stages were
ways to classify instances of thinking, not whole children (Chapman, 1988).
Interactivism does not even share the preference that Piaget developed in his
middle period to define stages by their characteristic cognitive structures,
such as the INRC group for formal operations. Instead, interactivism puts its
reliance on reflective abstraction. Reflective abstraction is ‘the relationship
between adjacent levels of knowing—in which properties resident in a given
level, implicit in the organization or functioning of that level, are explicitly
known at the next higher level’ (Campbell & Bickhard, 1986, p. 85).
Piaget (1977/2001) understood reflecting abstraction as involving phases of
projection and reorganizing reflection. Interactivism posits two somewhat dif-
ferent phases. The abstractive phase takes one of the implicit properties of the
prior level of knowing and abstracts it into an explicit representation. The
reflective phase is more complicated but relies on externalizing steps and
aspects of internal processing.
Suppose that a system could learn to create external indicators of various
points in and aspects of its own internal processes—as it was actually
engaged in those processes. The indicators would manifest properties of the
organization and functioning of those internal processes. From the indica-
tors, the system could then abstract properties of the processes that yielded
those indicators. (Campbell & Bickhard, 1986, p. 86)
Language commonly serves this role of creating external indicators and thus
allows for the possibility of the functional ascent through higher levels of
knowing. Note, in particular, that unaided introspection is simply one way of
doing reflective abstraction. It is not necessarily the most productive or effec-
tive way of doing it. We are often best able to know ourselves ‘not by inward
turning and introspection’ in the manner of Descartes, ‘but by catching sight
of ourselves as we are engaged and preoccupied in everyday contexts’
(Guignon, 1984, p. 232). And as Wilson (2002) concludes after summarizing
the limitations of introspection, ‘By being careful observers of our own
actions, we can learn a lot about ourselves’ (p. 203).
One classic example of reflective abstraction involves navigating a wire
maze that requires backtracking in order to get the crossbar past an obstacle.
Children aged 7 and 8 learn to get through the maze successfully, but they
cannot describe their moves correctly in language or draw them accurately.
Nor can they make a correct comparison between backtracking in the wire
maze and an analogous move in a problem involving a toy locomotive, two
train cars, and a turntable that will hold only the locomotive and one car.
682 THEORY & PSYCHOLOGY 18(5)
There is an additional step of reflective abstraction before their conscious
descriptions catch up with their unconscious skill; indeed, it is not until
around age 12 that children can correctly anticipate how to solve both the
wire maze problem and the turntable problem, and immediately recognize
how they are similar (Blanchet, 1981; Piaget, 1977/2001).
Another classic example of reflective abstraction is the widely cited
study by Bechara, Damasio, Tranel, and Damasio (1997), in which normal
adults were playing a gambling game in which cards from two decks pro-
duced a net loss if played, while cards from another two decks produced a
net gain. Normal adults quickly began to avoid cards from the net-loss-pro-
ducing decks, and their palms began to sweat when they handled them. But
it took many more trials for the participants to consciously realize that
these cards should be avoided because playing them would lead to a net
loss. Here both learning and an emotional response preceded reflective
abstraction and conscious realizing.
We will never be able to perform reflective abstraction on everything that we
know at Level 1. In some cases, we do not know how to become conscious of
something that we know how to do, and we may never find a way to do so. In
other cases, we could engage in reflective abstraction, but only if we discov-
ered the right kinds of external indicators, or were shown how by others who
have discovered them. According to Gladwell (2005), we can improve our
unreflective judgments of the taste and texture of Oreo cookies. But the
improvement comes not by unaided introspection, but through mastering a
complex scheme for explicitly rating taste and texture on multiple dimensions.
We can categorize other people’s facial expressions more accurately than we
could at Level 1, but to do so we will need to be instructed in an explicit sys-
tem of criteria, such as Paul Ekman’s facial coding system (Ekman &
Rosenberg, 1997). Each of these schemes was the product of reflective
abstraction done by experts, and our own reflective abstraction will be called
on in its turn if we are to master them.
What’s more, when reflective abstraction is possible, we typically actual-
ize it in some areas, but not in others. (Hence, for instance, Branden’s 
challenges to bring 5 percent more consciousness to our actions in the work-
place, or to our family relationships.) We can function at a particular know-
ing level with regard to one issue while failing to do so on a related issue.
Consequently, interactivism tries not to overstate how much of ourselves we
can actually know. From the interactivist standpoint, as in the hermeneutic
positions of Heidegger (1927/1962), Gadamer (1960/1975), and Taylor
(1989), we are situated in our lives and can become conscious of different, but
always partial, aspects of ourselves.
In Heidegger’s (1927/1962) words, we are ‘proximally and for the most
part’ being-in-the-world; in other words, Knowing Level 1 remains ontologi-
cally primary. Let us turn now to the higher knowing levels and how they
emerge out of engaged, embodied agency, or being-in-the-world.
CHRISTOPHER & CAMPBELL: INTERACTIVIST-HERMENEUTIC METATHEORY 683
Knowing Level 2
As children mature cognitively, they begin to develop a Level 2, at which they
can understand, know, and make explicit what is implicit at Knowing Level
1. The child begins to reflectively abstract from the patterns of interaction that
he or she has learned. Because knowing is an irreflexive relation (the knower
does not stand in a knowing relationship with itself), the first knowing level
knows its environment, but cannot know itself.
At the first level of knowing, a child is a person, and is a self, but is as yet
unable to know that self or have a self. At the second level of knowing, it is
the first level of knowing that has come to serve as the environment to be
interacted with and known, so at Level 2, the child begins to know himself.
At Knowing Level 2, children are now able to know about the goals they
hold at Level 1, instead of merely acting on them, and to form goals about the
kind of goals they want to have. At Level 2 the child can organize his Level 1
goals around higher-order goals. Elsewhere (Campbell, Christopher, &
Bickhard, 2002) we have described these goals about goals as values. An
example of a transition to Level 2 would be a child who develops a value of
not getting her parents upset. While such a child might have a Level 1 goal of
investigating what is in her mother’s home office, she would learn to suppress
or subordinate or de-select such a goal because it conflicts with the Level 2
goal of not upsetting her mother. Such a Level 2 goal will direct the forma-
tion and selection of a variety of goals at Level 1.
The child’s emerging self-knowledge may take the form of self-beliefs or
self-descriptive statements that can be articulated to others. Psychologists
have usually understood our self-conceptions in these ways, which are rela-
tively easy to gather evidence about. Research programs that ask people who
they are, how they are different from other people, and what is important to
them are probing instances of thinking at Level 2 (or higher). For researchers
like William Damon (1984; Damon & Hart, 1988), studies of the self and its
development begin with self-statements. From an interactivist perspective,
psychologists err in treating self-statements or other Level 2 productions as if
they were the child’s self.
As Charles Taylor (1985) notes, the ascension from Knowing Level 1 (the
‘sub-personal agent’) to Knowing Level 2 (the ‘self-aware agent’) involves the
constitution of new personal meanings as well as the understanding of old ones:
… we have to understand the step from sub-personal agent to person
not just as an increase in consciousness in the sense of the power to form
representations of self and world, but much more as the onset of a range of
significances which are essentially those of self-aware agents. Our self-
consciousness doesn’t offer us [just] a representation of these significances;
rather it is partly constitutive of them, for they concern standards holding
of persons qua persons, and which can only be understood within the life
of a person. (p. 265)
THEORY & PSYCHOLOGY 18(5)
There is reasonably strong evidence to suggest that Knowing Level 2
emerges around 4 years of age (Bickhard, 1992b; Campbell, 1992). The
emergence of young children’s ability to be conscious of their own thinking
and that of others has been explored in diverse ways; best-known are the
empirical studies of children’s ability to recognize that people can have
false beliefs (Flavell, Flavell, & Green, 1983; Flavell, Green, & Flavell,
1986; Gopnik & Astington, 1988; Perner, 1991, 1992). There is also evi-
dence that around age 4, children develop autobiographical memory, or
memory for events that explicitly involve the self (Nelson, 1992, 1994). Far
from being the initial form of memory, autobiographical memory develops
only after enactive, then semantic, then episodic memory (Tulving, 1985,
1987; Tulving & Schachter, 1990); in its earlier form, the toddler’s memory
for events involves no reference to the self, or to its role in his or her life
Knowing Level 3 and Beyond
Reflective abstraction hasn’t finished its work at Knowing Level 2. The
knowing levels are potentially infinite (Campbell & Bickhard, 1986). Aspects
of the second knowing level can be known at Level 3; aspects of Level 3 can
be known at a Level 4, and so on. Since there are new forms of implicitness
at each knowing level, there is also new material to become known at the next
higher level. At Level 3 the person can begin the process Erikson (1950)
termed identity formation. While operating at Level 2, the child is an identity
but does not have an identity. At Level 3, however, the child can begin to have
an identity. To have an identity means to know who one is, to compare that
way of being to other possible ways of being, to explicitly evaluate it, maybe
to try to transform it (Campbell & Bickhard, 1986).
An example of a Knowing Level 3 development is explicit knowledge of
the discounting principle, as described by Wilson (2002, pp. 57–59).
According to the discounting principle, any activity that is enjoyable or worth
performing simply for the satisfaction that it brings to the agent will come to
be seen as less valuable if it is done to obtain an external reward; conse-
quently, the agent will do less of that activity in the future. Three- to 5-year-
olds will act as though the discounting principle is true: for instance, they will
play less with marking pens if they have been explicitly rewarded for doing
so than if they have not been given rewards. Doing less of an activity for
which one has been rewarded is a metagoal-level phenomenon, so the dis-
counting principle is implicit in this Knowing Level 2 metastrategy. But it is
not until age 8 or 9 that children will predict that characters in a story will do
less of an activity if they are rewarded for it than if they do it simply because
they find it interesting (younger children seem to think that the characters will
be more motivated to carry out an intrinsically satisfying activity for which
CHRISTOPHER & CAMPBELL: INTERACTIVIST-HERMENEUTIC METATHEORY 685
they are rewarded). Later on, college students often have to be prompted to
reflect on their behavior before they realize that the discounting principle
applies to their own motivation in an experimental setting.
At Level 3 we can form metavalues or values about values. Among these
are explicit judgments about what kind of a person we are and what kind of a
person we ought to be. What Taylor (1985) calls ‘strong evaluations,’ such as
judgments about the kind of person who would stand up to peer pressure to
defend another child who is being picked on, are normally at Level 3. The
available empirical research (a good deal less plentiful than findings on the
emergence of Level 2) suggests that Level 3 begins to emerge from 9 to 11
years of age (Campbell & Bickhard, 1986).
The knowing levels are potentially unbounded in several ways. Further lev-
els can always emerge; there is no a priori limit on them. As far as values are
concerned, we can easily imagine a fourth knowing level that entails analyz-
ing, comparing, and critiquing the kind of metavalues that are constructed at
Level 3 (Campbell et al., 2002; Moshman, 1995). Significantly for the pres-
ent discussion, this is the level at which moral philosophy and moral psy-
chology have usually operated.
Implications for Positive Psychology
The interactivist-hermeneutic understanding of the person has a number of
implications for positive psychology. First, it would require positive psychol-
ogists to take a hard look at the question, ‘What is the self that is the subject
of positive psychology?’ Positive psychology would need to give better guid-
ance to its empirical research program and to its typologies, such as the
Values in Action Project (Peterson & Seligman, 2004a), by developing a psy-
chological ontology. Answers to such basic questions as what a character trait
is, or what the detailed functioning of a character strength is like, or whether
one can have bravery or integrity or zest for life without practical wisdom can
be found only within such an ontology. Though in our opinion a worked-out
ontology of the person (Bickhard, 2004, 2008; Christopher & Bickhard,
2007) would yield critiques of the cultural roots of much theory and research
in positive psychology, it would also provide an alternative that neither car-
ries forward the diremption between facts and norms nor treats individual
human beings as isolated atomic agents whose relations to other atomic
agents are purely external.
An interactivist-hermeneutic ontology begins with the observation that
human beings are already living out answers to the question, ‘What consti-
tutes a good life?’ (Guignon, 1983; Richardson, Fowers, & Guignon, 1999).
This is the case whether we are considering Knowing Level 1, and the embod-
ied and situated form of agency that it exemplifies, or the unfolding of self
and personality at the multiple higher knowing levels.
686 THEORY & PSYCHOLOGY 18(5)
Positive psychology needs to consider social practices and life forms as
different ‘takes’ on the good and thereby begin to comprehensively document
moral visions across cultures and history. A significant barrier to success in
this endeavor is the lack of attention to Knowing Level 1 in most of positive
psychology. As Heidegger (1927/1962) notes when he says that our lives are
‘structures of care,’ values and meanings are implicit in our daily patterns of
interaction. Or as Taylor (1985) writes,
There is always a pretheoretical understanding of what is going on among
members of a society, which is formulated in the descriptions of self and
other which are involved in the institutions and practices of that society. A
society is among other things a set of institutions and practices, and these
cannot exist and be carried on without certain self-understandings. (p. 93)
Seligman’s (2002) pleasant life, good life, and meaningful life are ‘always
already’ present in patterns of interaction and social practices.
We live out implicit understandings of what’s pleasant, good, and mean-
ingful in the responses we make moment-by-moment. Because for the most
part we, to again use Heidegger’s words, are thrown into an intersubjective
world of social practices, we begin by taking over the understandings of
what’s pleasant, good, and meaningful that underlie these social practices.
And if what’s pleasant, good, and meaningful constitutes the scope of posi-
tive psychology, then every society already has at least a folk positive psy-
chology. According to Catherine Lutz (1988), the ability of the Ifaluk in
Micronesia to feel fago, a complex emotion that includes a mixture of sad-
ness, love, compassion, and longing, is a sign of maturity and well-being. For
the Ifaluk, fago helps to demarcate their own positive folk psychology. In
some societies significant portions of the positive folk psychology may be
enacted at Knowing Level 1 but remain implicit, without articulation, defini-
tion, or delineation.
By contrast, the Values in Action project (Dahlsgaard, Peterson, &
Seligman, 2005; Peterson & Seligman, 2004b) drew its catalog of strengths
and virtues only from those conceptions of the good life that have been put
forward in literate societies with a tradition of sustained philosophical activ-
ity. Whether in the process full justice was done to the Level 3 or 4 perspec-
tives of Aristotle (Fowers, 2005; Mruk, 2006; Schwartz & Sharpe, 2006;
Woolfolk & Wasserman, 2005) or of Confucius (Sundararajan, 2005), their
ideas were considered. Being able to feel fago had no chance at all of being
included in the catalog of character strengths.
Interactivism serves to integrate what’s at Knowing Level 1—uncon-
scious cognitive processes, embodied and procedural knowledge, participa-
tion in social practices—into a developmental framework in which more
conscious types of agency are emergent properties. More and more often
psychologists are positing the existence of two types of cognitive process-
ing, as, for instance, Wilson (2002; Wilson & Dunn, 2004; Wilson, Lindsey,
CHRISTOPHER & CAMPBELL: INTERACTIVIST-HERMENEUTIC METATHEORY 687
& Schooler, 2000) does when he distinguishes between the adaptive uncon-
scious and the conscious self. But interactivism goes well beyond any
binary distinction between conscious and unconscious, or implicit and
explicit. It enhances our understanding of the more conscious levels by indi-
cating a potentially unbounded progression beyond Knowing Level 1, and
it hypothesizes a process of reflective abstraction that explains the emer-
gence of each higher level.
The most significant implication of the interactivist-hermeneutic ontology
is the need to use methods that can tap into the different knowing levels. The
pleasant, the good, and the meaningful function at different levels of knowing
simultaneously. Implicit in the explicit methods most often relied on by
positive psychologists, such as self-report questionnaires about character
strengths, happiness, and life satisfaction, is the presupposition that by adult-
hood the normal human self is an unproblematic unity (a unity both within
and across levels). But self-esteem, life satisfaction, and the various positive
traits appear to have multiple dimensions, not all of them available to con-
sciousness—just as the self does more generally.
Not only do we need to be able to tap multiple levels of knowing, espe-
cially the widely neglected Knowing Level 1, but we also need to figure out
ways to get at ambivalence and what Wilson (2002) has referred to as dual
attitudes that can exist within the same knowing level. Our methods must
keep pace or run the risk of distorting the subject matter. The interactivist-
hermeneutic framework that we have been elaborating here is equipped to
handle ambivalence, implicit self-evaluations at variance with explicit self-
conceptions, implicit life satisfaction that fails to match responses to a life
satisfaction questionnaire, or courage or kindness more easily shown under
some circumstances than others.
No one today will dispute that there are limitations to self-report measures
(e.g., Schwarz, 1999). The contribution of the interactivist-hermeneutic
metatheory is to situate these limitations within a broader view of the person.
Self-report measures require the participant to be operating from at least the
second Knowing Level. As a result, they cannot directly access Knowing
Level 1. At best, they can offer higher knowing level perspectives on what is
taking place at Level 1. Often these perspectives will consist of the individ-
ual’s theories or guesses about what is going on there; in the worst case, they
may be entirely inaccurate assessments (Wilson, 2002).
A method that has been fairly distinctive to positive psychology is experi-
ence sampling, as developed by Csikszentmihályi (e.g., 1990). By asking
participants to respond to measures and questionnaires in the moment, expe-
rience sampling tries to eliminate recall biases, the impact of autobiographi-
cal memory, and the use of heuristics in response patterns. According to
Scollon, Kim-Prieto, and Diener (2003), experience sampling can ‘delve
beyond single-time self-report measurement to answer complex questions
about lives’ and can ‘provide solutions to nagging methodological problems,
688 THEORY & PSYCHOLOGY 18(5)
such as memory biases’ (p. 5). In partial support of our contention that the self
is distributed across knowing levels, Scollon et al. note that ‘[d]iscrepancies
between on-line and global self-report measures have been demonstrated in a
variety of research areas, such as coping and emotion’ (p. 11).
Most discussions about the relative merits of experience sampling versus
global recall measures orbit around the problem of bias. This discourse makes
two presuppositions: first, the concern with accurate assessment of the per-
son’s experience seems to assume one bedrock value on one dimension of the
person (e.g., a single value on one global happiness dimension) that different
assessment techniques do better or worse at capturing; second, there is a pre-
supposition that the individual is unified and consistent, so there must be only
one level of happiness that needs tracking—although it may fluctuate with
time and mood.
While issues of method are important in themselves, what gets overlooked
is any ontological view of the person that might frame these issues in a dra-
matically different way. The knowing levels model suggests that there are dif-
ferent levels of agency and that different methods will be better or worse at
accessing these levels. Moreover, the interactivist model explicitly claims that
people are not always consistent and unified, across levels or even within lev-
els. Our behavior, attitudes, values, and beliefs are often at odds with each
other and themselves (cf. Peng & Nisbett, 1999; Wilson et al., 2000). Current
methodological discussions do not seem able to capture this complexity and
In attempting to capture what’s pleasant, good, and meaningful at differ-
ent levels, we will certainly need to move beyond self-report measures. For
instance, inquiring into the way that psychological well-being would be
understood in non-Western cultures, we (Smith, Türk-Smith, & Christopher,
1998, 2007) focused on understandings of the good person. We thought that
this was a more seminal notion, not dependent on the Western dichotomy of
psychological versus physical well-being. Our first step was to explore pro-
totypes of the category by asking participants in seven cultures to freely list
characteristics or qualities of the good person. This study, which resulted in
some interesting findings, needs, however, to be seen as a partial response to
the inquiry, in part because it does not reach down to Knowing Level 1. To
get at the issue in the way that does justice to all the knowing levels of the
interactivist ontology, we need to supplement our project with fieldwork and
behavioral analysis, a study of folklore, myths, legends, and so forth. A few
examples of efforts in positive psychology that offer a promise of a broad-
ened repertoire of methods include the use by Brunstein, Schultheiss, and
Grässman (1998) of both projective and self-report measures, and the appli-
cation by Kim (2004) of Implicit Association Test techniques to the meas-
urement of implicit life satisfaction. In addition to multimethod research
endeavors, it will also be important to explore developmental changes in the
structure of what’s pleasant, good, and meaningful.
CHRISTOPHER & CAMPBELL: INTERACTIVIST-HERMENEUTIC METATHEORY 689
One place where the interactivist model might make a difference is in the
study of the good and meaningful life. Existing empirical research on this
subject has made some valuable contributions. For instance, King and Napa
(1998) found evidence that meaning in life and happiness are essential to the
American folk concept of the good life. More recently, King, Hicks, Krull,
and Del Gaiso (2006) assessed meaning in life both as judged globally and as
experienced in a daily manner. However, the authors acknowledge that much
of this work relies on self-report measures. Other studies have used narrative
procedures (Bauer & McAdams, 2004a, 2004b; Bauer, McAdams, &
Sakaeda, 2005). Both of these methods, however, rely on Knowing Level 2 at
a minimum. And we have already mentioned how self-report measures can-
not begin to capture the complexity and tension that can exist within levels.
Neither approach can begin to assess the notions of meaning that are implicit
in behavioral interactions, social practices, and behavioral choices.
A groundbreaking book, The Meaning of Things: Domestic Symbols and
the Self (Csikszentmihályi & Rochberg-Halton, 1981), used experience sam-
pling to assess a key aspect of the meaningful life: the importance that peo-
ple attributed to various objects that they owned, and the reasons why some
were more important than others. Although experience sampling still requires
some kind of description in language by the participant, it yields data about
actual interactions, practices, and choices in context. Despite the promise of
its method and findings, the book inspired little by way of follow-up. It
remains among the untapped resources of the positive psychology movement.
It is not as though positive psychologists have been entirely oblivious to the
concerns we are raising. Seligman, Steen, Park, and Peterson (2005) question
the adequacy of current measures of positive states. They point out:
Many happiness researchers subscribe to the notion that happiness is neces-
sarily subjective and is essentially whatever the individual defines it to be
(e.g., Lyubomirsky, Sheldon, & Schkade, ). If happiness is in the eye
of the beholder, then self-report measures are the only appropriate measures.
We do not think this approach is solid enough: Even though individuals may
be the best judge of how happy they are at the moment, they may not be
accurate historians with respect to when and in what types of situations they
were happy in the past. One challenge for researchers is to develop better
behavior-based, domain specific assessment tools. (p. 420)
We concur with Seligman et al., but want to add to their concern. Studies
by Bargh (Bargh & Chartrand, 1999; Bargh & Williams, 2006), Greenwald
(Greenwald & Banaji, 1995; Greenwald et al., 2002), and Wilson (Wilson &
690 THEORY & PSYCHOLOGY 18(5)
Dunn, 2004), as well as Klein (1998) and others, repeatedly challenge the
assumption that our self-knowledge is always accurate or captures all there is.
An adequate ontological framework would lead to an even larger appreciation
of what’s desirable. From our perspective, an assessment of happiness would
ideally need to be able to capture Knowing Level 1, which might be partly
assessable through Seligman et al.’s ‘behavior-based’ assessment tools. It
would also need to be sensitive to the ‘dual attitudes’ and ‘ambivalence’ that
exist throughout the knowing levels. Too many measures assume there is an
‘eye of the beholder,’ the standpoint of a single atomistic self, instead of a
subject with, to use Bakhtin’s term, a polyphony of voices (Holland,
Lachicotte, Skinner, & Cain, 1998; Morson & Emerson, 1990). Finally, there
is a need to recognize the multiplicity of levels that are typically subsumed
under ‘subjective’ or ‘conscious.’ From the interactive standpoint, there is not
just one level of conscious awareness but iterative levels: 2, 3, 4, and so on.
Towards a Critically Attuned Positive Psychology
The ontology presented here makes it clear that culturally situated values are
always present in all human functioning. It is impossible to be neutral,
whether neutrality is understood as value-free or culture-free. As Robert
Bellah and his colleagues observed, any social science makes
… assumptions about the nature of persons, the nature of society, and the
relation between persons and society. It also, whether it admits it or not,
makes assumptions about good persons and a good society and considers
how far these conceptions are embodied in our actual society. (Bellah,
Madsen, Sullivan, Swidler, & Tipton, 1985, p. 301)
As a number of papers in this issue have suggested, along with a variety of
other recent critiques (Christopher, 1999; Fowers, 2005; Guignon, 2002;
Held, 2005; Sundararajan, 2005; Woolfolk & Wasserman, 2005), positive
psychology is no more immune to this condition than is any other branch or
specialty of the social sciences. Indeed, most positive psychologists prescribe
so widely and overtly as to pull the credibility out from under any protesta-
tions of value-neutrality, though some of their implied cultural assumptions
might still escape a casual observer.
Given the inescapability of such cultural values and assumptions, we rec-
ommend giving up our pretensions to value-neutrality, instead adopting an
approach that Bellah and his colleagues have termed social science as moral
inquiry or social science as public philosophy (Bellah et al., 1985; Haan,
Bellah, Rabinow, & Sullivan, 1983). From this perspective, positive psychol-
ogy, like the social sciences more broadly, would be acknowledged to be ‘a
tradition, or set of traditions, deeply rooted in the philosophical and human-
istic (and, to more than a small extent, the religious) history of the West’
CHRISTOPHER & CAMPBELL: INTERACTIVIST-HERMENEUTIC METATHEORY 691
(Bellah et al., 1985, p. 301). Recognizing our cultural and historical embed-
dedness can remind us that our assumptions about what a person is and what
a person should be or become are ‘contestable and that the choice of assump-
tions involves controversies that lie deep in the history of Western thought’
(p. 301). As a form of public philosophy, positive psychology ‘would make
the philosophical conversation concerning these matters its own’ (p. 301).
From our standpoint, positive psychology understood as a moral inquiry is
free to employ all of the resources of science, both empirical and theoretical.
It is also free to prescribe, so long as its prescriptions are identified as such and
the reasons for them are open to inspection. A positive psychology that puts
forward an explicit ontology of the person will, for instance, be able to argue
for the disunity of the virtues against those (e.g., Aristotle, c. 330
Fowers, 2005; Schwartz & Sharpe, 2006) who insist on their unity. It could
give a principled argument for the exclusion of pride (or greatness of soul)
from the list of character strengths against those who maintain that it is a
virtue, and humility or modesty is not (e.g., Aristotle, c. 330
1994; Mruk, 2006), instead of flicking it away because ‘[t]he latter two [mag-
nificence and greatness of soul] might sound strange to the modern reader’
(Dahlsgaard et al., 2005, p. 208). Further discussion could then evolve dialec-
tically as these rationales, and the ontology to which they appeal, are examined
Like the study of moral development—another social science specialty in
which value-neutrality is a non-starter (Campbell & Christopher, 1996a,
1996b; Campbell et al., 2002; Shweder, Mahapatra, & Miller, 1987; Walker
& Pitts, 1998)—positive psychology needs to account for the forms and man-
ners of human functioning that its researchers and theorists do not recom-
mend—indeed, that may instantiate outlooks substantially opposed to
theirs—as well as those that it does recommend. In all, then, there is an urgent
need to move to a higher level of knowing concerning positive psychology, its
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OHN CHAMBERS CHRISTOPHER is a Professor of Counseling Psychology in the
Department of Health and Human Development at Montana State
University and a senior staff psychologist at MSU’s Counseling Center. He
is the recipient of the 2003 Sigmund Koch Early Career Award by the
Society of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology of the American
Psychological Association. John also received the 2007 Wiley Research
Award from Montana State University. He also maintains a private psy-
chotherapy and consultation practice, Habits of the Heart. A
and Human Development, 220 Herrick Hall, Montana State University,
Bozeman, MT, 59717, USA. [email: email@example.com]
OBERT L. CAMPBELL is a Professor of Psychology at Clemson University. His
research interests include theories of the self, of moral development, and of
self-esteem. With Mark Bickhard, he edits New Ideas in Psychology.
DDRESS: Department of Psychology, Brackett Hall 410A, Clemson
University, Clemson SC 29634–1355, USA. [email: firstname.lastname@example.org]
CHRISTOPHER & CAMPBELL: INTERACTIVIST-HERMENEUTIC METATHEORY 697